The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Category: novel

Chemistry

By Weike Wang

I saw that the author was coming to talk at the Harvard Bookstore and I was intrigued by her novel about a Boston-based chemistry PhD student struggling to finish because my sister did a PhD in chemistry at Harvard and similarly found the environment pretty terrible. Chemistry’s main character, whose name we never learn, is Chinese, born in Shanghai but brought to the US with her parents at a young age. She questions why she is even doing chemistry–is it just because of her overbearing parents? But the novel is also about her relationship with her boyfriend, who she will not commit to. She won’t say yes or no to his marriage proposal, she won’t say yes or no to moving with him to Oberlin when he gets a faculty job. She doesn’t feel like his equal. She can’t commit without having career success. She doesn’t want to have a marriage like her parents had.

It’s a short novel. I read it almost all in one go, from when I picked it up at the library around 6pm to when I almost finished it at 9pm. It’s somewhat stream of consciousness, lots of little sections that relate a scene in sparse detail in the first person. But it’s also hilarious with this sharp, dark humor of a woman trying to make sense of herself and the world around her. And of course there is the science, all these little science metaphors, all these little explanations of light, of clouds, of thermodynamics. I immediately felt at home in this book that argon boxes and Nobel’s first invention, dynamite.

A great joke: What do you do with a sick chemist? Helium. Curium. Barium.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

By Marlon James.

It wasn’t until the very last section of this daunting 700 page novel that I realized that the icons of the bird at the end of some chapters indicated one of the seven killings just occurred. I flipped back through the book, looking for the others to find out what were the seven, iconic killings but I couldn’t find them. The book is huge.

Much of this novel is in voice, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth but moreso because each chapter is explicitly in the voice of a character. Sometimes the Jamaican English tired me because although it is clearly English it has a rhythm that was difficult for me to understand. It was more work. Towards the end of the book this Jamaican English is commented upon by an American doctor who asks the Jamaican nurse to translate his English into ‘Jamaican’ for a patient. The nurse refuses to translate because there is nothing to translate. It’s English.

The book lulled for me around the third quarter, as many long books do, but it picked up again at the end. The book is confusing, I couldn’t always keep the Jamaican politics straight and could rarely figure out what was going on with the CIA and the Cuban anti-Castro involvement. There were plot points I definitely missed or maybe forgot, like what exactly happened to Nina Burgess. But it was a strong, engaging book that sprawled over decades and countries and such terrible, terrifying violence.

I just read the NY Times review and the reviewer compares the book to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This comparison, of a strong book I just read and a crazy intense book I love and have read twice, reminded me of another writer arguing that the American Novel is a farce, that some overly-intellectual white guy’s story can never speak for everyone, that no one can every speak for everyone, especially in America. I think my apprehension about comparing Infinite Jest to A Brief History of Seven Killings is more a cultural one: Infinite Jest, though so strange and weird, is so much closer to my experience than Brief History. I know nothing of ghettos or gangs or violence. But this doesn’t make Brief History a worse book, though I suspect it may make it harder for it to get the acclaim it deserves.

If on a winter’s night a traveler

By Italo Calvino.

Although this book was at times slow, I loved the ending and had no regrets struggling through to the end.

Calvino oscillates between the story of the Reader, excited to start a new book but continually interrupted by increasingly absurd events, and the books the Reader begins to read. It is a strangely cyclic story that would be reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s strange recursions if the writing style weren’t completely different, more old world and straightforward. (Though it’s translated from Italian, so who knows what is lost.)

There are even some moments in which Calvino explores computers and how they can reduce books to word frequencies; there is a character who believes this is more useful and time efficient than reading the book at all. At one point a book is translated into frequencies and then the computer code is lost, the book, too, lost as the computer can no longer translate it back into its original form.

This is a book that could use another read, the content fascinating and whirlwind, though the style of the book was not quite gripping enough for me.

Invisible Cities

By Italo Calvino.

I bought this book a long time ago at a used book store but only just got around to reading it years later. Each chapter is a series of short vignettes about cities, bookended with a description of the scenes between emperor Kublai Khan and explorer Marco Polo. The cities are all conceptual, like a city that is built in the air, hanging between two mountain peaks, or a city which is designed based on the experience of chasing someone through a city but never catching them. They’re little ideas about life: a city that decrepit and disgusting but has momentary shines of beauty, or a city that attempts to exterminate all the bugs only to make room for imaginary creatures.

In the conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, some of which are imagined conversations, it becomes apparent that Marco Polo is describing the same city over and over again, picking out a piece of it to explore each time.

I read the book shortly after Trump won the 2016 USA presidential election. I found it calming and peaceful, almost meditative. The story doesn’t go anywhere, it’s more like a painting with a gestalt that becomes stronger and stronger as you read more.

Weight

By Jeanette Winterson

Weight is the retelling of the myth of Atlas, who holds up the world, though it also heavily features Heracules. The last Jeanette Winterson book I read (probably about a year ago) was Sexing the Cherry, and comparatively Weight is an easy and straightforward book. Weight is one of those books that feels like the language is so simple that it cannot be special, though as the story continues it becomes clear the amount of control Winterson has over her language and what felt simple was actually just sparse — it’s all she needs.

My favorite part is towards the end when Atlas becomes friends with Laike, the Russian dog sent into space. It is a tender, absurd moment, because all the other Greek gods have become forgotten and disappeared, but Atlas continues to hold up the earth and learn of people’s troubles.

Another part that struck me was the scene of Atlas, having given the world to Heracules to hold while he does Heracules a favor, walks onto (into?) earth from his place of holding up the entire universe. How he just almost waltzes down from the clouds and then becomes somewhat human sized on earth. Again, the control of language here for the moment to feel natural is amazing.

Of course the story is about weight: the weight of the stories of our lives, of our anxieties and truths and directions and decisions and ultimately about how that weight is both something we must shoulder and can also let go, that those are things that don’t necessarily require carrying.

Infinite Jest

By David Foster Wallace

This is my second time reading Infinite Jest. The first time after I finished I immediately searched ‘What’s the ending of Infinite Jest’ on the internet out of mad frustration that it ended in what seemed to be the middle of an otherwise unimportant scene and a deadly important plot. But this second time around I basked in the ending which felt just right, just as Wallace said he wanted it to be: a perfect pitch. … And then I searched ‘What’s the ending of Infinite Jest’ again and read some people’s ideas and realized that I didn’t care too much about the plot ending, the various parallel lines that are meant to converge just past the frame. What I really cared about was the plot that did exist, the parts inside the frame, which themselves are so tightly wound and intricate that I had plenty to chew on without bothering about the speculation.

The book is amazing, much better the second time around though both times I got to a point in which it engulfed me. I struggle to be engulfed in long books in the same way a normal-sized novel can really pull me in, the length is so daunting that the writing has to really show up to make me get over the fact that I realistically cannot rush-read the whole thing. Wallace does this, with only a few sections that tired me out and a single section that I’ll admit I skipped. Despite this the book still requires work, which Wallace wanted, and the work elevates the return. It’s worth it. Read it.

Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline

This is going to give away some ending details, so ye be warned.

I liked this book, but I was disappointed with the portrayal of women. Yes, one of the male characters in OASIS (the virtual world everyone prefers to the real), the protagonist’s best friend, turns out to be a heavyset African American queer girl, and the protagonist is fine with it. Cool. We’ll get into that later. But the only other female character, save for a friendly little old lady, is exactly what I expect a teenager boy to dream up.

Art3mis (the girl) is into everything Parzival (the protagonist) is into. Art3mis, though she doesn’t portray herself as a supermodel, is voluptuous and attractive. She’s about as smart as Parzival, maybe a bit smarter. Her main flaw (or feature, unclear,) is that she really wants to win the game before dating Parzival. And that she wants to meet him in person. The entirety of the depth of her character is that she has a port-wine stain on her face that she’s is worried will make Parzival not like her. (Don’t worry, he does.) Wow. Deep.

Ernest Cline makes everything easy for Parzival. Parzival doesn’t have to deal romantically with his suddenly female best friend because she’s gay. (In fact, Aech’s real-life character gets about a page and a half of limelight, and it’s all a quick explanation and acceptance and we’re done.) He doesn’t have to deal with any problems with his crush other than winning the game. His crush magically likes him a lot. And the book doesn’t have to deal with women at all, really. With maybe twenty named characters, only the two are female.

And it’s unclear if Aech even counts as a female as she’s treated as a male character the entire time and no, I don’t count that as progressive. Aech doesn’t get the opportunity to ever be female, I don’t care if she actually is. She doesn’t get the time or character development that would allow her to be a queer, African American woman forced to live in a world where she is only accepted as a white, straight guy. She’s gets a page and a half of explanation and then she’s Aech again, as if nothing had ever happened. How does Art3mis feel about Aech being female? How does Shoto or Ogden Morrow?

The more I think about it, the madder I get. Ernest Cline seemed close to wanting to try to deal with female characters. He wanted his female character (Art3mis) to be cool and powerful and snarky, so he did that but in process made her a cookie-cutter of what his main character was looking for. (Here’s a question that’s never brought up: is Parzival what Art3mis is looking for?) He wanted to talk about how virtual reality might effect minorities so he made Aech who she is, but then didn’t unpack it all. For him, that’s not important. What’s important is that his white, straight, male main character gets to have a lot of fun. Hm.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat

By Helen Phillips

Though I have never completed a book by Kafka, The Beautiful Bureaucrat struck me as Kafka-esque. It is set in a vaguely dystopian, vaguely setting-less city, or suburb, or some outskirts of some better-but-not-great other place. The protagonist, a recently married woman looking for work, goes to work for a vague company, doing vague work. Which is not to say the book vague, just that everything feels blurry at the edges.

It’s a great, albeit short, book, with some creepy twists and turns and altogether upsetting aura. I liked the portrayal of the relationship, the protagonist and her husband, the way they were close but individual, the way that works out in life.

The way I came across this book is twofold: 1) I read a short story by Helen Phillips which I loved, I actually think it’s better than the book, and 2) I saw it selected at the Harvard Bookstore, where it was described as “like Murakami if Murakami could write women.”

Ubik

By Philip K. Dick

Ubik is weird, a mind-bending game of ‘what is going on here?’ that I really enjoyed. It seems to take place in a similar world to Minority Report, with precogs and people who can read minds, but there are also inertials– people who can cancel out other people’s psychic abilities.

I don’t really want to write about the specifics, because they’re great and unusual and should be read. But to jog my memory for a later, a bunch of inertials from a prudence company are sent to the moon for a mission, which is actually a trap where a bomb goes off in an attempt to kill them. The rest of the book is them trying to figure out why the world is behaving so strangely.

What I really enjoyed about the book is twofold. The primary twist of ‘what is going on here?’ is considered early on but partially rejected and partially just not dealt with by the main characters. The fact that as a reader I could have said, ‘Oh yeah, duh, of course that’s what’s going in,’ but didn’t put me right in the shoes of the characters. At end, when the twist becomes clear, it becomes incredibly obvious. But only because you knew what was going on. This might seem obvious, but again I was in the same position as the characters, who also could not have known what was going on. Without giving it away, neither I nor the characters could have known, because neither of us knew enough about the world of the book. I liked this. Unlike a detective story, you can’t know the ending based on clues.

I will say though that the last chapter was unnecessary and I recommend ignoring it. I think Philip is just throwing us for a spin because he can. It didn’t seem to actually fit with the rest of the well-devised story.

Dune

By Frank Herbert.

From katyilonakgero.

I recently read Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune is a classic science fiction novel that builds a highly intricate world, filled with history and politics and religion, as well as having a story about specific people in a particular place. It’s set on the desert planet Dune where they make spice, an expensive drug sought after by everyone in the universe.

It fascinated me.

I am not into science fiction or fantasy. I’ve read some here and there and enjoyed it, but for fiction I tend to stick to that section called literary, or the part of the bookstore that doesn’t give any extra adjectives to the novel genre. These stories are about people, not me yet I can see a ‘me’ in them, not in my world yet in a world I could theoretically know. I have read fiction with intricate plots set in places I do not know; by the nature of being real places they have a complex history and set of politics and religion and this can even play into the characters and plot. But they are not the same. Dune strikes me as fundamentally different that these other stories. I’m not sure why.

Dune’s characters struck me as alien. It’s not that they are not relatable but that the emotional layer of the story is one or two deep. To pick up on it I had to understand the plot points, which were complicated and subtle. There were few emotional scenes, instead the emotional nature of the characters had to be inferred from the actions. But that first layer, of complex and subtle plot points, was so deep as to be practically impenetrable from my single reading. This is echoed by people who have read it multiple times: it takes many readings to reach a level of understanding such that you stop finding new, relevant details.

Perhaps, then, I loved Dune as puzzle. It evokes the best kind of learning experience: putting the understanding of the world just out my reach, fascinating enough that I keep coming back but not so clear that I fully get it. I must reach further, think harder, ask questions, re-read. Yet it is the ‘fascinating enough’ part that is key to that theory. What makes Dune so fascinating that I’m willing to work for it?

Dune touches on everything. It delves into political organization, religious groups, the power of leaders, ecological concerns, drugs, the place of love in politics and leadership, the potential of humans to evolve, guerrilla warfare, human survival in terrible living conditions. The list goes on, depending on how you want to slice it. Frank Herbert took all these ideas he wanted to explore, wrapped them up into a novel, and tied it with a bow of a plot that comes to a natural end. It’s not that he resolves everything (he doesn’t, there are five sequels,) but rather that almost everything can slot into place, even if as the reader I don’t exactly know how.

Real life is not so wonderfully clean. The way complex concepts are explored through the progression of the real world probably can never be so succinctly threaded together and understood. In the real world there are loose ends, or if you do believe that all ends are tied, it is at least well-acknowledged that we rarely get to see them tied ourselves. Literary fiction often hinges on this very fundamental aspect of being human: not everything is understood. Characters are not understood by others or do not understand their own actions. Trajectories of events, communities, and movements are haphazard and we often see only a small sliver of it. In comparison, a bird’s eye view of Dune is, if not attainable, then not far off.

The lack of clarity in the real world doesn’t simply imply lack of facts. There is also no unbiased view through which to understand the facts we do have. For all of its complexity, Dune is crystal clear. Herbert’s narration is omniscient but also detached and because he created this world he gets to define the neutral point. If Herbert attempts to teach us things, and I think he does, it is by the consequences of the actions of the characters, not by the way in which the characters or actions are described.

To dive into a world as complex as our own but so well understood is thrilling. Humans have evolved to seek understanding; building mental models that enable us to interact well with the world is how we thrive. The real world doesn’t allow us to have any kind of “true” working model, at least I don’t think so, but reading a book about an alternate world gets us to a pseudo-complete state.

I think it tickles a very basic part of my brain. I strive to understand the details in a way that no literary novel has ever enticed me. Which is not to say I have not been knee-deep in thoughts about literary novels. They are simply radically different kinds of thoughts, more often than not they are overwhelming emotions. As I said earlier Dune was not, for me, an emotional book at all. It continues to be a puzzle that populates me. I plan to read more.