The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Category: novel

Midnight Robber

By Nalo Hopkinson.

Great science fiction book that extrapolates from Caribbean culture; it’s all in a dialect. In the future planet, Toussaint, everyone has a ‘nanny’ AI in their ear that helps them but also helps keep the peace. It’s a utopia future, with no manual labor and crazy bio-design stuff. Instead of a death penalty, they send people to the New Half-Way Tree, a parallel planet that doesn’t have any of the tech or AI of Toussaint.

The main character, Tan-Tan, her mother cheats on her father, so her father challenges the guy to a duel — instead of fighting fairly, he poisons the guy, which basically gets him sent to the New Half-Way Tree. He sneaks Tan-Tan along with him, which is a bit of a dick move but it turns out he’s really a monster and abuses her in the New Half-Way Tree.

As a quick summary, Tan-Tan kills Antonio and runs away (it’s eye for eye) and lives with these half-beast people in the forest. She becomes the Midnight Robber, doing good in the small colonies on the New Half-Way Tree. But she gets kicked out of half-beast people, too, because her mother-in-law finds their secret hideout trying to kill Tan-Tan for killing Antonio. Eventually Tan-Tan has a face-off with the mother-in-law and makes some peace. Then she has her child, Antonio’s child, and it turns out the nanny AI was able to make its way into the kid. It ends with Tan-Tan giving birth.



The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin

Book club book! Like Wizard of Earthsea, I took a while to get into this book, getting bored at the politics (I am bored even with the politics of my own country; I am hard-pressed to be invested in fictional politics) but engaged when they are out on the ice, just traveling. In this book an emissary from a galactical trading company arrives on the isolated planet Winter to convince them to join the trading company. But on Winter people don’t have gender; rather once a month they grow genitals depending on who is around and have sex only then. This means they could be both a mother and a father. There is even a pregnant king.

The gender politics are fascinating, the way the emissary finds them at times male, at times female, though of course they are neither. He often finds their sexuality base — as in primitive, for there are little inhibitions around sex (when they are in heat) and to him that makes them seem animal. He also wonders how much of their society, which has no war, is due to the genderlessness or due to the harsh climate; the planet is called Winter due to it being very cold all the time.

Overall I would recommend the book, though I was not super into it. It was fascinating.

The Metamorphosis

By Franz Kafka.

I must have picked up the book a long time ago because I’ve had it sitting around forever. Finally read it while in LA on Christmas break. I was surprised by how short it was as at least 2/3 of the book I had was critical analysis. This lead me to believe that Gregor was not dead when he truly was as I thought the story must continue. It’s funny how much that can affect my perception of the story.

It was good, strange, pretty much what people say. Intriguing that Gregor does so much for his family but they seem happier when they are forced to be on their own without his help. I guess that’s probably the main, depressing point of the story.

Perhaps because it is so famous and so referenced the story itself was a little underwhelming. I appreciate the idea and the execution, but there was little drama for me; like looking at the Mona Lisa it was hard to see it with fresh eyes. Instead it was what it was. Good but not genius; not because it is not genius but because by now it feels almost like a trope.

Boy, Snow, Bird

By Helen Oyeyemi.

I read this book all in one breath on the way to LA for Christmas, mostly on the airplane. It felt like a short novel.

I was captivated by it though I don’t really understand certain aspects. It’s a strange retelling of snow white where we follow Boy, a young girl abused by her rat-catching father in NYC who runs away shortly after finishing high school. She gets on a bus to a random, small town in Western Mass and ends up staying there, marrying Arturo, a jewelry maker with a daughter called Snow and a dead wife called Julie. At first Boy loves Snow, perhaps eight years old, a sweet little child. But then Boy becomes pregnant and upon the birth of her own daughter discovers that Arturo is actually a light-skinned black man; his entire family passing for white; Boy names her daughter Bird after Snow suggests some bird names.

Upon this passing-as-white revelation, Boy discovers that Arturo has a second sister (or was it cousin…) living in Boston who does not want to pass as white; Arturo’s mother sent her away. We are set up to believe that Boy will ask the sister to take her dark daughter, but instead Boy asks the sister to take Snow. I never understand this decision. Why does she suddenly hate Snow?

We then get a glimpse of Bird’s strange world as a teenager, a dark kid in a small town in the midst of a strange drama. She is super curious about Snow and begins to send her letters; they strike up a friendship.

Boy’s father makes a visit and meets Bird.

Snow comes to visit and befriends Bird, though Boy still hates Snow and now we learn more that Boy thinks people treat Snow like she is perfect and that this breeds in Snow a very pretentious and cruel personality; but is it true?

Finally we a get a twist that Boy’s close friend, a reporter, has been researching Boy’s mother. The reporter had an abortion and wants to write a piece about why mother’s abandon their children. What the reporter discovers is that Boy’s father *is* her mother, that the mother got raped and then perhaps had some kind of personality disorder and transitioned into a man.

This is a crazy revelation that is hard to follow. We end with Boy arranging both Snow and Bird to try to go meet her ‘mother’.

It’s strange because Boy’s mother is set up, based on the research, to be a kind and progressive woman; but Boy’s father is terribly, physically abusive. It’s hard to imagine that kind of switch. And why does Boy want to go see him or her?

We are having a book club on this book so hopefully others will have some insight.

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders

Another Brad birthday book. I had not idea what this book would be about. I was surprised to read the inside of the book jacket and learn that it was about Lincoln’s child, who died young of Typhoid, being stuck in some kind of purgatory and the ghosts therein. It’s hard to describe it without it seeming silly or like fantasy. And yet it is not fantasy. It is classic ‘literary’, whatever exactly that means, it that it was very much about people and though it was strange and fantastical it had more of a magic realism feel than a fantasy one.

(What makes fantasy different from the magic realism of Marquez or Murakami? I’m not sure.)

The style was unusual, almost play like in that everything was attributed but it helped with this aesthetic of everyone being a ghost and thus it is all more thoughts than words.

However there were also sections which seemed like it was quotes from historical documents about Lincoln. It was a great gestalt to see twenty different descriptions of Lincoln’s eyes all smashed up together, or to read of the party they held in the White House (while Willie was sick) and people saying the moon was high, there was no moon, the moon was bright orange, etc. etc.


One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The second book club book for Dan’s book club. This book was insane. That’s what I kept thinking when I read it. Have read other stuff by Marquez — Chronicles of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera — and they were great books. But this was one weird and crazy.

It follows a family in a small village somewhere and covers one hundred years of their progeny, from a time when gypsies came and sold them ice and a magic carpet (both equally grand to the people) through to a banana plantation coming in with Americans and barbed wire fences and union breaking and massacres, through a four year rain… So much goes on it is hard to describe.

There was a flighty element to the writing as there was no one main character but we would jump from person to person so quickly it was hard to notice at first. The writing was beautiful and engaging and yet seems like it should have felt like a laundry of what happened and what people were thinking.

The family itself is filled with strange characters, dreamers and inventors and a civil war hero and the original parents are cousins, constantly afraid their children will have pigs tails. Incest keeps coming back to the family and their downfall is when one of the boys (many generations past the original parents) falls in love with his aunt and basically sexually assaults her, which really causes her to fall in love with them and then they have a child. They are the only ones left of the bloodline and this child is their downfall; in the end they all die.

At the book club we couldn’t figure out what the incest was about. Why was it so prominent? Did it mean something? Were we missing some cultural context?

It is a book I would read again, as so much happened it seemed to rush by and I couldn’t touch every piece to really feel it.

A Little Life

By Hanya Yanagihara.

Read this for Dan’s bookclub. Incredibly, incredibly sad. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried so much while reading a book before.

I thought it would be a book about gay men in New York. It was not really about gay men, or the gay lifestyle, though several of the characters are gay. Instead it is mostly about Jude, a man who experienced terrible and sustained and varied sexual abuse his entire life up until basically 16 when he went to college. It’s about how he lived for the rest of his life and the (male) friends who tried to help him and his success and constant cutting and eventual sexual (or at least romantic) relationship with one of those friends.

At the bookclub we had plenty of complaints about the book. That it had no real female characters, that it was not really about gay-ness, that all the main characters became hugely and inaccessibly wealthy and successful. And yet its profound sadness and ability to describe the incredible, awful abuse this man suffered is surely a huge feat.


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.


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.