The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

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This novel is about two Latin American writers traveling the world in the late seventies and eighties. They’re the supposed founders of a movement in Mexican poetry that never really got off the ground, visceral realism, and they’ve disappeared. Much of the book is about the mystery of where they’ve gone and why.

The novel begins with young Garcia Madero narrating as he discovers the visceral realist poets and has his sexual awakening. After about a hundred pages with him, the narration splinters as many different characters give their accounts of their dealings with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Each character’s story reads like an interview or monologue, which gives the reader the effect of feeling like she’s the detective herself, tracking Lima and Belano through Spain, Paris, and Africa, but constantly returning to where it all began in Mexico City. Then at the end, Garcia Madero finishes his narrative and the mystery of the first visceral realist poet Cesarea Tinajero, and the cause of Lima and Belano’s flight is revealed.

I didn’t really like the character of Garcia Madero, and I especially didn’t like reading about his raunchy sexual exploits, but since the book’s long middle section had so many female characters giving their own perspectives on sex and literature, I won’t call the book sexist. The most interesting aspects for me were the different characters’ opinions of Lima and Belano, and the various ideas about literature, Hispanic culture, and relationships that were expressed. The effect that Bolano achieve through his formal innovation was also quite impressive. I’m not sure that it needed to be this long, though.

100 Best Books of the Decade So Far

I guess that’s a fancy way of saying ‘the last 5 years.’ The editors of the Oyster Review have published their picks for the top 100 recently released books. It seems like a decent list. I’ve read 17 of them, which I think is a decent number, and reviewed 14 (so far). I’ve listed some of these books in my annual ‘Best of the Year’ posts, so I guess that means I concur with the editors. I was pleasantly surprised to see some YA books (and some crossover authors) here too. Does this mean the gap between serious adult literature and YA is narrowing?

Here are the books on the list that I’ve reviewed:

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

NW by Zadie Smith

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

And here are the books on this list that were already on my To-Read list:

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 92103I expected to be left in awe with this book, and I guess I’m disappointed both with it and with myself that I wasn’t. I’ve heard a lot about magical realism in writing workshops and literature classes (English/American and Spanish/Latin American), and I generally liked the other examples of that genre or style that I came across there. Marquez is the grandfather of magical realism, so of course I’d fall in love with his masterpiece, right? If only.

One Hundred Years of Solitude covers four generations of the Buendia family in a remote village in Columbia. For me the three main themes were the tumultuous love lives and marriages of the members of the family, the effects of political change and war, especially the military career of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, and the village’s sporadic contact with the outside world, whether through gypsies, new technologies, or a predatory banana company.

For me the greatest pleasure of the book was in the language, the sentences that took hyperbole just a step past belief into a magical place. The images are fantastic, in both senses of that word: swarms of orange butterflies as a sign of love, four years of rain, a plague of dead birds. It’s Technicolor and bursting with life. A few years ago I wanted to brush up my language skills so I read about a hundred pages of the book in the original Spanish. With that experience I can say that Marquez’s gift with language survives translation remarkably well. I was fascinated by the way the book dealt with political issues, especially the workers’ strike and the train station massacre scene. I also liked the circular ending.

There’s a lot of sex in this book, and it mostly either creeped me out or grossed me out. There’s marital rape, adults sleeping with and marrying children, prostitution, bigamy, and incest, all presented as if they were benign. My reaction to these scenes really colored my reaction to the book as a whole; without this element I would definitely have liked the book a lot more, but it would be half as long and an entirely different book. Maybe it makes me a prude, but I couldn’t really see the redeeming value of these scenes. It seemed like they were supposed to be romantic, or another expression of that characteristic exaggeration, but they didn’t have the intended effect on me.

This is a difficult book; I’d classify it with Faulkner and Tolstoy as a novel that is best read with the support of a class, or at least a family tree diagram for reference, and Sparknotes if you’re really lost. The Buendia family has a habit of recycling names, which makes it a pain to keep the characters straight. The narrative isn’t linear, but kind of spiral-shaped, revolving repeatedly around particular themes, images, and dramatic events. It’s occasionally hard to keep track of the fine line between present-time narration and a flashback. Difficulty isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a novel at all, but sometimes it’s the kind of thing readers like to be warned about.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

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I’ve been kind of outspoken in my criticisms of the Kingkiller Chronicles books, especially the sexism in The Wise Man’s Fear, so I wasn’t sure what expectations to bring to The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a short novel that’s focused on a minor character, Auri. Auri is a mysterious girl who lives in the Underthing, the sewers underneath the city.

For me this book was all about language and atmosphere and living inside the head of a character whose view of the world is quite strange. Auri’s whimsical way of seeing things is very charming. She imbues every object she encounters with personality. She has premonitions that she trusts implicitly, and which give her purpose. She’s kind of OCD, thinking all the time about the ‘proper place’ of everything, and convinced that dire consequences await her if she doesn’t do things exactly right. In some ways she reminded me of the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (who’s *ahem* not very stable). Here’s a quick quote to give you the flavor of Auri’s thoughts:

All flickerling and sticky with web, Auri made her way to Bakery. It wasn’t oveny today. It was hunkered down and sullen, like a forgotten kiln.

Those made-up words and delicious rhythms were so much fun to read. That’s what I mean about the quality of sentence-craftsmanship here. The pretty words Auri uses to frame her unusual ideas are what makes a reader go along with them and even learn to like her.

I was slightly uncomfortable about the extent to which Auri’s entire life seemed to revolve around Kvothe, the protagonist of The Kingkiller Chronicles. In this book, Kvothe isn’t referred to by name, but with the context of the other novels, it’s clear who Auri is thinking of. Everything she does, from repairing pipes to making soap, is directed toward preparing for him to visit her. Maybe the narrow time frame is what causes or exacerbates this issue. It might not be fair of me to say her whole life is focused on Kvothe when we really only see a week of her life (and Auri lives so much in the present that it’s impossible to generalize about her past or future based on this snippet). Still, it was a bit disconcerting to watch Auri build this incredibly intricate life in the Underthing–and then realize it’s not for her, but for a guy.

To be clear, I was never offended at all by this book, as I was by The Wise Man’s Fear; my reaction was mostly positive. I hope that this intense focus on the inner life of a female character means that Rothfuss’s future books will incorporate women’s perspectives as well.

The Lacuna

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The-LacunaThe Lacuna covers about 30 years of American and Mexican history through the life of Harrison Sheperd, a half-Mexican, half-American boy raised in Mexico who becomes an author. This is his life story, told through his journals, covering his time as a cook in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the Bonus Army riots, Leon Trotsky’s exile in Mexico, the war effort in Ashville, NC, and finally the McCarthy trials. Sometimes Shepherd’s life seems like a way to string together these interesting moments in history, but for the most part he and the other non-historical characters are compelling enough to drive the narrative on their own. Kingsolver wears her politics on her sleeve, as always. She presents Trotsky’s death as a tragedy, and suggests communism might have worked out if he’d been in charge of the USSR instead of Stalin. Everyone now agrees that the McCarthy trials were ridiculously unjust, so they are perhaps an easy target for liberal outrage. But the protagonist’s reflective voice softens any agenda the author may have had and provides an ample spoonful of sugar to accompany the political message, which I agreed with for the most part anyway. It’s a long book, but engrossing. Kingsolver read the audiobook herself and did an impressive job with the various accents, Spanish and Appalachian.

Internet Roundup: Education, part 5

Here’s another set of links to recent articles and blogs on education. The theme this time seems to be the way we treat teachers, and the ideas of accountability and respect.

The New York Times recently had an opinion feature on “What Makes a Good Teacher,” which was really a way to discuss teacher quality and how to improve it. Most of the debate gets bogged down in the question that I told Lamar Alexander was exactly the wrong one to ask: how do we get rid of bad teachers? The one voice in this conversation worth listening to was Mercedes Schneider, the only classroom teacher participating in the debate, who said teachers need respect, autonomy, small classes, planning time, and freedom from punitive evaluation systems based on student test scores. Schnieder has a great blog as well, which I’ve added to the blogroll.

This blog contrasts the idea of accountability with a teacher’s daily interactions with students. It should already be clear to everyone that teachers can’t be responsible for a majority of the factors that influence student learning, but this vivid illustration makes that clear.

Recently, there has been a little bit of talk about holding states and school districts accountable for inputs, in addition to, or hopefully instead of, holding teachers accountable for outcomes. This means that governments and local education authorities are responsible for providing teachers with adequate resources and making sure that children have health care, nutrition, and safe homes, as these are prerequisites to learning. If we’re going to focus on “accountability,” it’s only fair to apply it across the board, rather than to focus only on teachers, who have little influence compared to home environments. I hope that this idea gains momentum and that people start to see how unreasonable and unfair the current use of “accountability” rhetoric is to teachers.

Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild has a great essay that uses a common sense metaphor comparing teachers to parents. He does a great job pointing out the reformers’ fallacy that teachers’ and students’ interests are opposed. In reality, just as parents fight for their children’s best interests, teachers always have students’ best interests at heart, even when they advocate for policies that appear to primarily benefit themselves. Just as a mom who’s not getting any sleep can’t do her best for her kids, a teacher who’s paid so poorly she needs a second job can’t teach to the best of her ability. Children benefit when the adults in charge of them feel secure and supported. And when teachers aren’t constantly afraid of losing their jobs and have the resources they need to do their best work, they improve continuously and stay in the profession longer, so that students benefit from their growing expertise. It’s easy to imagine a virtuous cycle of healthy classroom relationships, where now we have a vicious cycle of tense, exhausting relationships destabilized by outside influences (high stakes testing and poverty). I’m glad Thomas is continuing to write and speak out about these things. His perspective as a parent makes him extra credible when he speaks in support of teachers, and I thank him for that.

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

2D274905957270-YesPlease.blocks_desktop_mediumAmy Poehler is responsible for my favorite sitcom of all time, Parks and Recreation, which sadly came to an end last month. Most of the book consists of stories about Poehler’s time doing improve in Chicago, backstage at SNL, and clean gossip about costars. It’s wry and fun to read, and occasionally thought-provoking. Her essay on apologies, and how she waited too long to give one for an offensive SNL sketch, was easy to relate to. I also liked the one about how she kept her cool when nominated for awards by planning elaborate pranks with co-nominees. She articulates her really smart and well-adjusted way of dealing with the ups and downs of showbiz (but really any career as well): “You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.” I closed the book feeling a little wiser.

Poehler’s feminist cred is well-established, from her character Leslie Knope to her organization Smart Girls at the Party, and I was glad to see her fly that flag in her book. My favorite essay in the book might be “Every Mom Needs a Wife,” which is Poehler’s response to the mommy wars, and to the microaggression “I don’t know how you do it.” Her point is basically twofold: 1) To each her own, and 2) we all need help and support. Amen.

One of the delightful things about this book is that it is so excellent in both print and audio format that I’m not sure which to recommend. The book has nice thick, smooth pages with lots of vintage pictures of young Amy, collages from her improve days, pics of present-day Poehler in clownish dress-ups, as well as report cards, margin notes, full-page color quotes and other text features. The audio has Amy’s excellent comic delivery, audio clips from Parks and Recreation, as well as guest appearances from Seth Meyers, Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur, and her parents. Both text and audio are excellent examples of their genres, so choose your preferred content delivery method.

I hate to compare a bunch of smart, funny ladies when I think they’re all awesome, but of Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Amy Poehler, Poehler has written the best memoir, and that’s really saying something. I can’t wait to see what she does next, on screen and off.