The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Category: novel

Moonglow

By Michael Chabon

I read this book because Brad loved it so much. It’s kind of the opposite of My Struggle: My Struggle was an autobiography written as a novel whereas Moonglow is a novel written as an autobiography. The novel is about Michael’s grandfather, except not his real grandfather but an imagined one.

The grandfather has a larger than life feeling. Incredibly hot-headed but also incredibly intelligent. Loyal to the bone. A rough life, a life of getting in trouble, of trying to keep his wife, a Jewess who survived WWII in Europe, together, though her problems span the book. The grandfather is an engineer. He is telling Michael his stories on his deathbed and the stories are never-ending and astounding.

The book is engaging though I pause about halfway through and end up finishing it on a bus to NYC. It’s a great book, but the grandeur of the grandfather bothered me — is anyone really like that? So interesting, so smart, so much drama? It didn’t have that subdued, real feeling of most literary novels that attempt to bring real people into the swing, real people who have long patches of boring life.

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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.