Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review of Purity by Jonathan Franzen

I don’t even know where to begin with this review. I guess I’ll start by saying that I (usually) love Jonathan Franzen novels. I (usually) love his dysfunctional characters and the way they bring their crazy to the table.

In the years since he first made it big, Franzen has become less adept at concealing his…er…prejudices. First, he caused a ruckus when he didn’t want an Oprah sticker on his book when Oprah picked The Corrections for her book club. His resistance had something to do with his perceptions of what kinds of readers Oprah followers were (women?).  Then he angered lots of internetters by disparaging the internet. He also got into it with author Jennifer Weiner (on the internet) about the superiority of his work vs. “chick lit” when she questioned the fact that “domestic fiction” written by men is taken more seriously than books about similar topics that are written by women.

Purity, his newest book, is about the internet. (Red flag goes up!)

And the female characters in the book, with a few exceptions, are unpleasant people who holler irrationally at nice men about oppression, or they’re young and sexually exploitable. (Warning! Warning!).

There is a question of whether an author’s politics should influence how you experience a book. Last year, for example, Orson Scott Card made some inflammatory negative statements about gay rights and there was considerable discussion about whether readers should still read/appreciate/admire/buy Enders Game. Franzen has not been as clearly bigoted, but he has definitely scooted over to the side of the school yard where the jerks hang out.

And knowing that, I embarked on my reading adventure of this book with anticipation (because I have loved Franzen’s previous books) and also with trepidation (because I don’t like jerks).

Franzen's latest accomplisment: a story on a Chipotle bag
On the surface, Purity concerns a girl (named Purity) who does not know who her father is. She has a ton of school loan debt and is mired in a stupid job. She can’t seem to get herself together socially, and she has a complicated relationship with her mother. She has this thought that if she could find her father, he could help with her debt problem and clear up some of the mysteries about her past.  She also happens to be corresponding with the leader of a cultish group that leaks classified information and finds herself poised to become the group’s newest intern.

Under the surface, Franzen is asking questions about autonomy and freedom in the face of totalitarianism. He looks at the East German Ministry for State Security, which spied on and kept files on ordinary citizens, and compares/contrasts that institution with the current domination of the internet over all aspects of modern life. The way he pulls together all the pieces of this complicated topic is genuinely masterful.

I can say without hesitation that this would be a good book to discuss with others. Though there’s lots of family dysfunction here, this book is not a book about family dysfunction. There are Big Ideas to play around with, and for me, Big Idea Books are most fun if you read them in community.

However, there is something about reading this novel that resembles spending a really long holiday weekend with your sexist Uncle Fred who won’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton. Franzen has issues with women, and he explores those issues over the nearly 600 pages of this book. It’s true that the male characters are pretty awful, too, but it’s often because they can’t quite get over the problematic women in their lives.

If you like books that will get you riled up, this will fit the bill.  I’m glad I read it. I’m also glad it’s over.

Here’s a great interview with Franzen from The Guardian.

Monday, September 21, 2015

It's Monday, and I Blame All My Problems On Jonathan Franzen

I am not a runner, but a few years I got it in my head that I should run a half marathon. The thing that I remember most vividly about the event happened at Mile 9, which was more than half way through the race but not nearly close enough to the end. The course veered onto the freeway, first through a long tunnel and then up onto an elevated road. I was alone, after encouraging my quicker running partner to increase her pace. I found myself out of gas, with no food and no strategy in my pocket. But at the same time, what was my alternative? Lie down on the freeway and wait for the wagon that sweeps up failure at the end of the race?  It seemed that all I could do was go forward, keep running (or, more accurately, shuffling). And sure enough, I did finish that race (AFTER a 91 year old woman, but whatever…).

I call upon that Mile 9 moment whenever I’m stuck in a difficult place. At one time or another, we all find ourselves without fuel or strategy or hope, but with lots of distance ahead. And the thing is, all you can do is keep going forward. Lying down on the freeway is rarely a good option.

Not to overdramatize, but reading Purity by Jonathan Franzen was a two week Mile 9 odyssey for me. It was a seemingly endless, uphill reading accomplishment that was frustrating and rewarding in equal measure. And no matter how much time I put into it, there always seemed to be 300 pages left.  I’ll put up a full review later this week, but I wanted to let you know that I blame Jonathan Franzen for my lack of blogging. 

I finished the book at 10 p.m. yesterday, and I still feel hungover. Today I need to turn my attention to The Boys in the Boat, which my book club will be discussing in 3 days. Compared to the nearly 600 page Franzen, The Boys in the Boat seems like a pamphlet.

That’s all I’m promising this week. My literary feet are still bleeding from all that effort.

P.S. I'm so excited to join the It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? crew once again. It's hosted by Book Journey.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

It's Monday! No, Wait! It's Wednesday!

It's not really Monday.
This is a combination post. I thought I’d be writing an It’s Monday! post, but it somehow turned into Wednesday before I noticed. I also thought I’d write a review of The Forgotten Girls by Sarah Blaedel, but I’m still too furious to deal with it. So this is going to be a bookish stir-fry – a little protein, a little vegetable, and a splash of sauce.

Last week I read Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, and that slim book aroused all of my political sensibilities. Over the weekend, I thought I’d turn down the volume and read a light mystery/thriller. I chose The Forgotten Girls because it had been well-reviewed elsewhere, and I love a good missing persons storyline.

As it turns out, once my political fire is ignited, there’s no way back. I finished The Forgotten Girls on Sunday, and I’m still gnashing my teeth.

If I had written this review at the half-way point of the book, I would have said the following: this is a fun, somewhat predictable Danish police procedural. Louise is the independent, sassy detective recently assigned to lead a Missing Persons Unit. She is joined by Eik, a handsome but unreliable detective side kick. They tackle a case that involves an unidentified woman in the woods -- and of course, nothing good happens in the woods. The story grows to include a sinister old mental institution, creepy woods-dwelling people, and some connections to other murders.

So far, so good. But then! THEN! It turns out that there’s a plot line in this book that steers pretty close to asserting the idea that men are biologically wired to be violent toward women. And as much as I never turn to thrillers for feminism, I found this development so distasteful and irresponsible that I almost threw it across the room.

I thought I would go on and on about my outrage over this issue, but now that I’m in front of the computer, I don’t have anything more to say about it. We are better than that, even if we live deep in the backwoods of Denmark.

In other news, there is a teachers’ strike in Seattle, so summer continues for the youths in my house. Their presence is interfering with my back-to-school read: Purity by Jonathan Franzen! I was so excited when this arrived for me at the library last weekend. The bad news is that it is nearly 600 pages, with tiny font and few chapter breaks.

Of course, you might be ready to point out that Franzen is no stranger to sexism (though, presumably, he doesn’t live in the woods). The author of a recent Bustle magazine article writes, “Misogyny seems to follow him like a cloud; even if you don't know about his exploits, you catch a whiff of them when he passes by.”

There is an ongoing conversation about whether a reader needs to like/approve of an author in order to enjoy/purchase a book. I’ll let you know what I think as I progress through the novel.

Hope you’re having a great week, internetters! Oh, and if you’re a Danish sleuth, I have a small piece of advice: if you know that a madman is on the loose in the woods, don’t go out into the woods! Go have a delicious pastry instead.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Thoughts about Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a multi-form examination of the ways in which white Americans dehumanize African-Americans in small, daily, escalating ways.  The forms in this book include poetry, short essays, and visual art. Rankine begins with small stories of micro-aggressions  -- friends who make “just” an off-hand comment about race, service professionals who come to conclusions based on race, strangers who shift away on public transportation. All these “small” events collect in the life of the African-American narrator. Then the book turns to larger, more sensational events (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the “Jena Six” assault…), which Rankine writes as “scripts.” (And what are scripts? Part of a performance? A pre-written story? So much to discuss!). Photographs, paintings, and other images connect the different poems and essays.

One of the more arresting images from the book -- "Jim Crow Road" by Michael David Murphy. You can google the street in Flowery Branch, GA. Of course, Rankine's point is that this street is everywhere.
Some of you know that I teach classes about education policy. Much of the conversation in these classes centers on the achievement gap, which is the space between white and more affluent kids’ test scores and the test scores of minority kids and kids who struggle with poverty. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that my students’ increasingly relentless and well-intentioned focus on test score data has yielded an unfortunate consequence: they are not really talking about children as human beings anymore. Take out the word “child,” and substitute “growth rate.”

Quantitative data is important. It certainly lets us look at different variables across time and space. It lets us compare contexts. But when data becomes the end goal, it is easy to forget that real people exist under the numbers. And when we don’t think about real people – when we separate physically and emotionally – it becomes easier to dehumanize. 

Please listen to This American Life's "The Problem We All Live With, Part 1" episode if you haven’t already. There’s also a compelling Part 2, but Part 1 knocked me to the floor. That is what we get when we dehumanize. That is the society we create.

What I love about Citizen: An American Lyric is that it asks the reader to sit down and listen. Really listen. Citizenship is a common project, and we owe it to ourselves to take this critique seriously.

You can find interesting interviews with Rankine all over the place. I liked this one. I also liked this essay she wrote in the New York Times.