Summer 2017 Reading Review

It’s about time, wouldn’t you say?

 

Books I Read

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015; Straus, & Giroux)

Back to that whole “rearranging your mental schema” I mentioned in my last post: A while back, I saw an article or interview somewhere where Paul Beatty pushed back on calling this satire and, at the time, I couldn’t comprehend why an author wouldn’t want to be labelled a brilliant satirist. Now that I’ve read The Sellout, I think I understand Beatty’s misgivings: While it is absurdist in tone, it is a sharp, unforgiving, nihilistic look at race relations in America; an attack on the failures of the American justice, education, and political systems; as well as an indictment of white liberalism, black liberalism, and the systems that maintain white dominance. In response, the protagonist advocates for some very contrarian and shocking solutions. I can see why Beatty might be concerned that, as literal as some people tend to be, to call this ‘satire’ might seem like giving readers permission to laugh off the whole thing, which I think more than a few readers would be all too willing to do, given the uncomfortable content.

But it’s also a problem of readers’ expectations of satire. More than a few times, usually in response to whatever valid literary controversy has come up, I’ve scrolled by tweets outlining “rules for satire”: it must be clear; the subject of derision must be easily recognized as such; sides must be easily delineated and conveyed. In other words: There must be no nuance.

While I’m sure the authors of these tweets are responding to legit problems of ignorance masquerading as satire, their expectations of satire are diluted and simplistic. What they want is a punchline, not satire.

If a problem is worth satirizing, it will not be two-sided, because the world is not two-sided. There will not be an identifiable bad guy with a Hitler mustache. The hero might be confusing. Modern liberal sensibilities will be attacked because they have not solved anything. The story will convey tangly problems with tangly roots and branches, it will feel uncomfortable, and it will take a while to conceptualize the purpose of the novel because it is just so antithetical to the way we’ve been conditioned to think.

That’s good satire.

(Sometimes I wonder if the American two-party political system is to blame for this intolerance of complexity, and if this is why Americans seem more uncomfortable than other readers when it comes to complex narratives of thought. It’s so hard for us to recognize more than two sides. It’s like our political compass is severed because we were raised on a mythical spectrum.)

(Or is this just a problem everywhere and I’m just projecting it on the culture in which I was raised?)

The Sellout is a difficult book. It is nihilistic and harsh. The hero violates a lot of norms of acceptable western progressivism, and Beatty employs the starkest of racist archetypes. It will provoke a good amount of White cringe. But none of this is simply for shock value: Beatty imbues it all with life, psychology, and etiology. It is, using the protagonist’s own term (and I think Beatty would approve), Unmitigated Blackness:

Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck… Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living. (277)

It is humorous, brilliantly humorous, but it’s humor to take seriously. I highly, highly recommend this novel. It will be at the top of my list of best reads this year.

 

Alias Grace (1996, McClelland & Stewart) by Margaret Atwood

So glad I finally read this! A fictional exploration of 19th century true crime, Atwood depicts infamous accused murderess Grace Marks, a house servant who, alongside a male servant, was convicted of being complicit in the killing her master and his pet housekeeper. Engrossing, ambiguous, and unexpectedly eerie, this is a novel that, once it got going, creeped me out but I still couldn’t put it down. At the same time, the tale is powered by Atwood’s brand of feminism, conviction, and purpose.

I am constantly amazed by how, with each book, Atwood reinvents herself as a writer. Most writers have signature quirks–delightful quirks!–(actually, it seems most writers have no quirks, not daring to stray from “acceptable style”), but I can’t pin down Atwood at all. Even her sense of humor never takes the same form, swaying from absurdism to deadpan to punchlines to gags to, in Alias Grace, solemnity. While A Handmaid’s Tale is her most famous work, readers are sorely missing out if they stop there.

The Rift (2017, Titan) by Nina Allan

I consider Nina a friend now, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to review her books anymore, but I did just read her latest. I will say, for those of you who might have been intimidated by the way some of us have talked about The Race or The Harlequin, The Rift will feel more stable.

One funny thing I’d like to mention is the inclusion of an excerpt of a fictional fictionalization of a true crime narrative based on the The Rift‘s central plot, written by a journalist-turned-novelist. The piece is so un-Allan-like in its style, a bit overwritten and clunky, while still completely convincing as a legitimately published work, I couldn’t help but laugh. If you want to be a writer, or are a writer, and you’re curious about what a reader like me trips over, seeing these two styles juxtaposed might interest you.

 

Film I Saw

At one point this summer, while I was muddling through a very basic Spanish interaction, my husband interrupted and asked, “What’s wrong with you? What happened to your Spanish?” And I don’t really know. We speak it every day, but it’s his native language, and I’m just reliant on a rotation of the same household talk. I think maybe I’ve hit a plateau where I’m trying to formulate more complex sentences that I’m used to hearing, but not so good at recalling. And, like any ugly American with privilege, I’ve gotten lazy, knowing I can just sink back into my ways and expect other people to cater to me. It’s ridiculous.

Time to break out the Netflix again. No English subtitles. ¿Vale?

 

Eva (2011, Spain)

“¿Qué ves cuando cierras tus ojos?”

“What do you see when you close your eyes?” is the failsafe phrase to not only shut down a robot, but to kill its emotional soul. When genius emotional programmer Alex is recruited by his old university to help establish the socio-emotional programming of the first legal “robot libre”, he is determined to seek out a fun child to model his emotional mapping. His ideal model turns out to be his niece, Eva, the daughter of Lana and David, his former lover and estranged brother, who are also both robot engineers.

So, naturally, there’s a secret about Eva, and, naturally, the romantic triangle will play out. Eva is adorable, and robot Max and Alex’s robot cat steal every scene they’re in, but that’s not difficult next to their wooden adult human counterparts. The equating of emotional grids to souls could have been interesting, but never went far. It was cute, but simplistic, and probably nothing I would want to read in a novel.

Thanks to twitter, I’m often aware of the latest bonafide dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s treatment of women characters, and I guess I get nit-picky with the novels I read because, man, I was floored by how easily Lana was killed off just to add drama, resolve the love triangle, and give the boys some emotional growth. Although I think American cinema is worse, I’ve never been that impressed by the representation of women in Spanish and Mexican cinema, but, for a movie about near-future cybernetics, this movie was quite old-fashioned.

 

Books to be Read

 

Woman on the Edge of Time (1985) by Marge Piercy

I abandoned this when the Sharke began, as it was starting to get tiresome, but I think it’s time I put it to rest on the Goodreads timeline. I could use some momentum at this point, so maybe starting again in the middle will help.

2084: The Anthology (2017, Unsung Stories)

Wonderful George at Unsung Stories, who always seems to know what I like, sent me this. The roster is fantastic: Priest, Charnock, Tidhar, Hutchinson, Whiteley, Smythe, Langmead, and a bunch of writers I’ve heard of, been promised I would love, and have never gotten round to them. Short stories have never been my thing, but I’m kind of excited for this.

 

Harvey

Thank you for your well wishes during the past week, but I think a lot of you already know I am safely on the El Paso side of the state. It’s a big state. My sis, however, is a bonafide survivor of the storm. Fortunately, she lives a few floors up, but I think the couple of nights of incessant tornado warnings and fire alarms going off was the most harrowing part for her (and us). I do love Houston and Galveston, but I’m very grateful for my desert steppe right now.

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15 thoughts on “Summer 2017 Reading Review

  1. iansales says:

    Alias Grace is easily Atwood’s bext novel.

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  2. I love Alias Grace as it works some of Atwood’s more irritating ticks (constantly referring back to the fabric of the story itself) into a suitable melange of form and content (the protagonist’s weaving etc). Glad you liked it!

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  3. “It’s so hard for us to recognize more than two sides. It’s like our political compass is severed because we were raised on a mythical spectrum.”

    Really liked how you put that. Never considered that as a potential reason for the utter lack of nuance in a lot of Americans (I think I lazily tend to think it has a lot to do with how we teach history, for one, but that is closely tied to exactly this point, isn’t it? Interesting). When I consider the Germans I know—coming from their multi party system—I have noticed a tendency for a hell of a lot more nuance in general thought and discussion. But I don’t think that can count as evidence because that is also just the sort of person I tend to gravitate towards. You’ve certainly woken my interest in this book (The Sellout) and very happily so as I hadn’t heard a thing about it otherwise.

    Curious, which Nina Allan book might you recommend for me, personally, to begin with of all her stuff? I have basically all of her stuff on my tbr sooner-than-later-mother-fucker list, but haven’t identified the perfect starting point…

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    • The Race for you, my friend. It’s too bewildering to pass up (Then The Rift will feel like a satisfying “a-ha” moment.)

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    • And yeah, I’ve witnessed more nuanced political conversations with people from Mexico (not this particular area I’m in because the border is too culturally permeable to feel very different from the US) and Spain.

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      • Then The Race it shall be. Also, totally coincidentally, I happened upon an old comment from you were you mention having not yet read any Atwood. That has developed satisfyingly, hasn’t it? I need to read more of her “lit” works. The whole Oryx and Crake trilogy didn’t do much for me, and kind of turned me off of her work for a minute.

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        • How funny about that comment. Now I feel like I’ve never not read her. Oryx and Crake might actually be my favorite bc it’s so dark and weird, but I don’t think I would have liked it a few years ago even. It’s an odd, unsettling book.

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          • I think the reason I ended up not enjoying Oryx and Crake was genre context/overdose. In that context it felt derivative and not particularly unique. Perhaps it had higher literary merit? I can’t remember, just the ever present feeling of Yes I Have Read This Before 6,432 times.

            (Stopped by to remind myself which of Nina’s books you had recommended starting with as was thinking of placing an order soonish, in case you’re wondering how the hell today ended up being the day I show up and answer this comment)

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