So the other thing is that the wireless signal I’ve been pirating from my apartment all year has gone rudely dysfunctional on me, which is another reason Milkboy Coffee has moved in just in time. You’d think that being forcefully disconnected from the virtual world would encourage me to read a book, or call a friend, or even engage in that mythical activity formerly known as work, but no—mostly it makes me so cranky I can’t do anything but sulk in front of the TV or go to bed.
I’ve slept a collective 20 hours the last two nights.
Now that I’m plugged back into the world as I know it, I realize I haven’t talked about books for a while. This is mostly because I haven’t been reading as much as I should, and most of the reading I have done has been for classes. But for old time’s sake, here are some brief reviews.
Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep
My neighbor lent me this novel, which I admit I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I’m glad he did, though, because it’s a fantastic read. Restless teenager Lee Fiora gets herself a scholarship to a fancy-ass New England boarding school, and tells us about her four mundanely hellish years there. I’ve read a lot of YA literature and adult novels about adolescence, and this one was one of the most engaging and unsettling I’ve come across. There are a lot of literary conventions about narrating and describing teen angst, and I think we tend to measure such writing against other examples from the genre—i.e., “This is so Esther Greenwood meets Holden Caulfield.” But Lee seemed to have walked not out of another book but out of a life that felt uncannily like my own. She is smart without being precocious, and interesting without really being likable. It was impossible for me not to identify with her, which was not flattering. It reminded me with the force of a repressed memory returning how I was a socially awkward financial aid student at a fancy prep school who, though I like to identify with my more badass moments in retrospect, actually spent most of my adolescence wishing and hoping for popularity, revelling in unkind attention from stupid boys, and generally feeling like shit. Reading a character drawn to precisely these specifications was so good it was almost unpleasant.
I’m teaching these two recent novellas in my Asian American lit class, and it’s been a treat to read them again side by side. They’re both beautifully rendered exercises in minimalism and melancholy. When the Emperor Was Divine presents the internment of a Japanese American family from Berkeley during World War II and their strange return to everyday life after the end of the war. The writing frames simple objects in a silence full of longing and sorrow, and considers what it means to become anonymous in a world where everything has become alien and disenchanted. The Gangster We Are All Looking For is another novella about the strangeness of memory and identity. Like Otsuka’s, Le’s prose is minimal, lyrical, obsessed with objects and images, unravelling and repetitive at the level of narrative. It conjures an unfinished sense of the work of memory, how it never finishes putting the past together in a way that explains, resembles, or connects to the present. The past here is not an event but a ghost—figured as a dead brother left behind in Vietnam when the narrator and her parents escape to the United States—who is both elusive and insistently haunting the present. Both texts explore how the pain of melancholy can be beautiful, and what the stakes are of recognizing it as such.
Philip Kerr, Dark Matter
A couple years ago, while I was working on my dissertation, I got sidetracked and became obsessed with Newton’s theory of colors and Enlightenment epistemology more generally. I am not making this up. My director called me into her office to reprimand me for my “crippling obsession with epistemology,” which is the exact moment I realized what a weird profession I was entering. Anyway, I successfully sublimated my obsession enough to finish the diss, thank god, and then thought I’d treat myself to this historical mystery that asks the question, What if Sir Isaac Newton were Sherlock Holmes? The concept is great: Newton as Holmes, using his mechanical logic and eye for detail to spin stories out of mundane tableaux, to the constant amazement of the apprentice/narrator. This book is set in late 17th-century London, when Newton held the position of Warden of the Mint, and Kerr does a nice job of conjuring the bustle and tension of the historical moment. There are also titillating cameos by such literary personalities as Daniel Defoe and Anthony Ashley Cooper just before he became the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, and I dig that stuff because I’m a big fat nerd. In the end, though, this book was disappointing. The project is doomed by how Kerr tries to tell every story possible using this framework, which bloats the book with a mixture of character profiles, historical detail, and half-baked intrigues that simply cannot settle into a compelling narrative. It’s a muddy stew of empirical science and the politics of higher education and anti-Jacobin sentiment and religious strife and economic overhauling and early modern technology and prostitutes and conspiracy and murder and advanced cryptology and S&M opium dens and drinking and class tension and xenophobia and the Knights Templar and lions and love and torture and trickery and one truly bizarre instance of fellatio. It took me forever to get through it and now I can’t even remember what happened.
And now I must unplug myself and get some work done.