Week 27 (Sam): The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

ff1c25ea5edd9392e80fe0e723fc5e71--factory-worker-forensic-science

Reader: Sam

Topic #13: Read a non-fiction book about technology

Book: The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

Published by The Penguin Press (2011)


“There were times, and they came frequently enough, when one could believe that modern society, machine-age America, was addicted to poisons.”


It’s the early twentieth century, and the behemoth of mass production is carrying New York City, like the rest of the country, into a technologically advanced future. Automation floods the streets with automobiles, with canned food and gasoline-jet lamps, with pesticides and medicines. Yet, for all their value, these products of a modernizing world carry tremendous dangers as well: poisons. Toxins swirl in the air, ooze from the machines on the assembly lines and seep into the cocktails and whiskeys. For Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris, the still-emerging field of forensic toxicology holds the key to identifying the dangers of the modern world and preventing them, and he will do anything in his power to pull the field up to the level of respectability.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is Deborah Blum’s guide to the development of the vital practice of forensic toxicology, now taken for granted despite its importance. In January of 1918, Charles Norris is appointed to the brand-new position of Chief Medical Examiner for New York City, and with the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, he investigates poison-related deaths all across the city. With the exception of a few suicides and the occasional murder, most such deaths are rather mundane, a result of countless new products flooding the apartment buildings and factories, released carelessly and without oversight from the new and virtually-powerless FDA. To protect their city, Norris and Gettler must take up the fight, not only battling the poisons themselves, but taking on the negligent companies and government bodies that allow them to menace the citizens of New York.

Blum divides the years of Norris’s tenure into about a dozen chapters, each marked with a date and named for the poison that was most prominent in the department’s work at that time. The precision of this system of subdivision is representative of the book as a whole; Blum writes clearly and concisely about the events of the period, presenting them as plain fact. She keeps the science simple enough for a layman to understand, explaining whatever is necessary as quickly as she can so she can return to the big picture of Norris’s crusade against poisons. Rather than relying on expressive language or craftsmanship, she instead trusts in the inherent drama of life and death that plays out before us. Terrible dangers menace the ordinary citizens of the city, and the book gains an atmosphere akin to that of a thriller as it untangles several odd and notable cases.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this book is its reflection on the dangers of the Prohibition era, which in stark contrast to the expectations of its architects, leads to far more alcohol abuse than ever before, the death toll climbing correspondingly. Deprived of legal alternatives, New Yorkers turn to bootleg liquor instead, unaware how much of it is composed of the often-deadly wood alcohol. Rather than trying to protect citizens from the dangers, the US government actively adds wood alcohol to products that might be used for bootleg liquor in the naive hopes of discouraging it. In addition to standing as an indictment of the US government’s behavior during prohibition, it echoes one of the book’s main ideas about the United States as a whole: that death was frequently an avoidable result of ignorance in the face of the awesome scientific forces of technology.

Despite presenting some interesting details and teaching me some facts about history I’m glad to know, The Poisoner’s Handbook is not altogether a compelling story. If Norris and the other members of the medical examiner’s office were particularly colorful characters, it isn’t clear from Blum’s treatment of them, and in any case, it would have little to do with their work. In the same vein, there aren’t any particularly notable through-lines to keep the book focused from chapter to chapter. The main criticism toward Deborah Blum’s book is simply that the personalities she chose to center her exploration of the era around are forgettable. Perhaps with greater care, she could have brought New York city’s past to life in a more human way.

Final Grade: B-

Week 26 (Blaga): My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron

15849464.jpg

Reader: Blaga

Topic #4: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author

Book: My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, by Patricio Pron; translated by Mara Faye Lethem

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2013)

When his father is hospitalized, the nameless protagonist of Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain goes on leave from his work at a German university and flies back to Argentina to be with his family. And as he waits for any news regarding his father’s condition, he begins to follow a story his father has been investigating. The more he reads, the more his distant memories of Argentina’s Dirty War (ca. 1974-1983) resurface, and the better he comes to understand his family, his generation and himself.

One of the first things that made an impression on me was the novel’s flow, and the speed with which it moves. Pron masterfully plays with structure and text, creating a vivid and realistic stream of consciousness, that illuminates the inner workings of his protagonist’s mind. Some of his chapters are long, others as short as a paragraph; in some, he narrates events linearly, in others he implies events through recurring loops of thought. This is a good fit  for the protagonist’s state of mind. He is a man who has been self-medicating with psychoactive drugs and sleeping pills for the past eight years in order to forget his past, and as a result his mind and memory have been scrambled into a mess that begins to untangle as the work progresses.

The novel is divided into four parts, the second of which is the most unusual. It consists mostly of newspaper articles and descriptions of photographs the narrator discovers in his father’s file. The reader not only follows the investigation more closely than a conventional approach might allow, but they also get to do so through the eyes of the novel’s protagonist specifically. Later, as his memories return and he learns more about the Burdisso siblings and their relation to his parents’ past, he makes new connections more easily and more directly; again, we are reminded that we are very much in his mind, seeing this story through his eyes. Pron uses his keen eye for detail to great effect. He observes, for example, how the file is held by two elastic bands “that could have once been white but at this point had a slightly brown tone; one of the bands held the folder from top to bottom and the other along its width, which made them form a cross; more specifically, a Latin cross.” While information like this is not crucial in itself, its presence enriches the text, making it even more of a pleasure to read.

Pron’s writing expertise would not have come through had the translation work not been equally expert. Here, I tip my hat to Mara Faye Lethem, whose top-notch translation seems to preserve the lyricism and flow of the original Spanish. Through my own translation experience, it is my understanding that every language flows differently from the others, and it is therefore rare to find a way to transmit a text that feels at all the same as the original.  Professional translation goes far beyond simply finding equivalent words (although this alone can also be difficult) and requires a translator to find ways to convey this lyricism from one language to the next.  I am not a Spanish speaker myself, but I know enough to judge that there are all the hallmarks of an elegant translation here. Not only does the English text read well, it possesses a unique character that conveys both Pron’s style and the texture of his native Spanish. Given certain revelations during the epilogue, which I will refrain from divulging, this preservation of style is essential to the book and to the author himself.

Altogether, this novel is a real gem. Patricio Pron has proven himself a master wordsmith who can manipulate a text’s structure and flow with ease and confidence. My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is not only a noteworthy work, but also one that possesses an insight into a generation that survived the Dirty War and must keep on living in its aftermath. Highly recommended.

Week 25 (Sam) The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende

housespirits

Reader: Sam

Topic #4: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author

Book: The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende and translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc


“Alba was born quickly. Jaime removed the cord from around her neck, held her upside down and dangled her in the air and with two resounding slaps introduced her into the suffering of life and the mechanics of breathing. But Amanda, who had read about the customs of African tribes and preached a return to nature, seized the newborn from his hands and gently placed her on the warm belly of her mother, where she found some consolation for the sadness of being born.”


Esteban Trueba, although destitute, falls in love with Rosa del Valle, the green-haired daughter of a family as wealthy as his once was. He swears that he will regain his family’s wealth so that the two of them can get married, but when tragedy strikes, Esteban ends up marrying Rosa’s psychic younger sister, Clara, instead. Over the sixty-five years that follow, Esteban and Clara’s marriage leads to children, and then grandchildren, their gradually expanding family changing the lives of those they meet, and having their lives changed in return. Just as the marriage began with tragedy, it is destined to end in it, each step they take leading toward a nightmare that even Clara’s clairvoyance is unable to predict.

More than anything else, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is concerned with the interconnectedness of events and people, even across decades and great distances. A careless word mumbled to a stranger might change your daughter’s life in thirty years, or even shift the political leanings of the government itself. Although Allende focuses on the lives of a few immediate family members, their lives intersect with so many others: disgraced French nobility, house servants, peasant farmers and even a man who will one day become President of the country. The way the family treats each other and the friends they make over the years will shape their ambitions, their fears, and their loves. In The House of the Spirits, human beings have the power to shape their own futures, but are too ignorant of the future to take advantage of it. Even the prophesies of the superhuman Clara are too vague and inconsistent to do much good, so the family spends their lives wandering around in the dark, tripping over disaster as they go.

By tracing the ancestry of a family from the first decades of the twentieth century to the 1970s, Isabel Allende has necessarily also told a story about the country they live in, an unnamed but clear analog to Chile, a country Allende once fled to escape political violence. At the start, Allende paints the image of a simple world where the wealthy throw lavish parties and travel the world while the poor farmers die young without ever knowing the world beyond the places they were born. There is a sense of the country as unchanging, and even terrible natural disasters can come and go without lasting impact. Over the course of the book, bit by bit, the world grows more complicated—or rather, the mask of simplicity is torn away, revealing that it was always more unstable than it seemed. Socialist ideas blossom among the working class, while Esteban Trueba, who has reclaimed his family’s fortune and become an ardently right-wing senator, hatches schemes to ensure that power stays in the hands of the wealthy. He has no idea that the collision of the right and the left will unlock a potential for human cruelty that neither one would ever wish for.

Allende’s characters are not all equally effective or engaging. Esteban Trueba and Clara del Valle are both vivid characters, strikingly believable, even in their strangeness. They are nearly opposites: Esteban is stubbornly attached to the protection of his wealth and status, driven to abuse and violence by his explosive temper whenever he feels they are threatened, while Clara drifts through life like a dream, forgetting the names of family friends and paying more attention to séances than finances. Unfortunately, the descendants of this marriage are not always as interesting as the couple themselves. Their twin sons, Jaime and Nicolás, are both eccentrics with plenty of interesting stories attached to them, but their daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba, are almost interchangeable, coming across as less eccentric reproductions of Clara. Sometimes, I had to stop and wrack my brains to remember which of the three had said or done a given thing. While a certain degree of consistency between these three women is part of Allende’s design, illustrating a sort of spiritual sisterhood between them, it reached the point where it was actually distracting. This was a problem for Alba particularly, whose lack of strong characterization undermines the otherwise tremendous (and frightening) climax.

The House of the Spirits is the first novel I’ve read in the magical realism genre, and as a lover of fantasy, I was a bit disappointed by how little magic there was. As someone admittedly ignorant of the genre, the power of magical realism seems to me to lie in the absurd power of treating the magical as if it is mundane, but despite intermittent prophesies and Clara’s habit of playing the piano telekinetically with the cover down, the supernatural simply isn’t prominent enough to feel important to this book. A book that embraced Clara’s paranormal gifts more confidently might have been a fun read, but I found I actually wanted the opposite: for the supernatural to play a much smaller role, so that when it appears, especially at the very end, fusing the past and the present, the normal with the impossible, it carries a mysterious power.

At times, The House of the Spirits achieves a kind of brilliance, with well-written characters forming rivalries and friendships in an unbroken series of fortuitous coincidences. At other times, especially toward the middle, the text seems more like aimless melodrama intended to kill time, not to express anything profound. A few times, when it reaches its greatest heights, The House of the Spirits is a deeply moving portrayal of the subtle flow of destiny, but sadly, this is not nearly enough of the book.

Final Grade: C+

Week 24 (Blaga): Dear Life, by Alice Munro

51QOOayYicL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Reader: Blaga

Task # 22: Read a collection of stories by a woman

Book: Dear Life: Stories, by Alice Munro

Publisher: Vintage International (2013) (First edition by Knopf Doubleday, October 2012)

In 2013, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature for being a “master of the contemporary short story.” Throughout her career, the Canadian writer has published a number of award-winning short-story collections but I had never opened any of them, despite their presence in my family library. So, when I had to choose a selection for this task, I realized that the time had come for my journey through Dear Life.

I suppose that when a writer (or, most recently, artist) wins this prestigious literary award, the first question that comes to mind is “What makes this person — and their work — stand out?” My personal observation on the Swedish Academy’s selections over the years is that it is not always about the art itself; often, there is politics involved as well. Naturally, there is only so much that one can judge from a single collection, yet if Dear Life is any indication, then Munro truly deserves her award.

If this collection has some kind of a common thread, I found it difficult to see – not because it was not present, but because it was rather subdued. Dear Life presented me with fourteen stories that could hardly be more different from one another. In “To Reach Japan,” a  restless mother rides the train with her child; in “Gravel,” we learn of the events leading to a drowning and its consequences; “Corrie” is (seemingly) about an affair that leads to blackmail; while “Dear Life” is strikingly biographical and addressed directly to the reader, as much a personal essay as a short story. Some of the stories take place in small towns, others in locations as diverse as a cross-country train or a children’s hospital. Some take place over days, others over years. Many take place in the 60s or 70s in Canada. Some are told in the first person perspective, others in third. A few examine religion, most explore relationships of various kinds. What is most striking is how understated they all are, and how this lends them a sense of realism and importance.

Munro is concerned with the everyday, ordinary lives of ordinary people. None of her characters are particularly extraordinary, nor does anything extraordinary happen to them. Yet, they are as real —  as individual and complicated — as any living, breathing human being. The choices that define them, the key moments in their stories, are not described in any remarkable way; so much so that in some cases it was not until the end of a story that it became clear which of those moments was the one that would change someone’s life. This is yet another way that Munro strengthens the believability of her stories. In real life, life-changing moments are not announced with fanfare; life continues and it is only in hindsight that they can become apparent.

On the technical side, Munro’s work is also excellent, demonstrating an unusual command of language. At times, she switches seamlessly from one tense to another, using them all for greater impact. She employs dialogue, but only in controlled quantities; many times conversations are summarized rather than reported directly. The calm, confident flow of her prose is often more than enough to keep the reader engaged through all fourteen stories.
If I have one regret in reading Dear Life, it is only that I used it as my introduction to Munro’s body of work. It is, after all, her last published collection and established a high bar. I can only hope that the rest of them will be as wonderful as this one, but thankfully, Dear Life has left me with no doubt that Alice Munro is a master of the contemporary short story.

Week 23 (Sam): The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

BloodyChamber

Reader: Sam

Topic #22: Read a collection of stories by a woman

Book: The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

Published by Victor Gollancz Ltd (1979)


I shall take two huge handfuls of his rustling hair as he lies half dreaming, half waking, and wind them into ropes, very softly, so he will not wake up, and, softly, with hands as gentle as rain, I shall strangle him with them.”


The pattern is simple. There is a woman and there is a man, and when they collide, the world becomes something much stranger, a dream come true, half nightmare, half fantasy. In her short-story collection, The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter retells several classic fairy tales, some more than once, and invents a couple of her own, all of them gravitating toward an obsession: sex, and the power it has, both in concept and in action, over human beings.

The ten stories in The Bloody Chamber vary in quality from astoundingly beautiful to fairly forgettable. The eponymous “Bluebeard” retelling, “The Bloody Chamber”, is the highlight of the collection, followed by strong entries such as “Lady of the House of Love” (a variant on “Sleeping Beauty” involving vampires) and “Wolf Alice” (an original story about a feral girl slowly gaining her humanity for the first time). On the other hand, “The Snow Child” is obtuse to the point of virtual unintelligibility, and “The Werewolf” seems strangely irrelevant to the spirit of the other nine stories. Fortunately, while the weakest, these are also the two shortest stories in the collection. Carter rounds out her offering with two versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” the eerie “Erl-King” and a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss-in-Boots.”

The Bloody Chamber opens with Carter’s version of “Bluebeard,” and it is in this story that her unique, dreamlike voice is most effective. For those who don’t know the story, a young woman marries a fabulously wealthy old widower, only to find that her new husband may be hiding a terrible secret that threatens to claim her life, just as it claimed the lives of his previous wives. Carter describes her unnamed protagonist’s extravagant, new home with equally extravagant prose. Everything that the woman sees combines with what it seems to be. The ruby choker she wears is a bleeding wound in her throat. A hall of mirrors is an army of identical hers, all equally her husband’s bride. Speech is often reported without quotation marks, muddling the distinction between what is said and what is seen. The tale is written in the past tense, but is sometimes written as though it is being lived through at that very moment. The topic shifts strangely from paragraph to paragraph, a certain vagueness hanging over the story like a dream where whatever the dreamer is not paying attention to is subtly shifting and changing. The effect is haunting. 

The dreamlike quality that Carter establishes in the opening story continues in those that follow, becoming more or less prominent depending on the story. The cat narrator of “Puss-in-Boots,” for instance, doesn’t have much of an inclination toward metaphor, making it (ironically) feel a bit more grounded in reality than most of the others. On the other hand, “The Erl-King” takes the effect further, describing the story of a woman’s seduction and imprisonment by a strange man who lives in the woods through such tangled metaphor that it’s difficult to know precisely what happens in the story.  If a less talented author had written The Bloody Chamber, I might have advised readers who prefer a story to have an easily traceable plot to skip this collection, but I hesitate to do so in this case. Truthfully, these stories are much easier to follow than they sound, the emotional content of the symbolism often supporting the general meaning of a story even when the details are vague.

Despite the craftsmanship on display in individual stories, The Bloody Chamber feels redundant as a collection. Over half of the book consists of stories about monstrous and sexually-threatening men imprisoning helpless young women, but Carter is only able to capture the full horror of this scenario in her eponymous story. By comparison to “The Bloody Chamber,” other attempts to convey this dynamic through retellings of “Beauty and the Beast” or “Little Red Riding Hood” feel half-hearted and unnecessary. The monsters of these stories are less monstrous, and their power over the lead characters is less threatening, but rather than giving these stories their own identities, this fact only makes them seem like less engaging versions of the “The Bloody Chamber.” The stories are far from identical, but they rely on the same psychosexual core with a gradually reducing effect as the collection advances

Although self-sabotaging as a collection, I still have to acknowledge the stories themselves. Even the worst story in the The Bloody Chamber is worth reading, and the best stories it has to offer are classics I’ll return to in the future, even if I never read this collection in its entirety again.

Grade: B

Week 22 (Blaga): The Martian by Andy Weir

book-review-the-martian.jpg

Reader: Blaga

Task #2: Read a debut novel

Book: The Martian by Andy Weir

Publisher: Crown (2014)

 

Before I begin, I have an admission to make: I watched the movie before reading the book. I absolutely loved it! It was alternately hilarious and tense, but either way,  I was so enthralled that when I realized that there was a book, I was excited to read it. Would the book be able to move me like its on-screen adaptation?

Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian is a novel of science, survival, rescue and, most of all, cooperation. Mark Watney, an American astronaut, gets left behind (presumed dead) when his team evacuates their Mars mission due to a dangerous storm. When NASA realizes that Watney is still alive, they begin a rescue operation to retrieve him before it’s too late. The book shifts between Watney’s first person perspective in the form of a diary, and a third person view of NASA employees and Watney’s crew on the ship Hermes.

A lot happens in The Martian, and unfortunately, it frequently moves much slower than it should. Many passages are full of humor that helps the pages fly, but there are also passages dry enough to slow the reader down with details. Ironically, one of the most impressive elements of this book is also one of its most tedious. It’s very clear that Weir put a great deal of research into the science of his story – and the result is unusually believable. In a way, it’s impressive that Weir knows so much about about the methods for creating H2O in space and the accompanying dangers, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading multiple pages about it in dryly scientific terms. Many of the characters, especially Watney, tend to use a lot of technical jargon (“MAV,” for example),  and while it makes sense that they would, it’s ultimately a burden on the non-specialist reader, who is forced to stop and concentrate on just understanding what the characters are saying rather than following along easily. More accessible dialog might have come at the cost of realism, but it would have been well worth the cost.

Watney’s sense of humor,  a brilliant combination of dark and silly, was one of the main draws of The Martian. His situation is dire, survival seems nearly impossible, but he still keeps up the jokes. This interesting tone is largely because his sections of the book take the form of his journal entries, and he would not be likely to log new entries if he truly upset. The despair he feels as death creeps closer nearly always goes unspoken, hidden between the lines. By comparison, the third-person narration of the rest of the book is more emotionally straightforward, the characters’ feelings explored explicitly through what they say, do, and think. These sections are not nearly as funny as Watney’s, but they are well-paced, quick to read, and offer an interesting contrast.

I was struck especially by how Weir’s shifting perspectives demonstrate the sheer scale of the rescue operation. While the third-person section of the novel are very precise in conveying the passage of time, the close third-person is constantly shifting, at times, seemingly at random. It goes from NASA employees, to the Hermes’ crew and (at one point) their families, to TV reporters and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) administrators. Altogether, Weir assembles these fragments into a larger picture and illustrates the astounding—almost frustrating—complexity of organizing this rescue mission. Only by conveying the vast human scale of the endeavor, in both time spent and effort exerted, does the fact that they chose to do it have true gravitas. (including external pressures as illustrated by the media’s – and subsequently the larger population’s – interest in Watney’s situation) (Incidentally, this is something that the movie does not communicate as effectively).

In the end, The Martian is a fantastic space/science thriller. It can occasionally be a bit slow, but overall, it’s a true page-turner and left me thoroughly satisfied, and demonstrated yet again that a story can be told effectively both on the page and on screen. Whether you have seen the movie or not, the book is worth your time.

Week 21 (Blaga): Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 


Reader: Blaga

Task #14: Read a book about war

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Publisher: Anchor (2007) (First edition by Knopf, September 2006)

CW: war, war atrocities, rape.

“Odenigbo climbed up to the podium waving his Biafra flag: swaths of red, black, and green and, at the center, a luminous half of a yellow sun.”

For all the millennia that there have been wars, those wars have been recorded in art, commemorating great victories and feats of heroism on the field to inspire hope and patriotic pride. Yet, much attention has also been devoted to showing the other side of conflict, revealing the horror, suffering and sacrifice that war both causes and requires. Nearly 3000 years ago, Homer achieved a balance between the two approaches, humanizing war while telling a story featuring heroic figures such as Achilles. In contrast, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun takes a brutally earnest look into the realities of the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, during which the Igbo people of Nigeria unsuccessfully fought to secede and form their own independent state of Biafra. 

The book is divided into four parts, two taking place in the early 1960s, prior to the civil war, and two taking place during it (1967-1970). Adichie tells the story from the perspective of three characters: Ugwu, the houseboy to Odenigbo, who begins as a math professor at Nsukka University; Olanna, Odenigbo’s wealthy, western-educated partner and a professor of sociology; and Richard, an English writer who is in a loving relationship with Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister. The novel is written in close third person, alternating between the three characters, something Adichie shows an immediate knack for despite it being a departure from the first person perspective of her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003).

Adichie confronts difficult topics with unusual candor so that the reader might grasp a fraction of their full weight and complexity. The atrocities that take place during armed conflict are so numerous that they very often become just a statistic or historical fact to be learned, stripped of their emotional power. I knew nothing about the Nigerian civil war when I started Half of a Yellow Sun, but with a bit of research, it was not difficult to learn the facts: purposeful starvation, ethnically-oriented killings, rapes and sickness brought on by the awful conditions, all of them on a massive scale. The slaughter and suffering demands to be brought to life in a compelling way, and I was pleased to discover that Adichie has succeeded in doing this, although some parts of the novel are difficult to read as a result. During these awful parts, including a particularly horrifying gang rape, Adichie’s straightforward, matter-of-fact prose was helpful; she gives the facts simply and quickly, so as to not make it more difficult than it has to be without underplaying the horror of the moment either.

Not all the miseries of war are traumatic and violent; sometimes, the reality of war brings on bitterness and disappointment in a much more mundane way. Before the war starts, and even into the first months of the war, Odenigbo, Olanna and even Richard are full of patriotic zeal. They dream of a society in which the racial and social inequality inherited from colonialism can be cleared away, and Biafra’s secession from Nigeria seems to represent a glamorous fulfillment of this dream. Yet nothing is simple when economic interests, especially those of larger world powers, are at stake. As starvation sets in, so does desperation; the naive idealism that the cast starts with is slowly and painfully stripped away.

I could spend any amount of time praising Adichie’s ability to create complex characters or to pull the reader into the culture of 1960s Nigeria so effortlessly, but instead, I will leave it for readers to discover themselves. Despite being emotionally difficult, the story was engaging and effective throughout. Adichie makes only one crucial mistake in Half of a Yellow Sun, a stylistic misstep involving excerpts of a separate work that discusses the war in the first person. It does not become clear until the very end how these passages relate to the rest of the book, and even then, it seems out of place.

I was painfully moved by Half of a Yellow Sun. It is a profound novel, but not always easy to read, so it may not be for everyone. Still, I commend Adichie on yet again addressing a difficult subject with the elegance and emotion it demands. 

Week 20 (Sam): House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves Cover

Reader: Sam

Topic #2: Read a debut novel

Book: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Published by Pantheon Books (2000)


To get a better idea try this: focus on these words, and whatever you do don’t let your eyes wander past the perimeter of this page. Now imagine just beyond your peripheral vision, maybe behind you, maybe to the side of you, maybe even in front of you, but right where you can’t see it, something is quietly closing in on you, so quiet in fact that you can only hear it as silence. Find those pockets without sound. That’s where it is. Right at this moment. But don’t look. Keep your eyes here.”

Absolute darkness except where the beam of your flashlight illuminates the smooth, black walls. Absolute silence except the sound of your own footsteps echoing back from the many alcoves and rooms you cannot see. A Pulitzer-winning photojournalist and his family find a door to a physically impossible labyrinth in the living room of their house. A blind old man writes an exhaustive essay about a paranormal documentary that does not exist, then dies under mysterious circumstances. An apprentice tattoo artist comes across the old man’s notes, and the more he reads, the more certain he becomes that something savage and hungry is stalking him, waiting for the moment to pounce. With each page they turn, the reader descends deeper into a maze of words twisting across blank white paper, through interview transcripts and footnotes, flipping upside down and sideways in search of an exit, or at least the center of the labyrinth where, in accordance with old stories, there might just be a monster lurking.

House of Leaves is a dense meta-novel packed with footnotes, appendices, and experiments in formatting, fascinating readers with its strange and winding passages. Danielewski’s obsession with meandering footnotes is reminiscent of other works of contemporary metafiction, but it is uniquely appropriate for a novel so concerned with the idea of what it’s like to be lost in a maze. Whenever the reader finishes a footnote and scans the page to find where they left off, it’s as though they’re retracing their steps after reaching a dead end. There are other interesting formatting choices, most of them successful in setting the mood or expressing an idea. The fact that “house” is always rendered in blue is among the most prominent, but Danielewski’s most striking choice is crossing out any text referencing the myth of the Minotaur that lived in King Minos’ labyrinth, as though in some futile attempt to erase the concept from the story but only drawing more attention to it.

As briefly as possible, this book takes the form of a mass-market edition of an amateurish academic essay cobbled together by tattoo parlor employee Johnny Truant based on writings by Zampano, a blind old man, examining the events of The Navidson Record, a purported documentary about the maze hidden in the Navidson household—although Truant can’t find any evidence that the documentary or its subjects even exist. In all, there are three different people writing footnotes, sometimes even writing footnotes for their predecessors’ footnotes (thankfully, differentiated from each other by font). While the urgency and emotional heart of the novel lies in the deepest layer, it is the clamor of other voices, commentating and occasionally disagreeing with each other (or with themselves) that bring the story to life and give it the context it ultimately needs to carry an immense emotional weight. Zampano’s footnotes are a series of pedantic academic references to topics as far-flung as geochemistry, architecture and mythology, examining the events of the documentary from many angles and establishing dozens of literary allusions that linger throughout the book. Johnny Truant’s footnotes are raw and personal, as well as frequently autobiographical. He’ll occasionally comment on something interesting in The Navidson Record or in Zampano’s analysis, but the majority of his footnotes are tangents about his own life inspired by whichever part he just read. The third voice, an unnamed editor, will correct an occasional typo or explain some element of the manuscript that Zampano or Truant couldn’t have known, but their role is mostly to put one final barrier between the reader and the story of Will Navidson that is now nested like the smallest doll in a matryoshka set.

The innermost layer, bolstered by it’s eerie premise, could have stood on its own as a horror story without all the metafictional trickery, albeit with diminished effect. Just as Will Navidson has finally agreed to settle down with his family after a life of travel and adventure, his family discovers the entrance to a maze that cannot exist, serves no obvious purpose and seems to have no end. The passages of the house’s unplanned addition are utterly black and cold, breezeless and featureless except for the occasional door or staircase. Worst of all, the corridors are always shifting, doors appearing and disappearing, rooms expanding and shrinking and moving around without explanation. It’s dangerous to even go inside without wearing a harness. The adventurous spirit that animated Navidson’s legendary career as a photojournalist urges him to explore the darkness with his camera, but at the insistence of his partner, Karen, he agrees to send a professional expedition team instead. The couple assumes that working through intermediaries will keep the dangers of the maze at a distance; by the time they realize how wrong they were, it’s already too late.

While it lacks the high concept thrills of The Navidson Record, the diary that Truant keeps in the footnotes tells an eerie story of its own. He has lived a life of distraction for years, getting high on whatever’s available, hitting bars and nightclubs with his friend Lude every night looking for casual sex. When by coincidence he gets his hands on a box of Zampano’s notes, he thinks organizing the material will be just another way to kill some time.¹ Before long, however, he grows obsessed with the manuscript and the the impossible story it contains, seeing echoes of his own life in the icy darkness of the labyrinth. And the more Truant vanishes into his restoration project, the more certain he becomes that something invisible and inhuman is hunting him and that his only hope of escaping it lies within the manuscript itself.

The mark of a truly great book is being able to open up to a random page and not find any passage that feels out-of-place or unnecessary. House of Leaves manages this achievement with grace and apparent ease. Whether I was watching explorers slowly starve in an endless labyrinth or Johnny Truant install a sixth lock on his front door, I always felt it was part of one story, one fever-dream-vision of humanity being swallowed by darkness. Despite its bleakness, the book is never so self-serious that it becomes a chore to read. There are lighthearted moments too, courtesy of Navidson’s wisecracking twin brother, Tom, and some experimental page layouts that are more playful than profound, but these are only dead-ends branching from the true path to the center of the labyrinth, where Will Navidson and Johnny Truant must confront an emptiness that they cannot escape.

The Navidson labyrinth lies at the heart of Danielewski’s achievement. He leans into the uncanniness of its pitch-black halls—its coldness, its sterile emptiness, its complete silence except for an intermittent rumbling sound like the roaring of a bull—to unnerve the reader, but also to provoke their curiosity and wonder. Although the expeditions Navidson organizes to explore the maze discover very little, especially at first, there is something awe-inspiring and strange about human beings walking through such an alien place at all, like watching someone walking on the moon. As if in reaction to this strangeness, it is always during trips into the maze that the formatting goes the wildest. Sometimes, the text will flip upside down or sideways. Sometimes, footnotes will expand until they overwhelm the body of the text itself. On one occasion, the text is even printed mirrored. It is as though even words are not welcome in the darkened hallways, and must be twisted in strange ways if they are going to survive. While the maze is obviously dangerous, it also has a kind of strange beauty; it’s no wonder Navidson is so enthralled by it.

It’s difficult to come up with substantive criticisms of this book. Johnny Truant’s footnotes occasionally descend into stream-of-consciousness word-salads that annoyed me at first, but the further I read, the more obvious it became that these ramblings suited his character. Similarly, I usually find myself irritated by long, meandering asides, especially when they are in footnotes and harder to read, but when House of Leaves descends into chapter-spanning lists of architects’ names or types of construction material, it seems so appropriate that it actually enhances my experience. Readers should feel free to skim these protracted lists without fear that they are missing out on anything. After all, a dead end is a dead end, no matter how long it takes you to get there.

House of Leaves is an astonishing success, a work with boundless ambition and the artistry to match it. It thrills the reader with supernatural horror, but also challenges them to explore its twisting passages in a search for hidden meaning. Occasionally, the book is funny; more frequently, it is sad. Twice, it made me cry. It’s a book with a clear vision, although ironically, a clear vision of murkiness, of confusion, of being lost and afraid. Johnny Truant’s paranoia, Zampano’s loneliness, the swallowing darkness of the deepest, darkest pit of Navidson’s house: these are all corridors in Danielewski’s maze, and we are its prisoners. Groping around in the dark, we must stay alert and never give up hope if we are to have a chance of discovering an exit, and beyond it, sunlight.

Final Grade: A+

¹ As a younger Zampano once said:

Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream. If you sleep it is not because you need to sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share.”

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 2000), p. 543

Week 19 (Sam): The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

133518.jpg

Reader: Sam

Topic #14: Read a book about war

Book: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1990)

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

The Vietnam War is quietly simmering and Alpha Company, composed of around eighteen men, wanders the Vietnamese jungle, looking for people that they ought to kill or villages they ought to burn. There is nothing remarkable about Alpha Company; they’re just one of many companies in the war, and their job is roughly the same as the others. Yet, they’re not interchangable drones of course; they’re people with little quirks of their own. Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a comforter, for instance, and Ted Lavender smokes dope and takes tranquilizers. But whoever they may be, their long days and long nights are spent just like the other soldiers, looking for an enemy as elusive as wind in the foliage. During the Vietnam War, all the terror and exhaustion Alpha Company carry with them every day are simply a matter of routine.

Written by a Vietnam veteran two decades after the war, The Things They Carried is an unconventional cocktail of autobiography and fiction. The stories Tim O’Brien tells are somewhat true to his experience, but he openly admits to changing the details. The book can be read as a series of short stories, but the interrelations between them suggest a unified narrative that is best appreciated when read in its entirety. Although written with a consistent voice, each story embraces a different relationship to fact and fiction with a result that is striking in its originality.

Echoing Alpha Company’s deliberate detachment from the emotional burden of the war, most of The Things They Carried is written with a numbed distance from the action, whatever it might be. In the opening story, for instance, O’Brien narrates a moment when a soldier is shot and killed with no more urgency than scenes where soldiers are making jokes or marching in silence. That man’s death is the axle upon which everything else in the story turns, but its emotional weight is left to speak for itself, a faint murmur of grief. This quiet tone is well-suited to O’Brien’s masterful prose, where every word resonates with echoes of grief so terrible it cannot be confronted directly. The power grief has to transform O’Brien’s writing is subtler than with most authors, the moments of rawest emotion manifesting not through changes in the vocabulary or rhythm of individual clauses, but through the use of massive run-ons, assembling a chain of dozens of these unremarkable clauses into sentences that become slightly more passionate with every comma that passes by, however much the language may belie these feelings.

There isn’t enough space to discuss all twenty-one stories individually, but I do have some favorites: Tim O’Brien describes his brief stint as a draft dodger; years after the war, one of Alpha Company drives around aimlessly, dreaming of telling someone about the time he let someone die, but never quite having the courage; a bitter O’Brien pioneers a scheme to terrify an army medic who nearly let him die. These are some of the longer, more substantial stories, but they are joined together with shorter asides, more abstract meditations on what it was to actually live the war. In these shorter segments O’Brien explores more directly the ideas he develops in the longer ones: that one never forgets the war, and the senselessness of it seems to cry for explanation, and that sometimes it takes some leniency as far as the literal truth goes to convey the emotionally honest truth of one’s experience with the war.

The dreamlike manner in which The Things They Carried drifts between different degrees of truthfulness is not just a thematic gesture, but also the book’s deepest joy. In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, following along becomes a game of spotting the lies. O’Brien will tell stories about terrible tragedies he experienced, only for him to later tell the reader that they happened to someone else, or in a different place or at a different time, or maybe they didn’t even happen at all, but seemed like the sort of thing that might have happened. Although his prose never falters in its beauty, reading through multiple accounts of the same event, sifting through different levels of fictionality, one senses O’Brien’s befuddled impatience as he tweaks details of the same stories, trying to find the versions that capture his feelings completely. At times, he explicitly challenges the value of literal truth, saying that between “happening truth,” which is events as they actually occurred, and “story truth,” which is events as they seemed to happen, the latter may be more truthful. The Things They Carried serves as proof of his vision of “story truth” because although the details are always shifting, the pain that O’Brien is trying to convey comes through clearly, unchanging.

A sense of truthfulness hangs over everything, lie or not, largely because of how convincingly the soldiers of Alpha Company are written. There is plenty of cartoonish machismo and morbid humor, but unlike some movie portrayals, it is not the only way these soldiers communicate with one another. Sometimes they’re scared or angry, lovesick or embarrassed, and although they may try to hide it, they are all human underneath. Their humanity is the pillar of the book, lending urgency to the pain they experience, and making irrelevant the question of whether a given event really happened to Tim O’Brien himself. Even if it didn’t happen to him, in a whole war full of soldiers just like him, someone must have gone through something similar.

Altogether, it’s difficult to imagine a more heartfelt or more quietly striking exploration of the grief of war. The fact that the details are so muddled and O’Brien’s narration is openly so uncertain at times what he is trying to say only increases the emotional power he wields with every elegant sentence. To a certain extent, uncertainty is itself the point, since as the decades have passed, alienating him from his experience, the war has taken on a strange distance, even though at times, it seems to O’Brien to be recurring in front of his eyes from the sheer intensity of the memory.

There is one story in the book, “In the Field,” which feels redundant with other, better stories, and for this minor flaw alone, I cannot quite give The Things They Carried a perfect score. Otherwise, it is a beautiful book, passionate, confused; even haunted, in a way. Haunted by the men O’Brien killed, the men he watched die, and the man he used to be, a long time ago.

Final Grade: A

Week 18 (Blaga): The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks

images.jpg

Reader: Blaga

Task #18: Read a superhero comic with a female lead

Book: The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (2013)

 

Superhero stories can be fantastic (both literally and figuratively), but they can sometimes take themselves a bit too seriously, perhaps? What better way to enjoy a superhero story and simultaneously address real issues than through a parody, then? Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl accomplishes exactly that, and teases quite a few laughs along the way. Originally a children’s comic serialized in The Coast paper (and later published online in its entirety), Hicks’ work consists of a series of vignettes exploring the day-to-day adventures and mishaps of Superhero Girl—a 20-something Canadian girl who is trying to establish herself as a superhero and also navigate normal life.

What initially drew me to The Adventures of Superhero Girl was Hicks’ aesthetic style, since as a comic reader, I tend to be very picky about visuals. Relatively simple, Hicks’ style is fun and easy on the eye; it also lends support to the comedic tone of the story. Although the original was in black-and-white, this edition proves that the art is a great match for colorist Cris Peter. His palette is bright and fun, and his use of Ben-Day dots is a nice homage to the tradition of comic design. Another interesting feature of this graphic novel is its horizontal layout, retained from when it was a newspaper comic. At first, this made it seem larger than standard graphic novels, but upon comparison, it has exactly the same dimensions (even in hard cover). There is an average of five to ten panels per page, which are clearly divided and spaced. It should be noted, however, that Hicks makes a sharp shift in layout: in the first twenty pages or so, the panels are divided only by lines, and take their aforementioned form only after that. This would not have been too noticeable, had it not been done right in the middle of a story. As a result, difference is clear and slightly uncomfortable on the eye.

Another issue that came up from time to time was the lack of division between the vignettes. The Adventures of Superhero Girl is a collection of vignettes, telling episodes from the life of Superhero Girl. The stories are loosely connected chronologically, and have certain motifs present throughout (e.g. Superhero Girl’s search for an arch nemesis, her jealousy of her big brother’s success, etc.), but sometimes reading at the comic’s brisk pace, one can miss the ending of one story until well after the start of the next one. This is partially due to the difference in the stories’ length. While most are multiple-pages-long, others might last for only a page. Here, Hicks’ lack of clear transitions works against her. Although this would have made sense in the original format, in a compilation, this is often confusing and, in the case of the story’s abrupt ending, annoying. In that sense, The Adventures of Superhero Girl cannot be called a proper graphic novel; a collection of short stories would be more appropriate, as short stories can follow the same characters and themes, but do not have to follow any particular order, or be limited to a single plot.

While The Adventures of Superhero Girl has a number of stylistic troubles,, its real strength lies in the content of the narrative itself. While successfully parodying established superhero tropes, Hicks also tells a story about a girl coming of age. Superhero Girl is in her early twenties, living away from home and struggling to establish herself as a superhero—not very successfully—while balancing that with her “real” life. Even while battling ninjas and monsters, she needs to think about finding a job and making new friends, although at one point she admits to having forgotten how to deal with anyone that she doesn’t need to punch. It doesn’t help that her older brother has a far more successful—if conventional—superhero career, and she constantly feels obligated to prove herself and crawl out of his shadow. Her awkwardness and unceasing determination makes for a relatable heroine, one that both the intended audience (8-14) and older readers (especially those of us in our early to mid-twenties who are just beginning on the path of adulthood) will enjoy.

While unbalanced and not well-transitioned from a serial into a graphic novel, The Adventures of Superhero Girl provides for a fun and interesting read. Its strong visuals and thoughtful—often hilarious—content redeem it. While I am not sure that I will ever come back to it, I still find myself satisfied with having read it.