April 7, 2021

March Reading Recap

I had plenty more reading variety last month, with two novels, a book of nonfiction, and a short story collection:

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen: After the events of THE SYMPATHIZER, the man of two minds finds himself a refugee in Paris in 1981. He arrives with his blood brother, a killer of communists who cannot learn that our antihero spent years secretly operating as a communist agent (though he now isn't sure where his loyalties lie). The two find work with a crime lord, and the protagonist ends up selling drugs to the intellectual friends of his aunt, who isn't really his aunt but in fact a connection from his spy days. He also ends up using at least his fair share of the drugs, getting beaten and tortured quite a bit, and musing a lot about his own history and that of Vietnam and other colonized entities.

This is a consistent sequel that delivers more of Nguyen's clever sentences and pointed observations in a story that mixes intense action with cerebral analysis. As with the first book, at times I found the philosophical sections slow going. It's possible this book is grimmer than the first, or weirder, but as I remember more about the first, I'm not sure that's true. The narrative voice of these novels is unique and confidently crafted, and the narrator still has a fascinating story to tell.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price argues that too much of the conversation about environmental crises focuses on individual consumer actions, when the problems can only be solved at a systemic level. In this opinionated, accessible book, Price calls for corporate accountability, a reframing of environmentalist movements, and a more thoughtful accumulation of stuff. It's a great introduction to concepts like environmental inequality and greenwashing, but even those familiar with the subjects will find new perspectives and ideas here.

The book makes a clear case for why the focus has to shift away from individual actions: "Why can't you find a 50 Simple Things You Can Do to End World Poverty handbook at your bookstore?—or 101 Ways You Can Help Stop Gun Violence (or Solve the Middle East Crisis) Before You're 12!" Still, it does end by offering the reader a list of Ways to Stop Saving the Planet, but—guess what?—they aren't simple, and they aren't solutions. Many of the suggestions revolve around educating yourself, and this book is a good place to start!

MEDIUM HERO: AND OTHER STORIES by Korby Lenker: The two dozen-plus stories in this collection range from brief, lighthearted musings to intense character reckonings. All are nicely written, with moments and details that are well observed, unexpected, and often amusing. Some of the pieces have the feel of anecdotes from life rather than crafted stories with complete arcs, and while I tended to prefer the latter, I enjoyed reading either way.

Among my favorite stories: In "Pro Wrestling," full of great details and tension, a couple at a crossroads attends a wrestling match gone wrong. The protagonist in "Manboy and the Mafia Table" finds himself playing a surprising role in a social situation. The title story starts off as an insightful portrayal of how difficult the smallest things can be when depressed, then goes to an even darker place before reaching a satisfyingly hopeful ending. I'm glad I was introduced to the work of this author, who is also a singer-songwriter.

INFINITE COUNTRY by Patricia Engel: Talia's life and family have been divided by immigration restrictions. She and her brother were born in the US after her parents and their oldest child overstayed their visas. When Talia was still a baby, her father was deported to Colombia with no way to return. Her overwhelmed mother sent Talia back as well, and she grew up in Bogotá under the care of her grandmother. Now Talia is fifteen, her grandmother has died, and she's sentenced to a prison school after committing a random act of violence. But Talia has a plane ticket to finally return to the US and rejoin the mother and older siblings she barely knows, so she escapes detention in hopes of making it back to Bogotá in time for her flight.

INFINITE COUNTRY is beautifully written and recounts many experiences faced by undocumented immigrants and mixed status families, but I didn't think the story worked particularly well. After a tense opening scene depicting Talia's escape, the narrative changes course by jumping back to cover years of her parents' lives in Colombia and then the US. That the novel turns out to be as much about Talia's parents as Talia herself is fine, but the initial hook and ticking clock of the fugitive journey becomes a background thread that isn't all that deeply explored. Nor is there an especially deep exploration of the novel's many other events, because most episodes pass in summary, with only brief pauses for detailed scenes and dialogue. The result is that my reaction to this book was a generalized sympathy for these characters as representatives of a range of traumatic immigration experiences, but little feeling for them as specifically drawn fictional people.

This novel exists within the context of a publishing landscape in which stories about marginalized characters are more often rewarded when they focus on trauma and can educate readers about important issues. Whether or not that context influenced the writing or style of this novel, it seems like a factor in some of the praise it's receiving. Certainly the book exposes many terrible realities, but for me it fell short as a work of fiction.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal considers the history and legacy of who is reviewed and how: "Note that language. It reappears in the reviews of the interlopers — the nonwhite writers, women writers and especially L.G.B.T.Q. writers. Their books are not written, they are not crafted — they are expelled, they are excreted, almost involuntarily.... Where Black writers are concerned, another pattern can be detected. Reviewers might impute cultural importance to the work, but aesthetic significance only rarely. And if aesthetic significance was conferred, it often hinged on one particular quality: authenticity."

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