Monday, May 17, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n9 -- joseph anton by salman rushdie


Spurred in part by my enduring curiosity about the man, but maybe mostly because the title was available in audio from my library, I jumped again into the ocean of Salman Rushdie. 

I guess the water was ok, because I've since secured copies of "Midnight's Children" and "The Satanic Versus" and they're on my summer reading list.

Anyway, Salman Rushie... 

I watched the news a lot as a teenager. Partly because it's what was on TV in the late afternoon after school, but mostly--I like to think--because I really enjoyed it. I remember when I came to the realization that national news was interesting and local news seemed contrived and gimmicky, and stopped watching the local news. (It's been years since I've been able to stomach either, so, you know, different layers of contrivance, I guess.)

Anyway, I remember hearing a lot about Salman Rushdie and "The Satanic Versus" when watching the news in high school. The book (which, for those of you don't know, is just a novel) was published in late 1988. In mid-1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's "Supreme Leader" (a title that suggests a deep lack of appreciation for irony; I can't even say it without using air quotes) issued a fatwa (as I understand it, a sort of religious legal edict) for Rushdie to be killed. Ostensively, he was put off by passages which he believed to demean The Prophet. More probably, he was looking for something to rally the masses and help consolidate power after experiencing some embarrassing political setbacks. The threat on Rushdie's life was considered viable and serious by the government of the UK (Rushdie was a British citizen), and Rushdie was then assigned protective detail and essentially went into hiding. For nine years.

"Joseph Anton" is the name Rushdie chose for himself while in hiding. It is also the name he gave to the memoir that he wrote about his life, with most of the emphasis put on the period of his life in hiding.

There is so much here. So much to think about. So much to talk about. So much to have opinions about. But these are supposed to be tiny book reviews...

So, I'm going to offer just one line of thought, something I posted on Facebook a couple weeks ago:

I've been reading Salman Rushdie's memoir "Joseph Anton" and it's left me with two related feelings of near panic-inducing anxiety:
(1) Holy. Cow. That man's career has been so incredibly prolific, both in the sheer volume of production of meaningful fiction and non-fiction AND in the tremendously admirable political work that he's taken on over the decades under the most excruciating of circumstances that I'm left exhausted by awe. While surely our talents are not comparable, I'm left feeling a deep pit of guilt for all I have NOT accomplished with my comparably paltry ones.
(2) Reading Rushdie's fiction is difficult for this white-bread American boy as I don't have anything approaching the cultural knowledge to understand, for instance, references to Indian or Islamic history and culture (at, frankly, any level of subtly or nuance). I mean, I don't know what it means to be Indian, and I certainly don't know what it means to be an Islamic Indian. I don't know what that means in the context of Islamic Pakistan and the conflict over Kashmir. Other than some facts and figures and basic geographic and economic information, I don't really know ANYTHING about that world...and that is a very. big. world.
(I know so little that it feels a bit stupid to try to catalog the extent of my ignorance.)
Relatedly, a year or so ago I read "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which is by all accounts one of Latin America's greatest pieces of 20th century art, and most of the time was just completely lost. Again, knowing nothing more than the most trivial details of Columbian history and culture, every meaningful analogy, parable, or allegory was just shooting right past me.
What bothers me about all this is knowing--having it made so plainly and painfully manifest--that there exists this whole wide, deep, textured world of culture, history, and politics that I am so completely divorced from that I can't even read a popular work of literature and have any idea of what it all should mean.
(When it comes right down to it, I've lived in south-central PA for about 15 years and I _still_ feel like I'm a stranger in a strange land.)
So, I know that I could never _really_ know what it is to be Kashmirian or Columbian or really any other -ian. Worlds upon worlds exist in all their textured beauty all around me and I simply cannot know or relate or understand. And I might try all the rest of my life and I still wouldn't _really_ be able to scratch the surface of knowing.
Sometimes, this realization fills me with terrifying bouts of anxiety.
Like, I can feel it right now. A knot. Right there. In the pit of my stomach.
In elementary school, I bought a poster with a picture of a sloth hanging from a tree branch and one of those sort of parody motivational quotes:
"Thinking of all I didn't do yesterday, haven't done today, and won't do tomorrow...completely exhausts me."
At the time I thought it was funny and clever. Now, like prophecy, the passage haunts me.

I'm very glad to have read this book. In a sentence, I believe it has helped me become a better global citizen. In a second sentence, the book has left me with more questions than answers--more realizations of things I don't know than confidence in what I do know. By both counts--or by having achieving these ends--the book is a good book.

4 of 5 stars.

Monday, April 26, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n8 -- the vanishing half by brit bennett

 


Of the New York Times list of five best works of fiction in 2020, this is the third I've reviewed. 

It's a popular book; it took some time for it to become available at my library.

I liked this book. It's sort of about being the thing you choose to be rather than the thing everyone around you would have you be, and about the hard consequences of those choices. But it is this on a profoundly deep level, centered around those elements of identity that are probably the most core--race, gender, sexuality, daughter, sister--and around which we experience the heaviest cultural inertia. It's about passing.

I liked the premise. I liked the characters. I liked how the story developed. 

I'm not sure I liked how the book ended. 

There seemed to be more in the story than what we got. Or there could have been more. I guess I felt, from the beginning, that I was going to be led through a John Irving-type saga of a narrative, only to have the back 3/4 of the story condensed into a few dozen pages. Like good food at a good restaurant that, in the end, doesn't really really fill you up. Characters that I wanted to know more about, that I wanted to see go on adventures to make their mark on the world (or have the world leave their mark on them), just sort of...didn't do that.

Tasty. Meaningful. Unsatisfying (which is to say, in my opinion, bordering on incomplete).

4 of 5 stars.

tiny book reviews.2021.n7 -- a spool of blue thread by anne tyler

 

Valerie's been trying to get me to read Anne Tyler for ages. I'm not sure why I haven't.

I needed something to read. I asked Valerie for an Anne Tyler book. This is what she gave me.

I don't really know what this book is about--a house, a family, a woman, a man, a child, ambition, class, migration, belonging... It's sort of about all of those things and not really any of those things. I'm not sure it's really about anything. But it's a lovely story. Anne Tyler--if this one book is anything to go by--is a stupendous storyteller. 

It's a light book. It's fun. There are laugh-out-loud moments. 

And, I guess, there are bits that one might consider moments of profundity--about the inevitable indignity of growing old, I think. About life cycles. But this is a light book. Which is to say not heavy. Tyler lays her profundity down like goose feathers rather than a lead blanket.

4 of 5 stars.

Monday, April 5, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n6 -- undaunted by john brennan


If you don't know, John Brennan was CIA Director during Obama's second term. He also worked in the White House during Obama's first term as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security. All of that after a full 25-year career with the CIA. 

This tiny book review comes in the form of four brief takeaways.

(1) The CIA is interesting, and reading about the experiences of a career CIA man was interesting. John Brennan's career in particular is interesting, but I imagine the memoir of any "company man" (or woman) would be similarly interesting.

(2) I enjoyed the insights Brennan's memoir provided regarding a host of geopolitical conflicts. He certainly prioritizes contemporary issues over historical ones, but, as it is a memoir, his career provides some historical context. Terrorism. Russia. Cyber security. China. North Korea. Middle East conflicts of many flavors. 

I love this stuff. More than once in reading the memoir I felt the familiar pangs of regret that I did not pursue a career with the State Department or similar.

(3) The country simply did not know how good it had it with President Barak Obama. The more I learn of Obama's presidency, the more I'm struck by the sense that he is, in every way, exactly the sort of person we should want as the country's chief executive. Smart. Thoughtful. Hard-working. Kind. Even ("no drama Obama"). Moral. Empathetic.

It's absolutely fine to hold differences of opinion regarding policy priorities and a vision for the country, but the personal attacks and questioning of his intentions during and after his presidency is just so dumb. He is a better person and was a better president than our country deserves.

(4) On the other hand, it might not be possible to find a person less qualified for the position than his successor, Donald Trump. I'm not sure there's much point to writing more. I guess I'll just say that Brennan's interactions with Trump once again highlight how pathetically ill-prepared and ill-suited he and his circle were for the presidency. 

I'm so glad that chapter has closed.

4 of 5 stars.

Friday, March 26, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n5 -- less by andrew sean greer

I think I've been awed by every Pulitzer Prize winning book I've ever read. Except this one.

There are books that at first don't impress, books that you kind of have to trudge through, do the work, put in the investment, only for everything to unfold wonderfully toward the end, making every page worth it. This is one such book, only the payoff wasn't quite worth the effort.

That's not to say that this was a hard book to read, because it wasn't. It went down easy, like a Fresca. But, also like a Fresca, I just didn't finish it feeling like there was much nourishment there, just a fleeting, momentary reprieve from thirst--it was good, I wanted more, but there was no more to be had. 

It just seemed sort of...empty. 

3 of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n4 -- uncanny valley by anna wiener


 In the spring of 2001, I was finishing a two-year, full-time MBA at the University of Utah, interviewing for jobs, and applying to doctoral programs--which is to say that I was managing my chronic indecision regarding big, life-defining decisions by attempting to keep as many doors open as possible for as long as possible. Analysis paralysis masked with the respectability of productivity.

I never really liked choose-your-own-adventure books. I'd build up too much anxiety over the choices not made, running out of fingers attempting to follow all of the paths forward. It felt a bit like that.

One of the jobs I was interviewing for was with Accenture. They were hiring for their offices in San Francisco (mostly private-sector clients and lots of travel) and Sacramento (mostly public-sector clients and less travel). Eventually, I was offered a job in the Sacramento office. I also, eventually, turned it down, taking, it seemed to me at the time, the more noble road by delaying employment and continuing with school.

Since then (and it only now occurs to me that I'm writing this almost exactly 20 years later), I've often entertained flights of fancy imagining an alternative universe where I take that job.

Uncanny Valley is fuel to those flights.

The Silicon Valley that Anna Wiener writes about is half a generation removed from what I might have found, had I moved to California, completed a stint at Accenture, and then (as seems probable) moved on to some tech-oriented company in northern California...somewhere. So I looked for myself in her story, a decade, or a decade and a half into my career. Well, I looked not so much for myself as for the alternate universe self had I made a different decision in 2001. 

So, who would have I been? 

I imagine myself as one of those anonymous mid-career tech guys with a resume of diverse experience (all good jobs, but nothing amazing) that is hired by startup firms in a hire-anyone-that-breathes mode, and given a mid-management supervisory role with the assumption that my age and the diversity of my experience qualify me for that role. Once hired, I would maneuver and jockey for options and buyout deals that, should our company win the IPO or acquisition lottery, I'd make out well enough to retire away from "real" work or (more likely) survive long enough to get another, similar job with another, similar company.

But who would I be

Would I be kind? Would I ride bikes? Would I have embraced the sometimes ugly, hyper-masculine, bro-ethic culture of tech? Would I believe in the products of the companies I worked for? Would I believe in the companies? Would I feel like the tech innovations I worked on inched the world toward something more just and egalitarian? Or would I wallow in self-loathing and contempt for being part of a machine that existed only for itself--growing, innovating, multiplying, and perpetuating itself for no other reason than the creation of (or the illusion of the creation of) wealth? Would I care about such things?

Well, that's where Uncanny Valley took me.

Also, a lot of thinking about how much the house my parents bought in Palo Alto around 1967 would be worth now had they kept it. Or, if they hadn't been scared off by the cosmopolitan pulse of progress and retreated to Colorado a year later as they did. 

The decisions around which lives pivot... 

As I said, I never really liked choose-your-own-adventure books. Too much anxiety.

3.5 of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n3 -- deacon king kong by james mcbride

Review: 'Deacon King Kong,' By James McBride : NPR

The second work of fiction on the NYTimes list of 2020's top ten that I took on, Deacon King Kong was a delightfully fun read.

It wasn't what I thought it would be. It wasn't what I thought it would be a chapter in, and it wasn't what I thought it would be halfway through. It just sort of got more and more fun the further I read. 

And now I find myself thinking of what more to say about the book and I'm just not sure... Partly because I wouldn't want to give it away--I think the book will be all the more fun a read for someone who doesn't have any idea what's coming. Partly because the deeper stuff, the sort of deep stuff that any meaningful work of fiction has to offer about some shady corner of the human experience, is transmitted in the best way fiction can do it, accidentally--that is to say that the book covers some fairly heavy territory, but you maybe don't realize you've been there until you stop to reflect. There's no bashing us over the head with thick morality tales or long-winded speeches in this one. So, if I were to go on now, giving label and definition to that deeper stuff, it seems I'd be doing the fine art of the story a disservice. 

Anyway, if you like fiction, and you like fun, give this one a read. Strongly recommend.

4.5 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

tiny book reviews (2021): two years eight months and twenty-eight nights, by salman rushdie

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Rushdie novel).png

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's just so good that you don't really want to pick it up again because you know the more you read the less of it you'll have. 

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's just good enough that you can't wait to get done doing whatever you're doing that's keeping you from the book so you can get back to it.

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's interesting enough, but maybe not quite the right thing for right now so you pick something else up instead. You know you'll finish it, just not right now.

And sometimes you're in the middle of the book and you hate it. And you hate that you hate it, but you still hate it. And you're fully committed to finishing the book, because that's who you are--you're a person who finishes books--but holy. cow. this. book. is. just. so. bad.

For me, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was that book. 

...

Honestly, I'm sure Salman Rushdie has written good stuff. He's a super well-respected author. One doesn't just _become_ that for nothing. But this particular book, for this particular reader, had nothing.

I read this book because Rushdie got a lot of mentions in Homeland Elegies. And I've never read any Rushdie. And I'm old enough to remember the controversy over The Satanic Verses (though I didn't really know any more about it or him than that). So I figured I'd read some Rushdie.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was what was available at my library. 

It's fantasy, I guess. Maybe you'd call it magical realism. Or someone might. A bit more magical than real, I think.

I got the sense that it was a parable of sorts. Or a retelling of some real history through myth. I think that's the point of magical realism. I didn't much care for One Hundred Years of Solitude because I didn't understand enough real Columbian social history to get it. I felt the same way reading this, except I didn't even know what continent I was on. 

And so I finished thinking that the book wasn't really written for me. It might be a great book...for a different reader. 

Then again, it may just be a crappy book.

It'll be a while before I can give Rushdie another try, but I will (probably with Midnight's Children). 

I feel like there's something here I need to know, like a dirt road you see meandering up that one particular draw--you trust there must be something up there and it's probably pretty awesome, but for whatever reason you've just never gone. 

Though, that might be the wrong metaphor--it might be that there's a whole other forest that I know next to nothing about, and that I've got to learn quite a bit more about that particular ecosystem before I can come to appreciate Rushdie trees.

I don't know. But I'll find out.

1 of 5 stars.

tiny book reviews (2021): homeland elegies, by ayad akhtar

With 'Homeland Elegies,' Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar cements himself as one  of America's most vital writers | The Seattle Times

At the end of last year, The New York Times published a list of its ten best books of 2020--five non-fiction and five fiction. This was the first of the ten I picked up. 

(Also, I may have actually finished it in 2020, but library records show that it wasn't returned until Jan 2, so I'm counting it for 2021.)

I really enjoyed this book. 

I'm not sure how much more I want to say about it than that. Still, I'll try.

It's a novel, but written as a memoir. I don't know enough about Akhtar to distinguish between what is autobiographical and what is not. I'm not sure that matters. What matters is that it reads true, as a memoir, so that you believe that you are reading stories about real people and true events. 

It's also about the relationships between fathers and sons. It's about politics. And it's about "making it."

It's also about what I would call a uniquely American life, in that the author is almost definitionally American, yet so much of the book is a narrative of the struggle of figuring out what that means, for him, as his identity bumps into his parents', who are immigrants, and his people, to the extent that his genealogy and national background define what "his people" means, and others' notions of an American is or should be.

Anyway, I loved it. And recommend it strongly. 

5 out of 5 stars.