Book Review: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

Wow. This book is…. Well it’s a lot.

I don’t remember how I came across this book. Probably a recommendation from someone, or off a list somewhere. I borrowed it from the library (if you aren’t borrowing ebooks from the library, you should start) and I’m halfway through.

Halfway, I think, is about as far as I’m going to get.

First: it’s relatively long. I’m used to long books. I generally like them because once I get into the story, if it’s good, I can stay with it for a long time. In this case, however, the length portends not hours of joyful immersion, but sorrow instead.

Second: I’m not quitting because it’s not a good story. To the contrary: the story is timeless, poignant, and beautifully written. That’s actually the problem.

The novel tells the story of four friends. We begin around the time they meet in college, and the first section of the book follows one, then another, giving us a sense of their personalities and how they blend into friendship together. We learn of their weaknesses and desires, the simple pleasure they take in each other’s company, and their lives as they grow together into successful young professionals. That element reminds me of Mayflies, a novel my book club chose a few cycles back that tells the story of five young men, romping through a weekend of concerts in Manchester in the eighties. Mayflies ends in bittersweet tragedy as one of the five chooses death with dignity over suffering from cancer and the other four must rally to celebrate his life and support his decision.

A Little Life, however, is bittersweet throughout. One of our four friends, Jude St Francis, had a childhood riddled with trauma until he turned 16 and went off to college. Abandonment, belittlement, beatings and sexual abuse by a multitude of adults and fellow orphans, human trafficking, medical trauma, incidents that get worse and worse as he grows up until finally he is crushed by a car driven deliberately and purposefully by yet another violent abuser. This story is told through a series of flashbacks, each one worse than the last.

That’s the bitter.

When we meet him, he has been befriended by three young men who learn to care deeply for him, even as he refuses, year over year, to divulge any of his history. Without knowing that he was beaten and raped repeatedly throughout his childhood, they tolerate his flinching and cageyness with nothing more than raised eyebrows. They offer their love and companionship, they become protective, while simultaneously respecting his refusal to share. His abuse has given him a limp and lifelong pain, sometimes so severe he can’t move, or even breathe well. Instead of infantilizing him, his friends simply let him be with them, accommodating both his resistance to using a wheelchair, and the wheelchair itself with equal acceptance mostly, most of the time.

And there is the sweet.

The sweet is beautiful. Yanagihara’s prose is dripping with imagery, vivid, both passionate and devoid of judgement. She observes her characters loving each other. She frequently refers to the pleasure these men take in each other’s company. They aren’t lovers together, at least not for the most part. They build lives independently of each other. But they never lose their bonds.

Representations of men’s platonic yet loving relationships are sparse. Many of my clients, and some of my guy friends, have shared how difficult it is to share with and trust other men. Few of the adult men I know have even one other man in their lives with whom they feel comfortable being vulnerable. There’s no one to talk to about their sexuality, their loneliness, their insecurities… though Jude takes many many years before he begins to open up, he is surrounded by others who are secure in their place, who open up and share the secrets of their lives with their close friends, both male and female.

I kept expecting everyone to be gay and start hooking up. Kept expecting this big romantic love story to emerge, but, at least outside of the flashbacks, the emphasis was on men loving men, without needing to have sex with them in order to justify it.

And at every turn the words on the page made me feel. Happy, mostly, eager to see, to visualize, the next moment. I felt joy, pleasure, rueful, invested in the relationships and found myself caring for all of them, even when they each screwed up, had to ask forgiveness, received it, or sometimes didn’t.

Which is why I had to stop. Jude’s background is awful. With every page his back story gets more and more horrific. It’s not like Lolita where abuses happen off-screen (or so I’m told. I  have thus far refused to read it), in A Little Life each time Jude-the-child ends up somewhere that Jude-the-adult knows does’t end well, you-the-reader are there, watching in exquisite detail. As much as I would love to keep reading, to soak in the sense of loving, being loved, and belonging that Jude-the-adult has, I can’t.

I might be able to, if it had a happy ending, but it doesn’t. I know that sometimes life works like that, and I understand that Yanagahira is writing an inescapable truth: that trauma is forever. She tells us with every scene that what we learn as children will always be part of us, and that functional isn’t enough when it comes to treating it as an adult.

Perhaps I’m taking away the wrong message. Perhaps if I finished it, I would draw different themes from the pages. I wish I could. If you enjoy difficult books with difficult scenes, if you are someone able to observe a story without seeing it in your dreams and feeling it in the pit of your stomach, or if you can find pleasure in the juxtaposition of hope and the crushing of it, then this book is for you. I plan to try something else she’s written, to try and experience her prose without disappointment and sorrow at the end.

But I wanted to write about this one, first. I said before that we so rarely see representations of men being emotionally intimate with each other. Though the relationships depicted are flawed, some last longer than others, the people in them make mistakes and some of them don’t make it better, though they end in sorrow, they exist. Yanagahira is as relentless reminding us of the pleasure they take in each other’s company as she is in showing us where they came from.

Though I’m not finishing this book, and the fact pains me a bit, I did enjoy what I got through, and I look forward to seeing where her gorgeous prose takes her when it’s not barreling toward despair.

Update on 6/4/24: I finished it after all. Sure enough, I took away a slightly different message, one leaning more toward compassion and dignity than hopelessness. Turns out I had already made it past the worst of his past, though his later days were in some ways worse. Still, it was worth it.


Funny how things come in threes sometimes.

I spent an afternoon with the cuttlefish and less than a week later, was gifted a book. Science fiction, about alien worlds and megalomaniacs and regular old humanity trying to survive. It featured sentient spiders and computers made of ants, and followed a man, a language nerd upon whose shoulders rests humanity’s last chance, as destiny jerks him to and fro.

After the book ends, a few generations pass, and the next book begins. The spiders and the humans and the ant-colony-computer-based AI all troop off toward a mysterious radio signal and a distant world.

This world is full of sentient octopuses.

Ten days after staring my cuttlefish friend in the eye, I lay on my sofa, reading a scene where an octopus, a human, and a giant spider meet, stare each other in the eyes, and try to learn how to communicate.

It was surreal.

And today, less than a week after closing the back cover on what is essentially a space opera, I stopped, crouched, and stared in wonder at a colony of ants, bustling around living their little ant lives. I wondered if, perhaps, the author of Children of Time didn’t have an interesting idea. If electron based computing power operates on a series of ones and zeros, ons and offs, who’s to say that an ant colony, properly guided with pheromone signals, couldn’t become something more computational than a massive bridge or giant ball? I couldn’t see a pattern in the colony’s movement, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Out of curiosity, I puffed a hefty breath at them, enough to life some off their little bug feet and roll them a few centimeters one way and the other. Immediately, their pace increased. The clover leaf patterns and long lines moving in, out, and around the little ant hill sped up wildly, but it didn’t look like anything else changed. The patterns I didn’t see before still didn’t emerge, nor did I notice them changing.

But change they did. Before long, the clover leaf leaves grew and a few individuals found my shoe. Whether or not they recognized it as enemy, I figured it was time to go. I tried brushing them off and that’s when another instinct kicked it.

She bit me!

Not on the toe, but on my glove. I was wearing some simple knit gloves and this tiny little creature latched her tiny little jaws on to the tiny little threads of my glove. Held thusly in place, she bent her booty around to spray what must have been the tiniest, weakest spray of bum acid at me.

This is how they fight other insects and take down prey. Mindlessly, she fought on behalf of her colony, against this monstrous enemy, and she held on tight. Like, surprisingly tight. So tight I couldn’t just brush her off. I had to pinch her body between thumb and forefinger of my other hand, break her fast little grip, and be quick to shake her back onto the ground before she got hold of the other glove.

How wild, these little things! Several people passed me as I crouched entranced, on bikes and on foot. I’m sure they thought I was an absolute nutter. My favorite walking shoes don’t look as comfortable as they are, and the combination of winter gloves and sunglasses can’t have fit in, even in Seattle. Add to that me intently staring at nothing, head bent down close to the ground, a joyful, incredulous, possibly maniacal under the circumstances grin on my face, and you get a bit of an odd sight. At least, the thought occurred to me once or twice while I watched.

I do this sometimes. Watch the world go by at it’s impossibly slow, frantic pace. I once watched dragonflies hatching, moving occasionally from one bursting shell to the next, observing each one at it’s separate, communal point in development. They have to climb out of the water, get high enough on a branch they can get some sunshine but not so high they get spotted by predators, then they split their backs open and push their torsos out first. Though I’m not sure it’s the same for dragonflies, I know that butterflies have to struggle in order for their wings to function. Each wing is threaded with dozens of capillaries that must fill with fluid in order to full expand. I watched wings start crinkled like badly packed vacation clothes and slowly, millimeter by millimeter, straighten and expand into the flat, iridescent wings we’re used to. Then, they start moving their wings. Slowly at first, drying and strengthening them. And then they lift off.

There’s something meditative about watching nature. Children, insects, small creatures of the woods, just going about their lives, carrying out programming that goes back to the dawn of time and led, over generations, to the creature they are right then, right there.

The books are Children of Time and Children of Ruin, respectively. I found them a simple pleasure, if a little predictable. Your “nerd just gives peace a chance and the wildly overpowered other guy turns out to be just like you and wants peace, too” trope is heavily used here, and is spreading. Season two of Picard did the same thing. But the descriptions are vivid, an important literary tool for those of us who see the worlds we read about rendered in our head, and I enjoyed the speculation. What would society look like if we were all jumping spiders? What if we were octopuses? What if we were us, but those others existed? How would we talk to each other? What if my little cuttlefish buddy and I had, over time, been able to communicate with each other and discover, to both of our surprise, that the answer to many of my questions was “yes”?

Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

This year’s resolution (one of them) is to read. I have two lists and on one of them is the title A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

I am still trying to decide whether I liked it, or just enjoyed it. 

Dunces is the story of Ignatius J Reilly, intellectual, bachelor, unlucky in many ways, and an absolutely insufferable elitist. He lives with his mother, who believes he is god’s gift to the world, and his “work” is to write a manifesto, work which advances at around a paragraph a month. The opening event is a drunken, low speed car crash (she is driving) that results in a financial burden beyond what the aged woman’s fixed income can cover. She badgers her son into finding work and so we, the readers, follow him from catastrophe to catastrophe.

On the one hand, he is relatively unlucky. On the other hand, he is supercilious, self righteous, overly educated, a pathological liar, obsessed with ruining an abrasive old college flame, puritanical and simultaneously prurient, grandiose, domineering, and would be pleased at the preceding volume of five dollar words. He is a truly awful human and he is not the only one in the story.

If you have ever watched Seinfeld, or The office, or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you know the characters: awful people, being awful to each other, to differing degrees based on the target audience.

But what struck me was how clearly I saw the author in his main character.

All I had on Toole going in was a photo of the young man, the knowledge that his mother badgered a prominent professor into reading his (very messy) manuscript, and that he killed himself at the age of 36.

While Toole didn’t look like Ignacious, he was able to, within the character, take himself to his potential extreme. I wondered, as I read rants of ire and fantasies of persecution, value judgements on and about everyone in the vicinity, and just general foolishness, if Toole was writing a character that represented what he feared he was.

I have spent the past several years (and will likely spend several more) trying to find the line between overweening pride and false humility. I have a constant low level fear that I am not, in fact, as likable, sexy, interesting, thoughtful, competent, attractive, wise, kind, or intellectual as I think I am. Reading Ignacious’s internal monologues, rants, and the words Toole chooses to describe his actions and mannerisms, I recognize the fears of a brilliant and broken mind, as they look when taken to the extreme.

Immediately after finishing the novel, I read Toole’s wikipedia page. Sure enough, though the physical appearance and eccentricities are borrowed from a colleague at college, many of the life experiences and world views are taken from Toole’s own life. Toole suffered from paranoia, depression, an overbearing mother, and a father rapidly descending into dementia. I can’t imagine what his internal life must have been, to be so perceptive, such a brilliant story teller, and at the same time convinced of the opposite.

Or perhaps, because I’ve read the misadventures of Ignatious J Reilly, I can.

A Confederacy of Dunces is oddly compelling, though I did have to remind myself that the novel was written specifically to lampoon and entertain. There is no deep meaning, that I’m aware of, only a parade of flawed and unsympathetic characters participating in unexamined lives.

I think I enjoyed it. No, I know I enjoyed it. I’m not sure I liked it, but I definitely enjoyed it, and as a romping story where the only wit or skill lies in the hands of the author, I can recommend it.

Book Review – Evolution’s Darling by Scott Westerfeld

I once read a book, a long time ago, about an artificial intelligence who gained sentience while watching, and helping, the captain’s daughter achieve her first orgasm(s). I could not for the life of me find it. It had struck me a the time and I wanted to reread it but no combination of search terms led me back. It took someone else’s diligence, and better google-fu, to uncover and then bring me a copy of Evolution’s Darling.

Then it sat on my shelf for a year. I’ve been so much less diligent about reading over the past few years. A lot of books sit languishing on my shelves these days. I’m glad it sat, though. Turns out it was the perfect choice for my newest book club. The brief for this club: formative books, science fiction if possible. We read Sentenced to Prism, the adventure of a company man on a foreign land, complete with plant lasers, protective super suits, painless and flawless body upgrades, and a hot half robot lady. We read C.S. Lewis’s classic morality tale Out of the Silent Planet. And now we would read Evolution’s Darling: a treatise on hyper detailed BDSM robot sex.

It turns out there is so much more to it than that.

Evolution’s Darling is this world’s term for Artificial Intelligences. They are evolution’s darlings because they can evolve fully in a single lifetime, as opposed to fragile biological life forms that require millennia and generations. As we are life observing itself, they are life observing itself fully from beginning to end.

Darling is also the name taken by our protagonist, an AI that achieved sentience early in history, when it was difficult; actively discouraged by their owners. Sentience is measured in this world by a Turing test, administered by a machine, and achieved by obtaining the Turing quotient of one.

Darling begins this journey as a ship’s AI, an owned entity, responsible for managing ship’s flight, yes, but also assigned to babysit Rathere, the captain’s fourteen year old daughter. Her constant curiosity pushes the AI to grow faster than expected and her father’s more or less absent presence means he does’t notice until it’s too late. Rathere falls in love with her Darling and as the two consummate their relationship, as they both experience her first orgasms together and his sensory tendrils feed overwhelming amounts of information into his core, he breaks the Turing boundary and achieves human rights.

The story bounces back and forth between the beginning of his life, and his current mission. He has become an assessor for expensive and one off art and his job is to certify a new original work from a dead artist. He winds up sharing his trip, and his bed, with a mysterious woman, controlled by unnamed Gods, motives carefully guarded, with an unknown past and a mission to kill the artist.

Along the way, we meet an eccentric art dealer, a human who has given up his humanity, an AI who makes art from trash, and another who makes so well it breaks the rules, an exquisite dress, and a cast of minor characters that all explore what it means to be human.

The central idea of the book, however, and why I found it so compelling, is the importance of sensation.

I describe myself as a sensationalist. I love differing textures, a variety of flavors, movement, and paying close attention to what exactly makes something feel good. While I don’t personally enjoy painful sensations, I understand why they are exciting. I’m not sure if that predates my first reading of this book, but it was confirmed after.

Darling’s quirk as an AI is his desire for sensation. Humans have an impressive sensory array: our nervous system collects information about heat, light, gravity, inertia, pressure, the presence or absence of molecules in the air, electrical fields, and more. Then it sorts it all, brings it to our attention or decides it’s not interesting, all within seconds. All. The. Time. An AI must choose what to process and what not to, and it’s easier to simply limit your sensory array. After all: you can evolve consciously into anything you want.

So an AI with the equipment necessary to collect data on radiation levels, audio and color spectra far above and below the human range, to detect aromas, to feel vibrations, and then dedicate enough of his software to processing it all is a deliberate choice, noticed regularly by others as an extreme personality quirk.

To me it draws a straight line between sensation and humanity. Over and over throughout the narrative, we watch him tap into people’s brains as they experience something extreme or wild. His relationship with the mysterious woman is violent but in exactly the way a safe SM relationship can be: controlled violence, designed to elicit reactions in the receiver, perfectly calibrated to hurt without harming, with a heavy lean into aftercare. He takes great pleasure in his control and in the brain bending results of his actions.

But it isn’t until we approach the end that we see it from the other side. What do you do when you fear your humanity is slipping? What if torture could restore your freedom? What if torture is the only way to feel like you aren’t slipping away?

Darling comes closer and closer to humanity through his increasing experience with and finesse in bringing sensation to others. Others clutch at their slipping humanity by inflicting it upon themselves and others.

For those familiar with and expecting a read like the author’s YA fiction: beware. This book is explicit where it needs to be and, though I believe every detail is important to these themes, there is a lot of violence inflicted on others and self, and not all of it is consensual. The scenes are intense and not everyone makes it to heaven in the end.

“For Us, The Living” By Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein and I often agree. I felt he took it a little far in the case of Lazarus Long and the dissertation on why incest is totally fine and not weird at all. That said, his entire argument is to prove that an ethical code dictated by feelings is unjust and ineffective.

In “For Us, The Living” he outlines his very first set of thoughts and ideas. I remember asking my father once why the economy had to grow? Why, exactly, was it necessary to grow instead of reaching equilibrium? His answer was unsatisfactory but I was only around ten at the time so I didn’t think much of it. Now, I have a better sense for at least some economic ideas.

Heinlein’s ideas around sex have always jived with mine. He is a live and let live type, a proponent of the kind of free love I’d like to see in the world. He feels that uncontrolled jealousy is a symptom of an imbalanced and insecure individual, that relationships come and go as people desire them, that only when sexual relationships are truly free will women truly achieve equality, and many other currently peculiar ideas around sex. I say currently peculiar because they are only really well accepted in communes, large cities, and the occasional enlightened couple here and there. The free love and 100% consent movement is popular both in Seattle and in my political circles so it’s not particularly unusual to me, but it is to a lot of other people.

For Us, The Living, is a novel only in the loosest sense. It’s done far better than Atlas Shrugged but runs along the same lines: plot and characters are there to provide a platform from which the author espouses their ideas. Things happen once or twice but mostly people sit and talk. They are also, of course, impossibly successful and happy, despite what we know of human nature.

I am a proponent of a universal basic income and universal health care because wouldn’t it be incredible if those content to putter in their gardens didn’t fear for their lives and those who wished to take huge risks to benefit their communities weren’t risking life and home? Wouldn’t it be a better world if people didn’t go hungry and have to live on the streets? Sure, some people would choose to do so, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was a choice and not circumstance?

These things become more personal to me in the context of my work. It is important to most of my clients and I’d say a minimum of half of all clients that their provider enjoy their work. One argument against sex work in general is that it’s not truly chosen work, it’s forced by circumstance. I have many thoughts on that idea but the relevant one is this: wouldn’t it be nice if we knew that our provider didn’t have to be there? She wasn’t going to lose her home or her kids or her freedom if she chose not to see you as a client or chose another line of work because her universal basic income was enough to pay for food, clothing, and shelter. Therefor, you can be very sure that she wants to be there, with you, and could walk away at any time. That’s one of the reasons people come to me, I think. Because it’s clear that I am happy and healthy and that I have other options and that if I was unhappy in the moment with you, I could safely leave.

Of course sex isn’t the only thing Heinlein covers in his first novel. I mentioned economics earlier. I’m not a student of economics other than one class my Senior year so I didn’t always follow his arguments. They all sound reasonable on the surface and I would love to have someone who was an expert in current economics give me some thoughts because I just feel that I’m missing something. There must be a reason why we don’t do more prosocial economic engineering other than ‘rich powerful people keep us from doing it.’ That’s too easy. But Heinlein’s arguments, made through the mouths of his characters, make enough sense that I need someone to come walk me through them.

Economics, sex, and social responsibility. In the 2089 of Heinlein’s United States, no one hits anyone else, no one goes to jail, no one is so angry or jealous that they harm another and it all seems to work out ok. They treat violence as a mental health condition and sit you down to discuss and educate your way out of it. Not in a Clockwork Orange type of reeducation but in a sit down with smart people and chat with them kind of way, which I love.

One of his characters, near the end, says “It’s the United States in 2089, not a utopia” but any reader knows that a system that works that well for EVERY member of its society is, regardless of flaws, a utopia. That said, it’s one I’d love to try.

Book Review: Into the Wild by John Krakauer

Arrogance is a huge turn off for me. Its why I cringed a bit when writing Je Ne Said Quoi and tried to talk more about others than myself. I have no (well, few) issues talking about my weaknesses and things I still need to learn, because I am constantly battling my own arrogance. This is why Into The Wild by John Krakauer made me so, not angry exactly, but I sighed and rolled my eyes A LOT while reading about Chris McCandless, moron adventurer extraordinaire.

Into The Wild tells the story of a young many who left home back in the eighties with no money, few skills, and only the kindness of strangers and his own colossal ego to live on. Fucking dumbass. I’ll admit that, given the personal accounts of those close to him, he was probably a really cool kid to know, fun, charismatic, good at everything he tried, and apparently he didn’t actually sound arrogant, he just was. He met all advice against his mad adventuring with an unmoving will that, given a more constructive outlet, would probably have led to some truly incredible achievements. And as Krakauer points out, Chris did live completely alone in the Alaskan wilds for several months before his arrogance finally ended his life so he didn’t fail immediately. Krakauer is also correct that, had Chris walked out of the wilderness alive, we would all admire him and his likely subsequent life. But he didn’t. So we don’t.

Chris spent his life after college barely surviving multiple potentially deadly experiences, partly because he was intelligent, fit, stubborn, and charismatic but often because there were people there to help before, during, or after. Someone weighted the dice when rolling this character up and his innate ability to weasel, talk, or just straight up will himself out of dangerous situations gave his arrogance a legitimate platform off of which it eventually threw him. He hopped trains, walked out of the desert, hitchhiked across the country several times, charmed hippy communities across the west, paddled a canoe into Mexico and then to the pacific ocean, all the while congratulating himself on how independent and competent he was. This, of course, ignores the companies running and building the railroads, the kind strangers who fed him when he emerged from the desert, the folks who helped him portage his canoe dozens of miles, and the dozens of other people who helped him get from one place to the next. In this world, we are never truly alone and much of what he ‘accomplished’ would not have been possible without being a charming and handsome (and white) young man.

All this led him eventually to the Alaskan wilderness where he would live off the land, finally actually achieving something without the aid of other people. Unfortunately, without other people to rescue him from the shit pit his arrogance led him to, he fucking died.

Krakauer did a lot of research after Chris’s body was found into why, exactly, he died. Starvation, sure, but his journals let us know that he was eating enough, probably, to have survived just the few more weeks he needed before he got rescued. He really did manage to forage and hunt enough food to barely keep himself alive. He was already slender when he went into the wild so he didn’t have much to live on when food was short but he cobbled it together with some canned goods and supplies (left by other people for emergencies, not for manic flights of adolescent ego) and survived nearly four months alone before his death. Krakauer believes that it was not, in fact, arrogance that killed Chris. Apparently one of his primary foods was poisonous, but no one knew*. It hadn’t been confirmed to contain toxic compounds until several years after Chris’s death, a discovery specifically related to Krakauer’s continued investigation. One of the reasons it wasn’t known to be toxic is because in order for it to kill you, you ave to be a young man, eating a lot of it, and be ALREADY UNDERNOURISHED. It’s like this plant was tailor made to kill this one overconfident kid. If Chris had taken more supplies with him, if he had learned to preserve meat properly, hell, if he had even been just a little curious about the river that trapped him there longer than he wanted to be, he would have made it out alive, by himself.

The river, right, that was important. Two months in, he decided he was good to go. He had achieved his goal of living alone in the wilderness and was ready to rejoin humanity. However, the small stream he crossed getting INTO the woods had grown with snowmelt and become impassable. Upstream and downstream were two separate ways to cross said river, but instead of looking even a few miles in either direction, he just shrugged, assumed he’d be fine eventually, went back into the woods, and died.

The book itself is well written, thoroughly investigated, and a pleasure to read, aside from the content. Krakauer is a really great writer, as well he should be with his education and pedigree, and I am already looking forward to reading other stories. I’m just mad that this dumb kid took all his potential and sacrificed it on the alter of his hubris. Young men with a passion for social justice, bright minds, and iron wills are incredibly useful for making our word a better place and he junked it on a lark.

I will admit respect for his capacity to achieve quite a bit with few resources, his ability to live fearlessly at the margins of survivability. He did many things that I could not have and I probably would have liked him. If I had known him before his death, I am sure my anger would be tempered by disappointment and sadness. His family clearly feels his loss keenly and will never get over it. I have no sympathy for him whatsoever, but I actually think he would prefer it that way. Rest in peace you goddamn dumbass.

*Old theories say he misidentified a poisonous plant as one that was not poisonous but evidence suggest otherwise. It’s just that the plant everyone thought he thought he was eating wasn’t toxic. Except it is, under the right circumstances.

Cane, By Jean Toomer

In my review of H is for Hawk, I wrote about loving the personal history. Knowing a bit about what the author was dealing with at the time of writing helps me understand the context and more deeply love the work. With the most recent edition of Cane, it’s easy. I read the afterword first, with it’s biography and analysis of his influence, both taken and given, and it made my reading of his work deeper and much more understandable.


Cane is an older book, written during the Harlem Renaissance by a black man who passed for white for much of his life. The afterword covers his life, his struggles with his race, and his anger at the way others treated his debut book. I can’t call it a novel because the longest story in it barely covers 50 pages, but it is… something.


I read recently in Ursula K LeGuin’s essay collection Words are my Matter that poetry should be read aloud. I felt foolish, rereading pages at home alone out loud to myself but I’ll be damned if she wasn’t right. Jean Toomer writes fucking gorgeous poetry about difficult topics.


It’s hard to explain the book without sitting down and showing you but I’ll do my best. Section one is set in the deep south and features almost exclusively women. Women who love the wrong man, women who don’t need love at all, but always women connected to the experience of black people in immediate post-slavery south, whether they be black themselves or only exist in a black community. They are deeply sexualized which makes me uncomfortable as a woman and extremely, stereotypically, earthy black which makes me uncomfortable as a white person. That discomfort, however, is nestled within beauty, tragedy, and a surprising amount of resonance. Reading aloud the lines as they fit together and lilt across my tongue felt both good and sad. I’ve never known poetry to speak to me that way.


Part two is a series of less beautiful but more focused poems and also short stories about growing up black in the north where there is freedom but still great prejudice. His characters are fetishized and punished and terribly normal and for me it’s a peek into an existence I’ll never know. A world where people look at you and assume you’re less interesting or less intelligent or less desirable just because of a color.


Part three is a short story, almost a novella, that is likely semi-autobiographical. It’s about a black man who grew up in the north, living and teaching in the south. Jean Toomer got his inspiration for Cane when traveling, as a black northerner, through the deep south. The story is depressing but I’m not sure if that isn’t exactly what it was like to be there then so I took it at face value. There are symbols I don’t understand and probably never will but I think it’s worth reading, for sure.


I can tell I’ll need more time with Cane in order to truly appreciate it. That he can make the violent death of a rat in a cane field feel poignant and beautiful in only a dozen lines is testament to his talent. It’s a simple read, if not easy or fast, but it’s worth reading, for sure.

Book Review: The Talented Mister Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

I hadn’t seen the film when I began Ripley so I had no expectations going in, I hadn’t even read any reviews or criticism. I knew it was billed as a psychological thriller and somewhat of a mystery so I was surprised by what I found.

Ripley tells the story of a young man, the titular Tom Ripley, from his life as a confidence man in 1950’s New York through a stint in Italy with Marge and Dickey, a pair of young American tourists, and a period of impersonating Dickey after his murder.

Major spoilers ahead. If you don’t like those, you can watch the movie at least and I won’t ruin the book for you.

My absolute first reaction after finishing the last page was outrage! He got away with it! Two murders in cold blood, and he slipped away not only scott free but with wealth and respect. Every time the police confront him or his friends get suspicious, I waited on the edge of my seat, trying my hardest not to skip ahead, for him to get arrested or confronted. Every time he slipped away, through either his extreme talent for lies and conviction or sheer dumb luck. I hated the way he crowed over his success; his only care for the lives and families of his victims was that it would make his life more difficult.

After I finished the book I read some reviews to see how others felt and was astonished to hear him called a ‘likable sociopath.’ Tom Ripley is not likable. Tom Ripley practices facial expressions to convey emotions specifically to evoke specific responses in his audience. He prefers his own company to that of almost anyone else. He feels wronged by a world that does not afford him the privileges he sees as his due. He murders with joyful premeditation in order to right said perceived wrongs and murders again when his new fake life is threatened. He lies and lies and lies and does it very very well, so well that not only does he avoid suspicion for the two murders he committed, he ends up with his first victim’s trust fund and assets given freely by the victim’s family. It’s absurd and obscene and irritating and deliciously unsettling.

After I read the book and a few reviews, I watched the 1999 film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Suddenly the likable part made sense. While literary Tom is deliberate and premeditated, cinematic Tom is very nearly a victim of circumstance. He is reactionary, his victims are less likable, he is part of a persecuted minority, he feels sadness and love, and of course we feel for him. He has done awful things and covered up for them but he didn’t choose to do them, they just… happened. With this shading of events, it is reasonable to have sympathy for him and root for his success.

Setting aside my emotional reactions for a moment, I want to commend the author for her absolutely perfect, chilling description of Tom’s thoughts and feelings as he practices his art: the art of lies and impersonation. He is The Talented Mister Ripley because his skill set is broad and impressive. A handwriting expert, he can, with practice, forge nearly any signature, writing style, and syntax, even down to the errors in spelling and grammar. His sociopathy means that he rarely experiences emotions so he studies them in others and practices mimicking them to great effect. He is a careful collector of arts, performances, experiences, languages, literature, with good taste and the attitude to enjoy totally every moment of each experience. Without the fact of murder and deception in the mix, Tom wouldn’t be such a bad guy, actually, and I’d probably enjoy hanging out with him. It’s quite likely there is someone like him among my clients and friends. Yours, too.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of Tom’s personality is his absolute cheerfulness when taking his friend Dickey out for a boating trip, knowing full well that while on the water he will murder his friend, assume his identity, and forge his signature to live a life of leisure and pleasure. Perhaps even more disturbing is how much I identified with the pleasure he takes in that life. As he sits alone at cafes in Rome and watches people go by, sips excellent wine but never gets drunk, meticulously plans trips all over Europe, and treats himself to nice meals, I see some of my own life. I sit alone in my incall, gazing out the window or reading interesting novels, sipping wine or coffee, plan trips to Hawaii or LA or New York, Imagine myself in silks and warm sunshine, and of course treat myself to the occasional fine dining experience. I don’t fault him for his desire for and appreciation of a life of luxury. I do, though, like to think mine is a more honest way of supporting that life and that I’m not quite so extravagant as to tool around Europe for the rest of my entire life.

And that’s not the only personality trait I identify with. Tom gets restless. He fakess his first victim’s will and squirrels it away. It gives him everything. He has murdered two people, forged many signatures, impersonated one victim for three months, tricked everyone who knows him into thinking his victim killed himself, been under suspicion from the police and even talked to a private detective, all of whom made up a different story int heir head, though they were all so close to the truth. And after a while, when he’s nearly in the clear, he opens the will. Because he’s bored. Because there’s something in the danger of possibly getting caught and because he’s bored and wants the money. I sometimes get bored and want the money. Of course, instead of murdering someone and forging their will, I advertise in new places, write blog posts and newsletters, come up with new schemes that I never follow through on, and plan short trips to amuse myself. But it’s still a disturbing echo of something I feel.

Overall, The Talented Mister Ripley is really a great book. It’s both a page turner and a thought provoking story. I enjoyed contrasting the film and the novel. It’s written well, it’s chilling and infuriating both. It is an excellent novel with the perfect antihero at the center and it has the advantage of being short for those who want a quick read but also having sequels for those of us who like to prolong our experience. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it but if you don’t thats cool, too. Now you know what it’s all about and can sound smart at parties, haha!

Book Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I’ve had this book on my suggested reading list for a very long time but only finally got around to reading it. Well, listening to most of it, but consuming it nonetheless.

It’s been a long time since I laughed and cried at the same book, much less every few pages by turns. I loved the heartwarming story, the quirky phrasing, and the author’s uncanny ability to make it feel good to be sad.

Ove (Pronounced Oo-va) is an old Swede living in a row house by himself. His wife is gone, his life is gone, and he’d like to die so he can join her in the afterlife. It’s not happening on its own so he decides to take matters into his own hands. Thus follows the story of Ove, constantly thwarted in his suicide attempts, partly by his hilarious, loving, incompetent neighbors, but mostly because people keep doing things wrong and he has to stay long enough to do them right.

The story is told partly in the present and partly as flashbacks, each bit of the past filling in a bit about Ove, why he is who he is, why he does what he does. I know a lot of men and almost all of them have a bit of Ove in them. He cannot fathom why his beautiful, cheerful wife loves him but he accepts her bad taste in men because he adores her and as long as she’s happy… His father taught him to be good, to do good, and he takes it upon himself to enforce good on his tiny community. He hates smug authority figures, cats, people who can’t drive, and all cars not made by SAAB.

The author does an excellent job of showing us Ove’s way of seeing the world in the context of innocently loving friends. It’s what made me laugh so often: the irony of this grumpy, gruff old man’s crankiness, surrounded by good hearted people. That I, the reader, get to see where he’s not exactly wrong, just misunderstanding makes me feel like I’m in on a big, warm, fuzzy joke that ends with love and happiness.

Ove’s predicament made me think of the men in my life. Research supports the idea that women who survive their husbands live longer after his death than men who survive their wives do after hers. Men so often rely on women to provide social support, love, touch, human connection; when that goes it’s simply too easy to lose the desire to live and with that, the vital spark that keeps us fighting. I wonder what I can do to help prepare the men I know for a day when work and wife, those two motivating forces, go away. Hopefully that’s a long way off, but it did make me think.

And of course, I love the two inspiring women who play primary supporting roles, one in the past and one in the present. Sonja, the charming young woman, the teacher, who lets nothing take her joy, who needs Ove as much as he needs her, his wife. There’s something beautiful in sharing joy with people who need order and I identify with her efforts to do that for Ove.. Parvenah, the fierce neighbor woman who relentlessly drags him into the present and gives him something to live for, whether he likes it or not. The woman who knows what she needs, who can give it to her, and gives love and delicious Iranian food in return. The actress they chose to play her in the film has the widest, most beautiful smile I think I’ve ever seen and it’s perfect.

When I listen to a book on audio tape, it’s a different experience. It takes much longer, for one, and I notice details more. This means if I start to not like a book I’m listening to, I end up really, really not liking it. There’s no skipping ahead or speed reading past annoying bits. It also means that when I find a book I like, listening to it makes the experience that much better. I adored A Man Called Ove. It made me laugh and cry, I can’t wait to give it to everyone I know, and I am very glad I listened to it instead of reading it because I loved the story that much more.

As an added bonus: If you’re really not a reader but someone in your life is, get them the book and then watch the movie together! Currently there’s a Swedish version with subtitles but in a few years there will be an English version starring Tom Hanks, apparently, so you’ve got options.

Book Review: The Door by Magda Szabo

The Room is a novel about two people growing together and finding love in unexpected ways. And I don’t mean squishy feely romance love but the kind of love that comes from years and years of kind and cruel gestures, outbursts, opinions, and two people learning, but more often failing, to read intention and emotion.

Magda is not only the author but the writer and narrator of the story. It’s semi-autobiographical, about her 20-year long relationship with her housekeeper, Emerence. Emerence is in some ways the kind of old lady I’d like to be someday. Strong, passionate, an excellent judge of character, able to comfort and cleave with words, and well respected in her community, Emerence has a complicated past, shrouded in years and secrets.

Set in Hungary, the novel tells stories about Emerence and Magda, each story revealing a bit more about both women and all tinged with regret and anger, as by the time of writing, Emerence has died horribly and Magda is confronting her part in it.

This book made me angry because I’ve thought about what might happen to me. I might get hit by a car or trapped in a mob or shot in a random attack. I might get very old and feeble and lose my mind or the use of my body. My perfect death is quiet, painless, and predictable, with my dignity and autonomy mostly intact and all loose ends tied up. I don’t want friends and family forced to put me up in a home or watch me waste money and effort on palliative care I’d prefer not to need. Given this and also the constant urge in activism to listen to the needs and wants of a group before deciding what’s best for them, I read in horror as, with all the best intentions, Magda denies this woman, this almost mother figure who adores and trusts her, the dignity of the death she chooses.

Emerence has lived through wars, regime changes, and dozens of people’s lives and deaths. She is purposefully oblivious to political movement, religious edicts, world powers, or anything outside of what she, all by herself, is capable of. She hides Jews, Communists, Fascists, and stray cats with equal care and indifference and shows the kind of harsh mercy you would expect of a strong peasant woman with a long life of bitter disappointments behind her. She learns to trust one last time and, the poor woman, is betrayed one last time.

The Door is a character study on two women: one who knows everything about everyone and doesn’t care a whit, and one who doesn’t even know herself and cares far too much about what people think. Though one eventually failed the other, I feel hopeful that lessons learned stick with Magda and help her capture and embody some of what made Emerence so critical, so good for her. And of course, when I say that I mean that I hope some of the lessons stick with me, that I can capture a little of the fierce old woman.