The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

297673Junot Díaz, 2007

I feel that the title of this book is a little misleading. Much of this story isn’t focused on its main protagonist, Oscar, but focuses instead on his family lineage and their country of heritage, the Dominican Republic. I did like the book and feel that it is a well written and engaging generational story. However, the focus on Oscar (an awkward nerd who loves comic books and fantasy; traits that are unconventional for a young New Yorker of Dominican descent coming of age in the 1980s and 90’s) does feel like a slightly contrived postmodern narrative tool to tell the story of the 20th century Dominican Republic’s brutal history through the lens of an individual who vaguely resembles the stereotypical perception of a young Dominican man. There is a lot of talk within the pages about that streotype – someone who would rather be a womanizing cat-caller.  Oscar is hardly a womanizer, and he is actually quite terrified of woman and would rather plays Dungeons and Dragons, watch Akira over and over, and read Lord of the Rings hundreds of times as he imagines himself to be the next Tolkien writer.

Of course I completely recognize that my criticism may appear laced with prejudice about stereotypical expectations. But my problem isn’t that I expected, nor did I want this book to meet stereotypical expectations: that would be boring and that isn’t my point. I’m totally fine with Oscar not being a stereotypical Dominican man. I found him a likable character with well-defined and believable limitations that I can actually self-identity with. What makes me conflicted about this book is that much of its pages aren’t actually focused upon Oscar’s life, but upon his sister, his mother as a young woman, and his grandfather as a young father. Ultimately the stories of Oscar’s family are used to provide a backdrop to tell the story of Dominican Republic’s terrible and merciless dictator, Trujillo. The many references to Trujillo and his regime are told with heavy reliance on the lore of Lord of the Rings, often referring to Trujillo as Sauron and his henchman as his wringraiths or Nazgul. As a huge Lord of the Rings, fan myself I originally found these geeky similes as cute, but as the novel progresses it becomes obvious that Díaz is a little too over reliant upon them and they started to get tiring and distracting.

A good dose of criticism is a good thing, but I hope that I’m not painting an overly negative perspective of this book. Overall, it is a satisfying read and is a unique story. My knowledge of the Dominican Republic or even the history of any culture within the Caribbean besides Cuba is pretty limited. I had heard a little about Trujillo’s terrible brutality in the pages of Jared Diamond’s Collapse but that view was a brief mention that compares the differences between neighboring Haiti and the D.R. during Trujillo’s regime. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao provides a narrative portrayal of the impact of Trujillo’s regime upon a single family. I simply wish the book didn’t pretend to be about Oscar, had a different title, and was more confident in its narrative focus on the D.R. history and the impact that that history has upon a single family. The book does these tasks well, but in hiding behind the supposed story of Oscar’s life it doesn’t reach the fullness of its narrative potential.

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download (1)Gene Luen Yang, 2013

Saints is the second part to Gene Luen Yang’s historical graphic novels: Boxers & Saints, an imagined retelling of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1901. While Boxers tells the story from the perspective of one of the leaders of the rebellion, Saints imagines the perspective of a Christian convert who suffers through the conquest of the Boxer Rebellion. Raised in a harsh and unloving family that doesn’t even name her, Four-girl finds solace and belonging in the Christian community, taking the name Vibiana after her baptism. Her blood family disowns her and Vibiana leaves her home to work the simple life as a catechumen, teaching orphans and  learning the ways of the foreign belief system.

download (2)Both novels include an element of spiritual imagining: the Boxers were guided by the the ancestral gods of war to give them strength and in Saints the heroine Vibiana is guided by visitations from the spirit of Joan of Arc. The use of Joan of Arc works well as a narrative tool, as a young woman who fought to defend her native France from the invading English, Vibiana self-identifies with Joan’s struggle. However, Joan’s military background creates some confusion for Vibiana as she believes that she is called to fight the Boxers but later comes to realize that her Christian community is the force of invasion within her native China. Vibiana originally was drawn toward Christianity because her family had deemed her a devil and the “foreign-devils” offered her an opportunity to redefine herself within their community, however as a young girl she vaguely understood the Christian message of peace and community. Ultimately, through maturity molded by adversity Vibiana comes to realize her place is truly within the Christian community as she chooses to make tough sacrifices as the Boxers attack her community.

imagesHaving read both Boxers & Saints in a short period, I really appreciate the dual perspective portrayed in both stories. However, of the two books, Boxers was more enjoyable and well rounded as a stand-alone novel. Saints definitely felt as though it relied a lot upon what was already set up in the much larger vision of Boxers. Additionally, Boxers gives away the ending Saints since both main characters interact within the pages of both books. Saints would have been a stronger story if it wasn’t the story of a character within the pages of Boxers but simply the story of a Chinese Christian convert from the same era. The two books together do provide a unique perspective on a slice of history that is not often explored within American culture and for that they are both valuable and enjoyable reads.

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The Nimrod Flip Out

imagesEtgar Keret, 2002
Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shleslinger and Sondra Silverston, 2006

Good short stories have an odd affect upon me. As an avid novel reader, I am conditioned for the long read that stretches themes and ideas out with the patience of a marathon runner’s endurance. An effective short story inversely feels like a winded sprint, packing a powerful message in an economy of words. With some short stories the sprint is so fast that I miss the message because my conditioning is wanting a grander view and I find myself quickly flipping to the next story in the collection as though it were the next chapter in a larger book. However, really good short stories cause me to pause, close the book and reflect upon the significance of the brief collection of words I’ve just digested. Etgar Keret’s slim collection titled The Nimrod Flip Out contains a little of both type of story: in these pages there are a few that just passed me by as I moved on to the next, but there were several that stopped me in my tracks, satisfying my linguistic desire for the moment’s reading.

With a total of 30 stories gathered in this 167 page collection, most of these stories are no longer than 2 or 3 pages long. With such brevity, Keret’s style is very blunt and to the point. Several of the stories have a surreal or magical element to them, such as Fatso, a story about the narrator’s girlfriend who morphs into a fat, balding, hard-drinking, womanizing, man every night or Pride and Joy, a story about a child who’s parents shrink with each inch he grows. However, Keret doesn’t pigeonhole himself into only using a magical style to get his point across as several of his better stories are poignant with a curt realism. Almost all of his stories do follow a pattern in setting up a believable background and then taking an abrupt turn in the narration by either distorting reality or adjusting the reader’s perspective to an alternate understanding of the situation that was set up.

An example of an effective realistic story that uses this device is the story titled The Tits of an Eighteen-Year-Old about a chauvinistic taxi driver who honks and catcalls young women as he drives his passengers around town. While he’s driving his anxious wife calls him on the radio because she’s heard about a helicopter crash and she’s worried that their military son may have been in the crash. The cabdriver ridicules his wife for worrying, assuring her that their son is fine, but she insists that she’s going to call the army to verify. After he’s off the radio he talks to his passenger about how foolish his wife is for worrying and then continues to catcall the women on the street. Later his wife calls back, to let him know that their son wasn’t in the crash and he responds to her “You dummy, I already told you fifteen minutes ago he was OK didn’t I?” and then continues to drive until “he saw a thin girl in a miniskirt who, turned around, frightened when he honked. “Get a load on that one,” he said, trying to hide his tears. “Say, wouldn’t you like to stick it to her?””(130). The entire message of the story is hidden in that one line trying to hide his tears. With those five words this three page story about an unlikable, chauvinistic, and overly confident man unfolds, revealing that this man isn’t as simple as he pretends to or appears to be. Those tears he tries to hide reveal the doubt, worry, and concern for his son that he would not share with his wife over the radio or in the curt conversations he has with his passengers.

Those five little words are an example of the linguistic adeptness buried within this collection of short stories. Some of my favorites stories were the more realistic ones such as Angle, a story about three friends who play pool. In this story one of the three friends is always on the side, while the two others play. Of the three friends, one is involved in a long term relationship and always on the phone with her, the second is juggling multiple women at the same time and always on the phone with them, and the third takes the game of pool to seriously to spend time calling women. As a twist, the two womanizers end up unhappy and the serious loner ends up happily with the pool hall waitress after his friends abandon him because they are too focused on calling their women and not very good at pool. My Girlfriend’s Naked is a story about a guy contemplating whether he should be upset or jealous that his girlfriend is sunbathing naked but he realizes that he is pretty lucky to have her as his girlfriend and that it would be ridiculous for him to be upset with her because even though she sunbathes naked for all to see, she chooses to be with him.

My favorite story in the collection, however was not a realistic story like those above, but was one that totally twisted reality and literary possibility. A Thought in the Shape of a Story had a simplistic, allegorical message to it, telling of a race of people that once lived on the moon who could make objects with their thoughts. To reduce chaos, the moon society agreed that certain objects would have specified meanings, just as the words of language have a culturally agreed meaning. There was one individual in the moon society who dreamed to travel the universe and he began building a spaceship with his thoughts, breaking down the conformist idea of what certain objects should mean. His actions seemed liked craziness to the moon society, so they destroyed his ship, but the impact of destroying the ship caused the nonconformist to have such intense thoughts of loneliness that the entire society of the moon was destroyed.

With thirty stories in this brief collection, Keret provides a diverse opportunity for a reader’s enjoyment and inspiration. He uses the short story to explore ideas that many novelists vaguely achieve in works hundreds of pages longer than this. The ideas and themes covered in The Nimrod Flip Out explore friendship, family, religion, Israeli culture, love, loss, deceit,  adultery – a broad range of the human experience. He does so with whimsical brevity and sometimes jarring seriousness. There is a lot of good stuff to reflect upon in these pages and I’ll close with this pleasant reflection on death:

“A typical thought by way of example: at night, when we say we’re going to sleep and we get into bed and we shut our eyes, we’re not really asleep. We’re just pretending. We shut our eyes and breathe rhythmically, pretending to be asleep until the deceit grows slowly real. And maybe that’s how it is with death. Himme’s dad hadn’t died right away either. And the whole time when his eyes were shut and he wasn’t moving, you could still feel his pulse. Maybe Himme’s dad had been dying just like someone going to sleep – pretending until it became real. And if so, then it was altogether possible that if only Himme had interupted him in the process, jumped on his bed like a little kid, opened his eyes to make sure, shouted “Dad!” and tickled him – the whole deceit would have fallen apart.” (from Himme, 165)

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Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy

20821465Brendan Simms, 2014

“The fundamental issue has always been whether Europe would be united – or dominated – by a single force: the Universal Monarchy attributed to Charles V, Phillip II (for whom the world was ‘not enough’) and Louis XIV; the caliphate of Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors; the continental bloc which Napoleon so nearly achieved; the Mitteleuropa of Imperial Germany; Hitler’s ‘Thousand Year’ Reich; the socialist utopia espoused by the Soviet Union; and the democratic geopolitics of NATO and the European Union today. In each case the central area of contention was Germany; because of its strategic position in the heart of Europe, because of its immense economic and military potential and – in the Early Modern period – because of the political legitimacy which its imperial title conferred.” (530-1)

Brendan Simms’ powerhouse historical exploration of the European power struggles from 1453 (the fall of Constantinople) through present day (ending at about 2011) is an impressive and comprehensive work. Weighing in at a hefty 534 pages, it oddly feels slim in its ability to cover nearly 560 years of history through engaging writing and a consistent thematic vision. Of course at this digestible length there are limitations in the book’s scope, but we all must recognize that a truly comprehensive history of such a broad time period and diverse geographic and political landscape could easily require thousands and thousands of pages to capture all the nuances of European history. Simms manages to provide an engaging analysis of such a broad time period through a focused vision that rarely digresses from what he aims to illuminate about European history.

As noted by the passage I’ve quoted from the conclusion above, that vision is focused on the Germanic influence upon Europe’s historical struggle for supremacy. From the disjointed states that comprised the Holy Roman Empire through the present-day economic power center of the European Union, Simms argues that the region and peoples that comprise present day Germany has managed to be in the center of all struggles for power in European history. Of course, this focus on the Germanic influence throughout European history and power struggle does lend itself towards a tendency to make light of the countless nation states, ethnicities, and cultural diveristy that make up the broader European continent, but Simms manages to acknowledge that his focus on the big struggles are necessary to maintain sight of the grand thematic vision of the history presented here. This isn’t a perfect summary of European history, but Simms manages to avoid the fault of seeking perfection by remaining focused on his vision.

Since the German region is the birthplace of Lutheran Protestantism, the center of Republican Liberalism within Europe, the founding inspiration for Marxist socialism, the Bismark imperialism, Nazi utopianism, and present day economic powerhouse, Simms’ argues that not only is its geographic location politically significant for European power struggles, the region has had a longstanding culture impact that has influenced the continent for better or worse through the ages. This German lense on European history does appear fanatical at times, because a well learned reader will recognize that that there is a danger toward geopolitical revisionism in lending so much weight to the Germanic influence upon European geopolitics. However this perspective does provide a lot of intriguing ideas for consideration. Prior to this reading most of my understanding of European history has been presented through the lense of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, Britain’s obvious influence upon the development of the United States and of course the major World Wars of the 20th century, and of course that is a vision of history told through a very American influenced perspective.  Simms’ Europe provides a grand vision of the continent’s history that attempts to transcend prior understandings of what drives the continental power struggles.

Although Simms does consistently circle back to the question of Germanic influence, by no means does he ignore the many conflicting powers of the Ottoman Empire, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Britain, France, Russia, and even the United States once it arises on the scene. Europe’s history is certainly complex, with a multitude of conflicts for power and supremacy, but Simm’s book manages to portray the entangling conflicts as a consistent story, with each conflict affecting and building up to the next. Throughout the book, there is a lot of name dropping of Kings, Queens, Sultans, Generals, Dukes, Princes, Chancellors, Generals, and so on and not all of them live in common knowledge, but Simms aptly expresses the importance and influence of each one clearly.

This text manages to clearly depict the many reasons that led up to French Revolution and why it was so distinct from the American sister revolution and how Napoleon’s rise to empirical supremacy swept the continent. The development of the German Federation in the latter half of the 19th century and the multitude of continental treaties for peace was depicted with drum beats of the impending world war that would come sixty years on. From Simms’ telling, these continental collaborations were always met with a rationale to build areas of buffer from neighboring empirical influence, for instance Napoleon swept over the German lowlands to protect France from Russia, and Germany was always at caution from Russian and French encroachment upon her people’s lands. With Simms’ narrative approach to European history, the second world war appears as unfinished business from the first with Hitler rising to power out of advantage to the global depression, rather than simply an outcome of Hitler’s distorted utopian vision. With the fall out of the second world war, the continent was left with a power vacuum only to be supplanted by American capitalism and Soviet communism with the division of Germany through the Berlin wall as the ultimate symbol of the importance of the region for supremacy in the continent. These events I’ve discussed above are of course the momentous events that are at the forefront of all of our understanding of Europe. I mention them hoping not to diservice Simms’ ability to tie the progress of history together in a consistent story of interdependence that is convincing and engaging.

Probably my major complaint with this book is its lack of maps. There are only a total of eight maps in the entire book and they are all located at the beginning of the book. The first 200 years of history references several smaller states that no longer exist since they have been subsumed into larger nations, and since I wasn’t all too familiar with the European history of 1453-1700, it would have been helpful to have maps readily available throughout the text to provide the geographical context for this time period. Despite this drawback, I really enjoyed this book as an introduction to the big world events that have defined the European continent. However, I am fully aware of the limitations of such a focused vision of the history that defines the vastly broad, diverse, and rich European continent. Simms’ Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present is definitely worth consideration as focused perspective on the influence of the German lowlands upon the politics, culture and national boundaries of all of Europe.

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download (1)Gene Luen Yang, 2013

If you’re looking for a quick read with a unique perspective on history, this is it. Boxers is the first part of Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel Boxers & Saints: a retelling of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1899 that moves at a lightening pace. There is a lot buried within the action portrayed on the pages here that vividly illuminates the struggles of the weak but historically proud Chinese society suffering the embarrassing conquest of imperialism and cultural influence of western religion at the turn of the 20th century.

download (2)Boxers focuses on the rising leadership of the young, uneducated and zealous village commoner, Bao. Through the tutelage of a wandering Kung Fu master named Red Lantern, Bao begins his instruction in the ways of Kung Fu. After Red Lantern suffers defeat in a failed attempt to defend another village from foreign influence, Bao seeks tutelage from Red Lantern’s master. After suffering many humbling lessons on the path to wisdom, Bao is gifted with the mystical vision of a mysterious black-robed god-like spirit. Through troubling nightmares Bao later learns that this spirit god is Ch’in Shih-huang, the father of unified China, who guides Bao to lead an uprising against the foreign invasion within China.

Guided by the mystical strength and vision of Ch’in Shih-huang, Bao releases his brothers, disciples of Red Lantern, from captivity and together they form a brotherhood traveling the countryside defending the common villager against the imperial power that is overcoming China. Bao teaches his disciples the power to call upon the gods and the ways of kung fu and his discipleship grows with time and they eventually become the Righteous and Harmonious Fists or “Boxers United in Righteousness” aiming to “Support the Ch’ing, and Destroy the Foreigner,” marching into battalions of rifle armed militia and defeating them with swords, kung fu, and the spirit powers of the gods. Bao also teaches a sisterhood the ways of the kung fu as well and the underground uprising prompts a chain reaction of rebellion from village to village that eventually reaches the foreign overrun capital of Peking.

imagesThe narrative arch of Boxers is carried along by the internal turmoil faced by Bao who always recalls his humble villager roots, but is compelled to exact brutal decisions his younger self would not understand, such as the slaughter of many unarmed Christian foreign “devils” and the converted Chinese “secondary devils.” The brutality of his actions intensifies as he breaks his edicts to “have compassion for the weak” as he murders children and even his fellow villagers who have converted to the foreign religion. Bao struggles with dream visions visited to him by Ch’in Shih-huang, who encourages Bao to find justification for his brutality as a necessary cause for the better good for all of unified China. Through his dreams Bao is conflicted by visions of his past and in the waking world he is further conflicted by his love interest, Mei-wen, the leader of the sisterhood fighters. His love for her clouds his perspective as he is conscious that he is breaking the edict to “not lust after women or wealth,” the same weakness that clouded the vision of his mentor, Red Lantern. The internal struggles of Bao develops the dramatic backdrop for what ultimately ends as a tragic outcome for the Boxers.

images (1)On first reading, the use of the Chinese spirit gods appeared as a convenient narrative device for the graphic novel form of storytelling. However, after reading this first part of Boxers & Saints I was intrigued to browse the Wikipedia summary of the Boxer Rebellion and was surprised to learn that the Righteous and Harmonious Fists fought with the belief that they were possessed by spirits descending from the heavens, giving them the ability to withstand bullets and perform supernatural feats such as flight. Many of the Boxers were poor young, zealous teenagers encouraged by their training and belief in spirit possession that they were invincible from the foreign invader, as were Bao and his followers. I had always known of the Boxer Rebellion as an uprising against Western Imperialism, but Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel illuminates the perspective and beliefs that influenced the rebellion with dramatic, but tragic quality storytelling.

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Super Sad True Love Story

ayyhnfxyghgdvv4ifkjuGary Shteyngart, 2010

Imagine a vaguely possible future. The American dollar is nearly worthless and what value it has is pegged to the ¥uan. The only viable or respectable professions are media and retail because America’s dominant cultural value of consumerism outweighs productivity or creativity. Mobile devices are used to rank and display credit scores, desirability, and health statistics of everyone in your vicinity. The American government is run by a single party, The Bipartisans, and government surveillance and militarism is prolific, constantly eroding the concepts of rights or individual freedom. This is a world that is a slightly distorted reflection of our present day, a world wherein disappointment and longing are inarticulately satisfied by the distraction of mobile devices, the fleeting promise of inter-connectivity and denial of life’s limitless limitations.

“And the looks on the faces of my countrymen-passive heads bent, arms at their trousers, everyone guilty of not being their best, of not earning their daily bread, the kind of docility I had never expected from Americans, even after so many years of decline. Here was the tiredness of failure imposed on a country that believed only its opposite. Here was the end product of our deep moral exhaustion.” (130)

This is the dystopian satire of Super Sad True Love Story and it is the world of Leonard Abramov (Lenny), a middle aged, middle class son of a Russian emigrant and janitor who lives in the run-down, military-occupied Manhattan. Lenny works as a salesman for Post-Human Services, a division of a mega corporation that specializes in extending life and longevity to the ultra-wealthy through nano-robots and health elixirs. Youth and virility are tantamount to an individual’s social worth – yet, ironically Lenny lives a step behind, focused on the values of another century, spending his time reading smelly, dusty “artifacts” (also known as books) and is ridiculed by his colleagues as an old-timer out of touch with the times and out of league with his body’s aging decline toward gravity’s will.

As sad as this sounds, it is actually quite funny stuff. Super Sad True Love Story is satire after all. The novel is told through rotating chapters spoken from the first-person narratives taken from entries of Lenny’s diary and entries from the GlobalTeens (an obvious satirical stand-in for Facebook) account of his twenty-year old Korean girlfriend, Eunice (screen name Euni-Tard) Park. Eunice’s entries are mostly written as screen chats between her family and friends, with a few long letters, but all of her reflection is outward, directed at another, whereas Lenny’s diary entries are internally observational and often reflective on the declining culture he lives in and declining personal worth he sees in himself. Lenny’s love for a woman several years his junior is oddly contradictory to his obsession with literature and the ways of a time long past, however this contradictions acts as a symbol for the dichotomy of America’s moral dilemmas regarding consumer worth and global power. Taken at face value, the novel is sarcastic and flippant, but the book manages to explore some really exciting and thought provoking themes, such as the value of youth and the reality of aging decline, as noted in the following reflective passage:

“Joshie has always told Post-Human Services staff to keep a diary, to remember who we were, because every moment our brains and synapses are being rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities, so that every year, each month, each day we transform into a different person, an utterly unfaithful iteration of our original selves, of the drooling kid in the sandbox.” (65)

The question of the devaluing change of self-worth through age and change is central to the novel’s themes and this is further elaborated int the following passage:

“My hair would continue to gray, and then one day it would fall out entirely, and then, on a day meaninglessly close to the present one, meaninglessly like the present one, I would disappear from the earth. And all these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data, if that helps to clinch the enormity of what I’m talking about, would be gone. And that’s what immortality means to me Joshie. It means selfishness. My generation’s belief that each one of us matters more than you or anyone else would think.” (70-1)

Posing these thematic questions provides much for the fodder for the reader to reflect upon in reflection to our current moral stasis. What is it that we are really doing, thinking that we are changing the world with all of the advertisement driven internet age? Who are we becoming in this world of flash acquaintances and superficial communities? The novel’s plot further plays with these questions through the creation of an economic crisis wherein the American dollar completely collapses after the Chinese Central Bank decides to unpeg the ¥uan from the dollar. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that mass riots occur and communications are shut down for weeks. The loss of communications create an overwhelming social discomfort best described in the following passage:

“It’s been almost a month since my last diary entry. I am so sorry. But I can’t connect in any meaningful way to anyone, even you, diary. Four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two left suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppärät [mobile devices]. One wrote quite eloquently, about how he “reached out to life,” but found there only “walls and thoughts and faces,” which weren’t enough. He needed to be ranked, to know his place in this world. And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him. We are all bored out of our fucking minds. My hands are itching for connection.” (270)

I found the novel’s satirical play on our current culture amusing and well informed. Though this be fiction, it presents a believable and possible culture dystopia that is right around the corner. However, this novel isn’t solely about culture and American decline. As the novel’s title alludes, there is also a love story within these pages. All of the quotes I’ve cited above are taken from Lenny’s diary and although there is plenty of social commentary to reflect upon, his diary entries are consistently focused on his girlfriend, Eunice, in an obsessive and doting manner. This doting is humorously contradicted by Eunice’s reflections on Lenny that reveal her hesitation an disgust with his aging body. Eunice isn’t completely shallow, she is simply human and a young woman with many options before her and the contradiction presents the reality of that often occurs within the opposing perspectives of two people’s supposed love affairs.

Additionally, of note in regard to the love between Lenny and Eunice is that their relationship represents an unexplored trend in urban matchmaking: the white man/Asian woman couple. There is a lot of fun stuff here, which is further illuminated by Lenny’s Jewish immigrant roots as a contradiction to Eunice’s Asian immigrant roots. Both have parents that came to America searching for the promise of the American dream only to find dissatisfaction in the emptiness of those promises presented in America’s decline in global prominence. Lenny and Eunice both find a common bond in that disappointment and it is questionable whether the white/Asian pairing trend has any significant connection to an attempt to supplant the failed promises of the American dream. Whatever can be made of that, love story acts as a metaphor for the plot’s larger themes. The reader doesn’t walk away from this book with the impression that this is the tragic story of Lenny and Eunice, but their love story provides a backbone for the bigger story about the very real tragedy that the immigrant’s love for the American Dream is a misspent effort and broken dream.

This is my second novel by Gary Shteyngart and I will acknowledge that Absurdistan was a superior book in that it was comically laughable with its satirical whit, but Super Sad True Love Story had a more mature vision that satisfied this reader. This is actually a book that I would recommend to many of my friends that don’t read too much because the topics covered here are temporally poignant.

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The Boatmaker

51fwLWC3CrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Benditt, 2015

Wandering into my local bookstore, Green Apple, is always a treat. That shop has blessed me with countless literary treasures that I likely wound never have found anywhere else. Recently I was glancing at The Boatmaker‘s intriguing cover when the Green Apple clerk informed me that the author for the book in my hands was giving a reading at that very moment at the back of the store. Although John Benditt’s reading had just ended, such casual serendipitous moments are enticing invitations to explore a new author’s world – and with Benditt’s first book, The Boatmaker, what a world to stumble upon! 

The Boatmaker is a rich, yet simple story of self discovery and is best described as a fable written for adults. My reading found similarities to the iconic journey of Siddhartha stripped of the idealized and spiritually motivated vision of Herman Hesse’s book. I draw the parallel with Siddhartha because the The Boatmaker is a journeyman tale wherein the protagonist, an unnamed young man is motivated by a fever-induced dream to build a boat and sail away from his home on Small Island to reach Big Island, and later the Mainland. Other than his motivation to build a boat and set sail, the Boatmaker doesn’t know what to do with himself and like the protagonist Siddhartha, the Boatmaker finds himself caught up in worldly distractions of drink, money, and sex as he attempts to make sense of his place in the workings of the world as he attempts to make sense of the world. However, unlike Siddhartha, the Boatmaker finds a simpler answer to his worldly pursuits than Siddhartha’s transcendent revelations: the Boatmaker ultimately discovers the roots of his identity and his skill with carpentry and wood lie within his familial roots.

“He see that in each of his experiences he has been different: sometimes meek, sometimes hard, usually silent, occasionally talking too much, often gullible, sometimes suspicious, sometimes drunk for long periods, at other times achingly sober. All these versions of himself have played their part in bringing him here; he is grateful to each of them.” (230)

The charm of this book is the simplicity of its language. I mentioned above that this book  is best described as a fable for adults and that fable-like feeling arises from the novel’s structure and style. Few of the characters have names, the country wherein the plot takes place is also unnamed and is only referred to as “The Mainland,” permitting the reader to accept and find a larger application to the universal nature of the story’s themes. This is a story that could have taken place in an alternate history of any possible European country. Within The Mainland there is religious and political conflict as the nation struggles to economically and culturally redefine itself amidst the scramble toward modernity, and yet the lives of the nation’s people continue on, each with their personal economic and emotional struggles and celebrations. There is a sweetness to the imperfect simplicity of the Boatmaker, a man with vague ambitions who easily becomes lost to drink or the ambitions of his neighbors, friends, and lovers. And yet, this is a raw and gritty story with several surprising twists as well as explicit descriptions of both sex and violence, but what really makes this story a powerful read is the directness of its narrative voice, as highlighted in the passage below:

“When she fell in love with the man upstairs in her bed, she didn’t intend to change her world. But her world has changed. When she lived with Valter, the outer world was orderly. The people of Small Island were welcoming and respectful; she was the wife of a Big man. But inside her everything was like a damned river. Now the river has broken the damn and overflowed, foaming and surging downstream. Inside, she has been freed, but the outer world does not give her the respect it once did.” (25)

The example above is highlight of what makes this such a great read. Throughout the book the narrative voice speaks with a poetic economy of words that provide a setting to frame the action, such as the following line:

“Outside the wind dies; the oak leaves hang in ripe green clusters.” (238)

And the simplicity of that setting is followed by a gripping scene just a few lines later:

“He opens his eyes and raises the knife. Holding his nose with his left hand, he uses his strong right arm to slice off the tip. The stub of pink flesh comes away in his hand. He holds it up, showing it to the others, as blood washes slowly down his face.” (238)

The gruesome image in the passage above takes place when the Boatmaker finds himself caught up in a cult-like community, which is just one of the many scenarios and events he becomes involved in through his life’s journey. This book manages to cover a lot of ground  through thematic action. With fable-like prowess, the narrative manages to explore a lot of philosophical inquiry regarding culture, ethics, religion, and relationships without being overtly philosophical. The plot drives the philosophical themes, which is a refreshing alternative for this reader. Rarely do characters overtly speak of grand ideas because the actions and struggles they endure do the speaking for them. The only instance that was overtly explicit in dialogue was the following passage regarding money:

“‘Gold has value because we believe it does.’ Rachel Lippsted says; keeping her voice steady clearly requires an effort. ‘Gold is beautiful, yes, and easily worked. It makes wonderful jewelry. But as currency it has nothing but the value we endow it with. And this has always been true: Money has the power we bestow upon it by putting our collective faith in it.'” (150)

That passage stood out to me because it aligns with my personal beliefs and understanding about the great scramble for riches and experience. Money in itself is essentially useless, it is just paper, or more often in our present day, just numbers on a computer screen, but what really bears value is memory, experience, and relationship. And that is ultimately what the theme of The Boatmaker strives to explore, the main theme within this book is that the journey of discovery reveals itself through our relationships with others and how those relationships define our identity. The book’s ending of course provides a striking, and sad revelation of this theme, but the passage that most poignantly spoke to me was the following incident that details the self-defeating realization that the Boatmaker has misplaced his only physical tie to his home, a handkerchief that was sewn by his mother that artistically depicted the harbor of his small island home:

“He can imagine how it happened…the handkerchief lying in the rain under the wheels of pushcarts, under shoes and boots, until nothing is left but a few threads, green and white. Finally, even the threads wash down to the sewer drain at the end of the alley…As he imagines this slow progression of decay, the boatmaker feels he is taking a beating ten times worse than the one White’s giant fists delivered. After it is over, he is as empty as the sealskin bag.” (186)

When I read that passage I was nearly in tears and had to put the book down for a moment. That passage spoke with such power portraying the man’s realization that he had lost his one connection to his past and in that loss, he had lost a sense of his own identity. Compelling moments such as these give the The Boatmaker an importance that shines with clarity. This fable of a book speaks from a wizened voice, aware of the complex simplicity of life in this world, and for that this book is one of the best and most enjoyable I’ve read this year.

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