Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Death of the Heart

     Since it's the holidays, last week I kept it light with the effects of brash consumerism on the fate of our planet, and this week I'll go even lighter with a book titled The Death of the Heart*. Published in 1938 by Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart is as old school as... 
     I picked her novel for a reason I'm not too ashamed to admit: I wanted to scratch it off my book scratch-off list. Indeed, Time listed The Death of the Heart as one of the "100 best English-language novels published since 1923". Seems like a weirdly specific flex, but okay (not really-- it's the year Time magazine started). 

     I have mixed feelings about the scratch-off Time list because, while I love the strangely satisfying feeling of rubbing a quarter against plastic until it becomes a different color, I do not entirely agree with its contents. The list includes absolute bangers like Catch-22, Lolita, Slaughterhouse Five, Things Fall Apart, The Catcher in the Rye, Infinite Jest, 1984, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Unfortunately, it also includes lesser literature like Blood Meridian, Lord of the Flies, White Teethand American Pastoral. Then there is complete and total trash like Naked Lunch.

     The Death of the Heart falls in the *meh* category. Put simply: it is mediocre. It is an interwar novel that exhibits the tensions of the time. Everyone is self-conscious and adherent to an unspoken code of conduct, which makes everyone insufferable. The novel's focus is Portia, a sixteen-year-old orphan sent to live with her half-brother and his wife in London. Portia falls in love (because of course she does) with a manipulative man who toys with her heart. Not much occurs plot-wise, but innocence is lost. 

     I do cynically enjoy watching the characters all slowly realize that they suck but it's kind of a bummer to not root for anyone. I didn't get much out of Bowen's novel and I wouldn't recommend it. If you want to read a female novelist from the 1920s-1930s, check out Virginia WoolfThe Death of the Heart receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Bowen, Elizabeth. The Death of the Heart. New York: Vintage Books, 1938. Print.

*Lacayo, Richard. “All Time 100 Novels.” Time. Time Inc., 06 Jan. 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

For your viewing pleasure to start us off (Senator Inhofe, R-OK bringing a snowball to the Senate floor to justify his opinion that global warming is a hoax):

The great comedian Aparna Nancherla once tweeted, “THANKSGIVING GAME: nobody gets pie until you go around the table & everyone has to say ‘climate change is real.’” Thanksgiving has passed, but it’s not too late to play this at Christmas. If your family has follow-up questions, perhaps steer them towards Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming*.

Merchants of Doubt exposes the doubt-mongers who have attempted to cast uncertainty on established scientific fact. It details the dirty deeds of a small network of individuals who, fueled by political and financial motivations, have opposed thousands of scientists collaborating internationally through the peer-review process. These individuals sometimes had the ear of presidential administrations and they definitely had the ears of the American people.

Why? Because we’re a bunch of morons. They led highly effective, large-scale publicity campaigns and we slurped them right up because we like a lil drama. They cherry-picked data, started/funded institutes--usually conservative thinktanks-- that were extra shady, and distorted scientific research, all with the goal of “maintaining controversy” so that we would think there was more than one reasonable side. The EXACT SAME DUDES that argued against claims that cigarettes caused cancer then went on to fight evidence of human-induced global warming.

Why? Because they are free-market fundamentalists. They wanted to defend their products (tobacco, oil, household items that emitted CFCs, etc.) from regulation. Americans tend to get off on capitalism, and as such, we ignore its imperfections. Capitalism is great--because I can have Amazon Prime Now deliver me $10 asparagus water from Whole Foods in less than two hours-- but “free market economics, focused as it [is] on consumption growth, [is] inherently destructive to the natural environment” (Oreskes & Conway, 183). The authors of Merchants of Doubt did a good job of explaining in layman’s terms how markets fail to account for pollution because its “collateral damage is a hidden cost not reflected in the price of a given good or service” (Oreskes & Conway, 93). The authors maintain that, when it comes to environmental issues, government regulation is needed, and they brainstorm various practical options, backed by evidence.

Oh boy, the evidence. This bad boy is packed with footnotes and its 60+ page notes section will fool your friends into thinking you’re reading an extra large book. I’m glad they support their claims with massive amounts of credible evidence-- especially since they are calling out people who made influential claims without any evidence; however, it makes for an especially dense read. To reveal all of the shadiness, the authors (historians) had to get into the gritty details, and sometimes my eyes glossed over and I looked like Bran Stark from Game of Thrones when he’s having one of his warg visions.

The effort is worth it because now I can force family members at the dinner table to admit our culpability in altering the planet AND sling some facts WITH page numbers. In all seriousness, I feel better equipped to have conversations about the environment. I also learned about the history of the EPA, the particulars of Reagan’s truly wacko “Star Wars program”, and how holes in the ozone were first discovered. I consider climate change to be one of--if not the--most pressing issues of our time, and I’m down to read any book that sheds light on the topic. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming receives 4 out of 5 camel humps. Stay woke!

*Conway, Erik & Oreskes, Naomi. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Travels with Charley in Search of America

*Travelogue*. You learn something new every day, and today I learned the term “travelogue”. I’ll use the Merriam-Webster definition because they have a hilariously clever and surprisingly political Twitter account, so they deserve it. Travelogue (n.): a piece of writing about travel. You’re not supposed to use the word in the definition, but if you don’t know what travel means, I can’t help you.

So, lovely readers, are you feeling restless? Do you want a travelogue that’s not the soul-suckingly shallow ramblings of Jack Kerouac in On the Road? Of note, I believe Kerouac redeemed himself as an author in The Dharma Bums. He never redeemed himself of his misogyny.

I present to you: Travels with Charley in Search of America* by John Steinbeck. In 1960, Steinbeck went on a road trip throughout the United States with his poodle Charley to answer the question: “What are Americans like today?” Posthumously, his sons have speculated that Steinbeck’s rapidly declining health spurred the final farewell journey. Some critics have questioned the veracity of routes he claimed to have taken and certain conversations he claimed to have had; I don’t care in the least. It’s a very good book with very good writing and I don’t give a damn if he made up that he went to the Badlands.

Wow, his nonfiction slays. His deep introspection makes me think he had access to a top-shelf therapist. He’s honest about himself and his shortcomings. He’s articulate in his observations. He’s prescient in his concerns for the country (almost sixty years ago, he forecasted today’s global warming, immigration crises, and race relations). He’s perceptive of the people he encounters, and his careful questions allow them to open up to him. He writes the book with a sense of duty; he made a promise to his readers that he would show them the America that he saw, and he follows through. And his dog! I love when he talks about Charley. He really respects his canine companion and he elegantly weaves Charley through his stories.

I can’t shake the sense that when you read Travels with Charley in Search of America, it feels like Steinbeck is talking directly to you. You’re sitting next to him in his campervan, Rocinte, sharing a whiskey-enhanced coffee.
Looking ahead, I’m excited to read collections of his letters, of which there are many. Looking to the past, I’ve reviewed some of his fiction that might be of interest to budding Steinbeck fans. East of Eden is long but worth it, and I appreciate his thoughtful take on the good-evil duality. The Pearl is a short, simple but poetic story that tugged at my heart-strings. The Red Pony is meh-- it reads more like an unfinished manuscript. Tortilla Flat is a fun, silly book full of sin, forgiveness, and parables (no, Tortilla Flat is not the Bible).

Overall, I recommend Travels with Charley in Search of America to any and all. Part of me already wants to re-read it. Seriously! It receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley in Search of America. New York: Penguin Books, 1961. Print

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Hate U Give

We can all agree that a policeman’s job is hard, right? We can also agree that it’s a policeman’s job, reinforced by their training, to remain levelheaded during chaotic circumstances in order to keep us safe, right? A lot of people have no chill, and we don’t want them to be the face of law and order. We only want Ice-T to be the face of law and order. (I previously wrote Ice Cube and my boyfriend had to correct me. In other news, I'm very white).

I think we can also agree that it’s a policeman’s duty to refrain from excessive force and definitely avoid using a lethal weapon at all costs, especially since officers have a bunch of other resources at their disposal. Lethal weapons, like guns, are...lethal. You can’t turn back time on those things. When an unarmed boy is violently confronted for “looking suspicious” and then he’s shot, that’s murder [Trayvon Martin]. When a man is pulled over, immediately tells the officer he has a weapon in the car, explicitly says that he is reaching for his license and registration (as asked) and not that weapon, and then he’s shot seven times, that’s murder [Philando Castile]. When a man suspected of illegally selling cigarettes is choked as he says, “I can’t breathe” 11 times, that’s murder [Eric Garner]. When you’re a woman partying with a group in a park and you get shot because the officer mistakes a cell phone for a gun, that’s murder [Rekia Boyd].

Like any given population, cops are not “bad”; but, there are poorly trained bad apples, and the consequence of those bad apples isn’t a terrible fruit salad, it’s murder.

I know that white people get shot by police too, but, put simply, that’s not what The Hate U Give* is about. The black community is understandably incensed by systemic racism, and they want change. They want accountability for police officers who wrong them. Is that so bad? Shouldn’t we all want to improve our communities? Shouldn’t we support a movement that fundamentally wants the world to be a safer place?

Angie Thomas started writing The Hate U Give after Oscar Grant was shot by a policeman while he was lying on his stomach, hands behind his back, and confirmed unarmed. The murder is depicted in the movie Fruitvale Station with my boy Michael B. Jordan.

In the book, Thomas creates a fictional situation that seems all too real. [Note: The next sentence is not a spoiler-- it’s on the back of the book] The main character, Starr Carter, witnesses firsthand the fatal shooting of her friend Khalil, who was unarmed, cooperative, nonprovocative, etc. (all the usual excuses people give are out the window). Cue community outrage. The novel does not condone violence, but it does give some perspective on how the frustration of oppression might lead to violence.

I expected to confront tough, racially charged topics in The Hate U Give. I did not expect a lesson in second chances. Through Starr, Thomas advocates for forgiving people...when they deserve it. She acknowledges that some people make mistakes that they can atone for over time. She also acknowledges that when people make irrecoverable mistakes that speak to the core of their character, and those mistakes are repeated and justified rather than repented, you can feel free to kick those knuckleheads out of your life. I think that’s excellent advice for adults and kids. The Hate U Give is marketed as “young adult” (am I in that age bracket still…?) but it’s certainly applicable to people of all ages. Thomas’ voice is unique, compelling, and funny. The Hate U Give receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2017. Print.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Things Fall Apart

I’m dramatic, so in the wake of the midterms, I read Things Fall Apart* by Chinua Achebe. I vote that every high school English class lists the novel as required reading. Do I get a sticker now?

Even though Achebe writes in English, he uses the voice and syntax of the Igbo people, who are native Nigerians IRL. Writing from the third-person, Achebe focuses on Okonkwo, a fictional warrior in the fictional Umuofia clan.

Achebe spends more than half of the novel telling stories about the clan to help readers conceptualize how their superstitions shape every aspect of their lives. The clan has a predetermined answer for everything based on the traditions of their ancestors and the will of their gods. I am enamored by the black-and-white clarity that comes with belonging to their group. They know what to eat, how to eat it, where to eat it, what time of day they should eat it, and who should serve it (Taco bell, with your hands, in the car, during fourth meal, made by the public servants of the company). Life is more or less decided for them, and they (mostly) willingly accept those terms because they fear their god’s wrath and respect their god’s desires.

A few years ago, my interest in religion and its progression over time lead me to a wonderfully informative book: The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. In it, Wright details certain patterns of monotheism that have deep connections to “pagan” beliefs, like the ones practiced in Umuofia. Things Fall Apart inconspicuously shows parallels between the beliefs of the clan and the Christian beliefs of British colonialism and its missionaries. The progression of the novel brilliantly lures you in; the subject matter is interesting and “other” (I know very little about clan traditions) but Achebe opens your eyes to how that “otherness” isn’t so wildly unrelatable. Achebe also breaks down the “otherness” wall through poetic similes and metaphors. He speaks to the human condition, as it applies to people of all backgrounds.

Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist, is elusive, which is a relatively odd choice for a main character. We don’t know much about his inner thoughts. I believe Achebe intentionally keeps us in the dark because Okonkwo is elusive to his own self. He’s an impulsive man who prides himself on his strength and derides the weakness of emotions; he’s not one to self-reflect. I don’t like him! I don’t think he’s a good guy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book.

My only difficulty with Things Fall Apart is a result of me being sOoOoOo basic. Honestly, I had trouble keeping track of the names of characters (Okonkwo, Obierika, Unoka, Ogbuefi), because they aren’t names I’m familiar with and they sound similar to each other. Then, I remember we’re over here like Chris, Christopher, Christina, Kristina, and Chrissy. Overall, Things Fall Apart sucked me in, kept me interested, and taught me some important lessons, so it receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1959. Print

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Alice Network

Today is Halloween and what’s spookier than historical fiction??? They say that history repeats itself, like a broken record stuck on the Halloween theme song. Michael Myers has never looked better:
The Alice Network* by Kate Quinn is extra historical fiction-y because it follows two parallel timelines (no spoilers-- this is “back of the book” stuff). One involves a female-dominated spy ring in World War I; it focuses mainly on Eve, an English native who moves to German-occupied France to spy on some German dudes. The second is set in 1947, where a young woman searches for her missing cousin throughout war-torn, recovering Europe. I’m a big fan of the former thread and less enthused by the latter.

First and foremost: the book is too long. It’s over 500 pages when it doesn’t need to be. The novel’s two threads weave in and out of each other, which provides plenty of material, but not 500 pages worth. Since the book jumps around in time, place, and narration, I was initially worried that I’d get lost in the shuffle; however, Quinn does an excellent job of transitioning between settings in a straightforward, sensible way.

Fictional spies are cool; actual spies are even cooler. The Alice Network is inspired by Louise de Bettignies, a secret agent whose code name was Alice Dubois. Speaking of Dubois, one of the plot points that I found most dubious ended up being an actual event. The novel holds my interest in its historical accuracy and I like Quinn’s focus on women as unlikely yet potent forces during both world wars. On the other hand, some of the inner dialogue is cheesy and, as aforementioned, many chapters are redundant, which leads to unnecessary length. Overall, The Alice Network receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Quinn, Kate. The Alice Network. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. Print.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


I’ve never seen a Burt Reynolds movie (RIP-- Yes, I know, I should watch Boogie Nights). So, when I read Deliverance* by James Dickey at work, all of my middle-aged coworkers crooned over Reynolds’ role in the film adaptation and I pretended to know what the heck they were talking about. Apparently, I’m the dumb dumb, because it earned several Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. And Burt looks like a boss.
Long story short: a group of four guys go on a canoe trip in remote Georgia and disaster strikes.

This novel so obviously checks every box for a good thriller, especially in the second half. As a book, it’s not as compelling as it could be. The suspense relies heavily on the readers’ ability to maintain a complex visual, and with the constantly shifting nature-scapes, I struggled. Instead of getting swept in the current of the plot, I fixated on the complicated minutia of the actual river where they canoed. I love being in nature and I recognize that it’s no easy task to successfully place a reader there. Still, if you can’t picture the most harrowing scenes, they don’t take an emotional toll.

The latter half is filled with adventure and the former is filled with philosophical discussions about survivalism. One of the guys in the crew (Reynolds’ character) devotes his life to preparing for any potential disaster, and he does so very obnoxiously. I would not be friends with this dude and I grew tired of his one-dimensional dialogue. I know that people like this exist, but is it really all they ever talk about? Is survivalism the same as Crossfit?

I appreciate the plot twist, especially because it caught me off guard despite knowing a plot twist would come eventually. I’m glad Dickey wrote this book because it deserved to be turned into a movie; but, in book form, I don’t recommend it. Deliverance receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Olive Kitteridge

The Nobel prize in literature will not be awarded this year because some men can’t keep it in their pants. The academy experienced backlash for its association with Jean-Claude Arnault, who faces 18 allegations of sexual assault and physical abuse. Instead, two prizes will be given next year. In the meantime, readers can turn to the Pulitzer Prize for guidance on the best fiction of 2018.

Unfortunately, I feel like the 2009 Pulitzer, Olive Kitteridge*, failed us a bit. The novel by Elizabeth Strout is a collection of 13 short stories that feature a fictional woman, Olive Kitteridge, in one way or another. Sometimes the story is told from her perspective, sometimes it is not. Sometimes she is the main character, sometimes she’s only peripherally mentioned. Although the stories jump around in point of view, they pass through time linearly. So, we initially experience Olive indirectly as a middle-aged wife and mother in Crosby, Maine and we eventually experience Olive directly as an old woman who has undergone many life changes.

Seeing her character grow through a multitude of lenses certainly shapes my perception of Olive as three-dimensional. It gives me empathy and reveals how much she understands her own weaknesses and strengths. That being said, I don’t like her as a person. I think that’s fine; not everybody likes everybody.

I don’t need to rally for the short story structure more than I already have, but Strout’s writing takes the format to a whole new level. She gives us detailed snippets of different character’s worlds (and in doing so, inhabits completely different voices) while connecting those pieces into a complex matrix. I admire her work and appreciate her ability.

Still, I’m not crazy about the story, nor am I sold on the worthiness of Olive’s character to be featured in such a prominent manner. In an interview, Strout says, “the quotidian life is not always easy, and is something worthy of respect” (Strout, 281). While I agree with her, Olive’s life simply did not draw me enough to regularly want to read the book, and I found it difficult to finish.

So, Olive Kitteridge is good enough but not necessarily meritorious of the Pulitzer. I don't buy into the hubbub, so it receives 2 out of 5 camel humps. I gave fellow Pulitzer novel American Pastoral 2/5 as well. 
Other Pulitzer-winning novels that I bestowed 3/5 humps include: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoA Visit from the Goon SquadBelovedAll the Light We Cannot Seeand The Old Man and the Sea. I gave Interpreter of Maladies a well-deserved 4/5. To Kill a Mockingbird and Middlesex top us off with 5/5.

*Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. New York: Random House, 2008. Print.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides* title pretty much says it all. There are virgins and they will commit suicide. Not only that, but the first few sentences remove any arc of suspense. I respect Jeffrey Eugenides’ boldness in his debut novel; he told readers what to expect from the get-go and then piqued our interest enough to keep reading.

The novel is told from the perspective of teenage boys. They describe the life (and death) of five sisters who live in their neighborhood, walk their school halls, and experiment with innocence or lack thereof. At first, I was like….okay, so why do we need a bunch of boys mansplaining girls to us? It’s the ladies’ lives, let them tell it! Except, from a creative perspective, I appreciate that Eugenides used distance to render the girls into mythical creatures, overly romanticized. They’re girls who the reader can’t quite grasp. They’re basically ghosts throughout.

The first Eugenides book I read was Middlesex, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a personal favorite (check out my review if you want a photo of an interesting retail product-- the “Anti-Masturbation Cross”). Then, I tried The Marriage Plot, which was absolute garbage and filled with the most boring characters one could possibly conjure. The Virgin Suicides, while not as impressive as the entertaining complexities of Middlesex, certainly read better than the plot which shall not be named.

You can also watch a young Kirsten Dunst crush it as a main character in the film adaptation. You're welcome! The Virgin Suicides receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. New York: Warner Books, 1999. Print.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Best American Short Stories 1987

The year is 1987. Michael B. Jordan is born (hallelujah). Aretha Franklin is the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two nerds invent Photoshop. Eazy-E releases Boyz-n-the-Hood (banger). Ann Beattie edits The Best American Short Stories 1987*. Solid year.

I’ve reviewed some of The Best American Series before and I will again because they’re the best. For some background on what the series entails, check out my review of The Best American Short Stories 2013. If you like the idea of the format, but want a slightly different genre, check out my review of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005.

The Best American Short Stories 1987 is chock-full of talent, as per usual. This year includes Susan Sontag, John Updike, Raymond Carver, and Charles Baxter. The series not only entertain in and of themselves but also gift you a long list of talented authors for your mental Rolodex. You get a good short story and a taste of what the writer could provide you in long form. In the end, authors get a chance to explain their writing process and their inspiration for the story, which is helpful for any aspiring writer.

I chose this particular year at random from my favorite used bookstore (shout out to Heartwood Books in Charlottesville). I enjoy it only slightly less than the 2013 edition (very hard to beat out George Saunders and Juno Díaz). The 1987 edition includes an excerpt from The Things They Carried, which is beyond brilliant, and I found it interesting how easily the excerpt stood on its own as a short story.

Overall, The Best American Short Stories 1987 receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Beattie, Ann and Shannon Ravenel, eds. The Best American Short Stories 1987. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Print.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Blood Meridian

Something that I don’t need in my life: a brutal gang of scalphunters intent on superfluous violence roaming the United States-Mexico borderlands in 1849. I’m uninterested. To be honest, I don’t like Westerns and I never have. In my opinion, they tend to be too slow-paced, I get annoyed with the narrator’s drawl, there’s too much landscape description for my liking, I don’t relate to their plight, and every little detail feels like a trope. I gave Blood Meridian* by Cormac McCarthy a chance’s Cormac McCarthy. I never read All the Pretty Horses when it was assigned in high school (Sorry, Mr. Wood) and I also never got around to The Road (mostly because I used to confuse it with On the Road by Kerouac). No Country for Old Men is a phenomenal movie, but I haven’t read the book.

Basically, I read Blood Meridian because, like in the case of White Teeth, reading it allowed me to scratch off part of a poster. We’re all suckers for scratch offs, admit it.

The most impressive aspect of the novel is its historical accuracy. Blood Meridian follows a teenager referred to as “the kid” as he gets caught up in the Glanton Gang. The gang originally kills Native Americans for bounty hunting; soon, they devolve into killing anyone and everyone for sport. Apparently, the Glanton Gang existed. They are all a bunch of morally devoid assholes and the only whisper of a moral compass lies in “the kid”. It’s a very quiet whisper.

Am I missing something? Blood Meridian was the biggest struggle for me to trudge through since Naked Lunch (which isn’t a novel, it’s vomit on some pages). McCarthy is clearly talented--his sentences are symbolic and he sure knows how to describe the countryside. But the book is 330 pages of murder and not much else, plot-wise.

I do not have a problem with the graphic violence; we’ve all been desensitized by the Saw movies and serial killer podcasts. Instead, I found the violence monotonous; again, I am uninterested. The crew seems to murder because they are bored and I, in turn, am bored. *Gang encounters large group of Native Americans. Kills them mercilessly. Gang encounters another large group of Native Americans. Kills them mercilessly. Gang encounters another large group of Native Americans. Kills them mercilessly*. I wonder what happens next??!?

There are countless novels and movies that contain violence and manage to use that violence to a creative end. For me, Blood Meridian has the violence without the creatively satisfying payoff. Blood Meridian receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

*McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Print.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Bend Sinister

Vladimir Nabokov is my favorite lepidopterist-authors (one who studies butterflies and also writes world-famous books--seriously, he's very into butterflies). Eight years before he published Lolita, he published his second English-language novel, Bend Sinister*.

Bend Sinister is not an “in your face” dystopian novel, like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, or The Handmaid's Tale. “In your face” dystopian novels make you go THIS IS NUTS, SOMEONE GOT VERY, VERY CARRIED AWAY, HOW CAN WE AVOID THIS?! 1984 has a rigid system of policing thought and a Big Brother literally invading people’s homes. Brave New World produces genetically modified people and then indoctrinates them at all hours of the day. Fahrenheit 451 treats knowledge as dangerous and requires the burning of books. The Handmaid's Tale forces fertile women to submit themselves to men and imposes strict puritanical codes. On the other hand, the totalitarianism of Bend Sinister progresses insidiously but also clumsily. The new government, which seeks to create a uniform society, seems disorganized and inefficient. After all, any transfer of power will come with some growing pains. Bend Sinister shows the growing pains, so while the staples of dystopia are in the works (censorship, torture, oppressive government, all that jazz), these tools have yet to be fully implemented.

Nabokov’s dystopia is also different from his contemporaries' in that the main character, Krug, is important on an international level, so he’s able to fight back. He isn’t disposable and he has some leverage. Unfortunately, I find him boring and two-dimensional, and I can’t connect with him. I know that Nabokov is capable of garnering empathy for his characters-- his best novel is narrated by a rapist. The man knows how to create complexity-- so why does Krug fall so flat?

In Bend Sinister, Nabokov makes complicated moves between 1st and 3rd person in his narration and drops references that I straight up don’t understand (he includes a seemingly unnecessary and lengthy aside on Shakespeare, but what do I know?). Overall, we have a novel with: great writing (it’s Nabokov!) and a compelling story (I like that he attacks from the angle that authoritarianism is stupid rather than merely evil), but ultimately awkward execution. Bend Sinister receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Nabakov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947. Print.