Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book 294: The Buried Giant



"She began to make her way towards the cairn, and something about the way she did so, her shoulders hunched against the wind, caused a fragment of recollection to stir on the edges of Axl's mind. The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness. She had talked of a long night spent alone, tormented by his absence, but could it be he too had known such a night, or several, of similar anguish? Then, as Beatrice stopped before the cairn and bowed her head to the stones as if in apology, he felt both memory and anger growing firmer, and a fear made him turn away from her."

Dates read: February 5-10, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was in middle school, I was on the swim team. I wasn't very fast, but I enjoyed being on the team and going to meets. So when I went to high school, I joined the team at that level. It was a whole different game: our local pool was closed for renovations most of the year, so getting to practices (an hour before school and two hours after) took a long time and I was perfectly miserable. I told my mom I wanted to quit. She insisted that I stay on the team, and I swore that if she didn't let me drop it, I would never seriously swim again. She thought I was bluffing. I wasn't. That was over 20 years ago and I haven't swum a lap since.

I don't especially regret this, I do still work out regularly and the way that chlorine dried out my hair and skin is something I don't miss at all. But more than a disinclination to swim for exercise, what keeps me away from the pool is remembering how angry I was when I had to keep swimming for months after I no longer wanted to. In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, remembering is a struggle for the residents of an immediately post-Arthurian era Britain. Axl and Beatrice are an older couple, Britons, who have been relegated to a restricted existence in the warren-like community they live in, but they don't know quite why. They're sure that they would get better treatment with their son, who lives in a neighboring community, so they take the highly unusual step of leaving to go to him.

Their journey takes an unexpected turn almost immediately. At their first stop, a Saxon village where Beatrice often goes to trade, there's a commotion. A young man named Edwin has been abducted by ogres, and though he's rescued by traveling warrior Wistan, the villagers are suspicious of a bite he's sustained during his captivity. Wistan and Edwin flee, taking Axl and Beatrice with them. They encounter, among others, an elderly Sir Gawain. Both of the fighting men claim to be on a quest to kill the dragon Querig, whose breath turns out to be the reason for the mist of forgetfulness that lays over the land...which could have surprisingly significant consequences if it were to go away.

Ishiguro loves a slow-paced, dreamy sort of narrative that reveals its secrets slowly, but there's an unfocused quality to this book that undermines the effectiveness of that approach. The story threads: Axl and Beatrice's marriage and journey towards their son, the Arthurian past, the simmering tensions between the Britons and the Saxons, and a quest to slay a literal dragon...they're not interwoven as tightly and neatly as they need to be to make the whole thing work. The characters have the level of complexity typical of myth and legend, which is to say that they're all quite shallow, more symbolic than realistic. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in them, despite the fact that Axl and Beatrice's love seems like it should be what roots the story in genuine feeling.

Although the story itself doesn't quite come off, Ishiguro does do solid work on hitting deep themes. The power of remembering (or alternately, of forgetting) on human relationships, both on the personal level, as between Axl and Beatrice, or the group level, as between the Saxons and Britons, is powerfully rendered. The prose is lovely and elegant. I get what Ishiguro was going for here, but the reality is that it just didn't really work. The idea of a fantasy-set novel from an author I love for his ability to evoke strong emotions turned out better than the actual execution. Unless you're really just determined to read everything Ishiguro has written, or you're really looking for a book that's all theme and not much else, I'd skip this one. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: Cat's Eye
 
Two years ago, I was reading: How To Be Good

Three years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress
 
Four years ago, I was reading: Me Talk Pretty One Day
 
Five years ago, I was reading: The White Queen

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Shortest Books I've Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is technically books we've read in one sitting, but I don't tend to read that way...I pick up books and put them down pretty frequently throughout the day. So I'm focusing instead on short books that really grabbed my attention, even if they took me more than one sitting to finish. 


Civilization and Its Discontents: Breaking the rules here almost immediately, as this isn't really a "one-sitting" kind of book despite being very short. If you've heard of Freud and have an opinion on his theories but have never actually read his work, this is a totally fascinating exploration of the tension between society and the individual.

Men Explain Things to Me: The concept behind the title essay in this collection has become widely recognizable as "mansplaining", but that doesn't mean the essay itself isn't worth reading, along with the others that touch on various aspects of the experience of being a woman in the world.

Number the Stars: A childhood favorite, I recently revisited this story about a Danish girl and the Jewish friend whose family her family helps to escape on audio and honestly I think it holds up.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: The "life-changing teacher" is a stock character in media, but this book explores a much darker side of a charismatic educator influencing young minds. 

Lord of the Flies: A lot of people have hated this since they read it in school and had to analyze the obvious symbolism, and while there is certainly room to disagree with its premise, I found it a really interesting examination of the evolution of power dynamics. 

The Sense of an Ending: The story in this novel is the kind that some authors would have indulged themselves padding out to 350 pages, but the sparseness really makes it work.

A Clockwork Orange: Deliberately meant to be hard to get into because of the use of words from its own invented language but once you do get into it, it's great!

Exit West: This one I did come very close to reading in one sitting. The story of immigrants Nadia and Saeed just flew by.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: I love the movie, it's wonderful. The original novella is different...darker, and sadder, and just an incredible piece of writing.

The Awakening: This is one that has hung with me since high school...short, but elegant and powerful.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Book 293: The Mind's Eye

 

"Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms -it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well as to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion.The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections—a network particular, it seems, to the human brain."

Dates read: February 1-5, 2019

Rating: 6/10

I was one of those rare kids that needed neither glasses nor braces. I have plenty of issues on the tooth front (so many crowns!), but they grew in straight. And while my vision has declined some over the years, I still can see when I wake up in the morning without having to do anything besides open my eyes. If I'm anything like my dad, I'll probably eventually need reading glasses, but I'm not there yet. It's not until I spend time with people who do need glasses/contacts do I think about being fortunate that I don't have to rely on something else to be able to be able to comprehend my visual environment.

But of course, not being able to see isn't the only thing that can go wrong with the process of vision. Getting input is just one part of it. Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye takes his usual case study format and applies it specifically to disorders of visual processing...some of which deal with the actual mechanical part of seeing, but others about the part where we transform that information into something that makes sense. There's a pianist who can no longer interpret the squiggles on a page of music as notes, but whose ability to memorize and play back what she's heard allows her to continue to enjoy and be successful in her field, a writer whose ability to read deteriorates even as he continues to be able to write, and people for whom faces remain untied to the ones they know and love.

What's a bit unusual for this series of case studies is how prominent Sacks himself is among them. Not as a doctor, which is his usual role, but as a subject. In discussing prosopagnosia (face blindness), he uses his own experiences to describe the condition and the challenges it can create. But where this self-insertion becomes somewhat problematic is in his description of stereo-blindness. This disorder is at first described using a patient who has had the condition for most of her life, but who learns to train herself to see with depth and her wonder and delight at the new world that opens up before her is enjoyable. But then he goes into an extended discussion of his own health crisis, with eye cancer, that led to a loss of his much-cherished stereo vision. It's self-pitying and grating in a way that's not typical of his work, even that which recounts personal struggles.

This book, despite being the kind of case study collection where he usually shines, is not Sacks' best. There's the issue I described above, and there's just a lack of coherence and breadth. Even when describing diseases that lead to significant neurological deficits, there's usually a sense of curiosity about what's wrong and cheerful surprise at the adaptations that people are able to make, that's infectious and engaging. While the book starts off that way, by the time it wanders into Sacks' experiences it gets heavy and clunky, and I found myself much less invested in it than I had been previously. If you're intrigued by the ways that perception can go wrong, or you (like me) are an incurable Sacks completist, there's some good stuff here. But if you're not otherwise interested, I don't think the good outweighs the bad significantly enough to recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man In The High Castle

Three years ago, I was reading: My Own Words

Four years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Five years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That are Questions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting books that ask a question right in their titles! I've picked exclusively from my to-be-read list, so here are ten books I am planning to read with questions-as-titles!

 

What Do We Need Men For?

Who is Maud Dixon?

What is a Girl Worth?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Who's That Girl?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

How Should a Person Be?

Who Killed These Girls?

But What If We're Wrong?

Why Not Me?

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Book 292: Hausfrau


 
"The five most frequently used German verbs are all irregular. Their conjugations don’t follow a pattern: To have. To have to. To want. To go. To be. Possession. Obligation. Yearning. Flight. Existence. Concepts all. And irregular. These verbs are the culmination of insufficiency. Life is loss. Frequent, usual loss. Loss doesn’t follow a pattern either. You survive it only by memorizing how."
 
Dates read: January 28- February 1, 2019
 
Rating: 5/10
 
I know this probably makes me sound like a raging egotist, but when two people in my vicinity are communicating in a language I don't understand, I find myself thinking that they're talking about me. I realize that they're almost certainly not. I'm not that interesting. But when you can't comprehend it, it's so easy to assume the worst. This is something I try to work on when I find myself thinking like this, because it's not fair to either me or other people.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum's Haufrau, American Anna Benz has been living in Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, for nearly a decade. He's a banker, so he brings in enough income that she doesn't need to work outside the home, and they have three adorable children, two sons and a baby daughter. But despite her long-time residence in Switzerland, Anna speaks only basic German and virtually none of the Swiss German dialect that most people around her use to talk to each other. She's finally decided to take lessons, and it's here she meets Archie, with whom she begins a torrid affair. And it's not the first time she's done something like this.

In fact, Anna seems hardly able to resist a man who wants to sleep with her, as we quickly find out that her daughter was not fathered by her husband. Unlike the joyless, compulsive sex she has with other men, her relationship with her daughter's father was one where she had genuine feelings for her lover. Over the course of the therapy sessions Anna engages in over the course of the book, she reflects back on her upbringing, her marriage, her motherhood, and the profound emptiness she seems to feel at her core. When Anna makes a mistake and the delicate balance she has made of her life seems about to topple, it's only a matter of time before she finds herself at a tragic precipice.

Obviously, an unfaithful wife is rich literary territory, and the name of her heroine is just the beginning of Essbaum's allusions to perhaps the most famous of fictional cheaters: Anna Karenina. Indeed, although the book is relatively short, I found myself frequently wondering what new territory exactly was trying to be explored here. There's so little that's subtle: the fragments of therapy sessions we get are right on the nose, as are the flashes we get of Anna's language classes. The conclusion seems inevitable within the first few pages, so it's not plot tension that drives the narrative forward. And Anna herself, though perhaps meant to be a reflection of the despair that could come from lifelong untreated depression (which seems most likely to be at the root of Anna's disconnect from her own feelings), is just unpleasant to spend time with.

That's not to say there isn't anything worthwhile here. Essbaum's prose is witty and clever, and enjoyable to read. And her choice to make Anna so profoundly flawed, particularly as a wife and mother, the roles which we put a tremendous amount of pressure on women to perform highly in, makes her an unusual heroine. Male characters are allowed to shirk their responsibilities to their partners and children and still be redeemable. It was challenging to think about how much of the antipathy I felt for Anna was wrapped up in the expectations I brought to the table about the kind of female character I root for or get invested in. But at the end of the day, even recognizing that bias, Anna's joylessness was just exhausting. This book got a lot of buzz when it came out, but fell very flat for me. I enjoyed it so little that I can't recommend it. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: The Residue Years
 
Two years ago, I was reading: Washington Black

Three years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower
 
Four years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
 
Five years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Book 291: Bad Blood

 

"A month or two after Jobs's death, some of Greg's colleagues in the engineering department began to notice that Elizabeth was borrowing behaviors and management techniques described in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple founder. They were all reading the book too and could pinpoint which chapter she was on based on which period of Jobs’s career she was impersonating. Elizabeth even gave the miniLab a Jobs-inspired code name: the 4S. It was a reference to the iPhone 4S, which Apple had coincidentally unveiled the day before Jobs passed away"

Dates read: January 24-28, 2019

Rating: 8/10

When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I applied to two colleges: Michigan and Stanford. I'd gone to a summer program at Stanford the summer after my sophomore year and fallen completely in love with it and wanted desperately to go there. And this was back under the old points system that the Supreme Court later tossed, so I was able to do the math for my likelihood to be admitted to Michigan and I knew I'd get in. I sent off my applications and got the small envelope from Stanford. I loved my time at Michigan and am so glad I went there, but a part of me always wonders what my life might have been like if it had worked out differently.

I'm hardly alone at having not gotten into Stanford, as they accept only about one in every twenty applicants. Not everyone who gets in stays there, though, and one dropout is more notorious than the rest: Elizabeth Holmes. At 19, she left the university to found her own company, Theranos, the rise and fall of which is chronicled in John Carreyrou's Bad Blood. Holmes' original idea was a patch that could administer medications directly to the bloodstream. When that proved untenable, though, she turned to blood testing. Terrified of needles, she came up with the idea of being able to run diagnostics using just a few drops from a finger stick instead of the giant scary needles in the arm. It promised to revolutionize the industry, making testing cheaper and easier. There was just one problem: it didn't work.

For a long time, though, she was able to convince people that it did. She raised billions in capital. She built a prestigious board of directors. She was courted by the CEOs of pharmacies and supermarkets, desperate for a chance to implement her technology. And if anyone seemed like they might get in her way or slow her down, she terrified them into silence with legal threats. Eventually, though, a leak sprung, and Carreyrou began to write about the company's struggles in The Wall Street Journal. Despite high-powered lawyers doing their best to separate him from his sources, he was eventually able to expose the massive house of cards that was all Theranos ever was. Holmes and her ex-boyfriend, Sunny Balwani (the company's COO), currently face federal criminal charges that could imprison them for years.

Corporate malfeasance can make for highly entertaining movies, but there's a reason most true crime writers shy away from white collar stuff in favor of murder: it's hard to render bad business practices as exciting on the page. But in Holmes and Balwani, Carreyrou has two striking personalities to work with and he makes the most of them. It might be easy to write Holmes off as a deluded posturer, but he shows how her vindictiveness towards those that might have been able to expose her is the behavior of someone who knows full well what she was doing. And Balwani's fiery temper, the fear he inspired, leap off the page. The writing does sometimes veer into the technical, but the outlines are fundamentally of a confidence scheme, and Carreyrou keeps the book engrossing by focusing on the way it plays out, the way Holmes so often seems trapped in a corner and manages to escape yet again.

Between Holmes, Anna Delvey, and Fyre Fest, scammers are having a moment in American culture. There's something revolting and yet fascinating about people who operate without any of the fear many of us seem to feel about deserving our place. Anyone inclined to feel sympathy for Holmes, to feel like she just got in over her head, will have a hard time maintaining that once they read the truly heartbreaking account of how a prominent scientist who tried to get things back at least adjacent to the track was preyed upon by both Holmes and Balwani. When he eventually committed suicide, the company's only response was to get his work laptop back. We live in a time when technology companies, and the people who run them, are effectuating enormous changes with very few probing questions asked. This book, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend, demonstrates why we should ask more.

One year ago, I was reading: The Borgias

Two years ago, I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Three years ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

Four years ago, I was reading: My Antonia

Five years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: June 2021


June saw a return to normalcy that was unexpected: not only did session end on May 31, meaning that my busy season is over, but masking protocols and social distancing mandates were largely dropped in Nevada, meaning that life feels awfully similar to the way it was before March of 2020. It's an odd feeling, being vaccinated and no longer having to feel significant concern that other people breathing on me could lead to severe illness and death! But a good one, I'd say.

In Books...

  • Tooth and Claw: This book answers a question one may not have been aware was ever asked, namely, "what if a Victorian novel, but dragons?". In Jo Walton's hands, it turns out the answer is "unexpectedly delightful"! I enjoyed the wide cast of characters Walton created, and the way she dealt with Victorian concerns over female purity by having lady dragons literally change color at sexual awakening. If you enjoy both fantasy novels and classic novels, this will be a treat!
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist: I adored Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel, Exit West, and this one was just as wonderful. It traces the story of a young Pakistani immigrant, Changez, and the way his relationship to America changes after his attendance at Princeton and acceptance of a fancy analyst job in the wake of both 9/11 and a romance with Erica, a beautiful, troubled classmate. It's told as a dialogue and is just incredibly rendered. 
  • Throne of Glass: When I first started book blogging, this book (and its sequels) were everywhere! I finally got around to seeing what all the hype was about, and while I found it entertaining enough to keep me turning the pages, it also definitely feels like the debut novel it is. I've heard the series gets better, though, so I'll likely pick up the second at some point. 
  • The Death of Vivek Oji: I really wanted to get into this book club pick about the life and untimely death of a young queer person in Nigeria, written by an author who is themself non-binary. But it didn't quite grab me...the central character is hypothetically compelling, but that's undercut by being virtually only seen through the eyes of others, and I never really connected with the viewpoint characters. 
  • Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch: This is a bit of an atypical historical fiction, being set not in a royal court but a small village in medieval Germany. It's based on real events, in which the mother of an imperial mathematician was accused of witchcraft. Katharina, the mother in question, is a funny, vivid character that makes this book compelling despite the underlying sadness of the narrative.
  • American War: Oh man this was bleak. It's the story of a child whose experiences during a second American Civil War (fought over an abolition of fossil fuels in the wake of climate change-driven sea rise) turn her into a revolutionary and it's a very realistic psychological portrait of the effects of war...which also means it is a huge downer.

 



In Life...

  • A little bit of relaxation: Now that session is over, I'm really enjoying having time to read again, and just generally having a less hectic schedule than I have recently. We're also been planning some travel for later this year, which definitely feels like another big step towards a return to normal.  
  • Fifth wedding anniversary: We're officially been married for half a decade (and together for close to a decade now) and I remain the luckiest lady in the world!

One Thing:

When you grow up on a lake that freezes over, your mom buys you and your sister pairs of used skates every year and tosses you outside to figure out how to ice skate/entertain yourselves for a while! But while I absolutely love watching figure skating, I'd never taken actual lessons until now! I've started Learn to Skate (at Basic 1, no need to get ahead of myself) and am having a lot of fun...I'd definitely recommend trying it out if you have a rink near you!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: