Week 10 (Blaga): Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #11: Read a book set more than 5000 miles from your location

Book: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (2017)

Let me begin by saying this: it is a rare thing for me to buy a brand-new book by an author whose work I have never read before barely a week after the book’s release. Doing so is taking a chance, and that chance does not always produce results. It seems quite appropriate in this case, however, as Pachinko is a story about taking risks and chances (as is the game it is named after) in the battle for survival and success.

The novel takes place over a span of seven decades, across four generations of a single Korean family. It opens in the second decade of the 20th century in Japanese-occupied Korea, and follows the family as they move to Japan, working tirelessly to carve out a life for themselves (spoiler alert: pachinko plays a part in their ability to do so later in the novel). Lee’s third-person narration glides gracefully across time and between different characters’s viewpoints. She delves into the thoughts of her protagonists of course, but also her minor characters, assembling a more complete picture than any single perspective could. She confronts difficult topics directly, outlining the complexity of these issues: nothing in life is black-and-white, and there is more than one angle from which to see things.

Being an immigrant myself, the immigrant narrative central to the story was what originally caught my attention. As expected, I encountered some themes that were familiar from my own life: the difficulty of learning a new language and functioning in a different society; the difficulty of building an entirely new life; and (at least for the younger generations) the struggle for finding one’s identity when belonging to two cultures -the culture of origin and the culture one lives in.

Yet these are only a few of the issues that the Baek family encounter throughout their journey. As Korean Christians living in Japan, they encounter discrimination on multiple levels. On one hand, Christianity is not looked upon favorably by the Japanese government. Thus, when a member of the family fails to perform a ritual worshiping the Emperor because it is against his faith, he ends up imprisoned, to be released only shortly before his death two years later. At the same time, Koreans are treated as second-class citizens. After Japan withdraws from Korea, the legal status of immigrants becomes a problem, even for those born in Japan; yet Lee makes it clear that this is not only a problem in Japan. As one of the protagonists remarks,”In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastard, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make, or how nice I am.”

While we observe the characters’ lives, we also get a glimpse of the region’s history. A sign of a good historical novel is that it humanizes rather than merely recounting the facts. Lee accomplishes this masterfully, as she demonstrates that national events can have far-reaching effects on the lives of her characters. The reader gets to experience the atomic bombings and their long-term health consequences through the eyes of a family member working in Nagasaki who has the misfortune of getting severely burned, leaving him in pain for the remainder of his life. As Japan surrenders and later withdraws from Korea, leaving it in turmoil, Lee notes: “At least here [in Japan], the Americans were still in charge, so the women were able to find sugar and wheat.” Lee presents a perspective of Korea and of the US occupation of Japan in the aftermath of the war that transcends mere dates, facts, and figures to illuminate the human experience.

When I picked up this book I knew little about the shared history between Korea and Japan, and even less about the Korean community in Japan. Initially this was daunting, yet Lee’s mastery of the craft allowed me to engage with this foreign world in a way that felt almost familiar. In the end, I learned a lot and enjoyed a heartfelt story with complex characters. This is my favorite book of the year so far. I heartily recommend it.

Week 9 (Sam): Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

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Reader: Sam

Topic #11: Read a book set more than 5000 miles from your location

Book: Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis
Publisher: John Lane, The Bodley Head (1938)

 

Dr. Ransom, a renowned British philologist, is enjoying a quiet holiday hiking in the English countryside when a chance encounter with two of his fellow academics sends him careening through outer space, against his will, on what may be the greatest journey any human being has ever taken. His holiday, originally intended to span a hundred miles at the most, brings him more than thirty million miles from home. Lost and terrified on an alien world, if Ransom is going to survive long enough to find a way back home, he will have to rely on something far greater than his intelligence or instinct; he will have to rely on his capacity for change.

Originally published in 1938, more than two decades before any human being ever left earth’s atmosphere, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction journey embodies a childlike wonder about the possibilities that the world above our skies might offer. Like a lot of space travel fiction of the era, it benefits from being written after the theoretical science of space travel was decently understood but before it had been achieved. The awe-inspiring beauty of outer space and extraterrestrial landscapes are not simply a pleasant background detail in a story concerned with other things; awe-inspiring beauty is the whole point of the story. It is the driving force behind most of what the characters do, and whether or not Ransom, humanity’s overburdened surrogate, is even capable of making sense of the beauty surrounding him is the central dramatic question. This is not an adventure story. It’s the story of one man, faced with what is plainly impossible and forced to confront the fact that it is real nevertheless.

Because the book is so much about discovering a new and startling world, it’s appreciated that the planet of Malacandra and the creatures that live on it come off as fresh and original even after the better part of a century. The planet’s unique ecosystem, along with its considerably weaker gravity, has produced lifeforms that could never survive on earth, but who are well-adapted to the jagged hills and balmy rivers of their own planet. Thanks to the expertise of our philologist protagonist, the story is concerned with not just the biology, but the language and culture of the intelligent aliens Ransom meets. While it may strain my suspension of disbelief that he can pick up extraterrestrial languages in a matter of weeks, the alien ethnographies that his language proficiency allows are a highlight of the book.

While Ransom may catalog the phenomena he can understand, the story’s gaze is always turned skyward, toward things that he might never understand. How is it that the eldila, the invisible, yet omnipresent inhabitants of the stars, can exist in all places at once? How can Oyarsa, the revered ruler of the planet, be older than human civilization? Most importantly, why is planet Earth spoken of in such, hushed, worried tones, as the “Silent Planet,” where nobody has been for eons? Ransom gets a few answers, but when it comes to the true nature of the universe, he is left mostly with questions that an extraterrestrial journey will never be enough to explain.

Reading the book as Christian allegory fills in some of the gaps in the world that Lewis has built, but never in a way that interferes with the fundamental sense of mystery that hangs over Ransom’s journey. This is a more original and bold allegory than Lewis ever pulled off in his Narnia series, so going into the book with a basic understanding of the author’s theology allowed me to enjoy it far more than I might have ordinarily. By fusing the strangeness of science fiction with Christian theological concepts, he successfully re-mystifies a religion that might, to some, feel mundane. I can only speculate on how it would be perceived at the time of its publication, but for me in the present, this book swept away stale images of haloed and winged figures in white robes living in white-marble buildings on the top of the clouds, and replaced them with surprising and eerie strangeness that sticks with me after the last page.

In his pursuit of a perfectly constructed allegory, he allowed his protagonist, Ransom, to remain fairly forgettable. His arc of interplanetary and self-discovery could have been much more engaging if it ever felt like he was have trouble with it, but it seems more like it was only a matter of time. Regardless of what Lewis is trying to say about religion, just doesn’t grab the reader like a more deeply-flawed character.

Final Grade: A-

 

Week 8 (Blaga): The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick*

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #10: Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.

Book: The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2008)

*TW: mental illness, suicide

When Pat Peoples, a former high school history teacher and a big Eagles fan, is taken home from the mental institution where he has spent the last four years by his mother, he barely remembers anything that has transpired while he was at “bad place.” What he does know, however, is that he is currently spending “apart time” from his wife Nikki. Pat believes in silver linings, and sees life as a movie, to which he hopes there will be a happy ending as a result of his learning to be kind (“be nice, not right”) and get into shape (he exercises for hours every day). All the while he has to navigate his old world and regain his sense of independence and identity, reconnecting with his sweet mother, his father and younger brother (who are huge Eagles fans), his best friend Ronnie, developing new bonds towards his therapist (also a great Eagles fan) and his best friend’s sister-in-law Tiffany.

I will be honest, I was both excited and cautious when it came to this book. Like many people, I watched the movie before reading the source material, and part of me expected to know exactly how this story would develop. I was also worried about how it would treat the subject of mental illness. I must say that on both counts I was pleasantly surprised. The book is rather different from the movie, and the differences add nuance and depth to the story and keep the reader engaged and curious.

The story is told mostly from Pat’s point of view. His simple voice (almost child-like at times) makes the story a lot more readable, especially when he reflects upon a number of serious subjects, such as mental illness, suicide (briefly, in one chapter), physical violence (briefly), and the distant character of Pat’s father (whose moods are heavily dependent upon the success of the Eagles). Although the pace of the narrative is quick and the tone relatively light, this does not diminish the seriousness of the subjects. I especially appreciated the contrast Quick established between Pat and some of his loved ones on the subject, one example being their (and other Eagles fans’) mockery of a former Eagles player who overdosed on medication. When they present this as a joke and note that the given player makes millions of dollars to endure this reaction from the public, Pat is disturbed, as he sympathizes with the player and wonders how he might truly feel on the inside and whether he has indeed improved. What does this make him, he wonders, as he too is suffering from mental illness and is on medication.

Another instance that stands out. Pat, Ronnie, Ronnie’s wife Veronica, their toddler daughter Emily, and Tiffany all go to the beach. When Tiffany loses her temper, she and her sister leave Ronnie, Pat and Emily alone. Ronnie falls asleep and Pat takes Emily to the water, floating with her on the waves. They return to the beach to Veronica screaming in panic, and fighting with Ronnie for leaving Emily with “him.”  This incident stood out to me for two reasons. On one hand, I felt like I could sympathize with Veronica, who acts out of of concern for her child. on the other hand, throughout the book, both she and Ronnie act as if there is nothing wrong with Pat, while they clearly have their opinions and concerns about him. He has, after all, spent four years in a mental institution and still has to go to therapy and take medication. Yet the pretense is very wrong, and I appreciated the way Quick addressed it.

Quick also pleasantly surprised me through the way he incorporates NFL football into the story. I will admit, I do not watch American football (a soccer fan myself; Go Barcelona!). Although I am somewhat familiar with the rules, I worried about how that would impact my understanding of and relationship to the book. While football is a huge  presence, however, Quick successfully ties it into Pat’s relationships with those closest to him. Even as a non-fan, I could comfortably enjoy the use of football in the book.

The Silver Linings Playbook has gotten a lot of positive and negative reactions – it does seem to be the type of book that would elicit a strong response. Personally, I am glad that I got the chance to read it as part of this challenge. I enjoyed it and found it to be better than its on-screen adaptation. I recommend giving it a chance.

Week 7 (Sam): Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

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Reader: Sam

Topic #10: Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.

Book: Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, 2012

It’s 1765 and the city of Boston is somewhere between a proper British city and a patch of lawless wilderness. Although there are many wealthy men who live in the city’s richer neighborhoods–most of them with connections to the old world–the city effectively has no dedicated police force to protect their property and interests. Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker, his job to recover stolen items and–if possible–dispose of those who stole them. He’s a conjurer as well, capable of healing his injuries or producing illusions with only a few words and a bit of blood, but he tries to use his powers carefully; they may not hunt conjurers as stubbornly as they did during the witch trials, but he’ll still end up hanging from the gallows if the wrong person sees him casting a spell. However, after accepting a job from a particularly well-connected Bostonian whose daughter was murdered in an apparent street-robbery, Ethan may no longer have the choice to lay low. As the streets boil over with increasingly violent resentment toward the Crown and a mysterious conjurer with frightening powers enacts a deadly plan, it will take all of his spells, his courage, and his wits if he wants to keep himself and his loved ones alive.

I picked up this book because I’ve lived near Boston my whole life, and I’m always happy to have an excuse to read about it. Life in Jackson’s ever-so-slightly-alternate colonial Boston maintains a comfortable middle point between overly detailed and vague. Little passages about the feel of the cobblestones underfoot or how tasty this new “clam chowder” dish tastes are peppered throughout the story and give the reader a sense of the city without ever really dropping into exposition. The fact that the real colonial Boston didn’t have any wizards living in it (or indeed, any thieftakers, as Jackson himself notes in a brief afterword) does nothing to disrupt the fact that the Boston we’re reading about seems very real, at least to a layman.

Sadly, Thieftaker is a crime procedural that seems ill-equipped for the job. There’s nothing really wrong with any single part of the mystery; it makes perfect sense, there are a number of suspects, and our hero figures out the truth based on the clues he finds. But it hardly matters, because the investigation is equal parts uneventful and predictable. Ethan wanders around Boston interviewing a set of forgettable characters, most of whom have little to say that will help his investigation, and more than one of which Jackson could have cut without changing the mystery in any way. Whenever there’s an important clue, its ramifications on the case are immediately obvious. It doesn’t help that the book is front-loaded with the most important clues first, so the reader is likely to solve the crime with half the book still left to go, leaving our lead detective far behind. The identity of the culprit is the one mystery that isn’t particularly obvious, but it’s not an especially interesting reveal either, since the killer is one of a dozen characters that leave almost no impression. To be sure, Thieftaker isn’t only a crime procedural, but that’s easily the largest component of the narrative, and the fact that it’s no good at it sabotages the reader’s engagement with the story as a whole.

Thieftaker is much more successful when it turns thriller, with Ethan running for his life from hardened criminals and cold-blooded conjurers. Ethan spends most of the book avoiding rival-thieftaker Sephira Pryce, who already has a habit of beating him half-dead and robbing him blind and is plainly starting to wonder if she should get rid of Ethan for good. She’s not the only one hunting Ethan through the cobbled streets. A conjurer whose powers completely outclass Ethan’s is lurking in the shadows, and whoever they are, they want Ethan to give up on the case and they’re willing to make his life hell until he does. The conjurer and Pryce are probably the best things Thieftaker has going for it. Together, their aura of menace hangs over everything, and regardless of where Ethan is, or what spells he is prepared to cast, he never seems truly safe.

There are a number of characters in this book whose presence seems intended to make Ethan’s life feel more real: friends, lovers, ex-lovers. Ultimately, most of these characters simply feel out of place since there isn’t enough time to get to know them. None of them are actually annoying or poorly written, but several of them–like the people Ethan interrogates about the crime–could have been removed without making much difference. For example, Ethan has a sister who disapproves of his spellcasting on religious grounds, which may sound like a recipe for character conflict but after she’s introduced in a scene within the first sixty pages, she vanishes from the rest of the book completely. Worse, about halfway through, Ethan visits his ex-fiance and her children–the former having been vaguely mentioned and the latter having never been mentioned before–and we learn that he has a deep emotional bond with the children. The fact that one of the pillars of Ethan’s emotional life goes unmentioned for the first hundred and thirty pages is frankly baffling, and the message it sends to the reader is disastrous for the characterization of the protagonist: don’t bother trying to understand Ethan on a subtextual level, because at any moment, the author might introduce a new relationship that will change everything.

The system of spellcasting in this world is simple, satisfying, and has some fun little details. To cast spells, you must offer something as fuel. Ethan specializes in using his own blood, but it’s possible to draw magic out of almost anything from the natural world, albeit with varied results. We don’t see many other sources for magic, but I get the sense that the world is full of conjurers whose magic is entirely different from protagonist’s and that bit of world building makes everything just a little bit more exciting. I’m particularly fond of the fact that every conjurer has their own pet ghost who appears whenever they cast spells and stands mutely behind them, visible only to other conjurers.

In the end, a couple menacing villains and a fairly promising system of magic isn’t enough to make this book work. I was never annoyed or tempted to stop reading, but I can’t say I had a great time. If you desperately want to read a magical crime story set in colonial Boston, you could do worse. Otherwise, I’d forget about this one.

Final Grade: D+

Week 6 (Blaga): 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #3: Read a book about books

Book: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
Publisher: Sphere, 2007 ( Originally published by Grossman, 1970)

In October 1950, NYC-based writer Helene Hanff  approaches a small London bookstore (Marks & Co.), inquiring about some books. She is a “poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books,” she explains in her letter, “and all the things [she] want[s] are impossible to get here,” at least in a format affordable or satisfactory to her. So begins 84 Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir consisting of selections of the 20-year correspondence between Hanff and the staff of Marks & Co., chief among which is the bookseller Frank Doel (which, if you are wondering how to pronounce it, he helpfully explains rhymes with “Noel”).

For a work recording a 20-year correspondence, 84 Charing Cross Road is in fact quite short (less than 200 pages). It is not perfect – for example, some letters are missing (as is to be expected given the length of the period of time in which they were exchanged – a lot happens in 20 years!). The discussed material, especially prices of books, can also be a little confusing. Just as Hanff herself needs English pounds to be “translated” into dollars, for example, so we may need to translate 1950s/60s/70s values into modern equivalents maybe once to get a sense of how much everything would actually cost – after all, it makes no sense for a first edition of Newman’s Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, dating to the 1850s, to cost $6 a hundred years later – except in 2017 this amounts to approx. $60, which is much more reasonable.

An interesting, albeit expected, perk of the book, is that it records historical events and circumstances.  For example, we get to learn (or, in my case, be reminded) through it that up until the mid- 50s food was still rationed in Britain (as a consequence of WWII). Hanff, knowing about the rations, sends her friends in London parcels of food with goodies such as eggs and ham for the major holidays until the rationing ends in 1954. The letters also discuss the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 (the first such to be televised, and both the staff of Marks & Co and Hanff take advantage of that).  In 1960, Hanff makes a joke about Nixon and Kennedy, reflecting on the famous election. These details are not only interesting for establishing a background or even for learning a little bit of history. Rather, the letters add more dimension to the historical events, reminding us that real people lived through and experienced them.

Hanff’s witty and quite candid voice and humor balance wonderfully with Doel’s somewhat more constrained voice, resulting in some hilarious exchanges, such as Doel remarking “I must tell you that one of the young inmates here confessed that until he read your letter he never knew that England had ever owned ‘the States.'” The warmth of their friendship is touching and one of the book’s biggest assets, the other one being their discussion of books. Hanff in particular produced some invaluable gems. For example, after reading Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of Catullus (whose poetry can be particularly racy at times), she exclaims: “This one got knighted for tuning Catullus – caTULLus – into Victorian hearts-and-flowers.” On another occasion, after successfully receiving Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America (1831–1832), she announces: “He sits around looking smug because everything he said were true…”

My relationship with this book has been an interesting one, beginning with the moment that I discovered it. I was on a very brief visit to Oxford at the time, and decided to stop by one of their landmark bookstores – Blackwell’s – where this book happened to be neatly displayed. I had not heard of Hanff nor her work before this, but the book’s cover caught my attention, and its blurb convinced me to purchase it. It still strikes me as slightly odd that I, an American, bought in Britain a book about an American writer’s correspondence with a (sadly no longer existing) British bookstore. The actual contents of the book touched me on an even more personal level, however. At the time that I discovered it, I had been living back in the United States for a mere three months after spending a year in the United Kingdom while pursuing my Master’s Degree. Hanff never had the chance to visit the UK before 84 Charing Cross Road‘s publication, but, as evident in the book, she forged and maintained strong friendships there. Perhaps this is my own way of reflecting on the events in my life during the past year, yet the endless parallels I found in this book’s contents, 50 years after its publication, made me love it that much more. And although, like Hanff, I do not often buy books I have not read, there is no question that this was a correct choice. Between the humor, friendship, historical references, and love for books, 84 Charing Cross Road is a small, invaluable gem. I strongly recommend it.

Week 5 (Sam): The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

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Reader: Sam

Topic #3: Read a book about books

Book: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (from the Thursday Next series)

The year is 1985 and England is in a difficult spot. There are the usual border tensions with the Republic of Wales, of course, but there’s also rioting in the street over the legalization of surrealism, as well as escalating hostilities with Russia as the Crimean War approaches its 132nd year. Officer Thursday Next of SpecOps 27–whose duties consist of investigating crimes against literature–has troubles of her own. Even a decade later, she’s still reeling from the brother she lost in Crimea. She’s crippled by loneliness, and yet, she has no idea how to build a personal life. Even her career seems to be stalling out. However, when Acheron Hades, the third-most-wanted criminal on Earth and Thursday’s former English professor, steals a device that can transport people into the world of books, only Thursday has the brains, the courage and the sheer stubbornness to protect England’s most beloved works of literature from meeting a terrible fate.

Although The Eyre Affair revels in the absurd, it benefits from a grounding in police thriller tropes. While the literature-obsessed England of Jasper Fforde’s imagination–controlled by a sinister mega-corporation and vulnerable to inexplicable holes in the space-time continuum–may be unfamiliar, this is a very conventional story at its heart. Thursday Next is a familiar protagonist: she has a cool head for detective work, but an itchy trigger finger in a firefight and an indomitable will to get the job done, whatever the job may be. If she’s going to defend the English literary canon and rescue her kidnapped mad-scientist uncle from Hades, she’s also going to have to fight the pencil-pushers in her own department, who are trying to rein her in. It’s like a story straight out of 1970s TV, and that’s just fine. Because the world itself is unfamiliar, and delights in surprising the reader even hundreds of pages in, it’s important that the reader has a recognizable narrative to follow and a protagonist that’s easy to root for.

The book has a brisk pace which I appreciate, but it sometimes comes at a heavy cost. With so many alternate-history details and science fiction elements packed into less than four hundred pages, passages that would benefit from a little more space get trimmed down to the barest essentials, becoming something more like summary. I would have been happy to spend another hundred pages with Thursday Next, and it’s obvious that Fforde could have used them. The denouement was particularly rushed, with Thursday steered rapidly from scene to scene to resolve as many subplots as possible without giving the reader time to really savor any of them.

Other than the appealing simplicity of Thursday as a protagonist, most of the cast is rather forgettable, serving their roles and leaving no real impression. In theory, several of them should be interesting, including Thursday’s clergyman brother and her vampire-hunting coworker, but neither of them actually do very much, and their presence comes off more like an excuse for tangential world-building than for any kind of drama. On a similar note, Acheron Hades is one of the most conceptually interesting villains I’ve ever seen in a book: a man so skilled in deception that his ability to lie transcends common sense. He can convince almost anyone to do almost anything, no matter how terrible. What’s more, he can even lie about his appearance, effectively disguising himself at will. And yet, in terms of his actual characterization, Hades is pretty unremarkable. A lot of his schemes would be just as appropriate in the hands of someone without his supernatural advantages, which feels like a terrible waste of his potential.

That said, The Eyre Affair sparkles with cheerful creativity. Alternate-timeline England is full of jokes that book lovers everywhere will appreciate, one of my personal favorites being how easy it is to start a conversation with a stranger on the true authorship of Shakespeare. The fact that characters can literally walk into books is also a great deal of fun. Although that element was used more sparingly than I would have liked, it culminates in a somewhat rushed but still spectacular climax. As a world-builder, whether it’s something plot-crucial or the most cursory of details, Fforde has a knack for coming up with something unexpected every time.

Final Grade: C+

Week 4 (Blaga): 1984, by George Orwell

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #7: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.

Book: 1984, by George Orwell

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , 2013 (originally published by Secker & Warburg, 1949)

What makes a classic a classic? There was a time when I thought that it was its age; after all, books that have achieved such a status generally come from bygone ages. The age of a classic, however, should rather be an emblem of its enduring significance. George Orwell’s 1984 is a fine example of this, for his discussion of power, language, and truth is universal – it applies to today’s reality as much as it did in 1949, when the book was published.

The novel takes place sometime around 1984 in Oceania,  one of three world states which “comprises the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia and the southern portion of Africa.” Oceania is ruled by the Party, the regime of which is absolute: as the famous quote indicates, “Big Brother is Watching You” – and indeed its citizens are closely monitored as to make sure that they do not commit any crime – even in thought, for “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: it IS death.” The world that Orwell creates is nightmarish. The government closely watches one’s moves, teaches children to spy on and betray their parents, and makes sure that pleasure and free thought are not exercised.

The story’s protagonist is Winston Smith, a grumpy, middle-aged, middle-class Outer-Party member who lives in London, where he works as an editor at the Ministry of Truth, one of the four Ministries (The Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of  Plenty). His job is to adjust the written record.  Information is always tailored to the Party’s standards, facts changed in its favor, and all evidence to the contrary is destroyed, any memory to the contrary deemed a false memory or a hallucination. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” explains Orwell. The safety of written (or visual) records is false, as records can easily be destroyed or changed by those in power.

The question is not how possible can it be for someone to work in a ministry which concerns itself with propaganda and not be aware of what is going on. It is, rather, whether it is possible to be so dedicated to the cause that it would not matter. For Orwell, when faced with a choice between happiness and freedom, most would choose happiness, no matter the cost. It is a survival instinct. As Winston learns by the end of the novel, “Sanity is statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.” It could be argued that he knows that from the very beginning; he certainly knows that any form of rebellion on his side will be unsuccessful and likely result in death. What he does not know, however, is that death is the least of it, almost a relief in fact, for before death the Ministry of Love proceeds to fully exorcise a rebel’s capability of thought and emotion, until only complete loyalty and – yes, love – for the Party remains.

The book has three parts: Part I, in which the setting is sketched out and Winston cautiously decides to break the law. Part II, in which Winston begins a forbidden relationship with a fellow Party-member and rebel, and grows bolder. He thinks for himself, analyzes all that is wrong with the Party’s regime, and wishes to help destroy it. Part III, in which Winston is held at the Ministry of Love. Orwell’s writing is very analytical – Winston’s thoughts and most of the dialogue within the book is a meditation on the human condition, on power, language, and truth.

Language is particularly key for Orwell, who discussed politics’ impact on it in an earlier essay, called “Politics and the English Language”. The principles he outlines in the essay are reflected in this novel, not only through the paradoxes he introduces (such as The Ministry of Truth being the one that engages in matters of propaganda), but  also through the fact that 1984  is very readable. Orwell’s observations are very much on point; he drives them even deeper by detailing them in a clear, precise language.

This is one of the most thought-provoking pieces of literature that I have ever read. It is dark and can feel hopeless, but its discussion of language, power, and human nature are worth considering. In the end, I think that it is something that everyone ought to read at least once, especially at a time of political turmoil and uncertainty such as the one we live in now.

Week 3 (Sam) The Man in the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie

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Reader: Sam

Topic #7: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.

Book: The Man in the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2012 (originally published by The Bodley Head, 1924)

Of all the challenges to my philosophy of criticism, which emphasizes character writing, quality of prose and thematic depth, the Agatha Christie mysteries are probably the greatest. Some of my personal favorites end up with mediocre grades, because their aims are not to tell great stories, but to share interesting puzzles with the reader. Although I may need to rethink my methods in general, The Man in the Brown Suit doesn’t have this problem. In fact, this mystery/adventure story hybrid is now among my favorite Agatha Christies.

Anne Beddingfeld, recently orphaned and with eighty-seven pounds to her name (which isn’t much, even in the 1920s) embarks on a voyage to South Africa on the trail of a mysterious murderer, partly to get herself a job as a reporter, but mostly to satisfy her incorrigible hunger for adventure. Armed with her abnormally sharp wits and little else, she must navigate a maze of intrigue as each step leads her closer to both the truth and to terrible danger.

This is the most unapologetically cheesy book I’ve read in a long time and I adore it. It’s got clandestine meetings, elaborate disguises, diamond smuggling, budding romances between sharp-tongued women and broodingly handsome young men. The romance aspect to this book is particularly entertaining coming from Agatha Christie after all the time I’ve spent with her famous Hercule Poirot, who goes together with romance like oil and water. Anne has not one, but two different romantic interests, and honestly, you could make an argument for there being a third. At this point, it feels more like a dating sim than an Agatha Christie book! I’m not complaining though. This is just another bit of welcome melodrama in a larger-than-life adventure.

This is one of the earliest books of Christie’s that I’ve read, and it makes me wonder whether her prose lost a little of its magic as the decades rolled by. For whatever reason, The Man in the Brown Suit is simply a great joy to read. Anne’s narration is dripping with dry humor, but is still told with an effortless precision and eye for detail–this second part being important for a mystery story. I was smiling through the first few pages in particular, and quickly found myself rooting for Anne to discover the truth and get that newspaper job. As the story goes on, however, and the book becomes more about what’s happening and less about Anne’s role in events, her unique voice fades into the background. Still, the character manages to coast on the good-will she earned at the beginning, and the absence doesn’t harm the book in any fundamental way. While we’re talking about narrators, there’s actually a second narrator, in the form of excerpts from the diary of one of Anne’s travelling companions. Having a second narrator could have been messy and pointless, but ultimately, I’m happy to say it slips into the story seamlessly. It doesn’t hurt that the second narrator is another one of Christie’s funnier character, a lazy, overly-pampered aristocrat with a tongue just as sharp as Anne’s.

Although I had fun with the characters, and I enjoyed the cheesy, adventure-story stuff, ultimately The Man in the Brown Suit delivers on its mystery as well. The identity of the true culprit, a murdering, diamond-smuggling, arms-dealing menace known only as “the Colonel,” was an unusually sneaky puzzle. I grasped at several red herrings and only guessed at the truth a few pages before the reveal. I’d say they rank among my favorite Agatha Christie culprits, and off the top of my head, only the culprits from Crooked House and The ABC Murders outranked them. It’s not the most in-depth mystery, or the most cerebral one, but it has a hand to play and plays it well.

For those wondering, although the story takes place largely in South Africa, this mostly serves as exotic set dressing for a story that just wants you to have a great time. One should never begin a work of 1920s British literature expecting it to satisfy modern standards for diversity, but it’s still disconcerting to see native Africans and Dutch settlers, in the rare event that they appear, reduced to nothing more than pawns in a game played by smarter Englishmen and women. I won’t hold the book accountable for what amounts to a moral oversight by Christie, but modern readers should be advised that they might find the lack of diversity annoying.

Other than The Big Four, an intentional send-up of this kind of adventure story, I had no idea that Christie had written anything like this. It seems like a real shame to me that she didn’t do much in this vein again, because it’s wonderful.

Final Grade: B+

 

Week 2 (Blaga): In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, by Pete Jordan

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #1: Read a book about sports.

Book: In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, by Pete Jordan (Harper Perennial, 2013)

In 2002, Pete Jordan decided to study urban planning at the University of Amsterdam, knowing, by his own admission, almost nothing about Holland’s history or culture except that the Dutch like bicycles. A self-professed “bike-nut, who had lived and cycled in cities all across America”, Jordan quickly fell in love and decided to permanently move to Amsterdam, soon joined by his wife and fellow cycling-lover Amy Joy.

In the City of Bikes is part memoir, part love letter to cycling, part history of Amsterdam and its cycling culture. When I say history, I mean from the late 1800s to present day, decade by decade. While recounting his own bike-related experiences from his first years of living in the Netherlands, Jordan tackles a wide range of topics such as – among others – bike theft (and its own history), terms – especially animal ones – with which Amsterdam cyclists have been described, and the role of cyclists in the army (there was an actual Cyclists Unit) and in the Resistance during the years of the Nazi Occupation. He also tries to understand how the bicycle lost its popularity in the United States, despite being widely used at the turn of the century (hint: cars and long distances play a large role, although naturally the reasons are more numerous and complicated than that – so much so that they have an entire chapter dedicated to them).

The book at times is heavy on data and quotations – certainly testimony to Jordan’s dedication and thorough research – and can therefore feel a bit dry. Just when you are ready to throw your hands up in frustration, however, Jordan manages to draw you back in by including an engaging anecdote. Thus, we get to learn, for example, a great deal about Queen Wilhelmina’s own love for riding her bike, especially among the people like any regular person. And, as this is a memoir, we get a glimpse of Jordan’s own life (his first job working as a janitor, his wife becoming a bicycle mechanic and eventually acquiring her own shop, the birth of their son and more) and his reflections on Amsterdam’s culture through the lens of cycling. His intelligent observations about the cultural differences between the Dutch and the Americans were something which I appreciated and connected to especially, being an immigrant myself.

Jordan seems to be at ease writing memoirs on seemingly odd topics, which provide interesting and poignant cultural commentary. His first book, Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (Harper Perennial, 2007), based on the zine of the same title that he published under the pen name Dishwasher Pete, chronicles his experiences as he moved around a country for a decade trying to wash dishes in all 50 states. His first book was praised for its “exploration of the dishwashing subculture,” (Booklist). This book, I think, ought to be praised for its presentation of Amsterdam’s culture. Although a little dry at times, the book has something for everyone. This is a fantastic guide to understanding the city – and navigating it safely and efficiently. The author’s enthusiasm about bikes is clear and, frankly, contagious – no matter whether you cycle or not.

Personally, I have been to Amsterdam only once and for a very short period of time, so I haven’t managed to appreciate it fully just yet. After reading this book, I definitely want to go back, rent a bike and give the city the attention it deserves.

Week 1 (Sam) – “The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles” by Jon Bois

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Reader: Sam

Topic #1: Read a book about sports.

Book: The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles by Jon Bois

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Former-NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has just been fired from the Patriots and doesn’t know what to do. He loves American Football more than anything, but it seems as though his glory days–which were never that glorious anyway–are behind him. So, he signs a contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He doesn’t really expect much from the job, just hopes that it will be a step toward something bigger and better. His hopes will not be in vain, because although he will only play one game as a CFL quarterback, he will look back on that game as the greatest that he–or anyone else, for that matter–has ever played.

For those who don’t know, Tim Tebow is a real former-NFL quarterback, and author Jon Bois draws on his legacy to form the emotional core of the story, before hurling us recklessly into a world of utter insanity, the result being among the funniest, most heartfelt, and most rewarding works of the absurd that I have ever read. Canada is a ludicrous fantasy world where cell phones have been replaced by city-wide networks of voice-pipes, where ordinary people have superhuman endurance and where games of football can–very occasionally–spill out from the stadiums and into the streets.

“Canada is weird” is hardly an original joke, but Bois gives it new life.This is partly because his imagination is so vibrant, but that’s only half of the story. Like in most great comedies, the jokes land so well because they are tied up in actual character drama. All Tim Tebow wants is someplace quiet to recuperate from his embarrassment in the NFL while he figures out what he’s going to do with his life. Instead, he’s thrown into headlong into a world he cannot understand, to play a game that resembles the football he knows, but is unimaginably different in unexpected ways. The result is hilarious, but also makes me feel for Tebow, whose anxieties are understated but very real.

The main draw of this book is the sheer madness of the game that they’re playing, as well as the strategies Tebow and his fellow Argonauts employ to adapt to it. Bois has a firm sense of fair play, and as preposterous as the rules are, they are rigidly defined for the most part. Occasionally, I had to look up a bit of football terminology, but even a football-layman like me could follow along as Tebow and his opponents try to take advantage of loopholes in the 250,000 page CFL rulebook.

Although the surreal jokes and the battles of wits are what pulled me into the story, what will stick with me more is what the story eventually becomes once the novelty wears out and an eerie loneliness takes hold of everything. When I noticed it, creeping in from the edges, I realized that it had always been there, just waiting for its chance. “What is the point of football?” the story asks, but there’s another, deeper, darker question underneath, one that it’s almost too frightened to ask: “What’s the point of being alive?”

Enough of the heavy stuff! Here are some quotes out of context:

“I buckle down, ready to fight. I don’t think anyone’s fought wolves in a football uniform, so what the Hell, let’s see what happens.”

“I pride myself on being the first player in the history of football to get drunk in the middle of the play.“

“The Toronto Argonauts have had their time. Untie me, present me with the ball, and accept your fate!”

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Final Grade: A

Wow! I gave an “A” to the very first book. I’m actually pretty surprised. Let’s hope for more books on this level.

The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles is a free web novella. You can find it right here.