Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

title: Freedom [purchase here]
author: Jonathan Franzen 
pages: 562
genre:  literary fiction
published: 2010
source:  New York Public Library

I've been promising a review of Freedom for the past few weeks and have been negligent in my posting.  It was over 500 pages!  That shit takes a while ;)

As I've previously mentioned, I love me some Franzen, but I was most familiar with his short stories and nonfiction, and this was my first time reading one of his novels.  It did not disappoint.

In the ongoing debate about the future of/the possible death of the great American novel, one thing many agree on is the difficulty of creating characters and plot that are concurrently timeless and relevant. I'm sure I have nothing to add to that debate that would be original or poignant, but that notion kept popping into my head as I read.  I'm sure Franzen has weighed in, and I'd be interested to hear what he said.  In terms of Freedom, Franzen keeps the plot  and characters incredibly current, but there's a universal quality to the relationships he develops.  Timeless?  No.  The next great American novel?  Probably not. But incredibly generous and intelligent, which are qualities worth revisiting for years to come.

Rubric rating: 9.  Love me some Franzen. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

title: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk [purchase here]
author: David Sedaris
illustrator:  Ian Falconer
pages: 159
genre: short stories/fiction
published: 2010
source:  New York Public Library

If Rudyard Kipling and Aesop had been able to spawn, their hypothetical offspring would have LOVED this short story collection. 

Sedaris' short story collection is hilarious and poignant, bizarre and familiar, all at the same time.  A few highlights:
  • The Toad, The Turtle and The Duck:  three title characters wait in line a ruminate over the irritations that accompany bureaucratic formalities.
  • The Parenting Storks:  explores how storks answer the inevitable question:  "Where do babies come from?"
  • The Faithful Setter: deals with infidelity and sexual mores among canines
  • The Grieving Owl: an owl, befriending a hippopotamus with leeches living in her anus, comes up with an interesting solution to her problem, which involves a gerbil...Richard Gere may have been a source of inspiration on that one...
Loved this book.  It was perfect for my morning commute; not only was each story compact, but Sedaris' clever story lines  and sometimes caustic characters brightened my morning mood.

Rubric rating: 8.  Sedaris is one of my favorite New Yorker contributors and I'm definitely looking forward to exploring the rest of his work.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: Burmese Refugees, Letters from the Thai-Burma Border

title: Burmese Refugees, Letters from the Thai-Burma Border [purchase here]
essays collected by: T F Rhoden & T L S Rhoden
pages: 110
genre:  collection of nonfiction personal essays
source:  I received an epub copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

When I received this ebook in my inbox last week, I did something I never do:  I paused my reading of a Jonathan Franzen novel.  For those who know me well, my love for Franzen is not far behind my love for the late David Foster Wallace, and said love and absolute admiration runs deep.  I was that excited for this piece.

According to T F Rhoden, this collection of personal essays started as an assignment where the refugee students in his English enhancement class were asked to write three paragraphs about their past.  He was moved by what his class produced and felt compelled to do more to understand their experiences.  What the Rhoden brothers propose to do with this collection is, by bringing to light the conditions (both past and present) faced by the Burmese refugees waiting for resettlement, rally others to their cause and affect positive change on their behalf.  I can absolutely get behind that.

In terms of content, the stories from the refugees themselves are incredibly moving and inspiring on several levels.  I used to teach ESL students myself, and have experienced how challenging writing honestly and accurately can be in a language that's not your first.   Kudos to the essayists for bravely taking on that challenge.  I would venture to guess that if I attempted the same assignment in, say, French, the result would not be nearly as successful.  Though their narratives can be at times choppy and awkward, what shines through in many is remarkable: the will not just to stay alive, but to live life fully. A theme that repeated itself in several of the essays was the desire of the authors to eventually, after resettlement, return to Burma and/or to affect change for the people in their community from abroad.  The passionate, determined voices of the refugees are absolutely the book's strength.  Reading their accounts, I was seething thinking about all of the injustices, major and minor, the authors had been subjected to living under an oppressive military junta.  And if you can get past my criticism below, the book is worth picking up just to read their stories.

Unfortunately, there's a lot to sift through to get to these potent firsthand accounts. In fact, I only got through about half of the book before I got so fed up with T F Rhoden I had to stop reading.  In the interest of brevity,  here are my two biggest problems with the text:

1)  Basic spelling, grammar, usage and structural errors:  the text is positively rife with them.  T F Rhoden's introduction alone is abominable.  In affecting a "writerly" voice, he constructs some of the most awkward, roundabout sentences I've ever read.  T F Rhoden seems to have no clue who is audience is, and though he apes a scholarly tone at times, this book is clearly not research-based enough for academia.  In fact, I can't imagine the brothers hired a fact checker if they clearly didn't bother to hire a copy editor, or even pass the manuscript off to a friend to proof read for that matter.  In addition, content wise, there are multiple superfluous details throughout the introduction that any editor worth their salt would have cut in favor of flow.  T L S Rhoden fares far better in his introduction, which is much more concise and clear, though he confuses "affect" and "effect."  All in all, these sloppy, easily correctable mistakes are incredibly disruptive to the reader and ultimately distract attention from the important part of the book:  the Burmese people and their stories.

2) T F Rhoden's ego: I felt two kinds of anger as I read.  The first was on behalf of the many essayists for the oppression they faced.  The other was directed toward T F Rhoden, who inserts himself into this text far too much.  At the end of each essay, T F Rhoden adds several paragraphs of what he views as exposition, which he claims are there to help provide context.  And the fact-based parts of said paragraphs are, actually, very helpful.  Unfortunately, Rhoden then proceeds to give us his characterization of many of the essayists and comes off as incredibly condescending.  For example, one of the essays was penned by a math teacher who described her background and role in the 8/8/88 protests.  When sharing his impression of her, T F Rhoden writes:

"She reminded me, if anything, of just your normal modern woman; or, I suppose, that is what she would be if she had grown up in a prosperous civil society."

What lies underneath statements such as these (and there are many), the implication that because the essayist didn't have a Western upbringing she can't be considered modern, is downright insulting.  T F Rhoden is so entrenched in (and potentially unconscious of) his white male Western worldview that many of his musings on his former students smack of condescension stemming from an inherently imperialist mindset.   The essayist was a woman who graduated high school with distinctions, held a BS in mathematics, a MS, and started her own tutoring company.  Yet T F Rhoden was pleasantly surprised to find her "modern" and "normal." His statement implies that her cultural difference makes her backward and somehow less than, and through his backhanded praise, are we then supposed to laud him for seeing her in such a favorable, benevolent light?

As T F Rhoden spent time in the Peace Corps, I was a corps member with Teach For America, and have worked in low income communities throughout NYC for the past 6 years.  One of the things Teach For America at least tries to do is, through continuous coursework, start a discussion around white privilege, issues of cultural bias, kind-hearted prejudice, inherent and unconscious Western mindsets, etc and we spend a lot of time thinking about how our views of race, culture and class, etc were shaped, how they shape us, and how they might impact how we affect change in our classrooms.  I'm not by any means stating we all walk out of these courses freed of all of our failings, but at least questions have been asked and a dialogue has been started and many corps members are thinking about race, culture and privilege in ways they might not have before.  I can't imagine that the Peace Corps doesn't have similar coursework or readings to prepare its volunteers to enter diverse communities across the globe.  What boggles my mind is how out of touch T F Rhoden's comments (such as the one I quoted) are, and how they reek of an assumed inherent superiority.  The impression I was left with of T F Rhoden is that what he really wants out of this book, whether consciously or not, is for the reader to see him as a benevolent, altruistic presence...and what comes across loud and clear is that he values been seen this way far more than he values the people whose cause he's purportedly attempting to advance.

I would love to be proved wrong in my assumptions about T F Rhoden. My advice (as a writer, an educator, and someone who works at a multicultural publisher specifically with social justice themed books everyday): If Rhoden really wants this book to serve as a platform for the Burmese refugees, he needs to take himself out of it.  He needs to come to terms with the fact that the book isn't about him.  If he wants to write a memoir about his experiences and impressions of the people he met, that's a different book.  If he really is aiming to act as a loudspeaker for the voices of those he met, he needs to

1) hire a GOOD copy editor

2) hire a fact checker or a research intern, do some additional research, re-interview the essayists if necessary, and cite all sources; tons of statistics are quoted with absolutely no back matter/footnotes/etc to support any of it beyond his own experience.

3) think more like a journalist than a diarist, and revise the expository paragraphs at the end of each essay to be just that: expository as opposed to editorial. Include facts that answer the following types of questions only:  Where is the essayist now?  What/how are they doing?  What other challenges/obstacles did they face that they didn't include in their essay?   Objective observation is fine.  Subjective assumption is not; that's the stuff of memoir.  There are examples of paragraphs where he does just this and they work.  As the reader, I don't want the editor to opine on what types of people he gather the essayists to be (regardless of whether I find those opinions offensive or not).  I want to hear it from the writers.

Rubric rating:  2.  Reads like a first draft of a manuscript and not as a published piece, and absolutely does not do justice to the voices of those it alleges to advocate for.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review: Pym by Mat Johnson

title: Pym:  A Novel [purchase here]
author:  Mat Johnson
genre: literary fiction
pages: 322
originally published: 2011
source:  New York Public Library

First person narration can be tricky, but Mat Johnson has a sense of voice that rivals Junot Diaz. So clear, so compelling.  As I read, I wanted to follow Johnson's main character, Chris Jaynes, anywhere he went.  Until he decided to leave the States (and reality) far, far behind...

The premise of this book is really quite genius: the self-described token black professor at a small, predominately white liberal arts college finds himself without tenure after favoring teaching Edgar Allen Poe to authors of color.  The object of Jaynes' fascination is Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  Johnson does an amazing job of allowing us into Jaynes' psyche as he deconstructs Poe's novel, which he sees as part of the "intellectual source of racial Whiteness."  In this part of the book, Johnson soars as Jaynes takes us through Poe's work and explains its literary and institutional significance.  Strong voice, compelling argument and raw social commentary. Near perfect.  Up until this point in the narrative, I was in love with this book.

Then we go to Antarctica.  Through a turn of events (which I won't cheat you out of discovering on your own), Jaynes is lead to believe that the incidents outlined in Poe's novel may not be so fictitious after all.  Given the opportunity to, in part, retrace Pym's journey and go to Antarctica, he accepts in hopes of finding Tsalal, an island of pure blackness (which Poe described with much terror) which Jaynes imagines to be the "last untouched bastion of the African diaspora."  Unfortunately, once the ship docks, Johnson loses me a bit.

My problem is not with the journey; my problem is not even with the sequence of events that border on science-fiction/disaster porn.  My problem is with the way the characters react (or don't) to these events.  Typically, when an author decides to dive into the realm of science fiction or adventure, as Johnson absolutely does in the last half of his book, either:
  • the story takes place in a world where a specific set of magical/heightened/supernatural/etc rules and conditions are consistent and we, as readers accept them as the reality of the story OR 
  • the story takes place in reality as we know it and something unusual/strange/supernatural/world-shattering happens, and the characters react accordingly.  
A beautiful example of this is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski:  when the house starts shifting and changing, people freak out, then adapt, then re-approach their new reality.  In Johnson's story, when reality as Jaynes knows it is turned on its head, the characters just seem to keep moving through the plot without much reflection, except in terms of considering potential profit.  In addition, some pretty major occurrences are mentioned and then never reacted to thoroughly or revisited...which I think, in the end, is not a problem of story as much as an issue with character development.

Jaynes is a wonderful character.  Consistent.  Complex.  Evolving.  But he was the only one flushed out and developed to that extent.  The rest of the cast of characters seemed to be more like different sized shadows of people rather than fully realized individuals, with only 2-3 defining characteristics, as opposed to the dynamic, compelling personality given to Jaynes.   When they stand side by side as the same bizarre events unfold, it's hard to completely give yourself to the world Johnson creates given their reactions (or lack thereof).  

But back to Johnson's genius:  he crafts the story utilizing the same structure as Poe's Narrative.  As I read, I kept noticing how Johnson took some of the most salient story elements from Poe's piece and reappropriated them for Jaynes' journey (if you're curious as to which story elements he chose, message me, as I don't want to give away any major plot points here!).  Super clever, and done in such a subtle way that it's in no way gimmicky or forced.

Rubric rating: 7.  I would love to read more by long as it's set north of Antarctica.