Review: The Vegetarian

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The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a powerful, nearly perfect book. I think the first part is the strongest, in which Kang sets up the creepy premise: that terrifying, murderous nightmares possess an otherwise ordinary woman to give up meat. As the book progresses, we see this oddity evolve into an obsession, then to a complete departure from reality as the protagonist descends into madness.

Each of the three parts is told by a different point of view: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, last her sister. The first two parts compound the inherent violence of the prose by presenting the heroine as a kind of possession of the narrator. This insidious undertone really emphasizes the symbols of dominion, control, and social behavior the author explores throughout the book. Parts one and two also each end with a frightful crescendo. Sadly, part three breaks all of these patterns and continues the still creepy story as an emotional relationship between two sisters. I had in mind as I was reading some kind of ultimate, grotesque climax, bordering on science fiction, but alas, it never came. Nonetheless, this is an incredibly original and creative book, and I hope more of the author’s work is translated into English.

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The Writing Process

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Most non-writers probably have a concept of writing as the art of making shit up. Shit that’s meaningful or entertaining, anyway. Some, like myself, disagree. This gets to the heart of the “in there” vs “out there” debate about creativity, best illustrated by mathematics. Are mathematical concepts such as π inventions of the human mind, or discoveries of the real world? If you were to poll mathematicians, most would probably say theirs is the process of discovering real world truths that are already “out there,” and that it takes a creative mind to endeavor on this process. I feel the same way about writing. Stories are not constructions made up out of thin air, constituted only by a writer’s creative thoughts. Unwritten stories already exist in the vast sea of our collective unconscious, and writers are those divers skilled at bringing them up.

The following excerpt from Stephen King’s On Writing illustrates this superbly:

fossil

I agree with this sentiment because it’s been my experience in reading and writing. When I first read Atlas Shrugged (at the impressionable age of 15) I distinctly felt I’d discovered something, been made aware of an idea’s existence. In similar fashion, Watership Down got me thinking about how much of our psychology we inherited from our animal ancestors. I’ve never been drawn to serial works or “genre fiction,” that which feels like the same basic idea repeated ad nauseam in slightly different garb. And that’s the reason: If the idea is the same, why read 10 reboots of the same book?

This is what draws me to literary fiction. My personal definition of “literary fiction” is “that which does not fall into a genre.” It’s not all I read. I love The Cruelest Miles (nonfiction), Ender’s Game (sci-fi), and Free Culture (legal). But East of Eden? The Snow Child? The Shell Collector? To me, there is a direct connection between great writing and its resistance to categorization. Each of my favorite books represent a solitary idea, something unique, original, and intuitive, despite my never having imagined it before reading the book.

When I write, it’s not good enough to write by inspiration. My brain is wired for writing. Every conversation I hold, every movie I watch, every book I read, I’m fictionalizing. I’m imagining spinoff ideas, ideas that would never be put to paper because they’ve already been done. Experiencing others’ fiction is like being led to the spot at which they found their fossil. It’s beautiful and intellectually gratifying, but it’s already dug up. My mind may go off on how I would have dug it up differently, but those thoughts are overshadowed by that satisfying feeling of place, of having planted my feet on these specific coordinates on the landscape of our collective unconscious. What are some of the plots of virgin soil I’ve found, some undug fossils? That’s the ultimate needle to thread. King’s fossil, to me, is an intuitive idea that’s compelling, nuanced, and totally original. The excitement I feel for synthesizing a story comes from the thought that no one else out there thought of this before. Obviously I can’t know this for sure, since it’s impossible to read every book ever written, but I do read extensively. If anybody is qualified to certify an idea as original, it’s an avid reader.

Reading definitely feels like mining, in a way. I’m constantly dredging for new ideas, new ways of thinking of things, burning down my ever-expanding list of “must reads.” Lolita, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Child Thief, these are my greatest discoveries, amid a sea of good, bad, and okay books. Writing is like mining too. By living life to the fullest, full of love, travel, food, books, and nature, I am exploring my outer world and my own symbolic inner world. Amid this sea of symbols, some recombine in just the right way to suggest an original story. This is my conception of a muse. “She” is my capacity to recognize a diamond in the rough, a fossil worth digging up, and the experience I have of my outer, surrounding world informs the plot and setting, “getting it out of the ground as intact as possible.”
fossil

Review: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this little gem in a used bookshop for one dollar. I was faintly aware of “the longitude problem” but totally unaware of the details. This book packs an extraordinary story of those details in a mere 180 pages. The story involves father-son inventors, royal arch-nemeses, Galileo’s invention of the telescope, danger on the high seas, the invention of modern clocks, and 18th-century arms races among countries seeking to dominate the oceans (spoiler: England won).

If you have never heard of John Harrison or his forty-year quest to build the perfect maritime clock, this easy afternoon reader is a geek’s dream. It’s a great underdog story about a rural craftsman attempting the impossible, trying to crack the greatest unsolved science challenge of his day, using an approach completely at odds with the astronomy elite… to claim a million dollar prize (well, £20,000 in those days). This is exactly what we wander used bookstores hoping to find.

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Review: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

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Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anything with the word “Pulitzer” on the cover is generally a safe bet when it comes to books you’ve never heard of. I picked up this well-regarded travelogue when bulking up on civil war fodder, and it did not disappoint. In fact, I got far more than I bargained for. I was expecting a fly-on-the-wall, war correspondent style dive into the world of civil war reenactors, and several chapters were exactly that. But the author delves so much deeper. Horwitz spent several years traveling the south visiting sons & daughters of confederate veterans, sites of controversial riots, murders, rebel flag spats, and monuments. This amalgam, presented in clear, regimented, one-chapter-one-topic format, does a good job initiating one into the world of the “occupied south.” Some of the unfiltered testimony, the extreme voices of the lost cause and racial enmity are difficult to read. Horwitz doesn’t editorialize; he presents these voices plainly, right alongside those of “liberal confederates” who make annual pilgrimages in great-great grandfathers’ war regalia to relive battlefields.

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The Myth of Pure Evil

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What does the Joker have in common with Michael Corleone?

The Joker
Michael Corleone

Meet my two favorite villains of all time. From a creative writing perspective, I am fascinated by what makes these guys tick. They represent two conflicting ideas of what it means to be “evil,” and they also represent two very different ideas about how the world works.

As a human being, there are two things I refuse to believe in: hell, and pure evil. Not so much for political reasons as epistemological ones. Saying “thou shalt not kill else you’ll burn in hell” is too facile a reason to build up a superego buffering you from your primal urges. Not because the statement is objectively wrong, but because it puts up a wall beyond which nothing need be explored. After all, if there is no hell, what’s to stop you from acting on your worst impulses? While that hypothetical may frighten the fundamentalist, it’s a meaningful question for the secularist. Many take this meme quite seriously: that all people are either fundamentally good or evil and that civilization is a fragile balance keeping us comfortably complacent, but that some impending doom is close at hand that will strip away that veneer of law and order and plunge us into apocalyptic chaos. (I hear it used in radio advertisements to sell safes, guns, gold, and freeze-dried food.)

This is the Joker archetype. This is a vision of the world in which demons roam the earth in human form, with green hair and purple suits trying to usher in the end times. What’s scary about this character is there’s no reasoning with him. He embodies what Jungians like to call the shadow aspect, that part of us we’re most ashamed of, that anarchic impulse that has us itching to shoot a home invader or rear end a slow driver. The thought that “I have these impulses, but I am basically a good person in control over them” leads one to the thought “but there are basically evil people out there with little to no control over them who would do me harm given the chance.” This projection misinforms our ideas of real-life villains, from Ted Bundy to Adolf Hitler to Al Capone to common looters. Purifying this archetype, stripping it of all human capacity, leads writers to fictionalize their own shadows: the Joker, the White Witch, Mr. Hyde, Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Count Dracula, Mr. Kurtz, and of course, the all-time, best-villain-name trophy-holder, Cruella de Vil.

These are fantasy villains though, for the most part. They are scary because they tap into our inner mythos of evil, and our instinctive association of erratic, predatory, and harmful behavior with chaos, darkness, and void. Real villains are more nuanced. I prefer Godfather Part 1 because it shows Michael’s arc. He starts off as a good soldier who loves his family but rejects their “way of doing things.” Saving his father’s life from an attempted hit, then confronting the would-be assassin’s architect “radicalizes” him (in today’s parlance), turning him back to his family’s tutelage. Revenge is his primary motivator, reason his ultimate weapon and guiding principle. In fiction, this better resembles fiendish anti-heroes: the Count of Monte Cristo, Peter Pan, Gordon Gekko, Jay Gatsby, Huck Finn, Becky Sharp, Shylock, Beetlejuice, and Jason Bourne.

Becky Sharp

These villains are scary because we can empathize with them. We can understand their grievance and against our better judgement, root for them. These characters don’t speak to our inner darkness, but to our appreciation for cosmic justice, and the horrific cost of it. One of my favorite quotes is Al Capone’s “I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand.” How much blood was shed to satisfy this man’s cool, rational, purely capitalistic vision casting himself a tragic hero in a world of crooked cops and politicians? Which brings me to my last point.

Better writers write grayer villains. Better villains shatter that wall that says “he did this evil deed because he’s just an evil guy.” That wall, left erected, gives you the Jabba-the-Hutts of the literary world. But tear that wall down, give your villain a life and a history and a worldview and a rationalization, and you will draw readers (and yourself) into that uncomfortable space of justifiable evil. It is these gray areas that have probably formed your real-world, personal idea of good and evil, and channeling that into your fiction goes a long way toward exploring the human condition in an original way.

“The myth of pure evil bedevils our attempt to understand real evil.”

Al Capone

Review: An Intimate Look At the Night Sky

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An Intimate Look At the Night Sky
An Intimate Look At the Night Sky by Chet. Raymo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Picked this little guy up at the library after getting a new telescope. It’s a nice introduction to astronomy. Ironically, I knew most of the technical science, but nearly nothing about skywatching itself. The author prints season-specific maps and spends one page talking about the constellations & greek myths, and a second corresponding page talking about the nebulae, galaxies, binary star systems, etc, viewable in that part of the sky. That marriage makes skywatching very engaging, enabling the reader to really synthesize and remember what’s where in the night sky.

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Review: Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains

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Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains
Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains by William R. Trotter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are maybe 3 or 4 chapters worth reading in this book. My favorites were those detailing some of the half-legendary “mountain lore” raiding and getaway stories. I am especially interested in JV Hadley and Albert D Richardson, two (separate) detailed accounts of northerners who escaped confederate prisons and made their way to friendly territory in Knoxville. There were so many Unionists in North Carolina they’d formed an “Underground Railway” for escaped prisoners.

Most of this book though is a recap of the war in the mountains: Thomas’ Legion, Burnside, Stoneman’s Raid, etc.

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Review: Between the World and Me

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Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very difficult book to read and to process. In the abstract, I think I can start to step into his world and see through his eyes. But I am missing thirty years’ worth of experience that would inform my instincts. Not to mention the entire body of art, literature, and history neatly wrapped up in what society calls “African American Studies.”

One thing is for sure, though. I, as a white male, do not buy into the mythology of our country’s founding. That heroic, liberty-loving humanists launched a beautiful struggle to form a more perfect union of rule-of-law-loving white Christians. I believe that America has always been defined by the melting pot, and how different waves of immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) have moved through the cycle of persecution, oppression, struggle, and then equality.

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Review: Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves

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Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves
Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves by Belinda Hurmence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Elie Wiesel’s Night, these firsthand accounts of a horrific episode of human history are above criticism. It is fascinating, in an academic way, to read about the American slavery experience from the slaves themselves, rather than the extensive secondhand literature. You get a sense of which elements were cherry-picked for cinema and which were overlooked. Most shocking is their manner of describing it. The vast majority of subjects answered, when asked whether slavery was a bad thing, in the negative. The typical response was along the lines of “slavery was bad because it broke up families, but we were better off then than we are now.” This unsettling statement contains a hint of all the injustice borne upon free persons of color since the end of the Civil War. Freedom without equal opportunity was a recipe for incredible suffering, the last vestiges of which still haunt us today. The writer prepares the reader for this odd nostalgia in the introduction, where she reminds us that the individuals most ready and willing to fight (before and after slavery) were the least likely to survive, and that the subjects interviewed, the survivors, were most likely the meekest and most compliant (today we would use the word brainwashed) among their people. That in itself is a tragedy.

I’m glad that someone finally thought to interview surviving slaves, even if it took until the 1930s (most subjects are in their 80s and 90s) for a government program to do so. This book is an excerpt of an enormous multivolume series housed in the Library of Congress. Its historical value cannot be overstated.

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