Friday, December 21, 2007

The 2007 Beloved Books Meme

I'm tired, and yet I have been allowed access to the family computer. Therefore I will post on a meme I was tagged for --- I believe, by multiple people, as usual --- because it does not involve much brainpower. You won't get pictures of the covers, either; too much of a hassle on someone else's computer.

The rules, as explained at Absurdist Paradise, are to list (or describe, or quote) five books you have loved over 2007. They might not be books published in 2007, but you experienced them this year. What's depressing about this is that I don't think I read five books for pleasure over the whole year, sigh. Even if you threw in the texts I read for my diss, it's still primarily historical and critical stuff, not fiction or reading that is "pleasurable." And it's probably not possible for me to keep my tiny reading list if we stick to the criteria that I loved them and they really moved me, cause, as I mentioned in some distant blog posts, most of what I did read this year was just all right. Is there anything sadder than feeling constantly too behind or too exhausted or too overworked and guilty to do what you always truly wanted to do, which is read? Anyway:

1. Citizen 13660, by Mine Okubo. When you think "historical graphic novel" everyone instantly goes "Maus blah blah blah," and yes, Maus is wonderful and moving, but Okubo's spare drawings and blunt narrative of the Japanese American internment during World War II gives us a different entry into what we think of as graphic novels, the history of WWII, and the history of the graphic novel itself, as it was published at the close of the war. Trained as an artist, and actually having worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera on his murals in San Francisco, Okubo's visual style and focus on a collective protagonist make for a reinvention of "comic book" style (not without a biting sense of humor). She documents the removal of Asian Americans first to the Tanforan Race Track near San Francisco, and then to an internment camp in Topaz. What fascinates me about this book is how she documents the little acts of resistance and agency the Japanese Americans used in their everyday life --- most poignantly to me, she shows how they ripped apart part of the race track and recreated Japanese-style formal gardens, complete with little bridges and a mini-lake, as part of making themselves feel "at home" and providing themselves with some beauty and dignity. A lot of this novel is about everyday artistry, and using beauty as resistance, even if it might not be recognizable as political resistance. After reading this book, I wanted to go to San Bruno and check it out. Unfortunately, I guess they (the US gov? local racetrack owner? dunno) returned Tanforan back to its previous racetrack glory after all the Japanese Americans were shipped out, and now it is a shopping mall. They've erected a plaque there though.

2. Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee. I think I posted a bit on this one back in spring; he has such a lovely way with words and sketching out powerful scenes. Being as it's set in New York I don't have quite the same background and connection to this one; it feels like New York should feel, but someone who actually knows the place should speak to that rather than me. Henry Park, the protagonist, moves through the book as if swathed in cotton, but you aren't sure at first if that's because of his status as the child of Korean immigrants in America, the breakdown of his marriage, or the tragic loss that he's experienced and never really dealt with. (I don't want to give too much away.) He is a keeper of secrets. So is New York. In Lee's book, New York is a city bursting with immigrants, throbbing with noise, and yet everyone is isolated, desperately desiring to make a connection. This city, so full of grit and crowds and yet so dreamlike and profoundly saturated with language made tangible and strange, reminds me of nothing so much as Roth's Call it Sleep, also a novel of Global New York before it was fashionable to consider it that. I liked that this novel, unlike most literature, dealt with politics --- literally, I mean party politics and campaigns --- yet I wasn't quite happy with how that strand of it played out. I may hand it off to some of my poli sci and soc friends and see if they can put their fingers on it more securely.

3. Atonement, Ian McEwan. You may recall that I read this recently and was all, eh, fine. But now I have seen the film --- a free pre-screening, no less! --- and I will tell everyone: drop the book! Go see the film! I loved loved the film version. There was an interesting interview with the director in our local free weekly, where he said something to the effect of "everyone says they have to get away from the book to make a good adaptation. Me, I stayed exactly with the book." Now, I think this statement of his is highly disengenuous. Bad adaptations "stay with the book" as in try to put all the events, words, dialoge, on the screen. Good adaptations --- like this one --- translate the novel in a metaphoric fashion into what is appropriate for a different medium. The director here boils down pages and pages of prose into, say, a spatial arrangement, or a sweeping camera move, and the result is, in my opinion, a better work of art than the original (but remember I found all the name-dropping of famous dead authors pretentious). The score has wonderful percussion pieces that sound like (and perhaps incorporate) a typewriter; you can see the imaginative gears turning too fast in Briony's little writer brain. And the first half or so has a lovely sharp wit that I don't really remember from the novel, and snappy intercut dialogue that one review aptly characterized as "telegraphic." That and I am lusting after the green satin backless evening dress, even though I would look terrible in it. So go see, go see!

4. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri. After all that praise of craft and beauty up above it would be harsh to note, as my friend rather cruelly did, that she had heard Lahiri wanted a Booker-Prize winning novel and sat down with the last ten year's or sos shortlists and reverse-engineered what the prize committees were looking for. On the other hand, I responded, if you or I tried to do that we probably wouldn't ever have produced a finished novel, much less a good one, so maybe there's something to that approach. On the other other hand, I heard that one of the profs uses the phrase "aesthetics without politics" to teach this book and that really gets at something that bothered me in this book --- such beautiful, lapidary sentences, such poignant moments and encounters, such gorgeous stuff recounted in equisite detail, and yet part of me was constantly thinking, "I'm supposed to feel pity and terror because this couple can't renovate their own historic brownstone and afford the right kind of gourmet cheese?" I also could tell you the exact floor plan of his one girlfriend's parents' massive house and cabin on the lake, but nothing about the New York of this book. The other denizens of this New York, besides the few main characters, are also ghostly. Is that a shortcoming of the novelist or a sign of the characters' self-centeredness? Not sure. But it is a very pretty read.

I'm even more tired now, and can't think of another book. Can you all just consider yourselves tagged and go on without me? Maybe I could read something in the odd-end days of the year and come back and update this post later. Yeah, like that's gonna happen. But do as I say, not as I do!

1 comment:

Charles Montgomery said...

Native Speaker is a pretty good book, but Chang-Rae Lee's "swathed in cotton" (nice!) style does a lot to blunt (intentionally, of course) the impact for me. It particularly blunts the "Korean immigrant" nature of the book.

Ah well.. he writes what he wants to write, as he should.

if you're interested in Korean type lit, check out "The Dwarf" or see if you can find short stories by Kim Yong-ik (mostly completely out of print, but some of them are brilliant). Kim is similar to Lee - his narrators have the same kind of distances from their lives.

I wrote a long and tedious thesis on the man, but never lost my love for his work..

BTW... you are working on your Ph.D. right?

I'm sure I asked that in some other comment, but probably never came back to find the answer. ;-)