The Book of Unknown Americans – 4/5 stars
I liked this book a lot and I really thought I was going to….well not not like it, but find it mediocre or something like that. I am not sure why I thought this, and well, I should probably explore that and really don’t want to at the same time.
The book is told from many voices; almost all recent, first, or second generation immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. The voices range in scope and circumstance, some directly dealing with the primary story in the novel and others more adding tertiary commentary on the phenomenon of being an immigrant to the country. Most of the of the voices are documented immigrants, and this is a purposeful and important distinction in thinking about the story involved.
Two primary themes emerge in this story: the sheer vulnerability of even documented workers in America, and the infantilization and dehumanization of their experiences. The story itself mainly involves a family recently moved from northern Mexico on a work visa supported by a mushroom farm to allow the father of the work in the US. They meet up with other families whose time in American varies family by family, but the common feature is their newness and their shared language. This family has a daughter suffering from a recent traumatic brain injury that requires them to not only put her in school but seek about special education accommodations to help deal with her disability, which causes her various levels of cognitive delay and processing issues. We are repeatedly told she is beautiful and has processing issues, but is still functional and because the injury was traumatic but not sustained, still in the rehabilitation and recovery process. This process becomes an interest and a limitation for the neighbor’s son who has feelings for her.
This is all amid a background context of how language, work, and work instability always put the two families on uneven ground. And now there’s a complicated emotional situation to deal with as the two teens become closer and closer. It’s a really complex and touching and also morally uncomfortable set of questions that come from this story. I thought the writing was very strong and the story very sympathetic.
Chemistry – Weike Wang – 3/5 stars
I thought this book was a solid three stars. I mean that not in any kind of sleight or knockdown. I am a little vague sometimes with my rating rubric. Sometimes books will lose a star or firmly lose a star if they use my “I have an MFA and use the same four words over and over” (detritus, avuncular being the two worst offenders – but also callous use of the worse definition for the word indifferent). Or “I am unironically using the parable of the frog in cold water to make a point” or “My character LOVE talking about Claire de Lune”. Those lose points for doing the same thing other novelists do who do the same thing as other novelists. I made Patrick Modiano’s novel gain a firm hold of a third star for the opposite.
Anyway, Weike Wang’s short set of ruminations on Chemistry, Chemistry PhDs, love, marriage, motherhood, and Chinese-American culture is just so perfectly succinct and good at what it does I can’t complain. It’s easily comparable to Jenny Offill’s The Dept of Speculation, which I hated, in form, but in terms of the character’s voice and the refusing to indulge is internalized/weaponized misogyny, it was just better. It’s a small book in size, length, and scope, but it’s a competent and successful book too. It just does what it does and does it well enough to be effective but not overtly remarkable. I would absolutely recommend it to grad students who want to commiserate.
The River of Doubt – Candace Millard – 4/5
Well this book is just nuts. And it’s the kind of book that should make a student who’s good at AP US History just want to jump right into a history major at college. Talk about an untold story (at least in these days-in-age)!
So Teddy Roosevelt felt completely emasculated after losing the nomination for the Republican Party in 1908 and ran as a Bull Moose, not only losing triumphantly in the general election, but assuring that his old party lost too. So like many an American man, who decided the best way to regain his vim and vigor is to test himself against the wild and complete some kind of adventure. This is a hugely prevailing theme in American lit, where fragile American masculinity is pitted against like, a mountain lion, and having won out, now they can return to figuratively and literally effing up the world.
So for example: read Stephen Crane’s amazing short story “The Blue Hotel” to see how the narrativizing of this impulse has generally meted out violent consequences.
Or, read Richard Slotkin’s amazing book series Regeneration through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation to see how this was simultaneously created and sustained and embodied in pretty much every facet of American culture. It’s so good. Or just read the news today.
So anyway, he decides to try out this invigoration in the Amazon river basin, which turns out, is a much much much much harsher landscape than anywhere in the US. He takes his son, he takes the real hero of the book: Rondon, a Brazilian map maker who’s masculinity is so secure that he is always compassionate and calm, and a series of other porters into the jungle and they almost all die. Or he definitely almost dies. In fact, he almost kills himself when he’s laid prostrate with illness.
The writing is quality and not really profound, so certainly adequate to the task of putting together the right sources to make a compelling case for how foolhardy this whole trip is. So, looking into the interstices of one of the most mythologized American figures and seeing a frail man somewhere in there is great.
History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund – 3/5
This book is mysteriously on the short list for the Booker Prize, a prize which I don’t think should have any Americans on it at all. It probably shouldn’t have any Canadian or Australian writers either, but it does, and if it has those, it might as well have Americans, but it feels tainted. Lo the poor writer who wins the Booker because then your novel takes a beating on Goodreads, I’ve found. I guess Paul Beatty, who wrote pretty much the best book of the last five years will be ok. I hope George Saunders doesn’t win, but I think his new book isn’t really a book at all.
Speaking of books that are books, this is a book that is a book. It’s a strangely small book with a small but distinct voice. I hear it in my head as being unaffected and spare in its emotion, which is weird for a book in which so many weird and terrible things happen. But because our narrator is not ignorant of the pain and trauma that the world has in store for so many of us, having already dealt with extreme poverty and generally messed up parents, the new terrible things that happen are not actually that new. She lives in far upstate Minnesota and amid the cold and ice and hockey players she manages to find a new and clearly pedophile teacher who allures and repulses her and even offends her with his lack of being into her. She also befriends a young mother and son whose father is off in Hawaii studying “baby stars” which may or may not be connected to pseudoscience or cult writing. And all told the weird kind of affect-less tone of this whole novel is nicely off-kilter and so not really what strikes me as the right novel to be nominated for the Booker from the American side of things. This is the prize where the very very best novels include Wolf Hall/Bringing up the Bodies, The God of Small Things, Midnight’s Children, The Sea the Sea, and Siege of Krishnapur, some of the very best British writing in the last 50 years. But I guess it’s also got to account for some real tripe too. I guess we’ll see if she wins.