Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

11464Blurb:

At one prestigious American public school, the boys like to emphasise their democratic ideals – the only acknowledged snobbery is literary snobbery. Once a term, a big name from the literary world visits and a contest takes place. The boys have to submit a piece of writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. But then it is announced that Hemingway, the boys’ hero, is coming to the school. The competition intensifies, and the morals the school and the boys pride themselves on – honour, loyalty and friendship – are crumbling under the strain. Only time will tell who will win and what it will cost them.

Review:

Rarely is literature so literary. To fully appreciate Tobias Wolff’s prep school bildungsroman Old School, you must have some degree of familiarity with Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. But this moving and brilliantly written novel can also be appreciated—though only halfway appreciated, I’d argue—by someone who wiled away his English classes drawing spirals on his notebook, because its ideas are so universal. Here Wolff interrogates one of my favorite questions: Who are we? The story we tell the world about ourselves or the story the world tells about us?

Any teenager but especially any outcasted teenager such as this protagonist, a Seattle scholarship student in an East Coast prep school, spends nearly every minute of his life creating his life. Before attaining the halls of high school, a teen’s identity is created by his parents. Suddenly liberated around 13, 14, 15, a teenager decides for the first time who he will be. Oftentimes, Wolff astutely notes, the person he chooses is the wrong choice, which ironically only makes the teenager work harder and harder to embody this choice.

Old School’s plot revolves around a literary competition where renowned writers visit the boarding school campus for a reading and then share a private audience with a boy whose story he read and selected as “the best.” The collegial yet fierce relationships these boys share are strained with the visit of every new writer. And even though these boys’ attempts at not only creative expression but also self-creation may be farce and lie and fiction, you sorta see that by making up false stories, the boys find themselves moving closer to the truth. Kinda how like any bookworm, far from being holed up in escapist fantasies, is on the verge of something realer than most people will ever find.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

18749Blurb:

With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.

Review;

My most comprehensive history course took place in my first year of high school. It bore the title “Global Studies,” a cursory naming attempt to broaden “world” and liven up “history.” We started between the Tigris and the Euphrates circa 4000 BCE. By 3000 BCE we had arrived in Egypt. It was our first and last visit to Africa during the entire year. We traveled to the agoras of Greece and the forums of Rome, to the East towards China, Japan, and India, back to Europe for the Dark Ages and then the Renaissance, and then outward into the world for the Age of Exploration and subsequent colonization. During this period, in fact, we returned to Africa. But briefly, very briefly; not to visit civilizations but to collect living raw materials—black slaves—to build civilizations across the ocean.

This is both an indictment of my high school history department and a premature attempt at self-excuse for the following failure: before opening Half of a Yellow Sun, the Biafran War did not exist for me. I did not know that in the 1960s, Nigeria suffered a series of military coups which led to the persecution of the Igbo people in the country and their subsequent secession into the state of Biafra. Thanks to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, now I know. A little more at least.

She begins the story in the early 1960s, a period of slight unrest, to be sure, but relatively tranquil. During this time, she introduces the main players who originate from various social classes. There’s the houseboy Ugwu, an uneducated rural villager, and his masters, two middle class professors. Then there’s a wealthy Nigerian businesswoman and her white British partner. Their stories all eventually overlap, but it’s a brilliant mélange to use as a base. Because once the war starts brewing, Adichie is able to show how it cuts across social categories. War, for Adichie, is omnipotent.

The strength of her characters is where she succeeds. Journalists are often maligned for focusing on “human interest stories” in the shadow of a great conflict. But as a lover of literature, I become more and more convinced that the only way to understand great conflicts and to appreciate their causes and consequences is to meet the people behind them. Perhaps it’s a foible, but I struggle to care about something until I can see its face. In Half of a Yellow Sun, I saw a lot of faces. Faces of people who I would never have the occasion to meet otherwise.

Adichie is just a great humanist author. It’s special but ultimately not terribly important that she’s talking about Nigeria, a subject of which very few have a deep familiarity. Her work would shine in any era, in any context. She has a way of shining light on people that reflect this light outward until it becomes compassion and empathy and understanding and appreciation. Under her careful hand, the Biafran War is not a mere photograph of children with twigs for arms and balloons for stomachs; it’s the story of people who told their story, but no one listened, and it’s the story of people who were never able to tell their own.

All in all, it’s a great story, which for me, is real history.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

24911006Blurb:

From bestselling author Jon Krakauer, a stark, powerful, meticulously reported narrative about a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana ­— stories that illuminate the human drama behind the national plague of campus rape.

Review:

Sometimes words don’t matter. People can make a “no” become a “maybe” or an “okay, I guess so” or, in the case of certain prosecutors, police officers, university officials, and powerful college boys in Missoula, Montana, a “no” can become “yes.” So instead of words, I’ll use numbers. Here are just a few from Jon Krakauer’s latest impeccable nonfiction, an investigation of rape in the United States:

-80% of rapes are never reported to the police
-only 0.4% to 5% of forcible rapes (that is, not of the more insidious and less understood “acquaintance rape variety) are prosecuted
-a mere 0.2% to 2.8% of these forcible rapes result in convictions with prison time
-most rapes are committed by serial offenders—the statistical chance is 90%

Which, as Krakauer summarizes, means that more than 90% of the time in the United States, a rapist suffers absolutely no punishment. The system rarely prosecutes rape cases, when they do, they rarely put them away, and so it becomes a scourge, a cycle of rapists continuing to rape because no one tells them that they can’t. This blurriness when it comes to punishing rapists leads to even blurrier lines during sexual encounters, especially in alcohol-soaked and hormonally-driven college campuses—what, exactly, is rape?

Krakauer interviews several victims of rape in Missoula and recounts their horrific stories, expunging no appalling detail. Rape can occur while sleeping, while passed out, while completely sober and saying “no,” while not saying “no” but never ever having said “yes.” When Krakauer lays out the stories, there is no blinking when it comes to whether or not it’s rape. And yet, between 2008 and 2012, various officials from the University of Montana, the Missoula Police Department, and the Missoula Prosecution Office blinked quite a lot when it came to convicting rapists. So much that one cheeky journalist labeled the normally bucolic small town the “Rape Capital of America.” Krakauer dismisses that title immediately in the least reassuring way possible: every story he’s about to share from Missoula could happen anywhere; its sexual assault statistics are comparable to the rest of the country. The United States has a deep problem in bringing rapists to justice, and Krakauer attempts to diagnose why.

The stories presented in Missoula are unbelievable unless read in full. For example, you have a police chief who argues that a girl with a blood alcohol content of .219 percent, so drunk she suffered multiple blackouts and checked into the hospital Emergency Room, was not physically incapacitated to the extent that she was unable to consent to sex. There are the various police officers who ask young girls coming to the station to report rapes, “Do you have a boyfriend? Because sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends and then feel bad about it and decide to say they were raped.” Then there’s the constant blah blah blah about the male rapist’s “upstanding moral character” and how he’s just always been a “really good kid” and how one life has already been ruined from this mess (the victim’s), why ruin a second life too (that is, the rapist’s, the person responsible for ruining a life)? Krakauer absolutely destroys the lead Missoulan prosecutor supposedly responsible for sexual assault cases. This prosecutor, intended to be an advocate for the rape victims, is on record saying “Some people would argue that if I go home with someone and we say, ‘Well, we’re going to go have sex,’ and then I fall asleep and wake up and he’s having sex with me—some people would say that’s consensual, and some people would say it’s not.”

Story after story, quotation after quotation, Missoula is a goldmine for every eye-rolling, head-shaking, fist-curling thing you’ve heard about rape. The only unsatisfying thing about the book is the grand finale. After hundreds of pages of appalling evidence that rape is one of the capital crimes facing current American society, Krakauer seeks to point his journalist finger at a culprit. Here, unfortunately, he does not swing the axe all the way. In the case of Missoula, he blames the university, the police department, and the prosecuting office, which is all true, but he neglects to climb the ladder one more step to arrive at the obvious and ultimate problem: the still unequal status of women.

Women are told to always be nice, so they do not want to ruin a boy’s life by saying he’s a rapist. Women avoid confrontation, so even in the middle of nonconsensual sexual interactions, they might not scream or run or fight back—it just wouldn’t be polite. When someone goes to the police for a robbery, the police do not say, “Okay, but you left your door unlocked and that beautiful new TV was just asking to be stolen.” They go out and gather evidence to press robbery charges. But with rape, the police ask the traumatized girl, “Were you drunk? Did you maybe make the man think you wanted to have sex with him? Did you say no? Did you make sure he heard you say no?” Rape victims are oddly not always considered victims, but perpetrators of a lie, of a ruse, of a scandal. It originates from a society that values boys more than girls. And although Krakauer’s exposé of Missoula ends somewhat positively, with the town’s justice system reflective and chastened and prepared to be better, rape as a phenomenon, unfortunately, cannot be combated until the sum of a girl equals the sum of a boy.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

10847Blurb:

Brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty insist they were commanded to kill by God. Krakauer’s investigation is a meticulously researched, bone-chilling narrative of polygamy, savage violence and unyielding faith: an incisive, gripping work of non-fiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behaviour.

Review:

I find it difficult to talk about religion because it’s forbidden to call it into question without being labeled “amoral” or quite simply just without hurting other people’s feelings. But this inability to discuss it has led to a lot of crimes committed in the name of God, and I think, like everything, to create positive change, religion needs to be interrogated. But as Jon Krakauer exposes in his exploration of Mormonism Under the Banner of Heaven, religion refuses any attempt at interrogation, hiding itself behind the specter of “faith.”

Faith. Impossible to understand because when you ask any questions about it, someone will respond that you merely “have to have faith.” How can you evaluate something that can’t be seen or heard or touched but merely felt? Krakauer does so by going back to the very beginnings of the Mormon faith, telling the story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets from God unearthed in Upstate New York to Brigham Young and his bloody war against US domination. At the same time he intersperses anecdotes from modern Mormons, particularly from the Fundamentalist sect, who believe, on faith, all sorts of weird things. A common belief among these men (they’re always men; since the Church only allowed black priests in 1978, I think sexual equality won’t arrive for quite some time) is that they all happen to be God’s one and only unique prophet who can interpret his word on Earth.

This story is a wild ride, incredibly readable despite dealing in straight fact, simply because for any non-Mormon and particularly for any non-“faith”-y person, it’s obvious, hilariously so, how ridiculous this religion can be. For example, if you look at historical documentation surrounding Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s divine proclamation supporting polygamy is not divine so much as he wanted a godly excuse for his earthly philandering ways. Celestial marriage, as the Mormons call it, has been the most divisive issue in the Church ever since, pretty funny considering it was created because the Church’s founder just couldn’t keep it in his pants.

Another surprising thing I learned from this book: Mormonism was born in blood. Lots of it. The Western world loves to call out Muslims as bloodthirsty barbarians, but look no farther than the late 1800s in Utah, where Mormons murdered hundreds of “Gentiles” sometimes for political posturing, sometimes just because.

If you’re at all interested in Mormonism, that uniquely American brand of faith which, by the by, is also one of the fastest growing religions on the planet, Under the Banner of Heaven is a terrific entry. For the faith or the faithless, there is something here. I finished it with a greater understanding of Mormon history but still no appreciation as to why some people are so compelled to believe. And for once, I’m okay not knowing, cognizant that “knowing” would mean “unknowing” almost everything else.

4 stars out of 5

Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

16099180Blurb:

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.

Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Review:

It was with trepidation that I started Sisterland, the sole remaining unread Curtis Sittenfeld novel in my repertoire. The blurb promised identical twin sisters gifted in ESP, one of whom predicts a catastrophic earthquake in St. Louis, a scientifically and thus narratively improbable event that nevertheless serves as the story’s catalyst. For those unfamiliar with her work, Sittenfeld plays with extreme hyperrealism, observations so mundane that many readers deem her “boring” or statements so starkly true that readers find it “uncomfortable.” Sisterlandtherefore seemed like a wild gamble, the mysticism of the psychic main characters incompatible with her mechanical truthiness.

I was wrong. Sisterland is just as honest as her previous work, even as the ridiculous omen of the upcoming earthquake looms over the text. Here Sittenfeld dissects family relationships. She does so calmly, slowly, with lots of anesthetic. The result being an acutely painful awakening at the novel’s end when all the careful sutures she’s sewn come undone.

I adore when a writer challenges herself by creating a narrative obstacle that she can’t simply detour around or abracadabra away: she must go straight through it, even if us dullheaded readers can’t possibly see how she can. The earthquake, which has the possibility to fail entirely (if it happens, she’s supporting the existence of ESP in an otherwise realistic novel; if it doesn’t, she’s essentially inflated a massive balloon of anticipation for the readers and popped it with no ado) is wonderfully resolved—in a way that’s completely surprising but also makes you go “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Kate, the harried mother protagonist who has turned away from psychicness, is believable and sympathetic in her mistakes. She’s another one of those Sittenfeld characters that reminds us that people are messy and complex, and that it’s not easy to live sometimes but it’s so lovely to. The story alternates chapters: one in the past, one in the present leading up to the earthquake. This retrospective narration is particularly inspired in a story obsessed with seeing the future. By the end of the novel, we see that hindsight, not foresight, guides us onward. While we can hope for a future, we can know only the past.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright

6582864Blurb:

Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.

Review:

Black Boy is a deeply horrifying and intelligent memoir from Richard Wright, a Mississippi black boy who became so much more than black boys were supposed to become. His earliest memories on a Southern plantation and the tough streets of Memphis become fantastic stories that he, unfortunately, had to live.

Richard is different, who knows why, but he’s different. All the black families living on his street are hungry, but Richard wonders why he’s hungry. Why can’t his mother, a cook at a restaurant serving heaping plates to white customers, give him enough to eat? He’s too young to understand, but this inquisitive behavior will follow him through various tragedies.

At the age of twelve, before I had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.

At its core, the memoir is a book about a boy becoming a man. But Richard is a black boy who becomes a black man, and so instead of your basic coming-of-age story, you have a story about a boy coming of age in a society that hates him. And because Richard is so smart, he tries to learn why it hates him. This line of questioning is extraordinary given that the conditions of black people in Jim Crow South are almost like those of people living in pre-agricultural societies: they are so consumed with fulfilling basic human needs (the only constant through Richard’s numerous moves across the South is an everlasting hunger), that no time remains for them to develop things of worth and permanence.

Richard discovers the complicity of black people in their own subjugation. Indeed, this book is rarely about the oppressors, about the white people pushing the heads of black people into the ground. It’s about a culture where a white man doesn’t even have to push a black man down: he’s already lying there, starved and beaten. For the beginning of his life, white people are a hazy specter in Richard’s world. The racism of Richard’s time is so devastating and so complete because another race barely even needs to exist to perpetuate it. Almost every one of Richard’s friends refuses to shake the status quo, indeed sometimes doesn’t realize there’s a status quo to be shook.

But really what I learned from Richard’s wonderful evolution from a poor Mississippi boy with no schooling to a published Chicagoan author is the importance of compassion for others whose lives we cannot imagine. In the North Richard works as a dishwasher in a restaurant with a bunch of young white girls waitressing. They are not ill intentioned, but still they will never understand him, will never even seek to understand him, and will thus simply add to a culture that denies him basic personhood. This is bad. Imagining others is important. And that’s why Black Boy was so thrilling to me. Here is a man with a life story that I will literally never be able to fathom. And yet, he’s trying. He’s trying to make me fathom it, with every brilliant thought and sentence he’s got.

I fail. I cannot imagine living as a black boy in Mississippi in the 1910s. But gosh did this book get me close. And getting closer is what the world needs.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

17662739Blurb:

The year is 2001, and cosmonauts uncover a mysterious monolith that has been buried on the Moon for at least three million years. To their astonishment, the monolith releases an equally mysterious pulse—a kind of signal—in the direction of Saturn after it is unearthed. Whether alarm or communication, the human race must know what the signal is—and who it was intended for.

The Discovery and its crew, assisted by the highly advanced HAL 9000 computer system, sets out to investigate. But as the crew draws closer to their rendezvous with a mysterious and ancient alien civilization, they realize that the greatest dangers they face come from within the spacecraft itself. HAL proves a dangerous traveling companion, and the crew must outwit him to survive.

Review:

I haven’t read much science fiction, but I’m continuously awed by how incredibly devoted it is to instruction. Most fiction seeks to entertain or to describe or to prod, either intellectually or emotionally. Science fiction, on the other hand, wants to educate. Its readers are learners, its authors teachers. And the class syllabus is vast: it covers subjects like the functioning of planetary orbits or astronaut behavior in zero gravity, yet I’m tempted to label this area of instruction as pedestrian next to the genre’s equal fascination in the most profound questions of our species. Here we’re mostly concerned with answering this one: Are we alone in this vast universe? Thankfully, Clarke quickly dismisses this possibility as ridiculously impossible. That way we focus on the more interesting question: if we’re not alone, what does this mean for our future?

In 2001, the prospect of celestial neighbors does not only have significance on our future, it affects our past. One of the most terrifying theories proposed by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is the Zoo Hypothesis, the idea that intelligent life is out there, but it’s so advanced that our planet is nothing more to them than a cage of lions at the zoo is for us humans. Clarke’s novel plays on this idea, though not as sinisterly as he could have.

The most sinister part of the novel is HAL, the onboard space shuttle computer who controls the management of the entire vessel with his extrahuman artificial intelligence. The midbook sequence where he takes a prime role in the future of humanity and its role among the stars is the most rollicking and also the most educational part of the novel. The main intrigue of 2001 is that some advanced extraterrestrial species had a hand in speeding up the evolution of humans millions of years ago, setting us on course, essentially, to one day meet them elsewhere in the universe. Eerie parallels emerge when you consider the idea of supersmart computers like HAL. Has our species reached a point where we are now advanced enough to not only influence other forms of life, but to create other forms of life? Wisely, this is one of the points in the novel where Clarke seeks to educate but not by providing us any semblance of an answer.

Where this novel fails is its journey from science (fiction, of course, but still science) to a psychedelic, almost pious ending scenario. It’s a common ending found in other scifi works (Sagan’s Cosmos comes to mind) in which humanity leaps into the heart of the universe and finds something so wonderful and so mysterious that it’s inevitably cast with a godlike hue. I agree: the universe is wonderful and mysterious, but I wonder why science fiction authors have to depict our profound, long-awaited discoveries of its secrets in the same way an ancient monk once wrote “Let there be light!” as the first sentence in the Bible.

The universe is amazing, and Clarke’s 2001 shows us a fictional example of why that’s so. Shouldn’t that be enough?

4 out of 5 stars