American War – Omar El Akkad

“So? Wouldn’t you, if you had no stake in it?”
“Nobody has no stake it in,” said Sarat.

They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

The Second American Civil War broke out in the year 2074, months after the Daniel Ki, president of United States and driving force behind the fossil fuel ban of 2069, was assassinated by the secessionist suicide bomber Julia Templestowe in Jackson, Mississippi. Rebellion in South Carolina came to an abrupt end after the introduction of a contaminant that forced the entire state to be quarantined by both sides, but Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi formally declared themselves the Free Southern States with its capital in Atlanta on October 1 2074, surrounded by a ring of purple states and blockaded by the Blue.

The southern cause is barely held together by regional identity, foreign aid, and a defiant loyalty to the now-banned fossil fuels. Northern “Birds” (drones) rain fire from the sky, displacing southerners to refugee camps such as Patience, while the south is reduced to striking back with suicide attacks, after the conclusion of the bloody battles in the oil fields of Texas (now a Mexican protectorate). That is, until the reunification ceremony after the war in which a suicide attack unleashes a deadly plague that kills millions of people across the country.

American War tells the story of the second American Civil War through the experiences of the Chestnut family, interspersed with reports, articles, and government documents.

Sarat Chestnut is about five when the war breaks out, living near the broad Mississippi river in southern Louisiana with her parents, brother Simon, and twin sister Dana. She loves her home, but her life changes one day when her father goes to a government office seeking a work permit to move the family further north. He never returns, killed in a suicide attack, and when it looks like the war is going to become active by the family home, Sarat’s mother accepts the offer of the Free Southern States to relocate her family to the Patience Refugee Camp in Mississippi.

Sarat is radicalized at Camp Patience by a recruiter named Albert Gaines, and her righteous rage comes fully into bloom when northern troops appear in the camp and massacre many of its residents for harboring southern fighters. As survivors of the massacre, Sarat, her twin sister, and brother (who miraculously survived being shot) are given a house in Georgia where she lives until rounded up by a Blue raid and imprisoned in Sugarloaf detention facility in the Florida Sea for the duration of the war.

American War is an allegory for our time. The future conjured by American War is evident from the opening pages when a map indicates that rising sea levels have erased Florida and sheared off much of the east coast, leading to the new US Capital in Columbus, Ohio. Much of the southwest, including Florida has been ceded as a protectorate to Mexico and, of course, there is the secessionist territory. And yet, this is all setting.

Omar El Akkad’s strongest point is setting a familiar Middle Eastern story of circling drones, refugee camps, suicide attacks, and radicalization in America. There is no reason why Sarat ought to become a fanatic for the southern cause, and yet she does. Thus, we see, this is not something unique to Muslims, but consequences of the circumstances that are exacerbated my US military action and an inability to, as they say, win hearts and minds. To drive home this point, we are introduced to “Joe” (Yousef), a friend of Albert Gaines and minister in the ascendant Bouazizi Empire that has been providing most of the humanitarian aid publicly and weapons privately to the Free South. He explains their motivations to Sarat:

“It doesn’t really matter to you, does it,” she asked, “who wins this war?”

“No. It does not.”

“Then why? Why be a part of it?”

“I came from a new place, Sarat.” Yousef said. “My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fail. I think by now you understand that, if it were the other way around—if the south was on the verge of winning—perhaps I would be having this conversation in Pittsburgh or Columbus. I don’t want to lie to you, Sarat: this is a matter of self-interest, nothing more.”

Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”

“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”

For as much as I loved American War, I had one major issue with its insight into America: race. Sarat and her siblings are half-Mexican and half-African American operating in a south that in my mind was still dominated by a white aristocracy, and yet there is more clucking over the possibility of the latent Catholicism from their father than there is about race. In fact, there was just one scene, where a Mormon man balks at entering a predominantly African American neighborhood on the grounds that he would not be welcome where the issue of race came to the forefront. By and large sexuality and ethnicity are the two categories that, in as far as they work in the story, there is broad acceptance. The former I believe because it is performed in private, the latter is not. The lack of discussion in this regard might be explained by the story through Sarat’s perspective wherein she becomes a celebrated agent for those in the know, but this was not always the case. The cotton fields of the south might be gone, but it took a suspension of disbelief to accept that the scars of the US history with race were so easily healed through collective intransigence over fossil fuels.

Despite the singular ray of hope for a post-racial America in this grim dystopian future, American War is a brilliant debut novel that ought to be read and internalized by everyone making US foreign policy decisions.

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I couldn’t decide which novel to read next, so I ended up starting a collection of essays by Albert Camus, including The Myth of Sisyphus instead.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

“That’s an interesting idea,” he says. “I’ve always thought time was a little bit iffy, myself.”

Ruth is a novelist living on a remote island in British Columbia with her husband Oliver and their cat she calls Pest. She is struggling to find words for her latest book, a memoir, when she finds a curious package washed up on shore after a storm. The Hello Kitty lunchbox contains the diary of a teenage girl from Japan tucked inside the covers of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, along with assorted other mementos. Suspecting the diary to be detritus from the 2011 tsunami, Ruth begins to read only to discover a mystery.

The diary belongs to Nao. She grew up in Sunnyvale California during the dot-com boom, but when her father’s company laid him off they returned to Japan where she was an outsider, brutalized psychologically and physically by classmates and totally without friends. Making matters worse, they went from affluence to poverty, her father attempted suicide, and Nao fell in with call girls. She declares her intention to kill herself, too, but only after telling the story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a 104-year old “anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era” and whose son was a multi-lingual philosophy student conscripted into being a Kamikaze pilot during World War 2.

The confluence of events causes Ruth to fear for Nao’s life and she begins an obsessive search to find this person who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere online. Things don’t add up about about how the diary arrived on the shores of the island, and there are questions about the timeline between the chronological hints that Nao gives and the urgency that Ruth feels. The only available leads are in the diary, so Ruth has no choice but to keep reading.

A Tale for the Time Being largely unfolds in alternating chapters between an annotated translation of Nao’s diary and Ruth’s hunt. Woven into the narrative is both explicit and implicit commentary about time. Ozeki invokes both Quantum Mechanics and Zen moments, the different speeds of real life and the internet, and balancing the pace of life in New York and Tokyo with an island in the Pacific Northwest and a dilapidated Buddhist monastery. Finding the strength to accept, forgive, and adapt to the flow of time is, as Nao might say, an important superpower.

Similarly, there is commentary about life versus the written word. All three main female characters wrote books that reflect something personal: Nao’s diary, Jiko’s semi-autobiographical novel, and Ruth’s memoir that she is struggling to write. Ruth is taken by Nao’s self-presentation of her suffering, struggles that may well be accurate, but A Tale for the Time Being, a novel by Ruth Ozeki, blurs the line between the fiction of the novel and the memoir that Ruth is struggling to write.

These words are insufficient to express how much I enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being. There are scenes that are difficult to read, particularly with how poor Nao suffers, but these moments of suffering are balanced by moments of wisdom and serenity. I had a few issues with the plot points transitioning to the final resolution and thought that some of the symbolism came across as overwrought, and yet the beauty, the pain, and the relationships left behind a trail of emotional devastation that left me wanting to sit zazen and meditate. I have finished four novels so far in 2018 and A Tale for the Time Being is easily my favorite, an early front-runner for my top reads of the year.

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I am between books for the few hours during which I am writing this, having just finished Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road this morning. The short version is that it was a good reprieve from the emotional power of A Tale For the Time Being.

The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘—by which I mean, of course, latter adolescents who aspire to real manhood—gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism…’

‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

At the time of his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace was working on a new novel, a book to rival Infinite Jest. The Pale King is a posthumous publication of that incomplete story.

The author’s “forward” (actually chapter 9) informs us that this is an absolutely true vocational memoir of the things that happened to trainee David Foster Wallace at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria in 1985-6. Most basically, it presents the awkward situation young David found himself in on his first day of work when he is mistaken for a much more senior, and therefore valuable, David F. Wallace due to transfer to the center the following day. As a result, David receives insights into the inner workings of (and benefits from) the institution far beyond the typical new recruit. Interspersed with the narrator’s experiences are interludes introducing a wide range of characters (used broadly) that make up the staff of the Regional Examination Center.

Beyond the loose plot formed by the mistaken identities, The Pale King is not a book with a strong plot. There is a lingering sense of doom, perhaps formed by the threat of technology, or perhaps the threat of institutional reorganization, or possibly an internal power struggle…or all three. At the same time, the book creates a series of absurdist character studies that shape interrogate the trauma of early lives that would lead people to choose a life of tedium.

Having read much of Wallace’s oeuvre, I would not be surprised if he was trying to bore the reader toward a state of euphoria (as happens to one of the characters), but the unpolished organization, as well as disorienting chapters some of which use no names, is something else and made the book difficult for me to to follow. These problems were most obvious in the first half of the novel, which does it further disservice.

It is impossible to read The Pale King without looking at it with respect to Infinite Jest. The Pale King shows Wallace’s voice, attention to detail, expansive vocabulary, and style. Where IJ examined addiction, PK takes on tedium. Despite its incompletion, I can see the potential in PK. It shows some hints of the time that it was written, but the setting as a “memoir” creates the potential for a story that is more timeless than IJ‘s near future, and the repeated assertion that modern world is an endless morass of bureaucracy is spot on. If anything the evolution of clickbait social media and the turn to video actually underscores the point being made in the novel. And yet, I have a strong preference for IJ, which I thought was funnier and connected with in a more meaningful way such that I believe my opinion would have held true even if PK were complete.

In my writeup of IJ, I said that it is not a book for everyone. The same goes here to an even greater degree. There are moments and there are scenes, but in its current state, this is not an all-time great book.

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I am now reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely loving it. This semester has me swamped, but I am hoping to carve time to write about other topics soon.

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Civilization has fallen and nature—GMO and natural—is once more taking over. Among the trees and the storms and the wolvogs and rakunks, there are the Children of Crake, green-eyed and naked and innocent. Snowman, formerly Jimmy, has survived the cataclysm that stripped him of the things he is addicted to and now spends his time watching over the Children of Crake and being watched over by them.

The first book in the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake is at its heart an origin story—for the Children of Crake and for the state of the world that Snowman is now living in. This story unfolds through a contemporary storyline and Snowman’s flashbacks to his childhood and early adulthood when his name was Jimmy. In the present, Jimmy is a prophet for the Children because he actually knew Crake, a mythic and godlike figure to them. In the past, Jimmy and Crake were friends, one an artist in a world that does not value it and the other an arrogant, brilliant scientist determined to solve the world’s problems by playing god if need be. Oryx is their shared obsession, an oriental girl sold into slavery and exploited in pornographic films who flits in and out of their awareness since they first put eyes on her at the age of 14.

I found Oryx and Crake simultaneously brilliant and disappointing. Atwood imagines into being a frightfully realistic world where there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live gated compounds, lauded for their intelligence and given the advantages of technology and genetic modifications that give them the world. The have nots live in pleeblands, dirty, diseased, and judged inferior without the opportunity to prove otherwise. Competition between compounds is fierce, with corporate espionage and sabotage the norm as scientists develop new genetically modified animals, sources of meat, or treatments to “improve” the lives of humans. This dystopic vision is not particularly novel, but it is effective for its completeness. What is new, I think, is the Children of Crake, who, both in the novel and inside the story, are a return to prelapsarian society. (Appropriately, the second book in the series is The Year of the Flood).

Why, then, do I call the book disappointing? Part of the problem for me was Jimmy. Snowman/Jimmy had a rough childhood and never really fit in among the geniuses at the compounds, but what mostly stands out about him are his negative qualities: his relationships with women and his obsessions that cause him to float along, caught up by the things going on around him. Not liking him here is not the problem—very few of the characters in the books are genuinely “likable”—the problem is that I didn’t find him compelling. Other characters viewed through Jimmy’s characters were consistently more interesting, while the main thing that makes Jimmy interesting is the fact that he survived.

My second issue with Oryx and Crake is its pace. The book features a lot of lead-up to an abrupt resolution. This pace makes a certain amount of sense within the narrative, but it also means extended periods with Jimmy in isolation of other characters, going on an adventure that showcases more about the world and leads toward that conclusion, but not really being interesting in its own right.

I should be clear here: my disappointment largely stems from my high expectations for Atwood’s novel. Oryx and Crake has its moments and the world is compelling enough that I expect to read the remainder of the series, but fell short of her best.

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I am now reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

The Book of Words – Jenny Erpenbeck

I slide my hands across the white letters on the fence boards, there’s a spotlight shining on them, and my father reads aloud: Silence is health.

The girl has a mother and a father, a wet nurse and a friend. She knows other people, too, obviously. Her grandmother, the gardener, her piano teacher. She is not allowed to go outside alone and she can hear cars backfiring, or are those gunshots?

Ostensibly set South America, probably during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” between 1974 and 1983), The Book of Words follows the interior life of an unnamed girl. Her consciousness awakes gradually and her thoughts become more complex making it apparent that the book is built around the stories about the world that adults tell to children.

The Book of Words is a short book light on plot to put into a synopsis, particularly if one wants to avoid revealing the occupation of the girl’s father. Instead, there are the themes. First, the relationship between a child and the adults who answer her questions and teach her about the world. These relationships form the cornerstone of the book because it shapes how the girl interacts with people such her father’s friend the doctor who treats her when she has a fever and the woman she witnesses being dragged onto a bus by two men. She is shielded from the horrors of living under a repressive regime, until she is isn’t.

In short, The Book of Words is a powerful novella with a brilliant and subtle character development over the course of its 90 pages. Erpenbeck’s decision to anonymize the girl at the heart of the story universalizes it and places the emphasis on the visual imagery of the stories she is told, such as the saint who died crossing the desert and the snow-capped mountains that she has never seen. She lives in the world of the stories that she has been told, which she passes on to her friend who has stories of her own. The Book of Words floats through a dreamlike state before reaching a gutting a conclusion.

This is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s books I have read (all in translation, but hers are high on my list of books I’d like to try in German). I loved The End of Days, but was unmoved by the story collection The Old Child. In my opinion her stories felt underdeveloped, but, then, I often have this reaction to short stories. I had no such problem here. The Book of Words reaffirmed my love of Erpenbeck’s prose and I am looking forward to reading more.

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I am still running behind on writing about books I’ve read, having finished and developed opinions about Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata

Set in Japan 1938, The Master of Go is a dramatic recounting of a title match between an unnamed Master who has never lost a ranked game and an up-and-coming challenger, Otaké. The game is timed, but with an unusually long allotment and the final move of each session being sealed before the judges, the other player being left in the dark until the start of the next session when the stone is placed on the board and play resumes. This cycle lasts for months, with the master being in poor health and the challenger having family responsibilities. Behind the semi-rustic setting of the matches, the casual gambling on games of chess and other competitions, and the solemn rituals that govern play, however, is the underlying tension created by tradition colliding with the modern world.

This underlying tension being played out along two avenues, both in the game itself and in the match as a calm center in the midst of a larger world–both stated (newspapers such as the one the narrator works for sponsoring Go tournaments), and only alluded to (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) were, to me, the strongest elements of The Master of Go. The personal tension between two stubborn Go players provided the immediate drama, but it could have been left with just two marginally likeable characters. Framing the match in the larger context gave depth to the description of the game as a battlefield and pathos to the suffering of the Master.

Ultimately, however, my appreciation of The Master of Go was limited by my inability to grasp the nuance of the game itself, which features prominently in the narrative. The book was originally written in Japanese and, based on the way in which Kawabata talks about Go in the novel, I suspect that he assumed his readers would have at least a basic understanding of the game. Given this limitation, I found myself more interested in the historical match and the players on which The Master of Go. For instance, although Kawabata presents the Master as a traditionalist who opposed change, Hon’inbo Shusai (Hoju Tamura) had a scandalous reputation. While at the game board, he abused the adjournment privileges by calling the game at a time that allowed him to consider his next move or, sometimes, abandoning games before completing them…particularly when there was a chance he might lose. Away from the board, he had many rivals, one of whom alleged that he sold his title of Hon’inbo for cash. A rather different picture than the one painted by Kawabata, who used this famous match as an opportunity to ask another set of questions.

I enjoyed moments of The Master of Go, and Kawabata’s prose worked for me (much like a lot of the other Japanese literature I have read, actually).In the end, though, I was unable to appreciate it as much as I would have like. I suspect that there is a Nobel-worthy story in there, provided only that the readership has the background necessary to appreciate it.

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I have been slow in my reading for the past few months just because life has been busy and I have been even slower about writing about what I have managed to read. I am still working through my thoughts of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and just finished reading Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am still planning to do write ups of these books, but I also might change the format of these posts or abandon them altogether in favor of some other type of blogging. The problem with doing this, of course, is that requires time and energy that I don’t have to spare at the moment, so we will see. This afternoon I started reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s novella The Book of Words.

The White Lioness – Henning Mankell

My father used to say about detective fiction that one sign that a series had gone off the rails was when the plot went international. The theory as I understood it is that mystery novels are both about solving the crimes and about evoking a sense of time and place. This holds true whether you are looking at classic fiction like Dashiel Hammet or recent books by authors like Archer Mayor. Even if the place changes, the story is strongest when it stays relatively local. Henning Mankel’s Wallander series violates this principle at every turn.

April 1992, Wallander catches a case when a local real estate agent Louise Åkerblom goes missing. Confusion grows when the police discover the finger of a black man. And then the house explodes. It turns out that Åkerblom was murdered because she stumbled upon a house where a former KGB (Konovalenko)is training an African assassin. Wallander must now learn the identity of both the assassin and the handler. Things become complicated, however, because of a falling out between the two, and each thinking to use Wallander as a conduit to the other. This game turns more deadly when the Konovalenko decides to use Wallander’s daughter as a lever. Now there are two clocks against which he is racing.

The White Lioness is not much of a mystery. In the strictest sense it is one for Wallander, but in terms of genre it reads like a spy-thriller, bouncing between the plotters and the people trying to catch them. The tension is not whodunit or why, but in the cat-and-mouse game itself. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the book reads like The Day of the Jackal awkwardly grafted onto the Wallander setting.

The White Lioness is the second Wallander book I have read after The Dogs of Riga. Both books are firmly rooted in the events that followed the end of the Cold War, this time focusing on the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It is revealed early on that Sweden is a convenient training ground because of lax border security and proximity to Russia, and the plot one concocted by a radical Boere element in South Africa to subvert the government that is ending apartheid. Despite most of the story being set in Sweden, the Swedish element primarily serves as the way into the story, while the criminals in particular are of non-Swedish origin. My complaints about The Dogs of Riga, including the sense that Wallander is being yanked through events and over-reliance of happenstance are magnified in The White Lioness and I am no closer to developing a sense of Ystad than I was before. I had taken another book in the series from the library, but after this somewhat lackluster experience I probably not going to read it any time soon.

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Recently I finished Yasher Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk, but don’t have enough to say for a full post. Memed, My Hawk is a modern-day folktale set in rural Turkey in the 1920s. Memed is a young man from a poor family who wants more for himself—including to marry Hatche, who is betrothed to the nephew of the town headman. This intensifies Memed’s longstanding conflict with the headman, Abdi Agha, and Memed is forced to turn bandit. The question is whether the life of an outlaw will destroy Memed’s inherent goodness or whether he can become a hero of the people. Memed, My Hawk invokes a time and a place in Turkey, but I found it wanting in terms of characters. Memed is the closest to having depth, but mostly serves as a modern Robin Hood, with Hatche his Maid Marian and Abdi Agha his Sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone else in the story is an unchanging archetype. There were individual moments that lived up to the book’s billing, but I was by and large more frustrated than enthralled.

I am now reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, the latest installment in his The Stormlight Archive of doorstoppers.

The Word for World is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

Althshe is a tranquil, forested world that has in recent years been colonized by people from Earth, who prize its rich soil and, particularly, the natural wood that is only a memory on their planet. Of course, the colonists have also already discovered the perils deforestation, which quickly destroyed the soil on one of the continents. But Althshe is not uninhabited; millions of green-furred humans living in the forests and the colonists have conscripted many as a labor force, calling them volunteers because slavery is illegal. Althsheans are not hard-working by earth standards, frequently entering into a semi-conscious dream state, but they are tractable and without any conception of violence.

That is, until Davidson rapes and kills a female Althshean, which prompts a male, her husband Selver, to attack him in the street. Only the intervention of other humans, including the intellectual Lyubov, stops him from killing Selver then and there, which Davidson attributes to their weakness.

Davidson’s actions, however, set in motion a chain of events that have catastrophic consequences. In the language of the Althsheans, Selver becomes a god—that is, a person who introduces a new concept into society. Selver’s contribution: violence.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, in which the humans from Terra begin to colonize habitable planets of nearby stars, only to discover that the planets are already inhabited by humans whose evolution has progressed along a different track. The Left Hand of Darkness is another part of this cycle. On Althshe, humans adapted to live in an idyllic, forested planet where men and women share leadership and define themselves in relation to their intimate relationships. Men’s role in this society is to tap into the dream while waking and sleeping, a trance-like mystical state that allows them to guide society. The role of women is to lead the community. Displays of prowess are achieved through song.

Outside a few scenes with Selver, the reader is invited to experience this society through the lens of humans from Terra: the curious and sympathetic Lyubov and the hostile and bigoted Davidson.

This is the third of Le Guin’s Hainish novels that I have read, but will probably not be the last. Set in the near future, the series takes what I love about Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men in that it envisions different evolutionary paths, but then sets an actual story around a particular theme. Thus where The Left hand of Darkness is fundamentally built around gender politics and power dynamics, The Word for World is Forest addresses environmentalism and colonial exploitation, complete with the gendered constructions of the passive Althsheans. Despite winning the Hugo award for Novella in 1973, The Word for World is Forest is in my opinion not as strong a story as either The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both of which are both more subtle and more powerful in their stories. This judgement, though, is given in light of the high bar set by the other two novels rather than as a condemnation of this slim, beautiful story.

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For the first time in a while I’m reading two books at once, the graphic novel Watchmen and am continuing my run of fantasy books written by women with Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic. Watchmen isn’t written by women, but the prose streak remains intact.

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa

What if the revolution became a business opportunity for a few rogues?

The Way to Paradise is a double portrait of outcasts, both of whom believe that their purpose is to help humanity transcend its limitations. First, Flora Tristán, the illegitimate child of a French mother and Peruvian father who grew up in poverty, excluded from her father’s inheritance. As an adult, Flora entered into a brutal and unwelcome marriage, bore children, fled to become a writer, publishing a memoir Peregrinations of a Pariah and a manifesto The Workers Union. Now, in the early 1840s, she is traveling around southern France in a vain effort to organize the working class. The second arc takes place some 50 years later on south pacific islands for which her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin, has abandoned his wife and children in pursuit of people untouched by western civilization. This pursuit, combined with eccentric tendencies, increasingly debilitating syphilis, and only erratic income from his paintings leaves him on the margins of the colonial outpost. Paul is convinced that Western society is strangling humanity, which can only be liberated through artistic expression that recaptures paradise.

Despite certain similarities such as skepticism of religion and their obvious blood-relation, the protagonists could not be more different. Flora has revulsion toward sex, a consequence of her disastrous marriage marked by physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and dedicates herself to a cause: uniting workers for the betterment of the oppressed of society—men and women both. This crusade gets her labeled a potential subversive, though, and Flora is stymied by the police and the church, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with her estranged husband.

Paul, by contrast, is the estranged husband, leaving his wife and children in Copenhagen and abandoning his once-promising career as a stock-trader for artistic inspiration first in Brittany and then Tahiti. Sex, Paul believes, is central to his artistic process, and so he takes up a succession of (mostly young) lovers from the native women who he also believes will bring him closer to culture unconstrained by centuries of “civilization.” His values, moreover, remain the same as syphilis ravages his body, making him increasingly repulsive to behold (let alone touch). As Paul’s health declines, he continues to produce surreal and spectacular paintings and sculptures that capture the sights and sounds of the south pacific, slowly becoming received as critical masterpieces back in France.

The Way to Paradise is a challenging book with deceptively simple structure. The novel unfolds alternating chapters between these two stories, but is also richly textured because the alternating stories a) parallel the events in the other timeline as the two protagonists wend their way toward the grave, and b) consist simultaneously of the contemporary events and character memories sparked by those events. Both characters, moreover, are given arcs that are difficult to read. Flora consciously makes quixotic choices, and her pain, both chronic and inflicted, comes through in spades. Paul is also in pain from his advancing and advanced case of syphilis, but it is harder to be sympathetic when this is (largely) self-inflicted and he repeatedly abuses his treatments. The difficulty of his story, then is in watching his distressing sexual politics, in one graphic rape scene in particular, but also more generally in his obsession with personal gratification that is at such stark odds with the legacy of his grandmother.

I struggled with The Way to Paradise at times, finding Flora’s story on the drab side and being troubled by the treatment of Paul with respect to both the search for pristine civilization and his disturbing relationship to sex. Part of my problem, I think, is that I was reading too much of the author in Paul’s appetite, which led to me to presume that this artistic vision was being presented as accurate. I was hasty in this, and the juxtaposition of the two plots goes a long way toward undercutting Paul’s artistic vision, even while the sporadic reports we hear from his agent back in Paris demonstrate its success. Watching Paul spread his STD across the South Pacific remains difficult to read and feeds his monstrosity, but nonetheless is central to balancing the two portraits. Whatever is one’s obsession, paradise is unobtainable.

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I recently finish my first installment in my August of reading books by women, Carrie Fisher’s short, funny memoir Wishful Drinking and am now reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter.

Back to Blood – Tom Wolfe

“Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

On television you have to create a hyperreality before it will come across to the viewer as plain reality.

Oh, ineffable dirty girls.

Miami is seething, with racial tensions between African Americans, Cubans, and Americanos, with class tensions between the super wealthy (including Russian oligarchs) and everyone else, and with sex. In Tom Wolfe’s novel Back to Blood, it is mostly the sex.

Back to Blood is a book for which the plot—a slow-unfolding investigation into a wealthy Russian donating millions of dollars worth of forged art to a Miami museum—does not capture what it is about. Back to Blood is more appropriately described as a version of life in Miami told through multiple concurrent stories about five groups (the Miami Herald, the Cuban ex-pat community of Hialeah, Miami high society, Miami PD, and the upwardly aspirational family of a Haitian professor), variously connected by the intrepid and persistent duo, Officer Nestor Camacho and reporter John Smith.

Nestor Camacho is set up as our hero. Born to Cuban parents, he finds himself all-but disowned when his muscle-bound heroics pulling a Cuban refugee off the mast of a boat in Biscayne Bay are caught on TV and slapped on the cover of every newspaper. The police see this as heroics, the Cubans as betrayal, and not for the last time in Back to Blood, Camacho’s feats of physical prowess mostly succeed in making him a pariah in the eyes of the public. Since his Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse, has recently dumped him in favor of her (in her eyes, more manly and vigorous) employer, Nestor has some time on his hands to help John Smith out with his investigation into art forgeries.

The second most important storyline is Magdalena’s. Her employer, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction, has taken this beautiful young cubana out from Hialeah and introduced her to the sex-drenched world of Miami’s upper crust. Of course, he isn’t doing this own dime, but trafficking on the prestige of his high-profile patients who give him access to the best restaurants, art shows, marinas, and, ultimately, maritime orgies. Magdalena is initially attracted to the power this man seems to have, and certainly he is more sure of himself than is Nestor, but she also starts to see through this mirage, seeing him for what he is: a petty man who uses bluster, belittlement, and his degrees to manipulate people, all the while being as sex-crazed as his clients. But it is possible that one of the men she meets through these connections will genuinely appreciate her…

Back to Blood came out in 2012 and, like Wolfe’s other work, is heralded as capturing something essential about American society at that moment, in this case with Miami being the American city of the future. The fundamental question, then, is how accurate is this description? On the one hand, Wolfe’s vision of America has it deeply divided by racial divisions that can be transcended by wealth and status, with the appearance of both being more important than the actuality of either. Within this vision, everyone is in it for himself—women are objects for and appendages of the men who are sleeping with them or would like to sleep with them. There are parts of this vision that ring true in the contemporary world of social media and police violence, but I as far as capturing a larger Truth about American culture I was underwhelmed.

The biggest reason for my reaction is the seeming conviction that Wolfe has that everyone is a frothing mess of loins and lust. Miami plays into this vision because it provides ample opportunity to describe largely naked women and to have characters of both sexes ogle, judge, and imagine the variously covered body parts. It was as the Wolfe’s literary credentials were dependent on the number of ways he could describe sexuality. To wit:

Her beautiful legs were vulnerable, unguarded innocence in its carnal manifestation.

In this respect, Back to Blood is an orgy of literary proportions. So much so, in fact, that I found myself wondering where Wolfe fell on it all. On the one hand, he comes across as an ogler himself, taking every opportunity to look and to judge. On the other hand, the two Yale characters who are at some level the characters closest to the author both seem to exempt themselves from the vain, fleshy world of the other characters, run through with conservative WASPish tendencies regardless of their political leanings. Thus Back to Blood seems to simultaneously revel in the sex-crazed environment and to take a moral stand against it. Setting aside some problematic issues concerning gender and the absence of genuine discussion of economic precarity, in this dichotomy of morals, Wolfe may inadvertently be onto something.

I didn’t love Back to Blood as much as I’d hoped, but, despite some early frustrations, I came away with a grudging respect for it. I may read some of his other books yet.

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Next up, I am almost finished reading The Dogs of Riga, one of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. It is another book where I find myself asking how it would hold up in a more recent setting, but I am quite enjoying its depiction of the Baltic at the very end of the Soviet era.