Monday, September 30, 2013

it’s always something, but some things are not that terrible, or: what i read in august and september

Better than Freedom and shorter too.
Someone broke into my car late Saturday night and stole my radio and iPod but left the novel I had in the backseat. So whoever he was, I guess he wasn’t a reader. Or she. Or maybe he/she just prefers nonfiction.

I had to go to the WeHo Book Festival, and I barely had time to care about the theft. I wondered whether that made me a tough chick who didn’t sweat the small stuff, who was truly grateful for the things that really counted (including the option to borrow AK’s car)—or a spoiled asshole who went through iPods like water, when there were people in the world who actually had no water.

After the book fair, I called the police. I don’t know why. A very nice, but possibly not super smart, guy named Honor (really) took down my information. He asked me to describe what my iPod looked like.

“Um, like an iPod?” I said.

He asked me my race, height and weight. In case it was an inside job? AK and I speculated that our cat Ollie, who was also mysteriously missing Saturday night, might have had something to do with the crime. I mean, he’s not much of a reader. And we call him “The Paw” because he’s always grabbing things. Toys. Ankles. Other cats’ tails. Why not a car radio?

I was glad when he came home; I’d been worried, as always, about coyotes and the tendency of things I love to go away. I told Ollie I loved him more than any car radio.

AK responded in Ollie’s voice: “Good. ‘Cause I fenced it.”

All of which is to say: I may not be listening to as many audio books as usual this coming month/till Christmas. But here’s what I read in August and September.

The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez: I tracked down this book after hearing the "Mimi's" excerpt on NPR. Like that story, the memoir is funny and particular (as opposed to archetypal, though it wrestles with archetypes plenty) in its account of a poor Mexican-American family that makes desperate grabs at middle-class status. At least, that's what stuck out to me thematically. Martinez tells us he's interested in machismo and how it wreaks havoc on generations of males, and that's here--in the stories of his brother's fights and his own misguided relationships--but sometimes the family dynamics he alludes to don't quite line up with the action on the page. He shows and he tells, but there's a slight disjuncture between the two. Never mind, though. Ultimately I loved the book's rambling, tangential style and ruthless self-reflection. The Boy Kings of Texas is raw in all the best ways.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I feel like there's an interesting impulse in some post-colonial lit to inject positivity into third-world narratives in defiance of the tragedy that Western readers have come to expect. Hence Oscar Wao ending with "The beauty! The beauty!" and Americanah providing its leading lady and man with a non-tragic love story. Although the love story isn't what made the novel turn for me, I liked it, and I like what I think it says: that home (Nigeria) and hopefulness (America) aren't mutually exclusive.

Mostly this is a novel of observations, which doesn't make for the speediest read, but I was always happy to immerse myself in dinner party after dinner party, hair salon after water cooler chat after election-night gathering. Ifemelu, the Nigerian student turned American "race blogger" at the story's center, is a wonderful protagonist because she is sharp-eyed and explicit about race in America, but also forgiving and kind toward people she meets. Obinze, her college sweetheart, experiences the dark underbelly of his American dreams as an undocumented immigrant in England (he can't even get a short-term visa to the U.S., which is terrified of all young males from developing countries). Something in him breaks when he is deported, and this something is as irreparable as colonized land and childhood innocence. But a loss of innocence, Adichie seems to say, is not the loss of happiness.

Adichie is an eloquent storyteller with an ear for dialect that I envy. Without pulling punches, this novel is as funny and charming as it is profound. Very occasionally, Adichie seems so intent on representing every possible American perspective on race that scenes can feel like a laundry list of types (albeit very true types) without a lot of breathing room in between. But mostly the book feels delightfully real.

Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum: As opening scenes go, it's hard to top this one: a teenage girl in a wheelchair kicking the ass of another wheelchair-bound girl, clobbering her with the footrest.

I read that Susan Nussbaum was a playwright, so it makes sense that this novel is structured as a series of monologues with spot-on voices. The voices belong to patients and employees in and around a nursing home for disabled kids. The result could easily have been ham-fisted or precious, but I think Nussbaum's work is why they invented the phrase "deceptively simple." Although the monologues are present-tense (one reason I'm putting this on my YA shelf, although it's not marketed as such), most of the action happens offstage. We see the terrible, complicated fallout of a free-market healthcare/foster care system through the lenses of its victims and sometimes-hapless perpetrators. The world and The System are made up of individuals, and the tight first-person narratives never let us forget it.

Words like "empowering" and "inspiring" get thrown around a lot when talking about disabled people, and somehow end up seeming vaguely condescending. As I think about my own body's recent failings--as I wonder in my dark moments how much of a person I still am and how to have agency when I don't have control--I *did* find Good Kings Bad Kings empowering and inspiring. I devoured this book in a few days, and I loved it above all for the characters, especially tough-talking Yessenia, the beat-down inflicter, and Joanne, the paraplegic woman who clerks at the nursing home just to get herself out of the house, but cautiously falls in love. With the kids, and with a handsome aide named Ricky. So did I.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: A guy at a party full of therapists told me that he appreciated how Franzen "writes about the psychodynamic relationships that play out in people's lives." I thought, Oh, so *that's* what this book is about? As much of a psychology groupie as I am, at times the novel seemed like just a bunch of middle-aged people behaving badly, bouncing off each other like atoms and setting off a chain reaction of more bad behavior in their children and coworkers. The consequences of their best and worse impulses extend to politics and the environment as well. Then again, I guess that's what psychology is.

All of which is to say, I liked this book, but I didn't always see the point of it. I appreciated Franzen's deftness in showing how a seemingly unlikeable character--like a grouchy neighborhood busybody--might become that way, and then become someone kind and openhearted again. The bookends of the book--the relationship of a couple named Patty and Walter to two different neighborhoods, about a decade apart--are especially artful. But as domestic epics go, I'm not sure I totally see what all the Franzen fuss is about, although I'm not sure I'd sign on to any serious backlash either.


Claire said...

I'm really sorry about your car getting broken into. That sucks!

You sound very well balanced about it at least.

I was... less so... when it happened to me and had clearly watched too much CSI over the years to have any reasonable expectations.

Cheryl said...

Sorry it happened to you too! I think CSI is proof that they spend all their time on the really interesting cases. If you had a body in your trunk and *that* was stolen, maybe you'd get some attention.

But I would love to see CSI: Minor Break-In.

Claire said...

This week on CSI: Minor Break-In:

Guest star calls police: Hello? My car was broken into.


GS: I'm at 123 XYZ Lane.


GS: Aren't you going to come and take some prints or something?

CSI: Naw, man, we don't do that for a car break-in.

GS: Oh.

CSI: You can come down and file a report if you want. Or there's a number you can call.

GS: Isn't this the number?

CSI: Nah, we don't do that.

Sadly CSI: Minor Break-In never made it past the pilot stage in the states but it was rebranded and recast as a wildly popular telenovela that aired abroad.

Cheryl said...

Ha! As long as you add some good-looking cast members and a love story, it's good to go.