FICTION: A Long Petal of the Sea (2019)

Isabel Allende’s 2019 novel A Long Petal of the Sea (originally, Largo Pétalo de Mar) follows two Catalonian refugees from the Spanish Civil War as they marry for convenience in order to secure priority immigration to Chile.  Although it turns out, after some years, that they have traded the dictatorship of Franco for the dictatorship of Pinochet, they surprise themselves by eventually falling in love with each other and by eventually coming to think of Chile as their real homeland.

A few chapters in, I stared openmouthed as I saw my husband’s and son’s last name on the page.  Del Solar is such a rare Latin American surname that most del Solars are related and there’s a del Solar genealogist, so it was wild that Allende had picked this name for several of her major characters.  Better yet, for me, the del Solar subplot was the most poignant and satisfying story arc in the book.

Also close to home:  resonances between the way Allende describes the fall of Barcelona in 1939, and the way I’ve seen the fall of Saigon described, when my parents escaped Vietnam in April 1975.  Our protagonist’s father foresees how brutal the postwar regime will be and insists that his family leave the country.  But here is where the parallels end:  when France finds “almost half a million Spaniards, in the last stages of confusion, terror, and misery, clamoring at the border,” their astonishingly cruel response is to arrest the Spanish refugees and detain them in camps on the French beach, exposed to the elements, without clean water, in such wretched conditions that nine of every ten children die. This actually happened in real life, and this sort of historical research makes the novel all the more powerful.

FICTION: Cutting for Stone (2009)

Dr. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone takes you on a colorful, high-adrenaline adventure, mainly set in Ethiopia in the 1950s and 1960s, but eventually taking you to a violent part of the Bronx circa 1980. These 690 pages are rollicking with extreme events, mortal danger, and a touch of magic (such as when newborns communicate telepathically). An example of the voluptuous prose: “The decorative grille under the eaves had oxidized to a bile green, old corrosion ran down the brick like mascara, parallel to the drainpipes.” The motorcycle scene, in which the twelve-year-old twins must think on their feet to save their lives, took my breath away with its ingenuity and punch.

Verghese is a physician at Stanford, and his book is first and foremost about the challenges and beauty of medicine and surgery. Suspense often derives from not knowing if a patient will make it. Only a doctor could craft these scenes that I had never seen in a novel but that I delighted to recognize instantly: Ghosh bursting with pride after a successful operation and needing to tell someone about it; Stone “making himself small so as not to contaminate [the surgical] field”; a new cadre of young visitors in dark suits every week at the fancy academic hospital in Boston.

The novel is exhaustively researched, with a long bibliography, so that we learn about Ethiopian scenery and culture, historic political events in that country, and the creative practice of medicine in a resource-poor environment. You get an epic love story too, although perhaps not the one you think. One of the romantic storylines goes somewhere surprisingly unloving and unpleasant. Another, however, wraps up with such gorgeous writing.

FICTION: Traveler of the Century (2009)

Traveler of the Century, a luminous 561-page novel set in the 1820s in a small town in Germany, amidst horse-drawn carriages and oil lamps, follows a year in the life of Hans, an itinerant translator, as he develops two strong attachments in this town where he had thought he was only passing through. The first is a platonic bond with an old man who plays a barrel organ in the market square and who lives in poverty, yet can easily be contented watching the trees or listening to the wind. The second is a passionate love with Sophie, who wanted to go to university but who is constrained by the times and by her overbearing widowed father into settling for an engagement to a vacant aristocrat whose wealth and position will uplift her family. On Friday evenings, Sophie hosts a French-Enlightenment-style salon where guests discuss European politics and literature over canapés and tea brought by servants. It is here that Hans and Sophie’s romance takes root. It later blossoms as they jointly undertake a project to translate contemporary European poetry into German. For them, intellectual compatibility and sexual compatibility are two sides of the same page. But how can these progressives live out their dreams in a world where women wear corsets, where tongues wag, where excursions are chaperoned, and where the small town’s priest keeps a log book of every lapse of virtue among his parishioners?

Although I read the novel in translation (the author, Andrés Neuman, is an Argentinian-Spaniard), I think it’s still fair to say that the prose is original and beautiful, the vocabulary a delight. Here for instance is my favorite sentence in the book, from a description of Sophie’s family’s drawing room: “Other adornments had been added, mostly in Louis XVIII style, in a vain effort to conceal the fact that time had passed; the more modern furniture showed a different kind of sobriety, a metamorphosis, as though they were insects mutating unimaginably slowly towards rounded forms and paler woods (poplar, Hans suspected, or perhaps ash or cherry wood), as though the battles, treaties, freshly spilt blood and new round of armistices had undermined mahogany’s traditional stronghold, besieging it with inlays of amaranth and ebony, overwhelming it with rosettes, lilies, less weighty, more carefree crowns.” These lines are marked by a keen awareness of historical context—something that is ever present in the characters’ prolonged conversations about novels and philosophy. The triumph of this novel is that it manages to delight your mind with ideas while also crafting characters who wring your heart.

FICTION: The Chosen and the Beautiful (2021)

As a Vietnamese fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald (I preferred his other novels, Tender Is the Night and especially This Side of Paradise, but my middle school English teacher said I was too young when I read Gatsby), I couldn’t resist Nghi Vo’s 2021 retelling of The Great Gatsby from the perspective of a queer Vietnamese Jordan Baker and with the addition of magic and demons.

I had remembered Jordan as a golfer, but here, we never see her compete or practice on the green. She is instead a socialite, her energy spent on dishing out verbal parries and closely reading her interlocutors. She keeps a mental ledger of last names, family lineages, credentials. Everyone is having sex with everyone, and there is a blasé air to the promiscuity, which is what makes Gatsby and Daisy’s affair stand out in its naïveté.

Jordan’s one-note cynicism can be wearying. As Gatsby gives Daisy a tour of his mansion, Jordan criticizes the wonder in his voice, then tells him, “Just because I don’t like you doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.” Nick, exasperated, elsewhere asks Jordan, “Do you care about ANYthing?” She often resembles the way she describes the light at Gatsby’s, how “it burned without illuminating or warming.” However, we learn that her nature is the product of a loveless upbringing, having been plucked from Vietnam by a Louisvillian who then passed away. Probably the most compelling scenes in the book are when she interacts with other Asian people for the first time, allowing her to put a name to her vague feeling of difference, and when she learns to command the supernatural power that is the birthright of Asian folk.

Nghi Vo’s writing is lovely; for example, one of my favorite sentences goes, “Some love could survive being put on show like that. But almost every kind of love that I knew would wither through it— curl up from shame and exposure, and die.” The audiobook’s Asian-American narrator, Natalie Naudus, utterly excels at voice acting, imbuing Jordan with tart sass and a chilly world-weariness while bringing Nick beautifully to life as observant and wry. The Chosen and the Beautiful is a worthwhile reincarnation of an old classic from a fresh perspective.

FICTION: The Song of Achilles (2011)

This intensely felt novelization of the Iliad and its preceding events works backward from the question of why Homer’s Achilles was so distraught over the battlefield death of Patroclus: there must have been a once-in-a-lifetime love between the two. Classics teacher Madeline Miller’s novel follows her narrator Patroclus from his socially awkward childhood, when he was first smitten with the golden-haired future hero and chosen as his confidant, to their teenage years on an idyllic mountainside where they blossom from best friends to happy lovers.

There is a poignant asymmetry between the goddess-born Achilles, so abundantly blessed with talent and popularity, and the diffident Patroclus, who would be an ordinary man destined for an ordinary life, if not for the force and purity of his grand love. We see him gift his companion with a sculpture which cost him hours to perfect, and the slight goofiness with which he says, “It’s you,” to which Achilles responds “I know”—and never gives him any similar gift in return, and yet it’s all right. It’s then breathtaking when Patroclus has the epiphany, upon their shared pillows, “I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.” That phrasing, again bespeaking the asymmetry between them, is so fresh and heartfelt.

Miller’s writing is extraordinarily lyrical, whether she is describing nature or bodies or thoughts, and Frazer Douglas’ reading of the audiobook manages to amplify the lush beauty of her every sentence. His accent is a treat: even the way he rounds the “o” in an utterance of “No” packs it with nuance. He captures our narrator’s vulnerability, makes Achilles sound suave, and gives a chilling gravelliness to the voice of Thetis, the sea nymph who hates seeing them together.

I immediately wanted to buy the physical book so I could read it again. What an eloquent, rapturous blend of Greek mythology and immortal romance.

FILM:  Les Misérables (2012)

Wow!  How did this not win Best Picture?  Having never seen the stage musical, I’d had no idea where Victor Hugo’s plot would go.  It started out painfully dark and gritty, then proceeded to engross me, delight me, and convert me to a fangirl by the end of it.

I already knew the lovely solo numbers “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own,” but hadn’t known what they were about.  What a revelation it was to hear both of these songs in their dramatic context, in particular the former’s wrenching lament from a soul-killing experience of prostitution.  Much of the soundtrack comes likewise dressed in beautiful lyrics, and happily these two melodies resurface.

The staging is sweepingly grand, from mountains of broken wooden furniture to urban labyrinths of uniforms and flags, and the cinematography is exquisite:  Éponine pines atop rain-slicked cobblestones, while lambent candle flames and languid lilacs frame Cosette’s profession of love.

Helmed by a larger-than-life hero, it’s an all-out feast for the Francophile and the Romantic.

FICTION: Sister Mischief (2011)

“The world’s first interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens,” written by an Ivy League grad who was in my sister’s high school class, is recommended for Edina alums, minorities, misfits, and anyone who appreciates an honest non-sugarcoated ending. On the most basic level, it’s tons of fun to pick out all the details about Edina High School, Minnesota, that are only barely or not at all disguised in this satire, which makes EHS more Christian-conservative than it really is but otherwise hits the nail on the head regarding the “cake-makeuped gaggle” and “IQ vacuum” who make up the Popular Crowd, the “hysteria over hockey,” the “shiny cars” and the “alienated smartgirls.”

Protagonist Esme, a Jewish girl raised motherless on the poorer side of town, writes and performs hip-hop with her three best friends: Marcy, a hard-edged tomboy drummer; Tess, a delicate liberal Christian; and Rowie, the straight-A’s daughter of two Indian doctors. The four come to lead an organized rebellion against the school administration, which has outlawed hip-hop due to its connections with drugs and violence. This plot is fluffy fantasy, but the other and more profound storyline has Esme falling in love with Rowie and getting hurt when Rowie’s conservative upbringing and personal hangups prevent her from publicly reciprocating. Sixteen-year-old Esme is reasonably comfortable with being gay — her dad’s reaction to her coming out was “Cool with me, kiddo. Eat a sandwich” — but Rowie doesn’t have that luxury, and as a fellow Asian-American I completely understand and am all the more moved by Esme’s plight.

Laura Goode writes a smart, snappy portrait of these independent-thinking high-schoolers who discuss white guilt and Victorian poetry and who text things to each other like “U look like shit. Do u ever get any sleep anymore? Story??” with the response “Dbag, this is just what I look like.” Marcy’s “aborted attempt at a comeback,” when meeting an attractive Somali guy after their hip-hop show, is hilarious and true-to-life in its nonsensical awkwardness. However, it is the serious passages in this novel that really sing: I’ve rarely read such a gorgeous narrative of a first kiss, and I cried when Esme’s dad counsels her “You’ll only be able to be this uninhibited once.”

Sister Mischief is the kind of writing that can save lives, in an era of the Anoka-Hennepin school district’s “neutrality” and a rash of visible gay teen suicides. Not only is it a worthy debut outside of any political context, but the novel does much good by sharing the uphill battle that GLBT teenagers face. Homophobes’ hearts might be softened by the compassion that Esme’s story compels, while lonely struggling gay kids might take heart when they see a kid like them on the bookstore shelves — and see that Esme pulls through her personal tragedy, deeper, braver and still plenty able to love and find happiness.

NONFICTION: Beautiful & Pointless (2011)

Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry represents the effort of David Orr, the New York Times poetry critic, to make a case for why contemporary poetry is worth reading. It’s sad that such a book has to be written at all, but such is the failing of our public school system and our culture, I suppose? Orr defines his target audience and his motive when he states in his introduction, “A smart, educated person who likes Charlie Kaufman’s movies and tolerates Thomas Pynchon’s novels, who works in a job that involves phrases like ‘amortized debentures’ or ‘easement by estoppel’ or ‘nomological necessity’ — that person is often not so much annoyed by poetry as confounded by it.” He is going to try to explain to said person what poetry reading is all about. At the same time, he hopes his reader will be thoughtful enough to not always agree with him: “If you do, you’ll be preventing your own response, the most vital and disturbing faculty you possess, from fully developing its power. You want to become a reader of modern poetry, not a receiver of the verdicts of modern poetry critics.”

Orr’s project is divided in six parts, the strongest of which are “The Personal” and “The Political.” In part one, “The Personal,” he tackles the common misunderstanding that poetry is necessarily a window into the poet’s soul, an impression nowadays informed by the confessionalism movement associated with Robert Lowell and his contemporaries. Yes, the lyric tradition in poetry prominently features the use of first-person, but this “I” overlaps the poet’s real-life self by varying degrees. The pop singer Jewel’s maudlin Hallmark-like verses are quoted as an instance of the artless splaying forth of a private self that too often passes for poetry just because it intimately confesses. Relying on Frank O’Hara as his showcase example, Orr goes on to demonstrate that poems can be personal without being embarrassing like Jewel’s, through the skillful juxtaposition of different registers. Personal remains relative; you often can’t know what is true confession and what is fiction, but what makes a good poem come off as personal is its poise between seeming calculated and seeming vulnerable.

Part two, “The Political,” addresses the age-old relationship between poetry and politics. Is it in any way true that, as Shelley wrote in 1821, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”? Orr notes the ironic disconnect between poets’ fascination with politics, with its basis in moral vision and persuasion that often mirrors their own, and the fact that mainstream Americans don’t see their poets as relevant to political life. Still, poems can serve a political function both knowingly (Orr quotes a Gwendolyn Brooks piece about the 1960s civil rights movement) and unknowingly (as when Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was revived around September 11, 2001). The chapter gracefully concludes that poems “have their own realities, and the worlds they contain cannot be lightly dismissed. [A]s a maker of poems, a poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself.”

From its title, I expected part three, “Form,” to defend traditional form against the modern-day supremacy of free verse. Instead it sidesteps the entire debate about form, positing that the use of form is all about triggering a reader’s recognition and the associations that she has with prior works. Part four, “Ambition,” takes on an unexpected topic at this juncture: the desire of many poets to be great, or as former poet laureate Donald Hall defines the goal, “to make words that live forever…to be as good as Dante.” Orr reminds us not to be hoodwinked by a poet’s use of bombastic terminology, or by the grandiose acclaim of biased institutions, when evaluating poetic ambition or greatness. Ambition, he says, is only the conviction that one can produce poems that stand out and stick.

The book finishes on a weaker note but with a fuller portrait of Orr’s subject. Part five, “The Fishbowl,” describes the tensions and controversies that define the contemporary poetry world, including the widespread observation that poets, their teachers, and their publicists have all receded into an inbred ivory tower. And part six, “Why Bother?”, examines arguments for why poetry is worth our time at all. “I can’t tell you,” Orr finally admits, “why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all the other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There’s little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident.”

This is a strangely modest conclusion, given the project that drove his book. We are reading this, after all, to find a defense for poetry. I prefer the conclusion he comes to later, toward the final pages: “Poetry…needs a history with its readers. It needs to have been read, and thought about, and excessively praised, and excessively scorned, and quoted in melodramatic fashion, and misremembered at dinner parties. It needs, in a particular and occasionally ridiculous way, to have been loved.” That is exactly what it comes down to. A person of faith does not believe because of irrefutable arguments but because of her personal relationship with God. Similarly, a person of poetry needs no arguments to take it up, because poetry has always been with him. I don’t know how many converts Beautiful & Pointless will make. I do know we could abolish the need for an apologia like David Orr’s if we made poetry a staple of our textbooks, our magazines, our newspapers, our rituals.

FICTION: Room (2010)

I wish I’d kept this blog going during medical school, back when I read more fiction. The two best books I discovered during that time are both criminally underpopular: John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra (1934) and John Fowles’ The Collector (1963). The O’Hara novel resembles The Great Gatsby in its setting and focus (the fall of a man of high society during the Jazz Age) but is better written, feels more real. The Fowles novel, like Lolita, accomplishes the astonishing feat of making the reader understand and empathize with a criminal sociopath. Fowles’ sociopath is a lonely clerk who kidnaps an art student and keeps her prisoner in his basement. When a very similar crime was exposed in Austria a few years ago, I was surprised that The Collector wasn’t mentioned by commentators, although I guess it just goes to show the book’s undeserved obscurity in pop culture.

The Collector came to mind when I saw the premise of Emma Donoghue’s Room, which has frequently been listed as one of the best books of 2010. A sociopathic rapist has likewise imprisoned the heroine of Room in his soundproofed garden shed for the past seven years, but the twist is that the story is told by the now-five-year-old boy who was conceived via this crime. The narrative technique is therefore a lot like the one in To Kill a Mockingbird: bad crimes and wrongs are made approachable by halfway seeing them through a child’s eye and leaving the rest to be inferred by an adult reader. Room takes on an extreme question about developmental psychology: what would life be like if you believed that the entire world consisted of an 11 x 11 foot windowless room and that you and your mother (and your occasionally visiting captor) were the only people in it? And how would your understanding unfold, if one day you were told it was actually otherwise?

Although the premise is offbeat, Donoghue doesn’t end up doing anything surprising with it. We learn that the child’s mind is plastic and resilient, whereas his mother is more deeply affected by the trauma. We learn that she better endures her ordeal because she lavishes love on her child and is able to pass her days in the shed by focusing totally on his education and entertainment. The gimmick of the narration gets a bit old as everything we see is filtered through his linguistic errors and limited understanding—for hundreds of pages. The note on which the book ends, when Ma has to do something very emotionally difficult so that Jack can have the closure he demands, is just painful. Sure, critics have noted that Room avoids the trap of journalistic exploitation and voyeurism by taking the unusual angle that it does, but I can’t help but feel that Ma is re-victimized at the end and without sufficient cause.

FICTION: Freedom (2010)

The New York Times loved it; The Atlantic hated it. It was lauded as the book of the decade, but garnered as many 1-star reviews on Amazon as 5-star reviews. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I tackled Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel via the most modern of media, my iPad. An excerpt from Freedom, the account of Patty’s parents’ trivializing reaction to her rape, had already been published in the New Yorker under the title “Agreeable,” and the short story had been so very good that I thought the novel might actually live up to the hype. It does in the Patty parts, but the Walter parts are so unabidably awful that the book is a mixed bag.

Patty is a lovable character, so coherently drawn that you can hear her speak out loud in your head when you read her lines of dialogue; you enjoy being with her and you root for her. Her Westchester County parents have endless energy for doing good in the world, as a pro bono lawyer and a state legislator respectively, but are unable to love or nurture their oldest daughter at home. Yet she escapes to Minnesota and, after developing self-esteem as a talented basketball player at the U, becomes widely admired in her St. Paul neighborhood as a hospitable and dedicated homemaker. Her ensuing carefully chronicled mistakes provoke sympathy, while you admire her strength and her capacity for self-renewal.

Franzen’s book is strongest when he focuses on Patty, because she’s the best character in it, and particularly strong when he gets inside her brain, as in the immortal narrative of what transpires at Nameless Lake when Patty finds herself alone with her husband Walter’s best friend Richard, for whom she’s had a thing her whole life. This is easily my favorite paragraph in the book: “There were very odd angles in her cutting of the potatoes. They looked like some kind of geometric brainteaser.” What a lovely way to convey the turmoil in Patty, between her desire for Richard, so close to finding its way out, and her imperfect but earnest moral conscience. The reader becomes deeply emotionally involved along with her.

However, it’s too much of a stretch to care in the same way about Walter, as the book would ideally require that you do. Richard is something of a caricature, yes (a rock musician?! for god’s sake), but Walter is just impossible to really understand. His fanatic passion for environmentalism—for conserving endangered species and limiting human population growth—is tiresome and absurd, and the way in which he goes about his aims, via the snootily named Cerulean Mountain Trust, is a drag to read about. This segment of the novel largely functions as a vehicle for name-dropping any number of contemporary American events and personages in order to look “relevant” and hip.

And the worst stain upon the story is Walter’s extramarital “love” for his assistant Lalitha, a cartoon of orientalism and paternalism which Franzen is irresponsible to perpetuate. It is not enough to introduce her as “Indian. Bengali. She grew up in Missouri,” but the author feels compelled to repeatedly describe her after that as “dark-skinned,” too many times, for no reason. She’s twenty years younger than Walter, “brilliant,” passionate (of course), has a cute accent (despite having grown up in Missouri?), and can’t wait to get in his heart and in his pants. Christ. The narrator’s own drooling over this oh-so-exotic, one-dimensionally nubile girl is revolting. I hate the fetishizing tone with which Lalitha’s character is sketchily and implausibly drawn.

It’s hard enough for us “minority” readers to navigate a world of books, movies, and TV shows in which the woman is always the love interest, the person of color is always the sidekick, and the gay person is always the friend (how rarely these people get to be the protagonist; and progress in society can hardly be made until viewers of mainstream media can get inside our skin, feel with our hearts, see with our eyes). But it’s a step backwards on top of that for Franzen to give us Lalitha, especially when his name carries cultural weight. Every page about her is offensive, and we know from the Patty passages that the author is capable of much better.