“Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction, is a send-up of Asian stereotypes and of Hollywood that stunned me by its brilliance. The book posits that we are reading a teleplay about Chinatown, specifically the Golden Palace restaurant, which is the setting for a cop show in perpetual production called “Black and White.” Willis Wu, who has a small part in the show, doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Man Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but he is always relegated to a prop. Yet every day he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO (single room occupancy) and enters the restaurant, where he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy – the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. At least that’s what he has been told, time and time again – except by one person, his mother, who says to him: Be more. Cleverly written like a teleplay, the book is both darkly hilarious and devastating in its treatment of Hollywood’s penchant for promoting cliches about Asians and Asian-Americans, and you will find yourself laughing and grimacing at the same time. Wu is a remarkable writer.
“A Burning,” by Megha Majumdar, is a gripping debut novel about the ripple effects of our choices and how we are interconnected with what can sometimes be devastating consequences. Its characters seek to rise – to middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies – and find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India. The premise is horrifyingly plausible in a country where lynchings are on the rise and a new citizenship law enshrines discrimination against Muslims. Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment she posted on Facebook after witnessing a group of men torch a stalled train, killing almost 100 people, while the police looked on. “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” P T Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party and finds that his own ascent depends on Jivan’s fall. Lovely – an irresistible hijra (a third gender recognized in India) outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of Bollywood glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor – has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear. The novel moves from the perspective of one character to the next, each of whom knows something the others cannot, with the components of a thriller; class, fate, corruption, justice, and what it feels like to face profound obstacles and yet nurture aspirations in a country spinning toward extremism. Majumdar is a powerful writer who vividly evokes the lives of these characters and the injustices they suffer – misogyny, police brutality, the lack of access to clean water, the enforced poverty of the hijra community – bringing us to an ending that is both horrific and seemingly inevitable.
Simone Weil said “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’” That is the title of Sigrid Nunez’s latest book about the meaning of life and death, and the value of companionship. A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life. Some are people she knows well; others are total strangers. In each of them, she finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences – “Be kind, because everyone you meet is going through a struggle.” The narrator, an unmarried, unnamed, childless writer, then agrees to a difficult and startling request from an old but not particularly close writer friend who is dying of cancer: To help her die. Specifically, to go away with her and stay until she is ready to take the euthanasia pills that will end her life. “I will not go out in mortifying anguish,” the friend insists, adding, “Cancer can’t get me if I get it first.” This is a book that makes you pause and think, about yourself and those you care about and the meaning of your life. Of your life.
Chuck Sitkin highly recommended “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” by Yuval Noah Harari, and Jack and I both thought it was provocative, compelling, and actually alarming, a terrific read. Harai’s vision of tomorrow maintains that humanity will lose not only its dominance, but its very meaning. Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible: turn the uncontrollable forces of nature – famine, plague, and war – into manageable challenges. We are the only species in history that has single-handedly changed the entire planet. Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams, and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century, from overcoming death to creating artificial life, goals that may ultimately render most human beings superfluous. So, now what? We cannot stop the march of history, but we can influence its direction. We typically assume that tomorrow will look much like today, with amazing new technologies but with old humanist values like liberty and equality to guide us. Homo Deus opens our eyes to a vast range of alternative possibilities for the next century, such as: the main products will not be textiles, vehicles, and weapons, but bodies, brains, and minds; the next big industrial revolution will create not the working class but the useless class, the way we have treated animals is an indicator for how upgraded humans will treat us; democracy and the free market will both collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms; and humans won’t fight machines, they will merge with them. The gap between those who get on board and those left behind will be larger than the gap between industrial empires and agrarian tribes, even larger than that between Sapiens and Neanderthals. Thus, homo deus, “god man,” a potential next stage in human evolution. Alarmed yet? Let me share some quotes that have stayed with me. “If our ancestors knew what tools and resources stand ready at our command, they would have surmised that we must be enjoying celestial tranquility, free of all cares and worries. The truth is very different. Despite all our achievements, we feel a constant pressure to do and produce even more.” “The new projects of the twenty-first century – gaining immortality, bliss, divinity – also hope to serve the whole of humankind. However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding the norm, they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than nineteenth-century Europeans treated Africans.” “Humanism holds that experiences occur inside us, and that we ought to find within ourselves the meaning of all that happens, thereby infusing the universe with meaning. Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed cannot- find meaning within ourselves. We need only connect our experiences to the great data flow, and the algorithms will discover their meaning and tell us what to do.” Harari closes by saying that all the scenarios in this book should be understood as possibilities rather than prophecies, and that if we don’t like them we are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materializing. That’s not easy, because our thoughts and actions are usually constrained by present-day ideologies and social systems. He ends by listing three interlinked processes, which raise three key questions he wants to stick in our minds. I know after reading all this, you’ll desperately want to know what they are. Page 402.
In 2001, when 63-year-old Madeline Albright concluded her service as America’s first female secretary of state, she didn’t slow down. This “turbocharged” woman launched a new career as an author, professor, businesswoman, speaker, and activist in support of democratic institutions and values – hard to believe she’s only a year and a half younger than I am! In her latest book (her seventh), “Hell and Other Destinations,” she recounts how she has clashed with presidents and prime ministers, warned against the potential revival of Fascism, championed the cause of women everywhere, and labored relentlessly on behalf of people who lack the power to be heard. A mother of three, she was 39 when she landed her first professional job. “I had a late start,” she says, “but once I found my voice, I was determined not to shut up. Every stage of my life should be more exciting than the last.” In reading her book I became fascinated by the wit, zest for life, wisdom, and relevance of this blunt woman who describes herself as “an optimist who worries a lot.” She seemsto have been everywhere, done everything, and met everyone, saying, “my remedy to the passage of time is to proceed ardently and headlong with what I care about.” For example, the month she turned 80 she taught her course at Georgetown, chaired business meetings, testified before a U.S. Senate committee, participated in the search for a new CEO of the Aspen Institute, worked on her latest book, delivered the commencement address to her grandson’s high school class, hosted a dinner of foreign policy experts, presented an award bearing her name to a group of women activists from the Central African Republic, made a speech on diplomacy and faith, lobbied members of Congress to support the National Democratic Institute’s budget, and spoke at a conference convened in Dallas by the George W. Bush Presidential Library and another in Lisbon by the government of Portugal. Each activity involves using her voice for a cause in which she believes. “Until I am carried out, I will carry on.” I hated to part from this witty and stimulating – if exhausting! – woman.
When I picked up my holds from the library, I thought “The Choice: Embrace the Possible,” a memoir by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, was a mistake, as it looked like a self-help book, something I generally avoid. I was so wrong! Once I started reading it, I was hooked to the end. Internationally acclaimed Dr. Eger – one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors – tells her unforgettable story in a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of choice in our lives. At sixteen, Eger, a trained ballet dancer and gymnast, was sent to Auschwitz. Hours after her parents were killed, the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, forced her to dance for his amusement – and her survival. He rewarded her with a loaf of bread that she shared with her fellow prisoners, an act of generosity that would later save her life. Edie and her sister survived multiple death camps and the Death March. When American troops liberated the camps in 1945 they found Edie barely alive in a pile of corpses. But what a life she lived after recovering! While struggling with flashbacks and survivor’s guilt, determined to hide from the past, Edie married, raised a family, and studied and practiced psychology, always refusing to speak about her experiences during the war. Thirty-five years after the war ended she returned to Auschwitz, where she was finally able to heal and forgive the one person she’d been unable to forgive for years – herself, for a reason we finally learn. Now 93, Dr. Eger maintains a clinical practice in La Jolla, holds a faculty appointment at U.C. San Diego, and serves as a consultant for the US. Army and Navy in resilience training and the treatment of PTSD. She is still dancing – and still ends her talks with a ballet high kick! I know we’d all love to meet her.
Mysteries: An unsolved murder case with an unidentified victim and a cold trail with few clues faces Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge in “A Divided Loyalty,” by Charles Todd. A woman has been murdered at the foot of a megalith shaped like a great shrouded figure in Avebury, a village set inside a prehistoric stone circle not far from Stonehenge, and Rutledge is asked to take a second look after even Chief Inspector Brian Leslie, one of the yard’s best men, could make no progress. Rutledge finally discovers an unexplained clue that seems to point toward an impossible solution – or does it? It feels nostalgic to be back in post WWI days when finding a telephone somewhere in the village is a challenge. Scott Turow’s legal thrillers are always a stimulating read. In “The Last Trial,” Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, a brilliant defense lawyer in failing health at age 85 but intact in spirit, postpones his retirement to defend his old friend Dr. Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, when Pafko is charged with insider trading fraud and murder. Stern probes beneath the surface of Pafko’s dazzling veneer as a distinguished cancer researcher and finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew about his friend. In the courtroom, Stern’s duty to his client and his belief in the power of the judicial system both face a final terrible test. It was fun to revisit Lord Peter Wimsey, English aristocrat and amateur sleuth featured in mysteries set in the 1920s by English crime writer and poet, Dorothy L Sayers. Written in 1923, “Whose Body?” begins with a corpse in the bathtub, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez spectacles. Urged to investigate by his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter quickly ascertains that the sudden disappearance of a well-known financier is in some way connected to the body in the bathroom – but in exactly which way is the question. Reading a cozy English murder mystery is always a pleasure.
My problem with reading books is that I get distracted… by other books.