Tag Archives: five weeks of american literature

A Little Life

Content warning: basically everything but especially self-harm, trauma, abuse, child abuse, suicide ideation

I had this book recommended to me as a book that will “change your life”. That’s a pretty big statement, so I added it to my list of eBooks that I loaded up onto my Kobo before I left. When I was sitting in the aeroplane seat, deciding what to read on my trip home, I remembered this book and felt that I wanted to read something profound. I decided I would make this my tenth and final book on my five weeks of American literature.

“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel about four close friends: Malcolm who is an architect, JB an artist, Willem an actor and Jude a lawyer. At the beginning of the story, set in New York after the four have graduated university, the reader spends a relatively equal amount of time with each character learning about their backstory. However, when Jude’s turn comes, it becomes apparent that his friends know almost nothing about his life before he started university. Even to Willem, who is closest to Jude and shares a one-bedroom apartment with him, Jude’s background largely remains a mystery; including how he sustained a car injury that resulted in a noticeable limp and chronic pain. As the story progresses, the narrative becomes less about the group of four and more and more about Jude’s past life and his struggle to overcome it.

This is a really difficult book to review. On one hand, Yanagihara is a beautiful writer who brings to life four complex characters by detailing the idiosyncrasies of each of their personalities. I think this book is a very powerful exploration of love, trust and relationships and Yanagihara focuses particularly on male relationships: parent/child, lover/lover and wholesome/toxic. I think she also tackled the issues of disability, chronic pain, self-harm and suicide ideation excellently and captures the helplessness that can be felt both by the individuals who are suffering and their loved ones who don’t know how best to support them.

However, as this book becomes more and more about Jude, as engrossing as it is, it does start to feel a lot like misery lit. After a while the suffering inflicted on Jude begins to feel utterly incessant as Yanagihara both gradually reveals the litany of abuses he has suffered over his lifetime and introduces new struggles as he ages. This book actually reminded me a bit of a much better written, much darker adult version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with Jude like a much more traumatised, adult version of Charlie. It’s a long book, and after awhile, especially when the other three characters start to fade into the background a little, it’s hard to see where exactly Yanagihara is going with it.

There were also couple of things that were a bit confusing to me. Firstly was the almost complete absence of meaningful female relationships in Jude’s life. Although there were some peripheral women, they all took secondary roles. I understand that the point of the book was to explore male relationships in all their forms. However, given Jude’s many negative experiences with men over his lifetime, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief that he wouldn’t form any kind of relationship with women. Another thing that wasn’t really very clear is how exactly the four friends all end up becoming extremely successful in their chosen fields. They sort of weren’t, and then they were, without any clear path between and the reader just has to take it as a given.

Finally, I felt a bit like the efforts of Willem and Jude’s doctor to get Jude to see a psychiatrist were at best inaccurate and at worst potentially deeply harmful. Jude doesn’t connect with the psychiatrist he’s referred to, and instead of finding him a psychiatrist he does connect with, his friends just keep trying to get him to go back to the same one. Having worked in mental health, I just question the impact that this might have on readers for whom the takeaway message seems to be that counselling is futile. I understand that survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse can take decades to disclose, but that doesn’t mean that seeing someone is pointless. Yet I think there’s a tension here, similar to the one I discussed in “13 Reasons Why“, between raising awareness about mental illness by depicting it dramatically and potentially having a negative impact on readers who may themselves be struggling with their mental health.

I can see why this book was a Man Booker Prize finalist. It’s well-written, gripping and, particularly with respect to disability and chronic pain, groundbreaking. However, I did feel a bit like Yanagihara subjected Jude to basically every single negative experience a person could conceivably live through and ultimately it just felt relentless.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.

If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.

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Woe to Live On

This is the third book I’ve read by this author. I really, really loved “Winter’s Bone” and “Give us a Kiss”, and this one had been sitting on my shelf for ages waiting for the right time. I borrowed it from a friend who had struggled to finish it, but I given how much I’d enjoyed his other books, I was certain I’d enjoy this one as well. This was my 9th book in my five weeks of American literature, and again, I forgot to take a photo of it. Instead, here’s a photo from an incredible lake I went to in Montana.

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“Woe to Live On” by Daniel Woodrell is a historical fiction set during the American Civil War around the Kansas/Missouri border. The story is told from the perspective of 16 year old Jack Roedel, the son of Dutch immigrants who has joined his childhood friend Jack Bull Chiles in becoming a Bushwhacker. Due to his heritage, Jake isn’t liked by the other Bushwhackers, but his steely nerves and friendship with Jack Bull Chiles earn him first tolerance then begrudging respect amongst the men. However, as the war progresses, more men die and the violence perpetrated by the Bushwhackers becomes less about Southern values and more about personal gain. Left mostly to himself hiding out one winter, Jake becomes friends with another unliked but tolerated Bushwhacker: Daniel Holt, a free black man. As the season thaws, Jake begins to lose his taste for guerrilla warfare.

Some of the incredible things about the books of Woodrell’s I read prior to this one were his fearlessness in tackling complex social issues, his characters and his unflinching portrayal of pockets of America. So (and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say this) when I reached a point where I thought that it was maybe going to be an interracial gay romance set on the Southern side of the Civil War, I was so impressed at the bravery of this book. What a premise! What a literary gamble! However, it turns out that this it is in fact not an interracial gay romance. Instead it is much less groundbreaking exploration of the violence and wildness of young men, the futility and hypocrisy of war and the apparent temperance that a family and hearthside brings to one such hot-blooded man.

This is one of Woodrell’s earliest novels, and I think that his later ones are much better crafted. This one just didn’t have either the tension or the punch that I was expecting. While his writing is fine, the characters were pretty beige and despite all the horse-ridin’, gun-totin’, yee-hawin’ action – the plot was really much more of a gentle hill than any kind of great climax. There were so many times in this book I thought that Woodrell was going to take a risk and do something interesting with his characters but he never did. I think history buffs and people who are interested in the Civil War might get something out of this, but for the rest of you: forget this one and go straight for “Winter’s Bone”.

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Of Mice and Men

After finding out that despite being dead for nearly 50 years that this author’s books are still in copyright (something I talk about on my latest podcast episode), I had decided not to buy any of his books for my five weeks of American literature. However, while visiting friends in California, they actually had a copy of this book on their shelf. When I saw how short it was, I thought I’d better give this classic a go and I managed to read it in an afternoon.

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“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck is a novella set in California during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. The story follows two men, George and Lennie, who are travelling workers trying to save money to buy their own piece of land one day. Lennie is incredibly big and strong, however has an intellectual disability that means he struggles considerably. George serves as his somewhat reluctant guardian who has managed to line up a new job for them both after things went badly at the last one. To keep Lennie focused, George tells and retells him about the house they will own together one day and the animals they will keep. However, when they arrive at the new farm they are faced with lots of new men and the Boss’ aggressive son Curly. With all the new distractions, George struggles to keep Lennie in check.

This isn’t going to be a long review because while this wasn’t a long book, it was an excellent book. Steinbeck has crafted the perfect novella. He lays the foundation to create a story at once unforeseeable and inevitable. He touches on lots of themes in a very short time including friendship, disability and poverty. Even though we are only with the characters for a very short time, I was left with a real sense of wanting to know much more about them.

A real highlight during my five weeks of American literature and a book I’m extremely glad I got the opportunity to read this classic.

 

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Bastard out of Carolina

Content warning: child abuse.

My bestie lent me this book ages ago, and knowing that I was travelling to America, I thought I would take the opportunity to add it to my five weeks of American literature. Again, I completely forgot to take any photos of the book while actually in America, but I was reading it while I was in south California, so have a photo of a cactus to set the mood.

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“Bastard out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison is a novel about a young girl called Ruth Anne Boatwright, known to everyone as Bone, who is born to an unmarried teenage mother Anney in South Carolina. Due to South Carolina’s laws about legitimacy, Bone’s birth certificate is stamped with the word ‘bastard’, despite her mother’s multiple attempts to change it. When Bone is still small, mother marries, has another daughter and is widowed in short order – now a single mother with two small girls. Despite the circumstances of her birth, and becoming increasingly aware of her ‘white trash’ status in the community, Bone cherishes her Boatwright family, including her grandmother, aunts, wild uncles and cousins. Devastated by the loss of her husband, Anney eventually agrees to marry her long-time suitor Glen who promises a life of financial stability. However, Glen’s quick temper and inferiority complex result in him losing job after job, and the family constantly moving home. Glen begins to lash out at Bone and as she gets older, the physical (and later sexual) abuse against her escalates.

This was a book that was both easy and hard to read. Allison is a beautiful writer and captures Bone’s internal voice perfectly. I read the 20th anniversary edition of this novel which includes Allison’s thoughts about the impact her story has had on survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse, especially as a survivor herself, and some of the history of the book being banned in schools. Although Bone is a fictional character, Allison was able to draw on lived experience to explore the same issues of abuse, poverty, class, faith, gender roles and the body.

Allison’s biggest strength is in her ability to translate emotions onto the page. The hate that Bone begins to feel both for herself and her tormentor is absolutely visceral. The depiction of Bone’s fraught friendship with Shannon who suffers from albinism. The increasing distance and betrayal from Anney. Bone’s relationships with her aunties who have their own struggles with sexuality and health.The brutality of Daddy Glen’s abuse. Allison captures them all. This isn’t a particularly long book, but Allison has managed to fill it with so much humanity that it is impossible to walk away unmoved or unscathed.

An excellently crafted but heart-rending story.

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Schismatrix Plus

Before I start this review, I need to take a moment to explain the concept of RedditGifts. RedditGifts is like a Secret Santa/Kris Kringle where gift exchanges are run year-round. You sign up for an exchange with a particular theme and get matched with a random person either in your own country or overseas. Every year there is a book exchange, and I received this book for the second of the three exchanges I’ve signed up to so far. If you follow this blog at all, you probably know that I like to read lots of different kinds of books. However there are some genres that I really enjoy in particular and one of them is biopunk, a subgenre of science fiction. I’ve reviewed a few other biopunk books on this blog, and my Santa picked up on that and sent me one I had never heard of. I decided to include this on on my five weeks of American literature, and I read this book in Mexico where I was staying near a cenote amongst the mangroves. At night time the whole area was lit up with green light and it had a very strong sci-fi vibe.

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“Schismatrix Plus” by Bruce Sterling is a collection of everything he has ever written about his Shaper/Mechanist universe: a future where humans who now inhabit asteriods in the asteroid belt are divided into warring factions. The Shapers advocate improving the human body through genetic engineering and mental control while the Mechanists seek to augment human bodies and prolong life with cyborg technology and medical advancements. The collection begins with his novel “Schismatrix” which follows Shaper turned sundog (space nomad) Abelard Lindsay as he travels from colony to colony evolving from exile to revolutionary. After that are five short stories that Sterling actually wrote prior to publishing his novel.

I think, first and foremost, this book was not structured correctly. I think that the entire thing would have been a far better experience if the order of the stories was the same as the order of publication rather than the novel followed by the short stories. Sterling kind of launches the reader into his universe, and as it is such a complex concept with lots of factions and outposts and politics and colonies, I felt like the book really took a long time to feel cohesive. The short stories were much easier to follow and each introduced different specific aspects of the Schismatrix, and I think by having them up front, the rest of the book would have made a lot more sense.

I did actually quite enjoy the short stories. “Spider Rose” and “Swarm” in particular both had that snappy unique premise and twisty plot that makes a great short story. I thought given a shorter format, Sterling was really able to succinctly explain the key elements of the Schismatrix universe and develop quick character-driven narratives.

The novel itself I think I enjoyed far less. I wasn’t really sold on Abelard as a character, which was a shame because he is the central character throughout the entire book. Despite originally starting out as a Shaper, he increasingly embraces (sometimes willingly, sometimes not) Mechanist technology and achieves incredible longevity. He is the eyes through which the reader witnesses the several evolutions of Schismatrix society and because he lives for hundreds of years, his character is quite static. The plot device of ‘where we went and what we did there’ is one I’ve criticised other books about before, and the novel felt like a series of vignettes loosely stitched together with the same point of view character. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy the many female characters in the story, especially Kitsune whose lust for power far surpassed any lust for men. I also really enjoyed the ending which had a bit of a “Watership Down” vibe about it.

A creative book, especially the short stories, but the novel itself fell a bit flat. I think he might have done better breaking up the novel into smaller pieces and just having the whole thing as a collection of short stories, each a spotlight on a different aspect of his universe.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I have had a copy sitting on my shelf for goodness knows how long, but I’ve always been a bit reluctant to tackle it. After finishing my previous book during my five weeks of American literature that tackled race issues from a modern perspective, I felt like now was the time to balance it out with this classic. This book, for better or worse, has definitely become a fixture in American racial discourse. This review feels even more timely since seeing the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” last night and seeing key players in the civil rights movement criticise one another through the lens of archetypes created by this book. Coincidentally, I ended up reading this book while staying in a tent cabin on the Idaho/Wyoming border.

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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a novel set in Kentucky, USA in the mid-1800s – a time when slavery was still legal. Arthur and Emily Shelby are slaveholders who, due to Mr Shelby’s financial mismanagement, are forced to sell two of their slaves. Arthur chooses faithful and responsible slave Tom and Harry, the five year old son of beautiful biracial Eliza, to the horror of his wife and son George. The story follows Tom down the Mississippi River to his new homes and explores the attitudes of the various white people who own him. Risking everything, Eliza runs away with her son Harry, hoping to meet his father (her husband) free in Canada.

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There’s no other way about it. This book was an absolute slog. Beecher Stowe has this maddening, self-righteous tone that is exacerbated by the most omniscient of narrators. For some reason, she felt the need to announce at the end of each chapter that we were leaving particular characters to go see how the others were getting along as though she had made all these little dioramas and is taking us on a tour of them. Thematically, this book hasn’t aged well at all. Beecher Stowe interjects her correct interpretation that slavery is wrong with commentary on “the negro” and the kinds of emotional and intellectual characteristics to be expected from that ethnic group.

There is a lot of apologism for a number of the “kind” slaveholders, despite the fact that it was their own ineptitude, thoughtlessness and indifference that led to many of the predicaments in this book. Young George Shelby is touted as a hero, despite the fact that his family were slaveholders and the many benefits he received as a result. This book was surprisingly religious, and I found it interesting that Beecher Stowe relied heavily on Christianity as an argument in favour of abolition. A lot of her conclusions were ultimately pretty suspect, including the conclusion that the best solution for everyone would be if African Americans simply went back to Africa and be done with it.

This book can also claim responsibility for a lot of stereotypes that emerged after its publication for African American characters. There is the Uncle Tom: naive, loyal, virtuous and forgiving – never lifting a hand to defend himself. The Mammy:  overweight, nurturing, defers to white people but sassy to her underlings. The Tragic Mulatto. The list goes on and on.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was so controversial at its time of publication that it has been credited with starting the American Civil War. How unpalatable it is now to the modern reader is a real testimony to just how horrific things were during slavery. I don’t think anyone could criticise this book for being inaccurate either with respect to details or attitudes of the time. I think that this book, while not excellently written or by any means socially flawless, is today a keen reminder of how far American has come and how far it has to go.

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The Sellout

This book was just what the doctor ordered. I started reading it while I was stuck in a car line to get into a festival in Oregon for 12 hours (no, I am not exaggerating) to help keep myself from losing my mind. I had heard about it after the author was last year named the first American ever to win the Man Booker prize. I was blown away by the novel’s beginning and I have a keen memory of sitting in that car seat shrieking every few pages. Then, after we finally made it into the festival and wasted a day moving campsites, the following night I became very ill and was tent-bound for two days. This book was my absolute solace. I needed an excellent book to get me through and when my eReader froze just as started getting better, I almost lost it.

The Sellout

“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty is a satirical novel about race relations in the USA. The narrator, who is never given a first name, is a quiet young African American man who lives in a fictional Los Angeles town called Dickens. Despite wanting to live an understated life as a farmer, after he loses his father, an experimental sociologist who used his son own as a test subject, the narrator finally finds himself faced with the racial discrimination his father always lectured him about. However it is the final straw of Dickens’ erasure from the map that sets off a chain of events resulting in the narrator appearing before the USA Supreme Court accused of crimes against humanity.

This book, without a doubt, is the best book I have read this year so far. Beatty is an absolute master of the craft and every sentence in this book is full of double entendres, socio-political references and neologisms. I think my eyes were almost falling out of my head the entire time I was reading this, and it is definitely not a book that you can skim through. This book demands your full attention and the rewards are instantaneous. I don’t really want to say too much more about the plot because I really think it’s best to go cold, but it is really is exquisite in its audacity. However as outrageous as the premise is, as a modern social commentary it is bang on the mark and blistering in its honesty.

Although it has been some weeks since I finished it, I am still thinking about this book. It’s hard work, and I think that you have to be pretty up to date to get all the references (there were a couple that went over my head as a non-American), but it is a brilliant read. I truly think this is going to become a modern classic and I can’t wait until I can read it again for a second time.

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