Books I Read This Summer

After four years of book overload in college, this summer was my first opportunity to read whatever I wanted (!), as much as I wanted. Although I generally loved the books my professors chose, the freedom to jump randomly from reading about MTV’s The Real World to a fictional Jewish settlement in Alaska to 19th century Russia and back to California highways in the 1960s was wonderful. In the past, I’ve written up lists of books I hope/plan to read during a season, but inevitably I get sidetracked and end up down a rabbit hole of related reading far from what I originally intended–so, this season, I decided to put together a retrospective list of texts I enjoyed.

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls / David Sedaris
This one sparked a lot of conversations about the widespread addiction to Fitbit buzzing my friends are currently experiencing. I’m also looking forward to attending his reading in DC this Thursday!

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius / Dave Eggers
What is real, and what is imagined? Is there any real benefit to drawing strict lines between our imagined and experienced lives, or are both necessary for survival?

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon
Gritty, suspenseful, made me crave latkes.

Anna Karenina / Leo Tolstoy
Kind of a cheat, as I only had about 300 pages left. Luckily, that last hunk of prose ended up unfolding in a series of rapid, devastating turns.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? / Maria Semple
Took me out of my mind during a particularly difficult few weeks, and actually managed to make me laugh. Wildly creative and surprising.

Swann’s Way / Marcel Proust
Another cheat–I only had the last 50 pages to go. Wistful and made me crave madeleines.

Consider The Lobster / David Foster Wallace
“Host” made SO much more sense when I discovered that it had originally been published online by The Atlantic. “Up, Simba” was a terrific read as the presidential debate season kicks off. Just full of curious ideas and creative phrases.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga / Hunter S Thompson
I was shocked by how quickly I devoured this one–two plane rides, and that was that. Uneasy, ambivalent look at a group of unusual people, with an appearance by Ginsberg and some great commentary on 1960s politics that still feels fresh and relevant.

I’ve started my fall reading with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me, which is as excellent as I knew it would be from following his work in The Atlantic. I have a feeling that this will send me back to Angela Davis’s first autobiography, which I partially read for class during my last semester of college, and from there, who knows? I’ll write up another list in December.

Planning my chapters

Last week, I met with my thesis advisor in her office in Bryan Hall. I sat in the same chair I had occupied during my second year, when I offered some vague and jumbled interests that eventually evolved into my current thesis project. This time, I was prepared with a list of proposed chapters and topics scrawled in my Moleskin notebook. It was vaguely surreal, as if everything else that had happened in the interim to refine my thoughts was edited away, leaving the two office visits baldly next to each other with all of the intervening work sheared away.

I started writing one of the smaller sections of my thesis last week, and although I’m in theory focused on contextualizing Gish Jen’s The Love Wife in a whirlwind of what I hope will be delicately chosen high and low culture representations of families, in actuality I’m thinking about chapters these days. Not my thesis chapters, but the idea of chapters broadly.

We apply this word as a way of reading our own lives, usually in reverse but sometimes as a way of marking a transition. Graduations; moving houses; changing jobs; these all represent the closing of old chapters and the page-turn into something new. The poignant, tense moment happens at the summit of that turning page, when the next batch of episodes are just ahead but can’t yet be glimpsed. None of this is revelatory; it’s just a cliche we lean on out of convenience.

One of my classes this semester is exploring exactly this – our tendency to frame our lives in the vocabulary of literature. But as much as I deeply love literature, every once in a while, I can’t help but wonder what the hours I spend dissecting stories in class are really worth. (If I never hear the phrases “interiority” and “the human condition” again, it will be too soon.) I’m starting to think that my English major isn’t really about literature at all – at least, not at its core. Instead, I think we crave fictional narratives because we’re uncertain of how to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives. We’re searching for frames, for modes, for moments when an author really nails just how awkward it can be when someone doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say or how you inexplicably distraught you were when you ran into a childhood friend and everything felt weird. If we already knew how to do this, why would we read? And in our search, why would we read the memoirs of people who have already cracked this code when we could read the fictional works of authors who are testing ideas and, like us, in the process of working these things out?

With the semester underway, I’ve traded my summer internship, with its long days and free weekends, in for the elaborate juggling of too many thoughts. These systems are in constant gestation; whether it’s my thesis, social media strategy for Literally, Darling, job hunting, my classes, or my creative writing, there are always thoughts evolving, being abandoned, and occasionally being scribbled down to fight against forgetfulness. I’m finding it difficult to shuffle between these different piles of information and for the first time in my life, I’m getting serious about taking notes, just to keep my various cycles of ideas from being totally derailed or mixed up with each other as I leave things on the back burner.

Thinking of this time as a chapter doesn’t offer me any useful way of framing my experience. Although I might be living out my “college chapter” in a  general sense, no one’s life offers the neat thematic consistencies that robust writing can present. (If you accept that “college” is a relatively weak theme.) The subsections of my life – interdisciplinary classes, mundane tasks, creative work – are chaotic in combination and often irrelevant to each other. Different periods of life certainly offer thematic patterns, emotional resonances, and evolving plots, but before life can truly be thought of in readable chapters, so many experiences are filtered out and scrapped, lost to forgetfulness completely, with other experiences singled out as doing the useful work of explaining. The chronology of how our emotions work is at best erratic.

Now that I’m actually planning and starting to research chapters of a synthesis of literary critique and historical narrative, I’m thinking about nonfiction writing more deeply. Under closer examination, neat labels have a habit of breaking down rather quickly. The real work of writing is to work your way down through that devolution, stop, and build something back up again by sorting through the pieces you have cast around you.

The real irony here, and the thought behind this post’s title, is that I am simultaneously planning literal chapters that I will spend this year executing while preparing to close what many people would call a chapter of my life. As thematically complicated and research-driven as my literal chapters will be, they are so tiny and insignificant compared to what lies ahead. My plans for post-grad life are simultaneously specific and vague, a mess of contradictions and short term goals that will hopefully leave me open minded when considering jobs and cities but focused enough to actually obtain something. People have a tendency to build thesis projects up into grand encounters with unprecedented stress, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s going on in some of the other thoughts that are silently baking in my unconscious while I scan Jen’s pages for pop culture references.

Only later, after time and forgetfulness have done some of the work for me, can I look back on this time with the ending in mind, deconstruct it, stop, and build it back up again, one word at a time.

Kid A(ntarctica): Radiohead and our melting polar ice caps

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I heard a story on NPR while I was in the car last week that featured exactly the kind of interview I find bittersweet and funny – when interviewed regarding his research on methods of modeling the melting Antarctic glacier, the scientist they were talking to essentially said, “Duh, we’ve known this would happen for years.” By the time Radiohead released Kid A in October 2000, scientists had spent decades predicting the eventual dwindling of Earth’s glaciers.

Browsing in a used record shop a few years ago, I stumbled across a special edition of Kid A featuring 12 thick cardboard pages of additional artwork chronicling the melting of polar ice caps. The book isn’t worth much cash (it goes for about $5 on eBay), but it’s a cool little collectible if you’re a fan of the band or of unusual books in general (I happen to be a fan of both). Here are the pages in chronological order. I chose not to present these in a slideshow because the art is so layered and the text is so cryptic, in keeping with Radiohead’s style.

Text: Kid A, Book and Compact Disc. Compact Disc by Radiohead. Book by Stanley and Tchock.

Text: Kid A, Book and Compact Disc. Compact Disc by Radiohead. Book by Stanley and Tchock.

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(L) Nobody likes nothing. I certainly wish with all my heart that it did not exist. (R) But wishing is not enough. We live in the real world where nothing does exist. We cannot just disinvent it.

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(L) Nothing is not comprehensible. Neither you nor I have any hope of understanding just what it is and what it does. (R) It is hard to know if nothing is actually nothing and thus difficult to know if a policy of doing nothing is successful.

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(L) Nothing, however effective it may have proved up to the present, can hardly continue to do so indefinitely. (R) If I had to choose between the continued possibility of nothing happening and of doing nothing I would unquestionably choose the latter.

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(L) Or the former.

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(Hammer added to prop pages open.)

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We will not hesitate to carry out what has been threatened. This is not over until absolute unconditional surrender and complete meeting of all demands. There will be no further warning whatsoever. Airstrikes are imminent.

Short post today because my full time job as a News Intern at Charlottesville Tomorrow kicked off this past Tuesday, totally knocking my reading schedule off kilter. The eternal struggle between personal creative projects, work-related writing and research, and my thesis research has officially caught up to me after a refreshing few weeks of focus on some personal projects. I’ve sadly abandoned the Joads in a government camp in Weedpatch, California, as I diverge into some craft books on writing that my boss assigned the interns, but I’m hoping to evaluate my schedule this weekend and come up with a new plan.

Recently, I came to the realization that this constant juggle is never going to end – I like diving into big projects and I’m interested in almost everything, so as long as I’m me, I will probably keep taking on too much. Rather than denying my information addiction, I think it’s time to just start managing the cracks in my daily life when they inevitably appear.

Steinbeck’s “big words” and why we should read them

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“Ever know a guy that said big words like that?”

“Preacher,” said Joad.

“Well, it makes you mad to hear a guy use big words. ‘Course with a preacher it’s all right because nobody would fool around with a preacher anyway.”

I have a confession to make: before this week, I had never read The Grapes of Wrath. I normally dig novels that deliver their content in unconventional forms, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s use of illustrations or David Grossman’s surrealism. I’m a news junkie who’s constantly consuming the New York Times and The Atlantic, so I tend to get my dose of realism from those nonfiction sources. But I decided that before I wrote my thesis on mixed race families in modern America, I needed to dig a little deeper, back to earlier roots of the images of the American nuclear family that come to mind today.

Instead of straight realism, I was surprised and pleased to find some pretty unconventional, Modern prose in Steinbeck. I loved the chapters of free-form dialogue that appear in between chapters that more conventionally plot the Joads’ journey from Sallislaw, Oklahoma, to Bakersfield, California. The speakers in these chapters are sometimes later identifiable as the Joads and sometimes a sort of Everyman, stream of multiconsciousness (streams of consciousness?) essence of the shared experience of the Dust Bowl, and Steinbeck often interjects political musings in place of these Joyce-esque rambles.

Throughout the novel, which is formally complex and ideologically robust, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Steinbeck’s neat narrative prose and his use of alternative, vernacular spellings and punctuation in the dialogue. The quote above, about big words, jumped off the page for me as an early signal of an implicit division between Steinbeck’s vivid use of dialect-driven spelling and grammar and his use of standard English. I identify three distinct types of writing within The Grapes of Wrath: first, Steinbeck’s use of standard grammar in his narration of the Joads’ journey; second, Steinbeck’s use of nonstandard grammar in the relatively freeform chapters of quotation-mark-free conversations; and third, Steinbeck’s use of vernacular language, which is contained between quotation marks as the Joads converse with one another and others they meet on the road.

Published fifty years and several artistic movements later, Gish Jen’s postmodernism amps up the juxtaposition of vernacular language with elevated language in a way that is often elaborately humorous, delivering deadpan passages like this one from Mona in the Promised Land:

More and more, [Mona and Sherman, a new student from Japan,] joke. For example, [Sherman] often mixes up thinking with sinking — which they both think is so funny that all either one of them has to do is pretend to be drowning, and the other one cracks up. And he tells her things. for example, that there are electric lights everywhere in Tokyo now.

“You mean you didn’t have them before?”

“Everywhere now!” He’s amazed too. “Since Orympics-u!”

In the hands of another author, Jen’s spelling of “Olympics” would be questionable or even a downright racist parody. But in the context of the book – as Mona patiently and empathetically helps Sherman to practice his English to speed his assimilation into their high school – the spelling is simply true to the phonics a new speaker of English might use.

Similarly, Steinbeck’s larger discussion in Grapes of Wrath concerns class division and structural problems of agriculture in America. His vernacular spellings accurately capture the voice – right down to every last “somepin” and all of the dropped consonants at the ends of words – of the migrants who endured hundreds of miles of rough travel to seek a better life in California. Steinbeck captures voices that otherwise went unheard, communicating the story of a population that was largely illiterate and delivering it to an audience that likely shared neither their challenges nor their speech patterns.

In December of last year, NPR reported a story entitled “Ax vs. Ask” (the story is only 3:38 long, and well worth a listen), which examined the necessity of switching between vernacular speech and standard English. The debate pitted two pronunciations of the word that means “to request an answer or information,” both of which, as it turns out, have deep roots in the English language. NPR reports that although “ax” is often seen as an uneducated pronunciation, the word was actually used by Chaucer and in the first Bible in English translation: “Axe and it shall be given.” Still, those who have been raised in households where “ax” is the most common pronunciation find it necessary to switch to “ask” in professional settings.

When pronunciation and vocabulary signal class, race, or other markers of identity, realism begins to look blurry. Steinbeck’s realism is actually a careful combination of elements, with enough standard English to prevent a reader from feeling alienated and enough nonstandard spelling to give the narrative an authentic vibe. By providing an intimate look at the Joads’ hope, fear, discomfort, grief, and ambition, Steinbeck avoids using nonstandard spelling as a way of making the Joads a spectacle or parody of poverty. Within these complex challenges, Steinbeck faced another obstacle: how to elevate the Everyman into a subject worthy of wealthy, highly educated readers’ attention without weighing his prose down with multisyllabic vocabulary words that the Everyman himself  would need a dictionary to decode. Steinbeck handles this problem by offering crisp prose that is elegant in its simplicity, which is why The Grapes of Wrath is an enduring classic in the American literary canon.

Elsewhere, Joyce also recognized language’s ability to implicitly contain class or racial tensions. In Ulysses, Joyce writes, “I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.” I’ll end this post with a zine I (amateurishly) made at a workshop earlier this year, based around this quote and the idea that small words can be just as unhappy as those $5 vocabulary words. The text and images are mostly from Rolling Stone, along with a few clipped from catalogues.

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My reading this week will hopefully carry me to the end of The Grapes of Wrath, and Anna Karenina is up next on my reading list.

 

Asians Americans: The New Jews?

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It’s 1968. The North Vietnamese army launches the Tet offensive, injecting 70,000 troops into the weary war. Incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson declares that he will not run for a second term in office. Andy Warhol is shot (and lives). Robert Kennedy is shot (and dies). The Prague Spring challenges Soviet Communism in Czechoslovakia. Richard Nixon declares his intention to enter the presidential race. NASA launches Apollo 7 and Apollo 8. And in fictional Scarshill, New York, Mona Chang is coming of age.

Mona Chang might better be known as Mona Change. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Mona converts to Judaism and is subsequently (and fondly) dubbed Changowitz by her classmates. Surrounded by diverse friends and acquaintances, Mona’s bildungsroman unfolds as she navigates tough questions of how various ethnic minorities are perceived, and how these perceptions shape the opportunities available to them in the “promised land.” In reviews by The New York TimesKirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s WeeklyMona in the Promised Land is described with words such as “droll,” “rebellious,” and “melting pot.” Unfortunately, other than these few scattered book reviews, there’s a near-silence in Internet chatter regarding Mona in the Promised Land, and the few commentaries I read were riddled with errors regarding the plot. This quiet is part of the reason I’m writing my thesis project on one of Gish Jen’s other novels, The Love Wife. In both novels, Jen’s manipulation of postmodern convention is masterful, and her storytelling is an entertaining vehicle for her ability to unpack the endless complexity of race in America.

Jen has a knack for nailing a wide range of ethnic voices, and Mona in the Promised Land showcases this talent. There’s Mona’s best friend Barbara Gugelstein, whose mother dupes her into a nose job financed by her father’s Wall Street salary. There’s Alfred, an African American cook at the Changs’ pancake house who is at the center of a so-called mod squad espousing Black Power rhetoric. There’s Mona’s parents, Ralph and Helen, who live by the Chinese mantra of “make sure.” There’s Naomi, Mona’s sister’s African American roommate, who teaches Mona and her sister “how to be Chinese.” There’s Seth Mandel, Mona’s pseudo-intellectual Jewish boyfriend (and later common law husband) who lives in a teepee in his backyard (lest Native Americans be excluded from this complex look at minorities in America). Finally, there’s the enigmatic Sherman Matsumoto, a Japanese ex-pat who uses Judo to flip Mona in the garden after their first kiss and later decides to become Hawaiian – or so it seems, until this later iteration of Sherman is revealed to be a hoax conducted by Seth and a boy named Andy Kaplan. Though Sherman’s reappearances are sporadic, they serve as a measure of Mona’s belief in one’s ability to “switch,” which evolves as her idealism is gradually molded by experience.

As all of these characters meet and mingle, they exchange pieces of their performances, adopting mannerisms and opinions that push them in new directions. The permutations of race, class, gender, and ethnicity are seemingly limitless, but the wall this kaleidoscopic postmodern reverie repeated bumps up against is the inevitable question: But what will you do? As much as Jen’s characters talk, her larger point is that while laudable, open-minded idealism cannot make up for the sometimes sad, sometimes practical reality that circumstantial actions form the core of race relations.

The novel opens as the Changs search for a new house in Scarshill, New York. Their white relator shows them a predominantly Jewish neighborhood:

“Moneyed! Many delis!” In other words, rich and Jewish, she! for one! would rather live elsewhere!

This is such a nice thing to say, even the Changs know to be offended, they think, on behalf of all three Jewish people they know, even if one of them they’re not sure about. Still, someone has sent the parents a list of the top ten schools nationwide, and so many-deli or not, they settle into a Dutch colonial on the Bronx River Parkway. For they’re the New Jews, after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land.

Having grown up in northern Virginia, where the booming population of Hispanic immigrants tend to be described as “Mexican” in a tone that transforms national identity into a shorthand slur for “unassimilated,” I realize now that I have internalized a compulsion to resist racial labels, even ones that are accurate to the demographic in question. I was startled by Jen’s freedom, even playfulness, in drawing parallels between the stereotypes applied Jewish and Asian Americans alike. To explore her comparison further, I turned to the Pew Research Center, where statisticians attempt to illuminate characterizations of anything from race to age through national phone surveys.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center released an updated edition of their study of Asian Americans. Though I plan to reread the study as my research develops, my first reading uncovered several details that resonate with Mona in the Promised Land. For example, Jen’s decision to set Mona’s story in the 1960s makes a lot more sense given that U.S. lifted a quota that limited the number of eligible Asian immigrants in 1965, after which the percentage of Asian Americans jumped from 1% to today’s roughly 6%. Mona also fits within a larger pattern of interracial/-ethnic marriage; the study reports that Asian Americans “are the most likely of any major racial or ethnic group in America to live in mixed neighborhoods and to marry across racial lines,” citing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent marriage to Priscilla Chan as a high-profile example of the “37% of all recent Asian- American brides who wed a non-Asian groom.”

In a similar study of Jewish Americans, the Pew Research Center found that American Jews are increasingly identifying with Judaism on the basis of religion rather than on the basis of ethnicity, while the population of Jews who regularly observe religious rituals is in decline. Mona’s conversion to Judaism includes her observance of rituals which her ethnically Jewish partner, Seth, ironically ignores.

Additionally, this disclaimer in the study on Asian Americans grabbed my attention: “Unless otherwise noted, whites include only non-Hispanic whites. Blacks include only non- Hispanic blacks. Hispanics are of any race. Asians can also be Hispanic.”

What? I had to reread this several times, and I’m still not certain that I grasp what they’re saying. The point I took away from this is that ethnic heredity is rarely pure, groups overlap, and broad labels can mask significant historical distinctions between groups. Take, for example, the friction between Japanese and Chinese Americans, both of whom are contained within the broad “Asian American” label:

“Atomic bomb dropped on only one people,” Sherman says. “The Japanese do not forget.” On the back of an old mimeograph sheet, he draws another Japanese flag, a bigger one, which he puts on the icebox door with daisy magnets. “In school, in ceremony, we dis way,” he explains, and bows to the picture.

When Helen [Mona’s mother] comes in, her face is so red that with the white wall behind her, she looks a bit like the Japanese flag herself. Yet Mona gets the feeling she’d better not say so. First her mother doesn’t move. Then she snatches the flag off the icebox, so fast the daisy magnets go flying. Two of them land on the stove. She crumples up the paper. She hisses at Sherman, “This is the U.S. of A., do you hear me!

This scene captures three distinct experiences of assimilation. Unlike American-born Mona, Helen and Sherman have experienced life both within and outside of America, and both characters bring a non-Western perspective on history that has not been planted within Mona. The tensions in this scene are interethnic, intergenerational, and international, combining to offer a glimpse of the difficult terrain Mona must navigate in the process of claiming her own identity. Unable to fully relate to her parents or even other Asian Americans, Mona’s conversion to Judaism helps her to stake a claim to an identity that is uniquely her own. In life and in Jen’s novel, distinctions between religious and ethnic groups only become blurrier and more fraught with complexity under closer examination.

One blogger who read Mona commented that “an awful lot was tackled in this book, maybe more than the premise could comfortably contain, and there were times when I felt like I was reading more of a fable or a satire than a novel. The race conversations came on strong and many and were a little hard for me to read.” While I agree that the novel embraces complications (perhaps to an excessive degree), I do think that it’s important to keep in mind that Jen writes in a postmodern style that’s what I think of as “highly fictional realism.” Her characters possess an impossible range of cultural references and viewpoints, and the novel contains many moments that have the distinct feel of a thought exercise, albeit a hilariously funny one. (For example, Mona quotes James Joyce during the act of losing her virginity: “Yes,” says Mona. “Yes I said yes. Yes.” “Shut up,” says Seth.) In a paper from National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, Fu-Jen Chen concisely explains that “postmodern theories of subjectivity highlight a subject’s inability to remain either stabilized or unified, thereby featuring a liberating proliferation of multiple forms of subjectivity.” Jen allows Mona and her friends to exemplify the reality that identity is a performative act by writing them in a heightened style that’s supersaturated with detail. So, if this is your beach read, just be sure not to take Jen too literally.

This week, I’ll be switching from Jen’s tongue-in-cheek scrutiny of our American melting pot to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel described on its own back cover as “perhaps the most American of American classics.” Without any ill-feeling toward Steinbeck, I challenge the publisher’s notion – after all, is a white man writing in 1939 more quintessentially American than the story of a Chinese American woman growing up in a Jewish suburb during the 1960s? Who gets to decide what is “quintessentially American”? I suspect that the phrase has an expiration date that’s quickly approaching if it hasn’t already passed. In the postmodern age, the only quality that seems to be “quintessentially American” is hybridity.