December 2015 Reading Recap

PSA: I’ve been doing these monthly reading recaps for the last few years and it has been a good opportunity to give mini-reviews of anything for which I do not write out longer posts. That will still likely be true for such posts, but for the books I have reviewed, I will likely just give a link to the longer review and forego a more detailed summary. The blurbs that accompany the recap post will be used as a chance for further reflection, updating, amending, or otherwise adding tidbits not in the original post.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

The one book from December that I did not review. (Actually, as I write this I am still trying to figure out how to write a review of Don Delillo’s White Noise, though I am going to finish that post before this one is published, so there.) The Name of the Rose is a book that I thought I read years and years ago, but I do not know that I ever finished it and yet it is so ingrained in culture that I consume, through references, through discussions, and through games, that it was as though I had read it. Adso, the apprentice of William of Baskerville, accompanies his master to a rich and esteemed monastery in Northern Italy to attend to a theological dispute, but a series of deaths derails the specific inquest and forces the visitors to dive into a series of other mysteries, including the labyrinthine (and forbidden) library, the inquisition, longstanding philosophical disagreements, heresy, and challenges of living on earth. William is tasked with unravelling the mysteries using the powers of logic that positions the story within the rich world of medieval philosophy. Eco’s work is deep and allusive, but this story is at some level an excellent mystery.

Stamboul Train, Graham Greene

Reviewed here, I don’t have much new to add about Greene’s entertainment, but am again thinking of the distinction between “serious” literature and “fluff.” To an extent there are structural differences, particularly when judging serious literature by the standards of the Nobel committee, which usually has a preference for books that make the Oscar voters’ choices of movies look downright optimistic. Non-serious literature, by contrast, is designed to be easily read. It is a caricature to suggest that easily read books can’t deal with important issues or profound topics hidden beneath the glitz and glam.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus, Gu Hua

Reviewed here, Hibiscus is Gu Hua’s critique of the Cultural Revolution in 1970s China. He idealizes capitalism and the success of small-businesses, who succeed through hard work and through the support of the town officials and town community. It is a deliberate choice (as often happens) to praise these virtues through the remote, anachronistic, and bucolic village. Nothing is ever perfect, of course, but it is possible to create a healthy and comfortable life if one works hard because the universe of the town is limited to the surrounding villages and the town is thus unpolluted by the wider, impersonal forces that cause people to become disconnected and then to turn on one another. There is probably a parallel story that could be told where the force that corrupts the town is a large retail establishment instead of the government.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Reviewed here, Hyperion is a beautiful and moving work of science fiction that, other than stories-within-story structure, stunning imagery, and suffering of nearly every character, is notable for a major reason: it has no real ending. It is as though Dorothy went with her companions to see the wizard, with the entire story consisting of how the Tin Man came to be without a heart*, etc, and then left off as they approached the Emerald City. There is a sequel to Hyperion, which suggests that this story is nothing but an extended prologue. Yet, I like that this is a story about the intersection of the characters both in the specific case of the pilgrimage and in wider events. In other words, the story is about the journeys, not the destination. I already wonder if the second book (which I have not yet read) will too dramatically shift these messages and leave me wishing that Hyperion existed as a standalone work that just ends without conclusion.

*According to Wikipedia, this story exists and the Wizard of Oz movie would have been even more horrifying had it been told in vivid technicolor.

White Noise, Don Delillo

Live Tweet and (short) review. The college that Jack Gladney works at in this novel is known as College-on-the-Hill, set, of course, in the midwest. Delillo shows that it is possible to flee the unbearable crush of the big city by going to the midwest, but that it is impossible to escape. However, the college (for all its faults) is still presented as aspiring to be a genuine refuge, presumably for both the students and the teachers. I suspect the name is meant ironically, particularly since it clearly does not save Gladney from his family, but I would like for the school to serve as more than just a foil for the rest of society because it perpetuates a vision of an ivory tower that really doesn’t exist.

Siam, or the woman who shot a man, Lily Tuck

Reviewed here, Siam was the only book I read last month that provoked an extremely negative response from me. The knee-jerk hostility has somewhat waned, though I stand by everything I said in the review. Claire’s relationship and situation does not work out in Southeast Asia and I was frustrated by how the story doesn’t much engage with the relationship between Claire and James, the latter of whom is frequently absent, which, in turn puts further strain on the relationship–i.e. I didn’t get a sense of why or how Claire cared a whit about James outside of the physical relationship. However, part of the problem with my frustration is that the story is a psychological study about Claire’s isolation, not a study about the failures of the relationship between Claire and James. I still did not like the book, but I think Tuck is more successful than I gave her credit for.


Favorite from December: Hyperion.
Currently reading: The Green House, one of the early books by Mario Vargas Llosa. After that I have a lengthy list, but no concrete plans. 2016 is a blank slate and I have some ambitions, but those are for another post.

White Noise – Don Delillo

Delillo’s 1989 novel White Noise is a grim, ironic, comedy about family life in the modern world that won the National Book Award. Twenty-five years later some things have changed, but it is remarkable how many of the issues have just gotten worse. The collected tweets of quotes may be found here.

Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at a small Midwestern college, lives a life under siege, from which he seeks refuge in his wife’s bosom. He and Babette live in a house too small for them and the four children from their respective former marriages who live with them. The kids are precocious, but the family is formed by a network that serves to spread misinformation, and they are all bombarded by advertisements, television waves, friends who hardly have a physical presence, and choices offered at the supermarket. Babette works hard to stay in shape and the adults worry about death. In the second part, there is an airborne toxic event that accelerates the last issue, while forcing new changes while they were already working so hard to keep their heads above water.

The overriding style of White Noise is the profundity of hyper-observation. Most of the observations are of the mundane—generic groceries, for instance—instead of grandiosity of human nature or the purity of nature. This style was later used to great effect by David Foster Wallace (whose early interviews often talked about Delillo as an influence), and it is possible to see some of the observations as banal now, except that Delillo came earlier. White Noise is not prophetic, but the concerns about misinformation, being overwhelmed by information, and airborne toxic events have certainly not gotten any better.

White Noise is a book near the top of my to-read list for some time, but I only got a copy of it around Thanksgiving. I really enjoyed it, but outside of a few short bursts it contains universal human laments (death, world moving too quickly) more than universal human truths. It is still an excellent reflection of the modern world, just specific to a world inundated with capital and technology.

Live-Tweet White Noise

The fifth book I’ve posted quotes from to twitter: Don Delillo’s White Noise.

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Previously in this series: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons, and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killer’s Club.

Siam, or the Woman who Shot a Man – Lily Tuck

Siam, or the Woman who Shot a Man, set in 1967 Thailand, purports to be the story of a woman in an unfamiliar land, a portrait of her crumbling marriage, and her obsession with the dissappearance of the American silk merchant Jim Thompson (and some of her possessions). All these elements feature in the story, but the only tension that really worked was the vivid, if forced, picture of her isolation, which finally explodes.

Claire is an intellectually curious daughter of a Harvard professor, but is leaving behind New England and moving to Thailand with her husband, James, who is overseeing the construction of US airbases for the war in Vietnam. She plays the dutiful wife, and spends her time learning about Thai history, learning the language, and sightseeing with the other wives. Once Jim goes missing, fishing for information is added to her routines. The move around the globe does not go well. James is frequently away from home for work, and possibly unfaithful, Claire does not make friends, the language lessons only serve to highlight the difference between her and the other army wives, and the more she learns about Thai history, the less comfortable she is there. It is hot, dirty, the food turns her stomach, and the local customs offend her American sensibilities. Others enjoy the food and simply assume themselves superior to the locals, while, ironically, Claire is one whose academic attempts to “go native” are most at odds with the customs and foods she refuses to accept. She questions this new world she is in, but from the position that western civilization is superior. Sometimes she is right, but her solipsism was irksome.

All of this is fine as the core of a story, but the presentation is anodyne and shallow. To put it bluntly, the marriage of Claire and James is defined in the story almost exlusively by fucking and fighting, with the former seemingly something that usually happens to Claire rather than with Claire. (The dynamic made me wonder how they got as far as marriage to begin with, since she says their first meeting saw them tumbling into bed.) Similarly, she has a tendency to watch in a semi-aware state the events that transpire offscreen, everything narrated in a detached third-person perspective. She is supposed to be obsessed with Jim Thompson’s disappearance, but this is more a facet of her frustration with the tendency for events to take place and people or things to appear and disappear without explanation. The most prominent feature of the writing is the bare declarative statement, lacking in either description or emotion. There is supposed to be some power in this stark style, but this novel had a really repetitive and dull cadence as it worked around the predictable ring composition.

I picked up Siam because it seemed an interesting enough story and setting and I am trying to diversify by reading more books by women. I was totally disappointed, and only continued to read on because it was a short novel that went by quickly.

Next up is Don Delillo’s White Noise.