Sunday, December 4, 2016

CBR8 Reviews #7 and #8: Museum of Innocence and The White Castle by Orphan Pamuk

We've entered December, so we both know this means it's time to get all my reviews written before the end of CBR8! I've sat on the review of many -- some I've started and been unable to finish, some I just could never sit, gather my thoughts, and put it into words. You'd think that after participating in Cannonball Read since 2009 (Holy shit, I've been doing it for seven years!) I'd know how to *not* procrastinate on the reviews. Alas. So let's dive into it!

CBR8 Review #7: Museum of Innocence by Orphan Pamuk

In April, I spent a month in Istanbul, and that city was one of the most amazing places I've ever been. It was modern and historic, beautiful and creative, and that blend of Asian and European is something that can actually be seen. Put aside its physical beauty, and Istanbul is seriously one of the most interesting and fascinating places.

And during my last week there, I took myself to the Museum of Innocence, even though I've never read Orphan Pamuk's famed book of the same name. I thought I was going to be somewhat bored during my tour of the little corner house in the beautiful neighborhood of Cihangir, but I was just so entertained. All the glass displays in the museum portray a chapter in the book in terms of the items mentioned or the moment captured. So while I have never read the book, I could sort of figure out the narrative as I strolled through it. Pamuk's attempt -- with the museum -- was really to bottle what Istanbul was like during this period, through its knick-knacks and habits and events.

Little things from Turkish daily life.
 It was an experience unlike anything I've ever been to, and I left the museum feeling a sort of nostalgia for I don't even know what. It's like I didn't know I missed some *thing* until it plopped itself right in my life. So I knew that I had to read the book to get all my questions about the museum answered.

The plot itself is quite straightforward. It is a love story set in Istanbul in the 70s and 80s. Kemal, a wealthy businessman from a reputable family, falls in love with a distant relative of his, Fusun, who is from the poorer, oft-forgotten part of the family tree. Despite being engaged to a woman who is deemed suitable for his social and financial status -- and also being relatively content with his life -- Kemal embarks on a short-lived affair with Fusun.

The dress that Fusun wore on the day of her driving test.
I'm not sure how much I want to give away, because part of the intrigue of this book is on how you never quite know what the conclusion is. Does the ending come when the affair is halted? Does it end when Kemal admits his love for Fusun to himself? Does it end from Kemal removes himself from Istanbul's high-flying social scene?

All the red dots on this map of Istanbul indicate
where Kemal thought he saw Fusun.

The most frustrating aspect for me reading this was how much I disliked Kemal and yet understood where he was coming from. I suspect that might have been Pamuk's intention -- to portray a man of privilege, in every sense of the word, and to make him act like a total ass, and then regret his actions without knowing quite how to fix the situation. The second thing I suspect I'm supposed to take away from this is how women are viewed in Turkish society. The modern ones are open to having sex before marriage, but only with a man who they would eventually wed. And even as they proclaim their freedom and independence from the stodgy old-fashioned expectations of their families, their society (including these so-called independent women) also mock those who do have sex before marriage. They so rarely have any real autonomy, any real direction in their lives. And so, these women exist between putting up a bravado of strength and independence with no way of actually directing their lives and the ways they wish to be perceived.

Come to think of it, it's not just Turkish society. And it's not just in the 70s or 80s.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and I got a strong sense that Pamuk wrote this in an almost sneering manner. "Look how simple life was back then, how much fun it was, how beautiful life could have been," he appears to be saying, before slapping the reader in the face when they realize that life is still like this, and it is actually not, in fact, simple or fun or beautiful. He is making fun of the way we humans tend to look back in the past with rose-colored lenses when things are going badly in the present. We don't even know what we're yearning for to return, and even if we got it, it's not what we thought it was.

Which makes it all the more ironic that I decided to read The Museum of Innocence out of some misplaced sense of nostalgia. The magic of Istanbul had seeped into my head. Even funnier is when I read the book *after* leaving Istanbul, the descriptions of the streets and the neighborhoods -- all recognizable to me -- made me just want to return to that perfect period in April. It's like a cycle of yearning for a time that I'm don't think can ever be properly re-lived.

CBR8 Review #8: The White Castle by Orphan Pamuk

I wanted to give Pamuk another shot because I had read The Museum of Innocence with such overwhelming feelings of nostalgia coupled with dislike for the main character that I really couldn't say, when asked, whether if I liked him or not. The White Castle was a really quick read -- I read it all in a single night -- but unfortunately, I think it's going to be my last Pamuk. It's just too bizarre, and I think I just don't really *get* him.

The novel takes place in 17th century Turkey, and the narrator is an Italian scholar who got captured by troops from the Ottoman Empire when he was sailing to Naples. The Pasha of the empire takes a liking to him because he has some medical knowledge and was able to solve his ailments, and he introduces him to a court scholar named Hoja, who looks exactly like the narrator. During his imprisonment, he was asked by the Pasha to convert to Islam from his Christian religion, a request that he kept refusing. While he should have been killed for pissing off the Pasha, he was instead gifted to Hoja as a slave.

Hoja, mystified by this Italian scholar's wealth of knowledge, ordered him to teach him everything he knew and more. Soon the student and the teacher were one and the same, exchanging ideas to reach solutions. But this dynamic is strained at times by the master-slave relationship, with the narrator choosing to withhold his approval of Hoja's knowledge if he was upset at being a slave.

I'm gonna be honest here -- I'm really not sure what the point of this book was. The themes seem to be about how people can have a tenuous grasp on what their selves are, and lose a sense of their being if they are challenged. There's also a bit of the unreliable narrator trope at play here; at the end, the reader is not sure if the narrator is Hoja or the Italian scholar.

I get all of this, but I think I just sort of lost the point of the plot. This book is very simply written, and it was easy to get through it quickly, so it's worth a read if you have a night to spare. But I'm not sure if I am used to this sort of ambiguous, mystical-unrealism writing. It's also a completely different voice from The Museum of Innocence, though the theme of being conflicted with your selves and your personhood is a similar strain that runs through both novels.

Monday, October 17, 2016

CBR8 Review #6: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang

All right, I haven’t reviewed in ages, so I’m just gonna jump right into it.

I read Factory Girls months ago – in April, to be exact – and it has just been stuck in my craw. The book is the work of Leslie Chang, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was based in China, and spent years following the lives of women working in factories in Guangdong province. As Westerners, much of what we know about these factories come from stories about exploitation in the Apple iPhone factories or the unpaid overtime work in garment factories producing for Insert-High-Street-Brand-Name-Here. Every now and then, we get a “seasonal” abuse story, such as the one about the factory that makes red Santa hats with photos of all the workers covered in red spray paint.

Those stories about China’s factories aren’t inaccurate, but they help cement an image we have about the young workers – most of whom are women – that actually erases their dreams and desires and identities. We think of them slaving away in “sweatshops” – the Westerner’s favorite word to use for any factory of any kind in the developing world – and getting paid peanuts for their labor; and we, in our first world guilt, make promises to never visit Insert-High-Street-Brand-Name-Here. Until we do, again, eventually. 

But look, Chang is here to tell you that this is only part of the image.

The girls who are the center of her book are not here to be pitied by you. Chunming, for example, left home at 17 for Guangdong, an industrial province, where she started in a factory before jumping to the next, and the next, in search of better pay. By the time Chang meets her, she is barely recognizable from the factory girl she started out as – she is an ambitious worker who is often drawn to get-rich-quick schemes. She is a go-getter who knew early on the drama of her life and resolved to record it all in a diary (“I HAVE NO TIME TO BE UNHAPPY BECAUSE THERE ARE TOO MANY THINGS I WANT TO DO,” reads one brusque entry), which is how Chang was able to portray that period of change with such clarity.

And Min, who stays in a factory, and slowly ascends to office jobs, making her the main breadwinner for her family in her village. That’s the thing that’s often missing in the media’s factory abuses story: that these girls are going in search for better opportunities and the money they make often give them a voice in their hometown – something that is unheard of in China’s patriarchal society.

Chang also writes about love and how these girls’ thoughts on marriage are shaped and reshaped as they start yearning for more than just the “normal” life; about how lonely it can be working in city made up of millions, and yet be able to lose a friend as quickly as losing a cellphone; about the different classes the girls take (eloquence, etiquette, make-up application, etc.) to advance their prospects in the factory world. The intimacy behind some of these accounts unnerved me, and the legwork that Chang did to gain her subjects’ trust is astoundingly clear.

Essentially, I read Factory Girls as homework. Since I report primarily on the business of fashion and labor rights issues in the garment sector in Southeast Asia, this book seemed like a good way to learn more about my beat. While I was looking at it from a technical perspective – trying to understand the tools behind the finished product – it was also a great way to remind me that I need to do more daily to understand the people I interview, and that the dozens of women I speak to and have spoken to are so much more than just sound bites for my story of the day.

That may seem like an obvious thing to say, or a fucking astoundingly ridiculous thing to state as a reporter (Go ahead, judge me). But as a Westerner, we sometimes can’t help but revert first to the pre-conceived narratives that we hold in our heads before taking a closer look.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

CBR8 Review #5: How May We Hate You? by Anna Drezen and Todd Dakotah Briscoe

Ever worked in the service industry? If the answer is yes, then you are probably aware of the magnitude of stupidity and rudeness that the general population possess. It doesn't matter if you have waited tables, worked in retail, dealt with customer service phone calls, worked in a hotel – there is something about being in these "How may I help you?" positions that somehow elicit some of the worst behavior from people who are typically nice in their everyday lives.

In my six years living in New York, I bartended and waited tables in four different places. The worst establishment was a very popular restaurant in the West Village that was essentially a tourist trap. We used to get hordes of tourists there who ranged from interesting to rude to misogynistic. Not everyone was terrible, but if I had to mete out a percentage, the scale would definitely tip over towards "Humanity Sucks."

It was there that I also met the coolest, funniest bunch of weirdos, some of whom I am still friends with today. One of them is Anna Drezen, a co-author of this book, who had a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor which sometimes flew under the radar of customers. After working at said terrible restaurant, she worked as a concierge in hotels in Times Square – a tourist trap in a meteoric sense – and it's there that she and her friend Todd decided to start a tumblr filled with some of the most ridiculous but true conversations they had with customers.

How May We Hate You became a huge fucking hit! Of course it did, because everyone who's ever worked in service recognizes the frustration of it, but also because Anna and Todd – both comedians – were able to capture the laugh/cry quality of dealing with the public.

Here are some examples of people being rude, people being dense, and people with thick accents/language barrier which can lead to some hilarious misunderstandings.

Anyway, from this runaway hit tumblr, they parlayed it into a book!! And the book has a ton of new stuff, along with actually helpful advice on how to be a tourist in New York/how to not inadvertently be an asshole. There is also a hilarious section where Anna and Todd classified the guests. For instance, I laughed out loud on the plane when reading about The Miracle, "a person who can be classified as a miracle based solely on the fact that they've survived this long." They can be identified by "an 'I [heart] New York' shirt, a camera around their neck, and an aura that just says "ROB ME." There is also The Unprepared, and their appearance "varies, but it's never weather-appropriate."

There are also people who aren't really tourists, such as the Wealthy Retail Tourists hailing from places like Brazil, Qatar and Germany, who "do not mess around when it comes to shopping." They can be easily identified by their "gorgeous bone structure, amazing hair, all the time in the world to ask you the price of every single goddamn bag in the Coach outlet in New Jersey. This may not sound like a visual trait, but you'll notice it by the haze of blood that clouds your eyes because your brain is bleeding because it is trying to kill itself."

If you think this book is only bitching about people, eh, you're kind of right, and you'll probably be totally delighted by it. However, there are also stories of people being actual human beings, and they talk regularly about concierge staff who really do love helping customers. I also got weirdly choked up at the end when Anna wrote about how a tourist she had been helping all week invited her to see an opera, a totally unexpected gesture that resulted in a genuine friendship.

At the end of the day, you will love this book if you've ever worked in service, and you might even recognize yourself in some of the characters mentioned (everyone has been a clueless tourists somewhere). The important takeaway from it is Treat Others the Way You Want to Be Treated... and maybe that high schools/colleges should make it mandatory for students to spend a semester working in the service industry to curb the public's asshole behavior towards service staff. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

CBR8 Review #4: Slade House by David Mitchell

I bought Slade House not long after I finished The Bone Clocks because I didn’t want to stop living in Mitchell’s world. It ended up being the perfect accompaniment to Bone Clocks, almost like a side note into the world of Atemporals, souls who are able to live on for centuries in different bodies.

Described as a “haunted house” book, Mitchell exercises his horror writing skills in describing Slade House, which is hidden behind a small black iron door down a narrow, winding alley. Nathan Bishop, the 13-year-old narrator for the first chapter set in 1979, said, “If somebody killed you down here, nobody’d see.”

Dragged there by his put-upon single mother to visit a Lady Norah Grayer, Nathan meets Jonah, a kid who proposes a simple game, “Fox and Hounds.” Both kids must start from opposite end of the impossibly large manor (“How does this exist between the two alleys?” multiple characters thought this at multiple times) and run anti-clockwise and if one catches the other, then the catcher is the fox. Innocent enough – but Nathan doesn’t realize how fatal the game is until it’s too late.

Each chapter is set nine years apart, introducing a new unsuspecting visitor to Slade House. Fans of Mitchell’s other novels can expect to see familiar faces and names – the sibling of a character in The Bone Clocks who committed suicide turns up as a side character; Spyglass, the magazine that Luisa Rey works for in Cloud Atlas is also the employer of one of the narrators; a sinister figure from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is mentioned several times by the residents of Slade House. Best of all is the reappearance of Marinus, who plays a pivotal role here.

Now that I’ve read pretty much all of Mitchell’s books (except for the one he translated to Japanese with his wife), I am starting to see recurring themes. I very much still had Bone Clocks on my mind while reading this, and I couldn’t help but connect it to the environmental themes of climate change and wastefulness that cropped up in the final chapters of Bone Clocks. As Marinus confronts the two residents of Slade House about their methods for immortality, he went on this rant about how he’s sick of hearing all the excuses that Atemporals do to seek survival.

“No, please, no. I’ve heard it so often. ‘Humanity is hardwired for survival’; ‘Might is Right is nature’s way’; ‘We only harvest a few.’ Again and again, down the years, same old same old… from such an array of vultures… from feudal lords to slave traders to oligarchs to neocons to predators like you. All of you strangle your consciences, and ethically you strike yourselves dumb.”

This resounded for me, especially when I had only just read about the Endarkenment in the 2040s in The Bone Clocks (I would be in my 50s when 2043 comes along) – when people are plunged back to a time before electricity and technology and resources were readily available. There are marauding gangs of thieves who steal solar panels and people’s food to survive, and when confronted by older people, their responses were, “You did this to us. You forced it upon ourselves with your decades of waste.”

And I think back to how I speak about the environment, about my carbon footprint, and about how I am willing to continue to be as wasteful and thoughtless about life on Earth as I am. I say that I just want to live my life, and that one person can’t do enough to make everything better in the future. I say I don’t want children and will likely not have any, so who cares? I strangle my conscience; ethically, I strike myself dumb.

Which brings me back to Slade House/Bone Clocks. Mitchell might be using the theme of immortality that is sought by these Atemporals as a parallel to how we humans sought for immortality, by making ourselves more comfortable at the expense of the Earth’s longevity. We are the parasitic souls seeking a prolonged life at the expense of future generations’ lives.

Realizing that was an incredibly sobering experience for me. I finished Slade House while seated at an airport food court in the US, and I was struck by how thoughtlessly wasteful we are as a society. Something as simple as grabbing five napkins instead of one, something as unnecessary as having individually wrapped ketchup packets, or having all the lights on in an entire airport despite it being the middle of the night. We are chopping trees, creating more plastic, burning more oil – and these won’t be available to us even twenty years from now if Mitchell’s future becomes a reality. It’s a terrifying outcome and we would have been complicit in it.

CBR8 Review #3: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The best part about The Bone Clocks – besides being able to live in Mitchell’s excellent prose – is that the structure is a variation of what he usually does. His past work are usually epic sagas spanning decades (Clock Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) from intersecting points of views that culminate into a general theme; but Bone Clocks focuses on the life of a single person, Holly Sykes, and this is shown through either herself or from people in her life.

The first and final chapters are narrated from Holly’s point of view, while all the years in between are filled in by family, lovers, etc. In that sense, we get to see her go from being a teenager to being an old biddy. We get to compare how she has grown as a person, how she has changed, what she still retains from her old teenage self. This is especially interesting to me because I am someone who subscribes to the belief that we don’t really fundamentally change, but we do grow into a truer – or more corrupted, depending on our lives – version of our selves.

Beginning on a summer day in 1984, Holly is an obstinate teenager who ran away from home to be with an older boyfriend that her mother disapproves of. Cut to her catching her boyfriend in bed with her best friend, cut to her biting back tears, cut to her deciding to actually run away to punish her peers and her parents. During this sojourn of teenage rebellion, Holly encounters an old woman who requests “asylum” in exchange for some tea. Not knowing what it means, she agreed. Roughly 24 hours later, she learns that her little brother, Jacko, had disappeared without a trace.

Seven years later, we switch abruptly to the point of view of Hugo Lamb (who Mitchell followers will recognize as the asshole cousin of Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green). It’s now 1991, and he is part of the snobbish Oxbridge crowd. The small-scale swindling that he engaged in in Black Swan Green has escalated to full-blown grand larceny, such as hocking valuable objects from dementia-ridden professors and orchestrating a gambling-fueled downfall of a wealthy classmate. Lamb appears to lack a conscience, and he refers to most people who speak of love or sentiment as “Normals.” But during a holiday trip to the Alps, he meets Holly, and she sparks something close to human emotion in him.

And on, and on, and on. Mitchell manages to capture each individual’s life with a sense of ordinariness, punctuated by flashes of the supernatural. For against the backdrop of Holly’s life and the people who surround her, there is a war being waged between two groups over the consequences of immortality. Holly has a role to play in this great saga, but it’s not clear until near the end why she is important.

As is always the case with Mitchell’s work, there’s a lot to love about The Bone Clocks. He again dabbles with the themes of fate and pre-destination, but I think more prevalent throughout it is the idea of human selfishness, which really comes into form in the final chapter. The year is 2043, and the world has run out of petrol and electricity, hailing in a period called The Endarkenment. I don’t want to give away too much, but this chapter was actually such an unexpected gut punch for me – I had no clue that this was where the book was gonna end up, though he did give plenty of hints throughout – and I found myself reading it closely for what’s to come. It’s an entirely all-too-believable forecast for our future.

Mitchell has said in an interview that the Bone Clocks was his “mid-life crisis novel.” It shows, in a way. He is writing about immortality, about a contract with the devil for eternal youth, about the excessive use of fuel and humanity’s disregard for future generations – “all so we didn’t have to change our cosy lifestyles.” 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

CBR8 Review #2: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates with his son, Samori
If you've picked this book up, you probably already know about Ta-Nehisi Coates, or have read his work on The Atlantic before. It's hard to be sure because I live outside of the US, but based on my casual observation, Coates has become more prominent and publicized during this final Obama administration. Part of it may be due to his incredible long-form piece published two years ago, The Case for Reparations (if you haven't read this, go. Read it now. Come back to my review later.); but I believe that his voice may have echoed clearer and louder across the media landscape as instances of police brutality against black people have gained more news coverage. As a journalist, his work is sobering, eye-opening and unexpected (seriously, if you still have read through that reparations link, go do it now). As a commentator, his voice is at once enraging, evocative and, honestly, kind of despairing.

Between the World and Me is a relatively quick read, and was penned by Coates as a letter of sorts to his 15-year-old son, Samori, who cried in his bedroom after he learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free.

I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. 

This slim book was written with fervor and anger at the unspoken injustices that the black community suffers under the ignorance and subjugation of the White Men. It is written in such a voice, tone, style that you will want read every page hungrily, but would have to stop to catch your breath – and sometimes to choke back a sob over how utterly unfair things are.

Because – if we pay attention to our surroundings – everything he says is recognizable. And it is infuriating that the talking heads on TV have to debate on whether if America has a race issue, that the privileged (read: white people) can scoff and say, "#alllivesmatter," that people have to tiptoe around their environment simply because the color of their skin could determine if they get through the day.

And the saddest part is that he's writing this for his teenage son as a way to inform him of the world he will inherit when he grows from a teenaged-size kid to a grown-up with black skin. And while it's not all doom and gloom, it ends on the notion that Samori must continue to persevere, despite the fact that he, a black man, cannot change things.

I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle.

Monday, May 2, 2016

CBR8 Review #1: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

We are five months into 2016 and this is my first book review. I've read a couple books this year, but between me trying to figure out my life, breaking up with my boyfriend (yes, the one who loves Ellroy), and doing a fair amount of traveling, it's been difficult to force myself to sit still for a moment and collect my thoughts.

And getting through this tome was a bit of a problem for me. I had heard about it because A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker prize award last year, and many reviewers -- while raving about the book -- also took a moment to observe that Marlon James wasn't the "typical" winner. One could read between the lines and see that they meant that James, being black, Jamaican, and not from the Oxbridge crowd. I don't know if it's an achievement or if it detracts from him winning it. What I do know is that having people describe the book, a historical fiction of sorts exploring the backdrop to Bob Marley's Smile Jamaica Concert in 1976, as "exploding with violence and seething with arousal" made this something I wanted to check out, even though I have zero interest in Bob Marley.

(Quick confession: I don't like reggae. Maybe it's because I heard it too much while working in bars and restaurants, and it just all sounds repetitive to me. Yea, I know this is a controversial statement to make if you're speaking with someone not over the age of 25.)

But the book turned out to be so much more than that. Yes, the beginning covers the lead-up to the Smile Jamaica Concert, which was seen as a political event in favor of the ruling party. Warring gangs in Kingston tussle for turf and struggle to understand their role when the CIA approaches them to teach them to build bombs. There is a Rolling Stone reporter in town trying to get his big break, trying to convince everyone that he's not just a parachute journalist, that he's so with it; there's a former lover of the Singer whose inner running commentary can really be used as a treatise of how women are seen in Jamaica; there's young gangbangers who have never known their father, never really known affection, and is immediately pushed headlong into a world where guns and cruelty exemplify strength.

Then the concert happens, and I am only a third of the way through the book.

As a reader, I sometimes feel that books get to a natural ending, but I'm left wanting more. What happens next? He got the girl, then what. They solved the mystery, then what? Writers, in their haste to tie up all the loose ends of the central conflict, fail to realize that life must go on after the tidy conclusion, and I am really interested to see what happens next.

Well, James does not skimp on that. It continues past the concert, past Bob Marley's attempted assassination and his concert, and leaps into the lives of the characters surrounding it. I didn't always understand the politics behind what the characters were saying, and I didn't always follow the point, but I definitely understood all the characters, illustrated in their myriad of voices and motivations. This is where James' ambition and talent really stood out -- his ability to unfold the thoughts of different characters, even those who were lying to themselves or attempting to conceal a secret. Sometimes his faithfulness to the character challenged me, like the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of Jamaican English that can feel tiresome to read for long stretches.

A closer reader will be able to tell you what really happened. Me, I can only tell you that I enjoyed it, I admired his ability, and I'm glad to have made it through. Even if it did take me four months to finish it.