Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Like You'd Understand, Anyway

            Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a petty title and, in a petty mood, I gladly picked it off the shelf. I recognized Jim Shepard’s name from his standout short story in The Best American Short Stories 2013. I still wish it was Shepherd, but I’ll allow it.

            Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a collection of 11 short stories that each draw from a deep well of strained familial relations, namely brother-to-brother. Naturally, Shepard dedicated the book to his real-life brother. The first story follows a man who feels semi-responsible for an accident that results in his brothers’ deaths. When he asks one, “‘Was I ever the brother you hoped I would be?’” I wonder whom Shepard is speaking to (Shepard, 23).  The context of his inspiration creates an atmosphere of intimacy, like I’m reading a diary or sitting at their family dinner table watching them argue over who gets to sit next to dad.

            A word to the wise: Shepard is a poetic craftsman of words, but his stories are designed to bring about discomfort. One story literally says, “All day, every day, I’m sad” (Shepard, 30). Furthermore, he moves and grooves alllll over the map. His characters span a wide range of centuries and nationalities, and most of his stories clearly required factual research (like the Chernobyl disaster and exploration of the Great Australian Desert). One story features a high school football player who is haunted by the disappearance of his father, such that it undermines his playing. Another follows a couple of Nazis who go on a deadly, classified mission for the abominable snowman. Another trails a husband, plagued by an early childhood trauma, who gets a vasectomy without his wife knowing. Another highlights an executioner during the French Revolution tasked with the guillotining of the King and Queen, despite his wife’s reservations. You know, happy stuff! Most of his stories don’t provide a definitive end for the reader, but such is life.

            I stand by my first impression of Shepard, in which he stopped me in my tracks and forced me to recall his name in a bookstore one and a half years after my encounter. Also, the pages of his short story collection are cool! They’re *deckle edged*, which is a term I just learned by Googling! Like You’d Understand, Anyway receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

            Like short stories as much as me? Check out my past reviews of other short stories: Men Without Women, In the Valley of the Kings, Interpreter of Maladies, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers.

*Shepard, Jim. Like You’d Understand, Anyway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Rules of Civility

            Why do we like The Great Gatsby? Fabulous lifestyles are alluring and enviable; when the fabulous people fall from grace, we dig the drama and feel better about our position in society. The whole spectacle is a performance that entertains us either way. Amor Towles’ bestselling novel, Rules of Civility* has the Gatsby-flash with a less theatrical comedown.

            The main character, Katy Kontent, happens upon a young NYC socialite and proceeds to gallivant with the greats yet maintain her humble beginnings. She’s a likeable protagonist, unlike her best friend, Eve, who is hella flaky and steals the spotlight a little too much.

            The novel is fast-paced, as expected for a book set in New York City in the 1930s. It has a bit of a hard-boiled detective novel feel, where everyone gets blasted on fancy cocktails and no one loses their acuity. I was going to say "gets blasted on old-fashioneds" but the plural of that really throws me off. Anyway, women get drunk and then say charming things like, “Slurring is the cursive of speech” when they start to slur their words (Towles, 92).

            Overall, Rules of Civility is a “delight”, in the sense that it is a pleasurable, easy read, albeit not a realistic plot. It tells readers that New York City can spin you into a whirlwind of whimsical majesty, which – call me cynical—is sometimes true but mostly not. Similar to detective novels I've reviewed in the past (The Long Goodbye), I like the quick-witted dialogue and I relish in a character’s journey that’s too good to be true, like only fiction is capable of inciting. Rules of Civility receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Towles, Amor. Rules of Civility. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. Print.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Men Without Women

            Oh Mr. Murakami, we meet again. A couple of years ago, I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami’s memoir. It talks about how he channels his discipline towards writing and long-distance running. His running stats are unbelievable and he’s written over 36 books, so I’d say his discipline is serving him well. I enjoyed the book: it gave good advice, I like his stripped-down, few frills syntax, and it’s interesting to read about someone who is very talented. You can read my more in-depth review here: *here*

            About a year ago, I decided to check out his fiction. I read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, a novel about a man who needs to face his past in order to move forward in the present. I don’t like it one bit. Mostly, I find the plot uninteresting. Also, I think that his descriptions and (frequent) similes often don’t add value; his comparisons are unhelpful, as they confuse more than they illuminate.  You can read my more in-depth review here: *here*

            You can see my hesitation in reading Men Without Women*, a collection of seven short stories about – you guessed it—men without women. On the one hand, the collection is fictional, so I’ll likely encounter the dreaded similes. On the other hand, a short story format might prevent plots from fizzling out and bring out more of the lean, sharpshooting prose that I love in his memoir.

            In the end, I got some of both. He managed to squeeze in his trademark weird simile. For instance, in reference to a woman who sees sex as obligatory within her capacity as an escort, he says, “Basically, she seemed intent on keeping [the men] from growing too enthusiastic. Just as a driving instructor would not want his students to show too much enthusiasm about their driving” (Murakami, 133). First of all, if I’m a driving instructor and students are super fired up about driving, that makes my job a hell of a lot less boring. Secondly, because the comparison is weak, I’d rather him exclude it. At this point, I find it amusing, and I –probably too harshly—search out the poor similes as I read.

            Despite my intentionally cynical hunt, each of the seven stories swept me. More often than not, they ended with a cliffhanger, but that didn’t irk me like it usually does. Murakami has a way of intriguing you enough so that you’re invested in the characters’ lives and then running a calm hand over your eyes so that you’re at peace when you don’t get to see exactly how their qualms play out. As a result, I enjoyed each story for what it was: a snippet of a larger life. Overall, I’m still reluctant to try more of his larger fiction, but Men Without Women receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Murakami, Haruki. Men Without Women. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale

           Let’s take a second to talk about Margaret Atwood. I recently fell into literary-love with Nora Ephron; I stand by Nora’s brilliance, but I’m going to push for polyamory. Margaret is a prolific, talented author whose social and political activism informs her work. The Handmaid’s Tale* is no exception.

            Since the adaption of the book to television (highly recommend, especially episode five), most people know the gist: a dystopian America in which fertility rates are alarmingly low. A religiously dogmatic faction takes over the government, cherry-picking biblical verses to justify a new society that subjugates everyone, particularly women. The protagonist, Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss), is one of few fertile women; as such, she is farmed out to households of powerful men who rape her under the guise of God and necessity. The show retains most of the fundamentals of the novel, and Atwood is involved as a producer. She also makes a cameo!

            The most interesting part of the novel, for me, wasn’t necessarily learning the rules of the horrific new society and the unfolding drama as characters rubbed against those new rules. Instead, I was fascinated with the diary-like insight readers get from Offred’s perspective. She’s the first to admit that she’s an unreliable narrator (a trope that never gets old) and we’re at her side as she struggles to make sense of her new world. She vacillates on the best method of maintaining sanity—should she accept her current circumstances in order to cope or should she distance herself and hang on to the past with the hope of returning? We see her try and convince herself of different versions of reality to get through the day. 

            By giving us the gift of Offred’s raw humanity, Atwood seamlessly integrates unnerving parallels to today’s world—even though she published it in 1986! For example, Offred admits, “What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it” (Atwood, 177)? Her sobering reflections are reminiscent of foolishly misdirected claims that women “ask” for rape in what they say and how they dress.

            Atwood comments on the relatability of her text in her February 2017 Introduction, available in my version of the book. When asked how to categorize her book, she says, “Let’s say it’s an anti-prediction: if this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either” (Atwood, xviii). Her work implicitly warns against present evils much like other trademark dystopia novels, such as Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984, but her distinctly female perspective helps clarify how patriarchal values can take a sinister form in these imagined, dehumanizing worlds.

            Two months ago, I attended a Think Olio class—Margaret Atwood and the Rise of the American ‘Alt-Right’: The Prophetic Punch of The Handmaid’s Tale. Fellow New Yorkers, I highly recommend Think Olio, which provides reasonably priced classes on interesting subjects hosted by talented professors at cool venues. What’s not to love? The Atwood class discussed parallels between Trump’s response to the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville and the government’s role in ushering the ideology central to Atwood’s dystopian classic. Atwood created a novel that’s both eerily entertaining and chillingly relevant. The Handmaid’s Tale should be required reading, and it earns 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books. 1986. Print.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

            It’s fall y’all, and Halloween is upon us. To celebrate, I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* by Robert Louis Stevenson. I love when iconic expressions from literature seep into mainstream use. Even if you forget who’s the “bad guy” (tbh Jekyll sounds more malevolent even though he’s the “good” one), most people know what “Jekyll and Hyde” refer to. I think it’s pretty cool that a novella published in 1886 supplied a catchphrase that’s still colloquially used today to describe a psychological schism within a person. For instance, I’m Dr. Jekyll when I’m at a lovely Chili’s restaurant and I’m Mr. Hyde when I’m hangry.

            Stevenson wrote the novella feverishly. Literally-- he suffered from some intense health issues, and he finished the novel in a frantic, bedridden state. Stevenson's earlier work includes Treasure Island. If you’ve seen the GOAT Muppet Treasure Island, you know that that story is damn good.

            Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is Victorian Era gothic fiction, so it’s perfect for when you want a little spooky contemplation on man’s capacity for good and evil. Dr. Jekyll—a generally good-natured man revered in society—sees a darkness in himself that he decides to set free. Ultimately, the darkness devours him.

            Although the logistics of literally being two persons in one is hypothetical here, the concept is grounded in very real fears. Stevenson’s exploration is not confined to what we now describe as dissociative identity disorder; he understands the nuances of personality in which sometimes a mostly “good” person can do some pretty “bad” things. To what extent do we have control over our actions? If the brain dictates behavior, and that behavior is “bad”, what can we do about it? What even is “bad” behavior and how do we define it in others without being hypocritical? Stevenson’s literal approach to examining these questions is very helpful for understanding the dangers of excessively succumbing to vices while also acknowledging that those vices have their time and place.

            I’ll state the obvious: Nineteenth-century English is different than the form of English used today. Hot. Take. If you recoil at the language used by Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, or Herman Melville, then this probably isn’t your cup of pumpkin spiced latte. *Seasonal*
            That being said, it’s a novella. It’s short! It’s a wonderful way to test if you can appreciate the writing that you hated in high school. At the time, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde broke ground both in writing style and theme and it continues to be an enjoyable and interesting book to read. It receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: New York: Bantam Books, 1886. Print.