March 2016 Books

Fuck, it’s May.


Penguin Lost, Andrey Kurkov


This was probably more absurdist than the first book and as a result maybe a bit less poignant, but still pretty solid. It’s been like two months, so I’ve seriously got nothing.

Selected quote:

It was now he felt the lack of roots, or simply of threads linking his today with his past. It was like being torn from life by one’s very flesh, like existing in some virtual, non-real world. Being seen or merely noticed by too few to feel real himself, perhaps no more than a spectre registered here, at this flat, with no right to quit its walls.

 Child 44, Tom Rob Smith


This was maybe my first venture into the genre of airport dad thrillers, and it was a solid one. Not much to say; very compelling—lots of stressful situations where you’re like, “fuck, I know the protagonist is going to survive because there are sequels, but I can’t see a way out of this,” and the resulting ways out mostly don’t feel cheap or poorly thought out. Good balance between psychological exploration of the characters and exciting plot. Based on the note I left for myself on my phone on March 8, I apparently felt like I had something super thoughtful to say w.r.t. “Physical manifestation of spiritual illness in child 44 and crime and punishment (also brothers k?)” but ummm, not currently feeling it. Do I still get pretension points for making that connection, though?

Minor note: the use of dash + block of italic text for the dialogue was a weird stylistic choice that bothered me more than it should have, probably. Just…why would you do that?

Selected quote:

Raisa was afraid but mostly she was angry. The plan was smart, that was true, and she hadn’t come up with anything better, but it depended entirely on their ability to cling on. She wasn’t a trained soldier: she hadn’t spent years crawling through ditches, climbing over walls. She didn’t have the upper-body strength needed to make this work. Already her arms were aching, not just aching—they were hurting. She couldn’t imagine how she was going to manage another minute, let alone an entire hour. But she refused to accept that she was going to be the one to get them caught just because she wasn’t strong enough, refused to accept the idea that they’d fail because she was weak.

Fighting the pain, silently crying with frustration, she could no longer hold on, she had to lower herself to the ground and rest her arms. However, even with a rest, she’d recover only enough to hold on for another minute or two. The length of time she’d be able to hold herself up would rapidly decrease until she couldn’t do it at all. She had to think about this problem. What was the solution that didn’t rely on strength? The strips of the shirt—if she couldn’t hold on, she’d tie herself on, tie her wrists to the axle shaft.

Not selected for its poignancy, but because this is something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen addressed in fiction? It would be easy enough to just cut this out and handwave the character’s ability to perform physical feats that they maybe realistically couldn’t with “ehhhh, adrenaline kicks in in this type of life-or-death situation, right?”—and usually I think that is the case in books/movies/TV, so this was refreshing.

A Map of Betrayal, Ha Jin


I really didn’t like this, but it’s been over a month since I read it, so the resoning here is going to be pretty vague. I initially put it on my to-read list because of the AV Club review of it, which, as I read it again, I think is a very, um, forgiving take on the book. It’s not totally inaccurate, but I don’t think the character of Lillian was nearly as well-developed as the review seems to indicate. It’s weird, because I found the first-person chapters from Lillian’s perspective super irritating, which would imply that they displayed some personality, but at the same time, I felt like I just didn’t have a sense of who she was? I don’t know, there were so many inane details in Lillian’s chapters that seemed like they might end up becoming relevant to the plot—because why else include them—only no, just really inefficient storytelling. And because these were first-person chapters, it’s unclear whether the inefficiency is on Ha Jin’s part or the character’s. The third-person chapters dealing with Gary Shang’s life story weren’t as irritating, I think; there might have still been some stiltedness, but you could chalk that up to the historical setting.

There’s an interesting premise at the heart of the novel, but I think it suffered from the alternating POV chapters. I’m not sure we really gain anything from the first-person chapters; like there are some parallels between the past and present that Jin is trying to achieve by having Lillian’s nephew also be involved in the intelligence business, but that plotline isn’t really given enough room to develop, so it kind of just plays as “okay, very cute. I see what you did there, Ha Jin” but not much more impactful than that? And I’m not really sure what identity questioning on Lillian’s part the AV Club review is referring to, since it seems like it mostly occurred before the events of the novel and is only obliquely referred to throughout her chapters. If we’re interested in the impact of her father’s occupation on Lillian’s life, I’d rather read how she initially felt about it and why she decided to become an Asian Studies professor and how she deals with that, not this emotionally opaque middle-aged woman who has known the basic facts for years.

I don’t know, maybe there’s a deeper point that I’m completely missing.


Selected quote:

I believe that a country is not a temple but a mansion built by the citizens so they can have shelter and protection in it. Such a construction can be repaired, renovated, altered, and even overhauled if necessary. If the house isn’t suitable for you, you should be entitled to look for shelter elsewhere.

Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart


Obnoxious and yet weirdly compelling, which I guess is how I feel about Gary Shteyngart overall. (I fucking loathed Super Sad True Love Story but I also finished it over the course of, like, two days, so…) I mean, there were a lot of really funny passages, and I am super susceptible to Jewish shit and Russian shit. On the other hand, so much gross body stuff and farcical situtations that didn’t quite work for me. Do the former cancel out the latter? I don’t know.

Also, is the recurrence of the color orange (because it is, like, the most absurd color) in Absurdistan parodying the recurrence of yellow (because it is the color of aged/dirty/sullied previously white things) in Crime and Punishment? This is either a super obvious yes, or I’m completely overthinking it.

Selected quote:

I explained in so many words that I had traveled to Absurdistan to buy European citizenship off a crooked Belgian consular official after nailing my dead father’s young wife. A reproachful silence followed. “Is this a legal way to get citizenship?” Dr. Levine asked.

“Well,” I said. “ ‘Legal’ is a relative word…”

You son of a bitch, I thought. How dare you suggest that I shouldn’t avail myself of every last chance to get out of Russia when your own great-grandparents probably bribed half the czar’s men in the Pale of Settlement and then sneaked out in a mail bag, just to make sure their descendants could lounge on a fine walnut-trimmed Eames chair on the corner of Park Avenue and Eighty-fifth Street, issuing half-baked censorious statements to the insulted and injured and collecting US$350 an hour for the privilege? But instead of saying this, I started to cry.


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