A Year In the Merde

9781582345918A Year In the Merde by Stephen Clarke

publication date: 2004
pages: 276
ISBN: 978-1-58234-591-8

This ostensibly fictional novel really wanted its readers to accept the realism and accuracy of its pages. The blurb on the back described the book as a “hilarious, almost-true tale.” The quote at the front, taken from a preface to another book, extolled: “Its pages form the record of events that really happened.”

In the book, the author – a British man living and working in Paris, France – introduced us to the character Paul West – a British man living and working in Paris, France. Paul West was a British businessman hired as a consultant by a French company to help open a string of British tea shops in France. Both West and the author explained French daily life in a superior and joke-filled style.

The topics satirized most often were: labor strikes, the Parisian shrug, French women’s sexuality, and hypocritical isolationism. The most effective mockery surrounded anti-war liberals, who seemed to be against war only insofar as it was trendy and simple. For example, when West met with his friend to discuss West’s lack of sex life, the two companions first:

dispensed with the war (“It’s always civilians who suffer,” “Why do so many people swallow the line that politicians feed them?” and so on) and then got down to the meat of the matter.

There were a few other funny passages, such as this description of Parisian apartment-dwelling:

I was also sick of my neighbors, as most Parisians are . . . At 7:00 a.m. alarm goes off, boom, Madame gets out of bed, puts on her deep-sea divers’ boots, and stomps across my ceiling to megaphone the kids awake. The kids drop bags of cannonballs onto the floor, then, apparently dragging several sledgehammers each, stampede into the kitchen . . . meanwhile the toilet is flushed, on average, fifty times per drop of urine expelled.

The author was also very good at melding the French and the English languages. There were many passages where the book played with French and English homonyms and idioms.

However, most of the book fell flat. Here was his simplistic and jokey description of his boss’s residence:

It overlooked the Bois de Boulogne, the immense wooded park where toffs go riding and Brazilians earn the cash for their sex-change operations. About as exclusive a Paris address as you can get.

A lot of the jokes and observations foundered, but also the plot was poorly explained and confusing. Because almost everything in the book was a joke, I wasn’t sure what was actually happening or what was an exaggeration. For example, at one point, West is awakened by armed gunman at his door. But were these man “armed” in the same way that the Parisian neighbors mentioned above carted sledgehammers around with them? Or were they actually toting guns? It turned out they literally were wielding rifles, but by the time I figured that out, the scene had lost all of its dramatic tension.

I didn’t find A Year In the Merde entertaining, but I’ve not been to France. Maybe those more familiar with the subject would find the book more pleasurable.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Uncustomary Book Review
The Bookbag
Pulse

Norweigan Wood

Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin9780375704024

publication date: 1987 (translation: 2000)
pages: 296
ISBN: 296-0-375-70402-7

In this coming-of-age story, university student Toru Watanabe attempted to maintain a recent relationship with Naoko, his best friend’s ex-girlfriend, while meeting unusual new people, including a talkative and unconventional young woman, Midori. Watanabe navigated these relationships against a backdrop of 1960s student protests and a rash of suicides among young people.

Norweigan Wood was incredibly popular in Japan after it was published in 1989. Young people were drawn to Murakami’s western-centric language — the title comes from the name of a Beatles song — and his grappling with heady themes while writing from the point of view of a young protagonist. The book was also well-received in America, especially after it was translated into English.

Murakami used what may have seemed like a straightforward love story to explore numerous weighty themes. Murakami examined the circular and repetitive nature of time, which never quite moves the way we want it to. He also discussed sex, and the myriad forms it uses to manifest itself. Probably the most pervasive theme, however, was the specter of death. Murakami suggested that death was mainly experienced by the living:

The shadow of death slowly, slowly eats away at the region of life, and before you know it everything is dark and you can’t see, and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive.

Murakami also imbued his love story with a tension throughout the book. The tension was often a vague feeling of dread, as in this passage, where Watanabe was taking public transportation to visit Naoko:

The bus would enter cedar forest, come out to a village, then go back into forest. It would stop at a village to let people off, but no one ever got on. Forty minutes after leaving the city, the bus reached a mountain pass with a wide-open view. The driver stopped the bus and announced that we would be waiting there for five or six minutes . . . Eventually another bus came climbing up from the other side of the pass and stopped next to ours . . .
It was not immediately clear to me why our bus had had to wait for the other one, but a short way down the other side of the mountain the road narrowed suddenly. Two big buses could never have passed each other on the road, and in fact passing ordinary cars coming in the other direction required a good deal of maneuvering with one or the other vehicle having to back up and squeeze into the overhang of a curve.

Beyond setting an effective tone, there were so many times that something in the narrative was pleasingly relatable. I was often reminded of something a friend had recently said, or something I’d thought while drifting off to sleep. This introspective passage, for example:

At five-thirty I closed my book, went outside, and ate a light supper. How many Sundays — how many hundreds of Sundays like this — lay ahead of me? “Quiet, peaceful, and lonely,” I said aloud to myself. On Sundays, I didn’t wind my spring.

Although there was a lot I liked about the book, I often found it tiresome or maddening. It was sometimes repetitive, and the prose could be dull or inconsistent — although that might be the fault of the translator.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t gain a lot of satisfaction anymore from coming-of-age stories with a man who is finding his way in the world with the help of lessons learned from the women around him. I’m tired of reading sentences like this:

The power she exerted was a subtle thing, but it called forth deep resonances . . . It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained — and would forever remain — unfulfilled.

Or:

I felt as drawn to her as ever, perhaps more than before, but the thought of what she had lost in the meantime also gave me cause for regret. Never again would she have that self-centered beauty that seems to take its own, independent course in adolescent girls and no one else.

Or, my favorite:

[Falling in love with two women happens] all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and lake are beautiful.

I suppose it wasn’t Murakami’s fault I’ve read variations on those lines dozens of times. Doesn’t make it less annoying or less inaccurate, though. Although the book was inconsistent, there were enough potent passages to make it:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian 
The Ooh Tray blog

Inside a Silver Box

Inside a Silver Box by Walter Mosley9780765375223

publication date: 2016
pages: 306
ISBN: 978-0765375223

In this work of speculative fiction, Mosley introduced the Silver Box, a god-like sentient machine that was a prison for its god-like creator and archenemy, Inglo. The Silver Box and its prisoner, after much clashing, ended up on Earth, and the enemy escaped his prison. In order to save the world, two humans – Ronnie, a black ex-convict, and Lorraine, a privileged white woman – were thrown together by the Box to recapture Inglo. Although the book presented this story, it was much more existential than plot-driven.

The plot seemed important to Mosley, but it also was a way for him to discuss many themes. One theme was the interconnectedness of all things, from the violent life of a criminal to the rarefied world of the elite. In this passage, Mosley described that link through the fledgling relationship between Ronnie and Lorraine:

“It’s kinda strange when we’re next to each other, isn’t it?” Lorraine asked.
“Yeah. It feels like the way I did when I was a kid and my mama would hold me.” [Ronnie said.]
“When I close my eyes,” Lorraine said, straining for the right words, “it’s like I’m floating in space and there’s a drummer playing just for me.” . . .
“We got the same blood,” he said. “I mean, probably everybody and everything in the world got the same blood, but somehow you’n me can feel it, ‘specially when we’re next to each other.”

A related theme that the book explored was how, as connected beings, we are all culpable for any bad things that happen. This theme manifested itself differently for the white Lorraine and the black Ronnie. In this passage, Lorraine was confronted with the consequences of her class:

[Ronnie said, “You] run down the street past poor, sick, uneducated, homeless, and hopeless people with yo’ fine ass and your pockets full’a money. I belonged in prison but that don’t make you innocent . . . . It’s easy to find guilt all up and down the streets. But how’s all that no-good shit gonna be there, and here you are so innocent that you don’t have nuthin’ to do with it?”
This thought wasn’t that alien to Lorraine. She had studied original sin and the various interpretations of social and socialist revolutions. She had written a term paper on the paradox of capital punishment. [And] she realized that all of this had been in her head, that she’d never had to answer for the crimes of her culture and her class; nor did she truly believe that she should be held responsible.

Later in the story, Mosley also explored the culpability of Ronnie’s class, to the extent that they were descended from slaves:

Slavery was a terrible thing, Ronnie remembered Jimmy Burkett saying when Ronnie was just a child. . . . But you know the slave play a part in it too.
What you mean? Little Ronnie asked.
In order to be a slave you have to believe that shit, Jimmy said. You got to say yes, sir, and yes, ma’am. If you don’t do that, if you refuse their dominion in your heart, then even though you might die you will never be their slave.

Inside a Silver Box used plot and dialogue to examine Mosley’s ideas about race, gender, class, and technology. It revealed an author who was empathetic and concerned with Americans’ realities.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Journal Of Books
The Future Fire blog
Fantasy Literature blog

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas9780062498533

publication date: 2017
pages: 464
ISBN: 9780062498557

In this topical YA novel, author Angie Thomas explored issues of race and violence. The story involved Starr, a 16-year-old black woman who navigated between two worlds: her family and neighborhood, which were black, and her school and friends, which were white. Starr was forced to confront the inherent inequities of these worlds when she witnessed a white cop killing a young black man during a traffic stop. The title of the book came from a Tupac quote, where he explained that he believed Thug Life was an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.

Thomas explored several important themes in The Hate U Give. She explicitly discussed the militarization of police forces and the covert racism of society that leads to white on black violence. She also examined what it’s like to be a brown person in a sea of white faces, and what it’s like to be constantly assessing your own identity as “other,” as in this passage:

The ironic thing is though, at [majority white high school] Williamson I don’t have to “play it cool” – I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in [the black neighborhood of] Garden Heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day.
Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.

Although the book covered weighty topics and themes, Thomas’s writing was often funny. For example:

The school year’s almost over, so everybody’s goof-off levels are at their highest, and white-kid goofing off is a category of its own. I’m sorry, but it is. Yesterday a sophomore rode down the stairs in the janitor’s garbage can. His dumb ass got a suspension and a concussion. Stupid.

Thomas also created very effective characters. Starr was intricately developed, as was her family and close friends. The book included scenes that showcased each of Thomas’s characters, beyond their importance to the plot.

The book had some flaws, however. The dialogue was inconsistent: sometimes it rang true and conveyed something about the characters or the book; other times it was simply a device to shoehorn in exposition that Thomas thought was important. Also, mot of the action or violence in the book was not effective. For example, the shooting of the young black man was written in a hurried and detached style and did not become urgent until relived by the traumatized Starr.

The Hate U Give was published as YA. It was written in a straightforward manner, with a young narrator who had parental problems and was exploring her nascent sexuality. It was also a funny and engaging read that also illuminated some of the most weighty and pressing topics of today.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Book Smugglers
Baltimore Times
Black and Bookish

1491

1491 by Charles C. Mann, second edition9781400032051

publication date: 2011
pages: 541
ISBN: 9781400032051

The title of this book came from the year immediately before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Charles C. Mann wanted to show what life was like for the people in the Americas before European contact. The book, originally published in 2005, was very popular. I was reading the second edition, published in 2011. After reading it, I understood why the book was popular and why it warranted a second edition.

Mann wasn’t just describing American Indian life in 1491. He also was attempting to show why our modern conceptions of pre-Columbian peoples are wrong. He had three main ideas about the American Indians before European contact. First, that they were numerous and the Americas were densely populated. Second, that the native peoples’ societies were old and complex. And third, that American Indians manipulated the land around them to suit their needs and desires.

Mann used extensive research to support his ideas. He quoted academic papers, interviews, and primary sources. He also included evidence and sources that contradicted his own ideas. Notwithstanding this inclusion, most of his arguments were effectively convincing. For example, Mann argued that the number of Indians killed by European diseases was extraordinarily high: perhaps 9 in 10 killed within 200 years of contact. His explanation for this was clear and persuasive:

When humans and domesticated animals share quarters, they are constantly exposed to each other’s microbes. Over time, mutation lets animal diseases jump to people: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes human measles, horsepox becomes human smallpox. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in constant contact with many animals. They domesticated only the dog; the turkey . . .; and the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck and the guinea pig . . . .

Mann then went on to explain that when the Europeans brought domesticated animals, especially pigs, to the Indian homeland, Indian immune systems were not prepared for animal diseases, and some communities experienced death rates of 96 percent.

Mann not only provided compelling arguments for his theories, he also included interesting and enlightening details about American Indian life. For example:

The Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy – but they did not use the wheel. Amazingly, they had invented the wheel but did not employ it for any purpose other than children’s toys. Those looking for a tale of cultural superiority can find it in zero; those looking for failure can find it in the wheel. Neither line of argument is useful, though. What is most important is that by 1000 a.d. Indians had expanded their [agricultural] revolutions to create a panoply of diverse civilizations across the hemisphere.

Although 1491 was sometimes dense, it was routinely interesting and presented an innovative and compelling picture of the Americas before European contact.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

New York Times
Root Simple
Foreign Affairs

The Passage

The Passage by Justin Cronin9780345504975

publication date: 2010
pages: 766
ISBN: 978-0-345-50496-8

In his novel, Justin Cronin explored every possible meaning of his title: the passage of time, safe passage, the passing from life into death, a hallway that takes you from A to B, and even a diary entry. Cronin utilized 766 pages to tell the story of a post-apocalyptic Earth in the not-too-distant future. This Earth was overrun by carnivorous beings that the remaining humans had many names for: virals, smokes, dracs. Basically, they were vampires with 400 pages of back story and a medically explainable origin.

The book revolved around Amy, a young girl with the unique ability to talk to the mysterious vampire-like creatures. The story was epic in scope, encompassing decades and much of the United States. The plot began in the very near future, with the government experimenting with the creation of immortal beings. As time passed, and the setting turned more dystopian and fractured, the story shifted to a West Coast community that called itself The Colony.

In my opinion, Cronin wrote this book to explore – or capitalize on – the vampire myth but in an ostensibly “literary” way. The book included many themes, including ruminations on death, time, and fatherhood. It also introduced seemingly logical explanations for what was happening, like a virus that hyper activates the thymus gland. The book was also written from many points of view, all with their own thoughts and motivations. Additionally, Cronin supplemented the narration by including maps, diary entries, academic findings, and the like. Obviously, a lot of time and effort went into the formation of The Passage.

However, with all that effort Cronin put into it, the book didn’t always work. It was too long, with too many twists and turns. It was like watching a Pixar movie, where the characters had to go through numerous pointless adventures. I found myself bored often. Not only was the plot sometimes monotonous or senseless, the abundant meditations on the book’s themes were repetitive. I read what seemed like dozens of paragraphs that were variations on this theme:

His whole life Peter had thought of the world of the Time Before as something gone. It was as if a blade had fallen onto time itself, cleaving it into halves, that which came before and that which came after. Between these halves there was no bridge; the war had been lost, the Army was no more, the world beyond the Colony was an open grave of a history no one even remembered.

Starting about page 425, I was wondering if the book needed to be as long and convoluted as it was; by about 600 I caught myself skimming just to get the book over with; and at about 740 I was bewildered as to the point of it all.

The book wasn’t bad, and it had some interesting parts. If you like reading hefty tomes with plots that never quit, I would absolutely recommend this. It could keep you busy for a while.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Los Angeles Times
The Nerdist

Taduno’s Song

Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun9781101871454

publication date: 2016
pages: 234
ISBN: 9781101871454

In this slim novel, Odafe Atogun presented a surreal Nigeria. One in which political prisoners send letters without anything leaving their jail cell, guitars have the power to condemn someone to death, and the dictatorial Nigerian president declares all forms of music to be illegal. Taduno’s Song followed singer-in-exile Taduno as he attempted to rescue his girlfriend from prison in Lagos, Nigeria. Taduno’s main weapon was his music. He used it to convince, to calm, and to protest. His crusade was hampered, however, by the fact that no one, including his family and friends, remembered who he was once he returned from exile.

The book used absurdist and magical realist themes and story lines. When Taduno was in exile, all the houses at the town he was exiled to were empty and open for him to use. When a music producer’s Afro was cut off he seemingly lost all his power. The entire story was an epic battle for Taduno’s music, which was used to accomplish almost anything. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to read these off-kilter plot points as important to the story or as symbols for something else.

Because the book included a lot of absurd or non-logical events, places, and characters, it was difficult for me to care about the plot. I often wondered, when does something move from “magical realism,” to “nonsensical?” If anyone might do anything at any time, because there were no rules, why would I care about these particular people? The characters were also often indistinguishable from each other. There was the evil President and the pure and good girlfriend of Taduno, but beyond that, the dialogue could have been spoken by anyone.

The book did explore compelling themes. A main theme was the capacity of the work-a-day person to forget atrocities that happened in the recent past or were currently happening. After Taduno was exiled for making music, the people of his country literally were unable to recall anything about him. Another theme was the ability of art to make a real difference in people’s lives, by fighting the government or creating unity among a people.

Atogun also had flashes of brilliance regarding corruption and power. For example, this exchange, between Taduno and the President, after the President had him arrested for playing guitar in the street:

‘You believe my order was unjustified?’
‘Yes. It violates my right to make public music.’
‘You do not have rights. No one in this country has rights. This is not a civilian regime, this is a military regime, see?’ The President smiled triumphantly.
‘Well, I want my rights. Every citizen of this country wants their rights.’
The President shook his head in astonishment, unable to understand why anybody wanted rights under a military regime. He laughed in amusement.

Although Taduno’s Song had some interesting or effective elements, generally the nonexistent characters, wacky plot, and inconstant writing made the book dull to read.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Book Page
Read in Colour blog
Brittle Paper