I was in Austin this past weekend doing a panel for Nasty Women, but I had the first day of the festival all to myself. One of the big events I’d been dying to attend was the panel with Jeffrey Eugenides and Claire Messud. It’s a six hour drive from South Texas up to Austin, and I used the opportunity to finish listening to Fresh Complaint, a collection of stories written between 1988 to 2017. With the exception of the title story, most of the stories had been previously published in other places.
Early in the panel, Eugenides bemoaned a common description he’d been seeing in reviews of his book: it’s about depressed middle-aged men. “It’s not just about that,” he protested. “There’s a story about two older women, and there’s a story about a Pakistani teenager.”
Yeah. About that.
Máni Steinn is a queer sixteen-year-old living in early twentieth century Reykjavik. He is a loner who lives with his great-aunt and spends most of his time at the cinemas. He occasionally makes some extra cash prostituting himself to men, although he also finds himself drawn Sóla, a pretty girl who rides a motorcycle around town and who is well aware of Máni’s secret interactions with local men.
In 1918, the big news in Iceland was the country’s newly gained independence, the recent Katla volcano eruption, and the coal and food shortage. For the most part, Iceland, is spared a lot of the trouble brewing in other parts of the world because of its isolated location. Then horror arrives via incoming ship passengers: the influenza epidemic that swept across the world finds its entry into Reykjavik. The flu’s seemingly manageable early symptoms quickly morph into something far more alarming, and soon, no home is left untouched by sickness or death.
Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
Publisher/Year: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Narrator: John Waters
Length: 8 hours, 8 minutes
What it is: A couple of years ago, John Waters hitchhiked across the country as the basis of this memoir. Technically, only a third of this is nonfiction because only a third of it is memoir; the first two sections are composed of multiple mini-novellas in which he envisions the best and worst case scenarios of what could happen on the trip.
Why I read it: I love John Waters, and I remember when news of this trip broke because sightings of him were popping up all over Twitter.
What I thought: John Waters being John Waters, parts of the novellas were so, so wrong. Yet even though they were fiction, some still gave some illumination into Waters’s life. Take the first story of the best-case scenario, for example. In it, he miraculously finds funding for his next film, which has been sitting unfunded for years now since people still expect him to string films together on a nonexistent budget like he did in his early days (something he refuses to do at this point in his career; his last film was released ten years ago). While his good/bad fantasies sometimes got tiresome, they did have their moments (one involved an anti-abortion fanatic, while another featured an animal rescuer with tapeworms; having some background in both of these areas, I found both of the stories ridiculous but highly amusing). I do wish he’d bulked up on the actual memoir portion, though, because the reality of his journey was the best part.
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris
Publisher/Year: It Books, 2014
What it is: A history of how, for a brief period, Sega broke through Nintendo’s monopoly on gaming, only to ultimately fail. The book is told mostly via the story of Tom Kalinske, a marketing genius who took over Sega and presented Sonic as a cooler (and, more importantly, viable) alternative to Super Mario.
Why I read it: I played both consoles as a kid (though I’ll admit that I’ll always be #TeamNintendo).
What I thought: This book is nonfiction, but it’s written kind of like a novel, dialogue and all. Harris conducted over two hundred interviews to give this insider perspective; as a result, the book feels more personal, especially where Kalinske is concerned. The dialogue worked for me most of the time, but not quite always. I also thought that some sections were unnecessary to the overall focus of the book; they added too much bulk to the narrative. That said, it’s a really interesting story. I already knew some of it, but using Kalinske as the main vehicle for the story was a smart move that allowed a closer look at the business and marketing side of the two gaming giants of the time. I think it would make a great gift for your favorite geek.
Greetings from Reykjavik! For the next month, I’ll be blogging from Europe!
Infused with magical realism, the superstitions from centuries past, and grim Icelandic history, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is a book that defies categorization. Beginning in 1635, the book that follows the life of Jónas Palmason the Learned. Palmason is a self-taught healer and poet who treated women’s illnesses in his youth and was ultimately exiled from Iceland at the age of 61 for committing alleged heresies.
The book describes the time after the Catholic Reformation; people are still holding onto their old beliefs and superstitions, but ideologies are slowly shifting towards Christianity. Jónas loves learning for the sake of learning, but while he was a peculiar child, he is an outcast as an adult. By default, his wife Sigga must suffer alongside him; she, too, was ahead of her time and knew all about science and math as a child, knowledge she was told to keep to herself (Sigga was great; I actually would have loved to hear more about her in the wake of the book’s turn of events). The two made a perfect couple, but life in the remote Snjafjoll coast is harsh, and their sorrows are compounded by the deaths of their children.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2012
Narrator: Tim Kang with Josiah D. Lee & James Kyson Lee
Length: 19 hrs, 22 minutes
What it is: Growing up in a North Korean work camp for orphans, Jun Do manages to rise from the humblest ranks in life to one of the highest, eventually even encountering the terrifying the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il. How he gets there is almost farcical, but the one thing keeping him grounded is his undying love for a beautiful actress named Sun Moon, whose career the Dear Leader is bent on destroying.
Why I listened to it: Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer, it was part of my Pulitzer Project for this year.
What I thought: This book is the literary equivalent of “Go big or go home.” And damn. Johnson went for it. The book generated a lot of buzz when it was released, but for some reason, I just never had the desire to read it. I picked up the audiobook shortly after it won the Pulitzer, not really knowing what to expect. I got lost a couple of times because it’s a lot to wrap one’s head around via audiobook, but more than anything, I was transfixed by Jun Do’s nightmarish conundrums. The Orphan Master’s Son is a clever and ambitious project that basically just blows everything else out of the water; I’ve never read anything else quite like it. So much of the book centers on identity, right down to the protagonist’s name — Jun Do…John Doe? — and though the book is almost dystopian in nature, it clings to some of the most basic tenets of human nature, particularly love.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
Publisher/Year: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012
What it is: Before Terry Tempest Williams’s mother died, she told her daughter, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” That request was honored, and after her mother died, a grief-stricken Tempest Williams went to her mother’s journals to find some solace. What she found instead were three shelves full of blank journals. As time passed, she felt at turns angry, devastated, betrayed, and completely mystified as to what kind of message her mother had wanted to send her. The book is comprised of fifty-four variations — meditations of sorts — in which Tempest Williams imagines the message(s) her mother was trying to convey.
Why I read it: It sounded intriguing.
What I thought: Some parts were hit-or-miss for me. It took me a while to get into the book; there’s no denying the poetic beauty of the author’s writing — and at times, the chapters consist of straight-up poetry…but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a terribly poetry-minded person. That said, there were parts of the book that I wanted to copy down at length to savor later (and, in a couple of instances, I did just that).