How did I forget about #14 and #15? Devoured during my early June trip to NYC, I suppose. Chronologically these are all way out of order now, back to reality-order beginning with #17.14. The Marriage Plot
, Jeffrey Eugenides.
Eugenides wrote one of my top desert island books, Middlesex, and this book was not exactly bad, but definitely a disappointment in comparison. Less epic, much more annoying. I kind of hated the narrator Madeleine (who has become conflated with a girl I work with, Madeline, towards whom I occasionally feel intense jealousy) and the idea that her peregrinations around husband X or one-time lover Y could really add up to much. Did she wrestle with feminism in a convincing way? Hard to say, she's not my generation, maybe this resonates more for someone ten years older than me? The conceit is also that the book, in wrestling with the trope of the marriage plot, creates a new marriage plot...I remain unconvinced. Was pleased in the end that I only bought this in Kindle form -- not one I'd feel good about spending the full hardback price on. (ETA: upon reading the NYT review
[please note I put "peregrinations" in my summary above *before* reading the review!], I'm kind of fascinated to realize I wholly missed the unsubtle DFW tribute, but mollified to read between the lines a kind of subtle damning-with-faint-praise critique...or is that just wishful thinking? Oh Michiko Kakutani.)15. Wild
, Cheryl Strayed.
Allow me to tell you my tale of woe, which is that the amazing Strayed, a.k.a. Sugar
(are you reading her yet? they are not advice columns they are on another plane of awesomeness I can't even articulate very well), MOTHERFUCKING SUGAR was going to come to my bookclub in September and recently had to cancel. WOE IS ME. I am so sad. I am completely, utterly lovesick over her as a writer, and this book is amazing. Personal history, travelogue of unbelievable deprivation and naivete and luck on the Pacific Coast Trail, meditation on loss and addiction and sex and divorce, maybe this one just hit me right at the right time, but it is legitimately amazing. Even my crazy dad who only reads books about string theory gave this a go and then texted me raving about it. Go read it now, before Oprah's book club starts up again and makes you feel silly for reading it. (That is an actual thing happening. Oprah's book club was closed up, did you know that? And then she read this book and decided to start it up again?) 16. Dandelion Wine
, Ray Bradbury
I've had this on the re-read list ever since his death. In addition to devouring pretty much any Bradbury I could get my hands on at the library, Dandelion Wine held a special place in my heart from when I read it in middle school. My re-read revealed one interesting thing: I remembered it being a series of short stories, but of course it's one continuous novel. It made me nostalgic for the analog world of the 1920s, everyone on their porches in the evenings, kids running crazy all over town. Not so much nostalgia for the racist bits and the xenophobic bits but there is magic around the edges of this book. It's pure pure summer, compared to my other favorite Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is of course pure pure autumn. Reading this in the summer is fun because it's all about dying of heat, sluggish summer heat in Illinois -- probably easier to read from early summer in Oregon, when some days it barely hits 78.17. After Such Knowledge
, Eva Hoffman.
Hoffman's memoir Lost in Translation
was a big part of my comparative literature studies in autobiography in college, but this one was unknown to me until Heidi recommended it as a good counterpoint to #18 below. As one long nonfiction essay, this is a beautiful but occasionally tedious meditation about being a part of the generation born to parents who had survived the Holocaust. Hoffman's parents hid in a tiny attic space in Poland, then fled to the US soon after the war ended, but the actual facts and memories and impressions of this history are frustratingly scattered thinly throughout the text. Maybe this is somewhat like her generation's experience, where their Jewish parents' experiences were so unspoken/dark/forgotten/hidden/etc that it wasn't until much much later that many of her generation actually learned the circumstances of the survival or death of parents and relatives. A later chapter covers Hoffman's return to the village where her parents had lived, and she paints an interesting picture of the multi-cultural fabric of these small villages (another famous work of hers is on the vanished shetl communities, so this is her specialty), going into some of the weird post-facto who-sheltered-whom and who-betrayed-whom stuff that is everywhere under the surface of these return journeys. Ultimately I didn't feel incredibly enlightened by this book -- it's beautiful, it's no consolation, it's opaque. Her point, of course (not quite intentionally evoked by this opacity, in my opinion) is that there is no explanation, no reconciliation. It's much more subtle than I'm making it sound, and very well written, just not quite what I was looking for. Skip to the chapter where she goes back to Poland, honestly.18. Patterns of Childhood
, Christa Wolf.
I thought this was a re-read but as I got into the later chapters it was clear I'd never finished it the first time around (in 2004 or so?). This is Wolf's novel-that-really-a-memoir about her childhood in eastern Germany, as her father joined the SS and she joined the Hitler Youth girls, and then later to their flight from the advancing Red Army and life as displaced persons. The narrative is told in slightly confusing layers that overlay (1) her childhood memories with (2) a 1971 trip to her childhood town (formerly Germany, now Poland) with her brother, husband and daughter and also (3) the period of writing of the book, some four or five years after the 1971 trip. She refers to Nelly (pseudonym for the young Christa), and also writes in second person familiar. This book, when I read its first chapter, was tremendously important to me, it expressed something about autobiography I'd felt but never articulated: how memories cannot be separated from how they are evoked in the present time; there are also aspects of her personality that I identify with (to be good is to be obedient) which is an uncomfortable feeling, to feel similar to a child in those circumstances. (I often felt conspicuous carrying this book, which has a vaguely nazi colors and a girl saluting in the picture -- though I realized that these were symbols that only became huge in my mind because I was reading this particular book.) As a young teenager on the flight westward, they come across a man, liberated from a camp where he had been imprisoned as a communist. But that can't have been why they put you away, says Nelly's mother. Where have you all been living
, he says to her. I found myself always looking for these kinds of clues -- how was it okay? Did the Wolf family really know no Jews? What about all the German people who did? How does that mindset evolve and thrive? How did propaganda work? Nothing that can be answered, maybe, but seeing their family life (albeit through the occasionally stilted translation and through the distortions of Nelly-as-child) at such an intimate level was fascinating in its own right, as were the accounts of the flight, and eventual life under the Soviets in the refugee village. As Gunther Grass wrote, the unspoken parallel in the text is that Wolf cannot really speak to the parallels between life under Nazi rule and life in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Having read his piece
on all this around the time of her death, I was looking for signs of that too -- there are few traces of the GDR, only in things like papers and passes at the borders, but it's another tantalizing layer. (ETA: that is not the Gunther Grass piece I was looking for...well okay someone wrote that about Wolf, the thing about East Germany being the silent shadow in Kindheitsmuster, Patterns of Childhood. Also ETA I really really want to take German now. Trawling the stacks on campus for her books did not help this desire.)19. Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity
, by Andrew Fisher.
My friend Se-ah-dom is the daughter of Ed Edmo, of the Shoshone Bannock tribe and a member of Celilo Village at the (drowned by the Dalles dam) Celilo Falls. Se-ah-dom and I write a lot of grants together at work that support various tribal projects, and once or twice she's mentioned this book to me. Happy to read it finally, and happy to discover her dad is one of the writer's sources, too. Fisher writes a fascinating history of the people who refused to affiliate with the various reservations in Eastern Oregon/Washington along the Columbia River, where there have been thriving fishing and trading gatherings and settlements for the last 10,000 years (at least). This book was helpful because it illuminates the process of how "tribes" were created by the War Department's Indian Office (later the Interior Dept's Bureau of Indian Affairs) with basically zero relation to actual identities -- perhaps this is no surprise, but it's especially tricky in the Pacific Northwest, where people didn't identify with many of the structures common to Natives in the east (i.e. living in "bands" that were connected hierarchically to a "tribe"), and where due to the seasonal round (salmon in the spring and fall, camas root and berries in the summer, longhouse/village life during the long wet winters) and complicated inter-familial relationships and heriditary fishing locations, you might identify according to many different names, groups, locations, indigenous tribal structures or government-imposed tribal structures. Whenever we write grants in Oregon, we always talk about "the nine Federally-recognized Tribes" but then there are other "locations with significant populations of Indians" which we include in any project requiring state-wide participation or input -- this is because many of the people who live at the (tiny) Celilo Village are not enrolled members of Tribes in Oregon, or identify as the Columbia River people more than anything else. I don't think Fisher made this history quite as comprehensive as I would've liked -- for instance unless Tribal communications were recorded in government records or newspapers, there were very few Native voices, aside from a few quotes included from people he interviewed about contemporary affairs on the river. It would have been helpful to hear from the Tribes more -- how do they tell their memories of these times? What is the narrative there? Fisher tells a great story about how the Columbia River people, unaffiliated with Federal tribes and resistant to the many efforts to disperse them, served as an important focus of resistance to colonial powers and how their existance as a "shadow tribe" is relevant even today to understand the complicated politics of Oregon and Washington tribes. Also, Fisher, get your chronological storytelling house in order...more signposting in the text? He would skip from one storyline into the next and skip in time so there was often little relation between the progression of two related (but separately told) stories. 20. You're An Animal, Viskovitz!
, by Alessandro Boffa, translated from the Italian by John Casey.
This was fun! A tiny compact book, short chapters each a story about Viskovitz, in love with Ljuba, as a different animal in each chapter. And the next chapter title is always a sort of commentary on the prior chapter, like a call and response, a neat little mental puzzle to follow. Viskovitz is a snail whose progress is measures in months, a sponge, a vegetarian lion jaded by the documentary scene, a classic noir cop dog, all kinds of fun creatures. Boffa's little bio sketch says he is Russian and studied biology in Rome, which perhaps explains the encyclopedic, detailed vocabulary in the book. A fun, quick read, melancholy and hilarious and weird. Science and love and puns! Super fun. It is like $3 at Powells, or get it from the library like I did, it is so worth it.
Books! Hooray! I have another stack of them on my bookstand! Cod bless the long boring bright summer with all these lazy days at home. We're about to go camping next week, and then I have a week off after that, and a whole month of Fridays off. It's going to be glorious and I'm going to read a zillion more books, just you wait and see. Perhaps I'll even review them as I go, instead of spamming you all with six at once, ha.