06 January 2015

Euphoria, by Lily King

I had a similar experience with this book as I do with many highly acclaimed recent novels: I found the story eminently readable, the writing good and occasionally excellent, and yet... I do not feel compelled to run around handing out copies to people I know (the way I do with books like Boy, Snow, Bird, for instance, or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter). I kind of doubt that I'll think about or even much remember the story a year from now. The plot was interesting -- the story of a love triangle between three young anthropologists studying tribes in the South Pacific -- but King doesn't do as much with the material as she arguably could. Her main focus is the love story, to the extent that everything else seems like backdrop or costume drama. At very least, moments when the three researchers discuss their ideas could have pushed the novel into something deeper. But I also could not help but feel a bit annoyed at the way the novel repeats the very sins of the anthropologists it seemingly critiques, paying lipservice to the devastating effects of their entry into the community, but meanwhile in utter thrall to the drama of their personal lives, leaving the "natives" as mysterious Others to the very end. 

03 January 2015

Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin

Maybe my hopes for this book were too high, but I found it frustratingly low on both material and analysis. There are plenty of evocative descriptions of tea houses and lush vegetation, but what would ostensibly be the three main topics of the book, namely, how Burma influenced Orwell, how Orwell is perceived in Burma, and what life in Burma is like, all seemed quite vague to me.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way that the author's sense of the political reality in Burma is repeatedly seen through the lens of Orwell's 1984 -- even as s/he* ponders to what extent the novel was a product of Orwell's imagination. There is this fascinating back and forth between fiction and reality, as Larkin struggles to get a sense of what Burma is really like, and can only seem to do so via fiction, but also tries to use those fictions as an entry point into penetrating the mind of their author. I was often annoyed by how much Larkin leaned on Orwell in this regard, repeatedly summarizing parts of both 1984 and Burmese Days without adding much. In other words, I found myself wondering what Larkin was telling me that I hadn't already gotten from Orwell himself.

What I also found fascinating was how many of the current regime's practices -- and probably Orwell's own ideas, which may or may not have been the backbone of 1984 -- were drawn from foundations laid by the British colonialist administration. It is amazing to me that the British get off so lightly in this account. Aside from these very understated observations, the emphasis is mostly on how much worse the current regime is, and moments of criticism are often balanced with more positive counter-claims. I grant that colonialism and its legacies are complex and that its remnants are not 100% negative, but I find it somewhat outrageous that there is not more outrage. I suppose, however, that it is because Larkin treads lightly on the issue that we can calmly notice the intriguing ambivalence of Orwell. Mingled shame, anger, excoriation, but also nostalgia and complicity. 

It is an interesting book and a thought-provoking one. But it did not quite live up to my expectations.

* Emma Larkin is a pseudonym.

02 January 2015

My 10 favorite reads of 2014

I'm too lazy to type out the whole list of what I read any more (sorry), but my 10 favorites (with links to posts if I wrote them):

Artful, by Ali Smith -- an amazing series of essays/stories/lectures/reflections, describing a narrator interacting with the ghost of a lover, and thinking about literature. Dazzlingly creative, highly interesting, and quite beautiful.

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, by Liana Finck -- Wonderful, gorgeously illustrated graphic novel about a young woman who meets up with the editor of a real advice column in a Yiddish-language newspaper from the 1920s. Lyrical reflection on immigration, memory, and identity.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi -- A re-telling of the Snow White story about an African-American family passing as white in 1950s America. It's astonishing how well it works, but you'll hardly notice, because Oyeyemi's writing is so instantly absorbing.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by C├ęsar Aira -- A throwback to the slender novellas of 19th century German literature, but with the surrealism cranked up a notch. The story of a German landscape painter traveling across Argentina. Incredible.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, by Jamyang Norbu -- A wonderful contribution to Sherlock Holmes lore. It succeeds wonderfully as a Holmes story, but is of particular interest for the way it transports the story to Tibet, and (convincingly) imagines Holmes as fascinated by Buddhism. A totally delightfully marriage of cultural traditions.

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald -- Finally read something of hers this year. It's a toss-up between this and The Blue Flower, both of which were wonderful. Slightly off-kilter stories and gorgeous prose. Read Penelope Fitzgerald. She's brilliant.

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor -- A series of letters O'Connor wrote to God. Quirky and amusing but also a pretty fascinating manifestation of a real struggle with faith. Also visually appealing, thanks to a beautiful edition from FS&G.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay -- Absolutely deserving of all the awards it's gotten, this collection of stories about Iraq and Afghanistan is some of the best war writing I've ever read. Powerful, thoughtful, and often hilarious.

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy -- Stunningly original and deeply strange. This book, to me, was an astonishing effort to depict the experience of Being itself (yes, with a capital B), through the story of a man trying to pin it down.

Wave, by Sonyali Deraniyagala -- A woman's memoir about surviving, but losing her entire family to, the 2004 tsunami. Raw, devastating, but also incredibly moving and inspiring. There are all kinds of movies/books that attempt to show you the remarkable tenacity of the human spirit in times of crisis -- this is one of the few that I found convincing, and it blew me away.