This Week, I Read… (#35)

82 - A Wrinkle in Time

#82 – A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

I have always, always loved this book. It’s one of the many I had copies of as a kid that got given away, sold at a garage sale, or donated to the library when I whittled down my book collection pre-college; recently I came to regret that decision, so the Time Quintet box set made it onto my Christmas wishlist, and Santa (that is to say, my mother) was kind.

Coming back to it as an adult, I was pleasantly surprised how well it held up for me. I still see the same themes I identified with as a pre-teen when I first read it–the importance of individuality and love of family–but now, I’m even more struck by the accuracy of Meg’s portrayal as an angry, uncertain young woman, echoing the feelings most of us experience when we’re going through our growing pains. The contrast to Charles Wallace’s precociousness and almost preternatural (though ultimately overconfident) maturity is sharp and  shocking, as is Meg’s painful realization that her father isn’t perfect, that he can’t solve everything for her. That moment is a loss of innocence of a type I’ve rarely seen in any book, let alone a work for children.

Also, I’m reminded of why Calvin O’Keefe was my first book boyfriend–he embodies the feeling of finally finding the place where you belong, and the people worthy of belonging to. Who doesn’t want that? As a kid, I only read the first three of the Time Quintet (I actually didn’t know there were more!) and now, thanks to Goodreads, I’ve discovered there are O’Keefe family books as well, so when I continue reading the series, I’m going to do my best to get my hands on those, as well. I need more Calvin in my life, thank you very much.

83 - A Long Way Gone.JPG

#83 – A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah

I hadn’t chosen a political memoir to read ahead of time, and when I looked at Goodreads for recommendations, most of the books mentioned where by currently prominent figures in American politics. With all the hubbub around the election this year, I simply couldn’t face exposing myself voluntarily to more of my own country’s political turmoil, so I opted for a war in a different country altogether.

I have vague memories of seeing Ishmael Beah on The Daily Show and thinking the book sounded interesting–this was in 2007, so vague is all I had to go on, but this was one of the few books in the forum thread that caught my eye, and my library had it, so I picked it up.

I want to make it clear my judgment of the book is not a reflection of the author or any of his struggles: I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the truthfulness of his account, but that’s not what concerns me about this book.

Honestly, it was unevenly written, poorly paced, focused on insignificant details at odd times, and on occasion, downright boring.

Have I read too much dystopian fiction, am I jaded or even immune to the horrors of war? I hope not, but even the most lurid descriptions of the atrocities Beah witnessed or committed didn’t move me much–he repeatedly mentions the systemic drug use he and his fellow soldiers engaged in, and he describes those events under a sort of written equivalent of that drugged haze, where it was easy for me as the reader to distance myself from the page.

Even though it’s not a work of fiction, the job of the writing is still to keep my attention focused and the narrative moving (whether it’s true or not.) I plowed my way through to the end in a spirit of determination, not honest interest, and the ending of the book leaves off in a terribly odd spot, a low point with no internal resolution. It takes the meta-knowledge from the author’s biography (he’s adopted and comes to the States to finish high school) to resolve the tale.

84 - Shanghai Girls

#84 – Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See

  • Read: 8/20/16 – 8/23/16
  • Provenance: Owned (hardcover)
  • Challenge: PopSugar Reading Challenge 2016; also #readwomensummer
  • Task: A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I thought I’d be getting a slice-of-life/culture story set in 1930’s Shanghai, which certainly qualifies for the task for me. And that is where the story starts.

What I did not realize was that the narrator and her sister end up in America, so what I got for most of the book was another chapter in the history of incredible racism of the United States.

It’s not that I didn’t know immigrants were subject to unfair practices, like inability to find work or housing outside of their community. And pretty much every immigrant group since the beginning has undergone institutionalized racism at some point, in some place.

But that pervasive racism is built into every fiber of this story, to the point where reading it made me uncomfortable. Alienation is the theme: the whole family from China, which they left behind, and America, which doesn’t accept them; husband from wife, son from father, brother from brother; and finally, sister from sister and daughter from mother, as terrible truths come to light in the end.

I was not aware until after reading that there is a sequel, so I wasn’t prepared for the relative lack of resolution at the end–but I don’t think I’ll be reading Dreams of Joy and finding out how it all turns out. There were moments of true beauty in Shanghai Girls, but they were strung out between endless exposition about what clothing the women were wearing and which newspapers they were reading and what streets they walked down in Shanghai or in Hollywood. I realize part of the appeal of good historical fiction is the accuracy of the details, but despite the relatively trim size of the novel (not even 400 pages, which is short compared to a lot of other hist-fic I’ve read,) it still felt bloated to me. Maybe not enough story happened for the length because the full tale is told over two books? I wanted it to be more tightly crafted than it was.

85 - Of Love and Other Demons

#85 – Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

I do not get this book. I’m totally down for the idea of magical realism, and I’ve read a few other works that fall under that umbrella, so I was looking forward to reading something by one of the genre’s most prominent authors.

But I don’t get it. The language is beautiful (props to the translator, Edith Grossman) and there are moments of profound emotion–but where’s the plot? It’s so thin it can’t even sustain a mere 147 pages. Where is the depth of character? There are so many of them, and each is introduced with a few paragraphs of some hyperbolic backstory that is either eloquent, ridiculous, or in one memorable case, grossly sexual. But there’s little dialogue between any of them to develop their characters further, and the actions most of the characters take seem random and flailing. Okay, sure, the girl is either rabid or possessed, depending on the timeline and who’s speaking about her, so her actions don’t have to follow any logic or motivation–but what excuse does everyone else have?

I understand what the theme, the take-home message, is supposed to be, (solitude, and love-as-madness) but everything about the book is trying to distance me from engaging with the characters, so why do I care? And how am I supposed to care about the relationship between a priest-librarian-exorcist in his mid-thirties, and a twelve-year-old girl? I honestly didn’t realize going into this I was signing on for something with strong overtones of pedophilia, and maybe I should be even more unsettled than I am by it–but again, I couldn’t engage at all with the characters, so I guess I don’t care as much as I should about poor little not-rabid Sierva Maria.


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