Shit, it’s April. That will very much be reflected in the quality and quantity of words here.
Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov
This book was such a perfect blend of cute and depressing and absurd and I think I loved it?
The cute: the protagonist has a pet penguin named Misha and all of their interactions are adorable because there’s just something about the image of an adult man talking to a penguin or patting it on the head or feeding it lox, you know? And something about giving pets human names, particularly when there is then a (human) character named Misha who is continually referred to as “Misha-non-penguin” in the third-person narrative.
The depressing: a lot of really poignant descriptions of loneliness, and also just, like, life in post-Soviet Ukraine.
The absurd: I mean, the entire plot, which we’ll let Wikipedia describe.
Loneliness had given way to a kind of semi-loneliness, a kind of semi-dependence. His own sluggish life force had borne him as on a wave to a strange island, where suddenly he had acquired responsibilities and money to discharge them. Remaining, in the process, remote from events and even from life itself, he had made no effort to grasp what was taking place around him. Until recently, with the arrival of Sonya. And even now, life around him was still dangerously unfathomable, as if he had missed the actual moment when the nature of events might have been fathomed.
Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
Sort of similar to how I felt about Vile Bodies—there are certainly some funny passages and situations, but overall, I am not familiar enough with the societal context to appreciate the satire.
William and Corker went to the Press Bureau. Dr. Benito, the director, was away, but his clerk entered their names in his ledger and gave them cards of identity. They were small orange documents, originally printed for the registration of prostitutes. The space for thumb-print was now filled with a passport photograph, and at the head the word ‘journalist’ substituted in neat Ishmaelite characters.
Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
I guess this has the sort of compelling but trashy quality that “beach read” signifies? The descriptions of wealth and the complex web of petty family shit is fun, but a lot of the dialogue feels stilted and the characters are not especially well-developed. In fact, Kwan seems to do a much better job at making the more extreme, peripheral characters feel like actual people than the supposed main characters. Nick and Rachel still felt like ciphers by the end of the book, so it was difficult to get invested in their romance, apart from wanting them to succeed to counteract the bitchiness and prejudices of everyone around them. They’re both professors, but we get basically no sense of their academic interests or expertise, which makes one wonder why Kwan would choose to assign them that profession rather than something more neutral. I mean, Rachel is apparently an economics professor, so you would expect that to shape her reaction to Singaporean high society, but instead she just seems to serve as an American audience surrogate—at least, until she gets a bit of family drama of her own—to react with generic shock and awe at all of the extravagance. And who the fuck even is Nick? He’s a handsome dude with good taste and a crazy rich family, but apart from being “nice,” what is the deal with his personality or motivation? Who knows?
Still, it is some solid, solid lifestyle porn and I would watch the hell out of a movie or miniseries adaptation.
The Collected Tales of E.M. Forster, E.M. Forster
I’m not super into short stories as a medium—in general, I feel like they fall into the category of “ugh, I don’t care about this, but it’s only n pages, so I might as well finish it” or “this is so compelling that I’d prefer it to be more than n pages”— but for the sake of E.M. Forster completionism, this had to be read.
There’s a lot of classicism, which is interesting in light of The Longest Journey; the main character in that novel wants to make his living writing short stories that are heavy on the classical allusions, but doesn’t find success (or at least, not until after his death), and when reading it, I wasn’t sure to whether the character was a self-insert character or if Forster was making fun of the character’s pretensions. And I guess the answer is probably both? But yeah, certainly a lot of the society vs nature ideology in the short stories is similar to the ideology expressed in Forster’s novels (in super reductive terms, social conventions are The Worst and you may need to break free from society—but not humanity—in order to achieve happiness), but with more fantasy shit, whether that’s satyrs, nymphs, a Celestial Omnibus, the afterlife, etc.
Also, it must be noted, Forster wrote this short story called “The Machine Stops” depicting a dystopian sci-fi future in which humans are all isolated and only communicate through screens. In fucking 1909. Had it been written in 1999, it would be obnoxiously on-the-nose—like, say, Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian iPhone future in Super Sad True Love Story (2010)—but coming from 1909, it’s just hella prescient. It’s way more of a genre shift from his normal novels of manners than any of the other stories in this collection, I think, but again, still very much in tune with his recurring themes of breaking free from society and reconnecting with nature/one’s own fleshy body. So “The Machine Stops” maybe made the whole collection worthwhile, and there were certainly some clever and/or poignant quotes from several of the stories, because E.M. Forster, man.
Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul. (The Machine Stops)
Presently a voice said, “Is not ours a heavenly sky? Is it not beautiful?”
“Most beautiful,” answered Mickey, and found each word a stab of pain. Then he knew that one of the sins here punished was appreciation; he was suffering for all the praise that he had given to the bad and mediocre upon earth; when he had praised out of idleness, or to please people, or to encourage people; for all the praise that had not been winged with passion. He repeated “Most beautiful,” and the sky quivered, for he was entering into fuller torments now. (The Point of It)
China Rich Girlfriend, Kevin Kwan
This is the sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, and, I don’t know, more of the same? Some of it was a bit too cartoonish in ways that the first book wasn’t; e.g. the Bernard Tai reveal—one of the peripheral characters has been mysteriously missing and it turns out that it’s because he tried to get plastic surgery to look like Christian Bale but the doctor misinterpreted him and went for Kristen Bell —was just too fucking dumb. It comes across as especially jarring when, for all of the extravagant wealth on display, there is some level of realism on display in most of the plotlines. They’re soapy as hell, but in the “turns out the father you thought was dead is actually a mainland Chinese billionaire” and “your ex-fiancee secretly financed your current husband’s startup because he loves you enough to want you to be happy with another man” way rather than the evil twin and amnesia line of soapiness.
Also, Nick and Rachel continue to have no personality traits other than enjoys good food and nice, I guess?