Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Exile and the Kingdom

                Guys, Viggo Mortensen has gray hair now. While I’m still under the distinct impression that all celebrities drink youth-retaining elixir, I have witnessed with my own eyes the aging of Viggo since LOTR. Why was I checking out Viggo’s silver fox locks and how is this remotely relevant to my blog? This past Monday, Viggo kicked off a month long event in NYC—Camus: A Stranger in the City. On that exact day seventy years ago, Camus made his first and only trip to America, lecturing and promoting the English translation of his French novel, The Stranger. Vigo gave a *dramatic reading* of Camus’ speech in the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. The lecture was wonderful and considering the theatre was on the shabby side, not much has changed between 3/28/1946 and now. I just learned about the business term “vig” (lol), so to cement my understanding of the word, I’ll use it in a sentence: I would have paid several Vig-go Mortensens to see Camus deliver the speech himself. Also,

            In honor of the event, I decided to read one of Camus’ last works—Exile and the Kingdom*-- a collection of six short stories that epitomize Camus’ own sense of exile at the time. It was published in 1957, right in the middle of the Algerian War that ultimately granted Algeria independence from France. Camus, born in French Algeria, was deeply affected by the war, evidenced in his correspondence with Jean-Paul Sartre. He felt conflicted between his fellow Frenchmen and the natives of the land he was born and raised in. This struggle, compounded by his grappling with absurdist philosophy, left him confusedly searching for meaning and identity in a meaningless world. Note: you can learn more about Camus’ absurdism here.

            The characters in his short stories are also attempting to find their place in a world that is so indifferent to their sufferings.
  • “The Adulterous Woman” portrays a woman frustrated with the banality of her life who seeks to expand her existence beyond that of “wife to her husband”. I love how Camus respects women as thinking entities. I mean, no duh, but this was the 50’s after all.
  • “The Renegade” focuses on a missionary who has lost hope in the ability for good to triumph over evil. He learns this in such a brutal way that as a reader, I’m forced to question the reign of goodness myself. Absurdism is considered “amoral”, so it leaves plenty of room for discussion as to the role of non-mainstream moralities (i.e. rejecting moral absolutism). The perspective was a tad disorienting, and I think that it takes a few reads to fully appreciate this one.
  • "The Silent Man” reiterates that the world is full of inequalities—there is a vast spectrum of economical, social, and cultural experiences. And we all end up in the same place: the ground. What better way to spend your day than read about how your life is largely outside of your control  and you try to make the most of it but then you die #amirite?
  • “The Guest” depicts a choice that humans have: we can find freedom in imprisonment by recognizing our absurd fate and trudging onward nevertheless.
  • “The Artist at Work” gives us a kind man who grows weary under the pressures of his community. Creating art gives meaning to his life, but is his focus on art mutually exclusive with his obligations to his friends and family? This is my favorite of the bunch, as the main character, Jonas, is quite likeable and relatable.
  • “The Growing Stone” reminds me of Heart of Darkness in its unflinching portrayal of alleged savagery. An educated man is exposed to poverty in Africa, which leads him to rethink Christian traditions as the standard for worship.

      Taken overall, each story describes characters who feel like outsiders. They are coming to terms with truths that abandon them in a world (both physical and metaphysical) that is different from what they’re accustomed to. They remain in their struggles rather than rise above them—and that’s a difficult pill to swallow. They must find meaning and identity on an individual basis. They are “among the most acute representations of a world without God, of the nature of human condition without transcendental meaning” (Camus, xv). This is what they’re stuck with, now how are they going to deal with it?

      I’m a sucker for philosophical fiction and a big fan of Camus himself, but I don’t think it’s his very, very best, so I award the collection 4 out of 5 camel humps. In my opinion, Camus’ prose is never gratuitous, but I didn’t appreciate the parallels he made through description of landscape as much as I would have liked. Be forewarned that you definitely have to understand Camus’ philosophy and his historical experiences to really get something from this book. It’s excellent for book club discussions because there’s always another hidden layer and a deeper meaning—and I’m still just scratching at the surface.

*Camus, Albert. Exile and the Kingdom. Trans. Carol Cosman. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Tenth of December

I thought that Amarillo, Texas was the armpit of America…until I discovered that it spit out George Saunders. Saunders is the short story guy. His works have appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, The Guardian, McSweeney’s, and various other reputable publications. Most notably, he penned an essay for the “Cultivating Thought” series at Chipotle. Who cares about E. Coli when you can feed your brain?

Tenth of December* is a collection of short stories by Saunders. I’ve never intentionally avoided the short-story format, but I typically go for a full-blown novel. Why? Absolutely no good reason. My exposure to books growing up consisted of lengthy-ish literature, so I simply continued in that trajectory. Shout out to Nancy Drew and Junie B. Jones.

After this book, I’m born again. A well-done short story is my new favorite way to start the day. The time investment is minimal, but the payoff is enormous. Sometimes what an author wants to say doesn’t require hundreds of pages to convey. In just a few pages, Saunders forces you to care about the characters and feel some resolution about where they end up. 

A collection of short stories is even better. Don’t like one of them? Move on to the next. With Saunders, no skipping is necessary. Here’s a brief description of each piece in Tenth of December. Rather than inform you of the plot, I’ve summarized what Saunders is getting at to give you a taste of the themes he lays his King Midas hands on:

Victory Lap: A gump highschooler does something surprisingly heroic. But was his heroism trumped by another’s?

Sticks: A father uses a strange, unconventional medium to express his unstable emotions. Is he successfully communicating with anyone?

Puppy: Two women are leading their lives and managing their households in the best way that they know how. When their worlds collide, judgment and misunderstanding lead to an unfortunate consequence involving a puppy.

Escape from Spiderhead (YASSS so good): Because of a grave mistake, a man is forced to become the puppet of a scientific experiment that blurs the lines between good and evil. To atone for his wrongdoing, he ends up making the ultimate sacrifice.

Exhortation: The boss of a mysterious company (the work is never explicitly conveyed to the reader) implores his staff to approach their work more positively by focusing on the end result rather than the unpleasantness of the task itself. The memorandum is disturbingly upbeat with a menacing undertone.

Al Roosten: An unsuccessful middle-aged man has a wounded pride. He envisions confronting the source of his pain and reinventing himself accordingly, but the bravery never extends from the confines of his imagination.

The Semplica Girl Diaries (YASSS so good): A middle-class father justifies a morally questionable social norm because it brings happiness to the people he loves most: his family. Ironically, his youngest child is the one to resist the trend and challenge his decision. Role reversal---an age-old question is posed to the parent:
Is something okay just because everyone is doing it?

Home: A court-martialed marine returns home to a dysfunctional family. He struggles to figure out how he fits in the life he left behind.

My Chivalric Fiasco: A man unintentionally witnesses an unlawful interaction between coworkers. Is standing up for the victim “right” even if the victim doesn’t want him to?

Tenth of December: A dying man thinks he has “the end” all figured out…until an ill-prepared little boy messes it all up. 

         Still unconvinced that Saunders is worth reading? I’m not the only one impressed by his abilities. Time dubbed him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013. Saunders himself has great faith in what fiction can do for the world and how he can affect people through his work. He says, “What I really think good writing does: It enlivens that part of us that actually believes we are in the world, right now, and that being here somehow matters. It reawakens the reader to the fact and the value of her own existence” (Saunders, 259). Truly, I feel those vibes in his writing. I love that he emphasizes the uniqueness and the idiosyncrasies of his characters, painting them as individuals just like us with feelings not too far from our own. I give Tenth of December 5 out of 5 camel humps. This collection is such an easily digestible form of literature that it’d be a shame not to check it out yourself.

*Saunders, George. Tenth of December. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

                Konichiwaaaaaaaaatthehell? Haruki Murakami is a renowned Japanese author, who has written 13 novels, several essays and short stories, and a memoir. I reviewed his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, quite favorably, so I was disappointed to discover that his latest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage* is as dull as the title implies. Murakami has a massive fan base and readers trust that he’s consistent. Grant Snider from the New York Times even created a Murakami-Bingo that acknowledges his thematic tendencies:
But just because I liked one book doesn’t mean I’m going to drink the Murakami Kool-Aid indiscriminately. He might have previously produced stellar, prize-winning works, but that doesn’t guarantee 5-hump ratings from thereon, especially not on a hard-hitting site like this!

                CTTAHYOP follows Tsukuru, a 36-year-old engineer in Tokyo. It’s a story about identity; he must come to terms with abandonment that he experienced in the past in order to appreciate his current value. He must bravely confront the answers to age-old questions in order to mature, move on, and open up to the possibility of a relationship built on intimacy. Initially, I had no qualms with this plot. I looked forward to exposing the mystery that shrouded the death of his former friendships. But once Murakami gave that to me, he didn’t really give me anything more. Picture this: it’s my birthday. There’s an expectation associated with that day—an anticipation of excitement. I arrive home after work to find hundreds of friends (all those hundreds of friends I have) in my apartment, yelling SURPRISE! Then everyone vanishes. Party over. Why even come over in the first place? That’s what this novel was for me: I wondered what the secret was….I found out the secret…and then nothing substantial occurred. Sure, Tsukuru was able to be a normal dude once he put the past to bed, but that’s not exactly riveting literature. At least at the end of my failed surprise party, there’d be a leftover cake.

                Unfortunately, the content-letdown is one of many disappointments. You’d think that after decades of experience, Murakami would have mastered the art of analogy. CTTAHYOP employs similes that actually obscure the comparison more often than not. For instance, when Tsukuru interacts with an inconsequential receptionist, Murakami over-saturates the scene in needless detail. He writes, “She took Tsukuru’s business card, her whole face lighting up in a smile, then pushed an extension number on her phone as if pressing the soft nose of an oversized dog” (Murakami, 153). How is this remotely helpful? It’s not painting a picture; it’s dragging down the pace. I don’t need to know how this rando character we’ll never see nor hear from again is pressing a goddamn button. Also, what is pressing the soft nose of an oversized dog like? Is it different than an undersized dog? Don’t press dogs’ noses because that’s weird and you don’t know where they’ve been. Unless it’s a dachshund, in which case, definitely press its nose because it will probably respond adorably. Obviously, this is one nitpicky example, but seriously—the novel is overrun with unnecessary shit like this.

                Even when the descriptions are logical and informative, they bore me. Check out this example, where Tsukuru imagines his love interest with another man: “He lay down on the sofa, images buzzing through his head, when suddenly it felt as if a sharp needle had stabbed him in the back. A thin, invisible needle. The pain was minimal, and there was no blood. Probably. Still, it hurt” (Murakami, 282). Those last two sentences… I die. Describing emotional pain in this jerky, calculated way does not resonate with me. Is there blood or is there not blood? You shouldn’t leave needles lying on your couch because then when you’re hurting internally you won’t know if it’s just that or if you’ve literally been stabbed while lying in anguish. There are more effective ways to communicate affective states.

                I know I’m being kind of an asshole, but this is frustrating! How is an author that’s supposed to be so good giving me this crap? I recognize that this is Eastern writing and maybe something was lost in translation. But I have always enjoyed works from that hemisphere so I don’t accept that a cultural clash is the root problem. This is not the worst book I’ve ever read (ahem, looking at you Naked Lunch and As I Lay Dying). I am dissatisfied with the story and particularly confused that he spent several chapters on one character, Haida, and then never brought him up again (Parallel universe? Maybe? Confused.). Still, I never had the urge to shred the book; so, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage* earns 2 out of 5 camel humps. This won’t be my last Murakami book, but I’m definitely more reluctant going forward.

*Murakami, Haruki. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Trans. Philip Gabriel. New York: Vintage Books, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Between the World and Me

        Honestly, I’ve been reluctant to write about this book up until now. I finished Between the World and Me* six months ago and then triumphantly set it in a “to review” pile on my bookshelf, admitting that I needed time to digest. As the weeks passed and I picked up other books instead, I realized that my hesitancy stemmed from a twofold fear: that I would say the wrong thing and/or that I wouldn’t contribute anything new and valuable to the subject. If you can’t tell from the picture on my blog, I’m not black. I’m actually very white and pale, despite my attempts to obscure my skin color with frequent trips to the tanning bed. I thought, How can a white girl in good conscience review a book in which the male author writes a letter to his son about the consequences of being a black American?

Nevertheless, I’ve decided to put on a brave white face and write my review. In my opinion, convictions are what differentiate us as human beings. When we feel passionately about something, it defines us and makes us unique (cue cheesy quote like *If you don’t stand for something, then you’ll fall for anything*). Of course, empathy plays a factor in my convictions, but I do believe that passion more naturally flows when I am directly affected by something. For instance, it’s easier for me to hold a firm stance on abortion than, say, the death penalty, because I am a young woman who wants to be intentional about my pregnancy or lack thereof.  I have opinions about the death penalty, but it’s a more remote issue because I won’t ever suffer at its hands (…knock on wood). Conversely, I’ve refined my position on a woman’s right to choose because I can palpably understand what it would be like to lose control of my own body.

By clearly emphasizing the effects of racism on his physical body, Ta-Nehisi Coates brings readers one step closer to more fully acknowledging his people’s pain. At the very least, he helps us envision the hardships that he has faced and continues to face because of the color of his skin. Throughout the book, Coates repeatedly refers to the American Dream. Rather than reflecting on the *Dream* in a purely abstract way, he explains that the “whites’” ability to maintain things like a strong block association and throw elaborate cookouts for our friends on Memorial Day is a tangible manifestation of slave labor. Americans think that we are the greatest nation—that we’re “above” the uncivilized countries and incapable of banality. Our racist past is just a whoopsies. Well, Coates notes that that’s a pretty big whoops. Nowadays, people point to policies like Affirmative Action and then highlight the progress we’ve made over the past century. But Coates rejects the notion that America has atoned for its brutality towards blacks and asserts that we can never fully atone. He reminds us of the bodies, saying “Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the post humorous, untouchable glory of dying for their children” (Coates, 70).

Not to mention, his people are set up to fail. We impose carefully crafted zoning laws that carve out ghettos, deprive students of meaningful education, police black youth with a hardened eye and a baton, etc.…and then frown upon disgraceful “black-on-black crime”. But, “to yell, ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding” (Coates, 111). Thus, we are a profoundly hypocritical nation without even realizing it. We are frustrated when blacks use violence in protestation, yet we are a country “which acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery” (Coates, 32). How can we so confidently affirm the judicial system as is, smugly spot diversity in the workforce, and proclaim that we provide equal opportunity schooling when we are actually this oblivious?

As a career writer-journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a deep thinker. When he miraculously emerged from his crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood (Ravens rule) to attend Howard University, he thought that he should seek what “whites” seek—that he should follow the path to success traversed by so many Americans before him.  Instead, as he studied powerful intellectuals like Malcolm X, he realized that his duty was to be skeptical of any and every kind of Dream –the myth should be dispelled, not blindly embraced. The inescapable facts of America’s past and present were unsettling to him and he refused to be placated. We see such intensity in Between the World and Me not only because Coates feels strongly about the need for this kind of reminder, but because the stakes are higher now that he’s a father.

In the letter, Coates warns his son that there will be an inevitable breakdown of his black body. He speaks of the need to “contort”, transforming his body in very drastic ways in order to fit the circumstance. Talking to a police officer? Be on guard, concentrate on not being misconstrued. Talking to a friend? Be wary of how others will perceive you and pass judgment on your people. He shares, “this need to be always on guard [is] an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence” (Coates, 90). It’s a robbery of time—you might feel like you have only 23 hours in your day because of the exhaustion involved with persistent guardedness. I wonder if Jack Bauer could accomplish as much as he did with one less hour.

Overall, Coates’ description of his physical handicaps as a black man in America is well articulated. He clearly denounces overly-optimistic thinking; this is a problem that endures because we deny its existence and its not going to go away if we just grit our teeth, close our eyes, and look to a brighter future. As an atheist, he stresses to his son that this black body is all that he has and thus this problem should be of the utmost concern. He wants his son to inherit more than just his heredity traits, so he imparts this wisdom to “awaken the Dreamers” (Coates, 146). Our conception of whiteness and the lumping of our vast, intricate genealogies into “white” is not factual; it is a barrier that we erect to uphold the illusion that we deserve our privileges in comparison to blacks.

This shit is no joke and Coates conveys that very effectively, earning his book 5 out of 5 camel humps. However, it's important to note that his book is educational in a sweeping, generalizing way rather than a concrete, history-lesson way. He's not giving us a slew of historical facts about institutional racism to put in our back pockets and bring out the next time we get in a heated debate. Instead, he's reminding us of an overarching troubling past and where that leaves him as a human being.

While this medium might not be what you're looking for (i.e. you want that back-pocket jaunt), his message is certainly something that I needed to hear. Additionally, I couldn’t help but feel enamored by his passionate language and toned writing skills. It’s an important book that I think everyone should read—and it’s also short (~150 pages), so there’s no excuse. Coates’ voice has been ringing in my ears ever since I put it down and I hope that I see the world differently now, with his words in my head. Coates feels like there is a divide between the world as “whites” know it and the world as he knows it. I might not have any scholarly additions to offer to the subject of race, but I can play my part in softening the divide.

*Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

            When Orange is the New Black made its Netflix debut in 2013, audiences came out in droves. The show has alluring dramatic features like lesbianism, violence, infidelity, and drugs, all with a comedic twist. In fact, the program is Netflix’s most watched homegrown show to date. Of course, behind every great film/television show, there’s usually a great book—and this one is no exception. It helps that my favorite character from the show happens to enjoy literature as much as I do: 

            In 2010, Piper Kerman published her memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison*, which details her imprisonment in 2005. Like most of my peers, I have a problem with the criminal justice system…but I do virtually nothing to help change its trajectory because I’m not personally affected by it. It disgusts me that the U.S. comprises only 5% of the world’s population, yet we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. It disgusts me that the so-called “War on Drugs” has quadrupled the number of incarcerations since 1980 without effectively addressing the root problem. It disgusts me that the current system disproportionally affects African Americans and unabashedly screws over people in poverty. Get over yourself, government. Here’s a colorful info-graphic to check out if you don’t already share my disgust: Colorful Info-Graphic

            I appreciate that Piper recognized these appalling trends and used her circumstances to speak out against them. Unlike her fellow prisoners, Piper was extraordinarily lucky to have a heavily involved support system with financial means and upstanding legal counsel. During her incarceration, a friend started the website to help coordinate visits, encourage letters/packages, and express dissatisfaction and solidarity against the system. Additionally, her friend who owned a start-up company created a marketing position specifically for her upon her release. In the camp, Piper saw that most prisoners experienced the exact opposite. She accurately notes that prison is a place where, “The US government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient—people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled” (Kerman, 200). She had resources to keep her afloat during her stint and to help her when she got out, while many of her fellow inmates went straight to homeless shelters.

One particularly distributing story encapsulates how little the government gives a shit. Before release, prisoners attend a “training day” intended to assist in the transition from jail to freedom. At the “Housing” seminar, a correction officer babbled on about the necessity of good insulation in a home. One prisoner expressed that her primary concern wasn’t roof paneling but finding affordable housing that would accept ex-cons. The officer’s response? “‘The best way to find an apartment is in the paper, or there are websites now that you can search’” (Kerman, 251). Ooooh *websites*. Insightful. Keep in mind that this occurred in 2005--some of the prisoners had been inside for so long that they’d never seen a computer.

            Although prison is undoubtedly a horrific experience, Piper seemed to make the most of it and flourish within the walls. For instance, she ended up getting a bangin bod by running 30 miles a week at roughly a 7 minute pace. On the weekend of the New York City marathon, she casually ran her own half marathon on the prison tracks. Clearly, the only thing stopping me from performing like an Olympic athlete is my own freedom.
            Not only was her physique transformed, but her psyche was as well. She discovered her own kind of restorative justice, “in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed” (Kerman, 180). Piper was indicted for a bullshit ten-year-old drug charge, and in prison she confronted the kinds of people affected by her participation in heroin dealing. Post-college, she lived a brief life of experimentation with her exotic, drug-peddling girlfriend, Nora. Although she was aware of Nora’s antics, she was largely uninvolved. When Nora’s dealing became a huge stress on their relationship, Piper bailed, shed herself of her past, and embarked on a new, law-abiding life. When Nora’s enterprise fell apart years later, Piper’s past caught up with her. It would have been easy for her to deny her wrongdoings and emphasize how little she resembled the previous Piper; instead, she fully admitted her mistakes and lamented that she had played a part (however small) in providing a devastating drug to the community. Prison sucked, but it made her a better person by forcing her to confront her missteps.

And now… what we’re all waiting for…how is the show different from the book? Piper Kerman was a beloved inmate who learned from prison but was not hardened or crushed by it. Piper Chapman—the show’s version of Pipes—is a narcissistic bitch. The memoir provides the bare-minimum backbone for the story: an unsuspecting middle-class white woman gets thrown into jail and interacts with people of different backgrounds from her. The show heavily extrapolates on that framework, focusing on the eccentricities of each character and (in later seasons) minimizing Piper’s involvement in favor of focusing on, frankly, more interesting people.
Additionally, Piper Chapman—unlike Piper Kerman-- toes the line between being “gay for the stay” and fully embracing her lesbian side. She is engaged to her fiancĂ©, Larry, but the relationship is turbulent due to her wandering eye for women. I’ve been on the straight and narrow sexual path my whole life, but I do know a mediocre Sapphic joke: *Why was the lesbian sick? Because she wasn’t getting enough vitamin D*.

The biggest discrepancy is her ex-girlfriend’s involvement. The show’s juiciest drama revolves around the dual presence of Piper and “Alex” (Netflix’s version of Nora) within the prison. Naturally, being around her long-gone ex who got her into this whole mess in the first place is problematic for Piper. But, this addition is not factual; in her memoir, Piper Kerman explains that she spent only a short time in the same transition-camp as her ex because they were co-defenders traveling to a trial for one of the drug kingpins they had both worked under. This interaction was unpleasant, but it was not the crux of Piper’s experience in jail.

Personally, I’ve been a fan of the show since the start. I binge-watched the entire first season while sick in bed the summer after I graduated from college-- I have fond memories of downing liquid Dayquil (I can’t swallow pills very well, lawlz) while Piper Chapman wept onscreen. I give the first season 3 out of 5 camel humps (I was tired of hearing about Piper’s overwrought trials) and the following two seasons 5 out of 5 camel humps (entertaining and enlightening about what it was like on the inside). The book falls in a cozy place in between, at 4 out of 5 camel humps. I love how Piper weaved cogent explanations of how the system had failed her friends AND presented an entertaining story about something most of us will (thankfully) never undergo. At the same time, it wasn’t the most impressive writing I’ve ever read, and I was often confused by her vague transitions—it seemed that her stories weren’t as fluid as she had expected and she’d jump from one topic to another too abruptly. Thus, I recommend for readers who want perspective on a pressing domestic issue through the lens of comedy and relative lightheartedness.

* Kerman, Piper. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. New York: Random House, Inc., 2010. Print.