books

books #14-16: jennifer egan, g. willow wilson, and yoko ogawa

#14 a visit from the goon squad by jennifer egan
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i read this book in one day. admittedly it was a day spent in bed with debilitating illness, but perhaps that speaks even more to the impact of the book, as it’s not often that a story of this length will be so engrossing i’ll keep reading from start to finish in one sitting. told over thirteen interwoven chapters that each stand alone as marvelous short stories, but work together as a complete epic narrative, egan covers about 40 years in the lives of various individuals, relating experiences within and around the music industry, journalism, and our social/technological culture.  each chapter takes on a different point of view (sometimes towards the same event, sometimes many years later or before) that are at first seemingly unrelated, including an entire chapter told in the 2nd person (easily one of the more moving and effective sections, only made more profound when you learn the result of the described events later in the book) and a narrative related in the form of a lengthy powerpoint presentation (that’s actually heartbreaking). to describe the plot concisely would be an exercise in futility, for while the plot is never anything but engaging, it is not the events of the book that make it compelling, but the stark examinations of loneliness, ambition, and friendship (to name a few) that really propel the narrative. egan’s voice feels very much of the times, capturing the build-up to this current age of creative and social expression with real insight. her writing is experimental without being pretentious and able to explore deep sorrow while also being extremely funny. such a marvelous book.

#15 the butterfly mosque by g. willow wilson
Butterfly-Mosque

stories of unlikely religious conversion are like nectar to me. probably because of my own spiritual conversion from the traditions i grew up around, there is always something i can relate to in hearing of another person’s struggles to come to terms with what their mind and ego might be rejecting and what their heart is embracing.  as it is  often difficult to express experiences and insights around spiritual matters without running into walls of perhaps necessary skepticism, books such as this give voice to an otherwise unexplored but deeply fascinating part of our collective psyche. showing that religion and spirituality aren’t just for manic fundamentalists, but that people with otherwise normal lives and needs can be compelled by something much larger than themselves.  the book relates the experiences of an american girl who somewhat covertly converts to Islam during college, moves to cairo where she meets an egyptian man who will become her husband, and her subsequent full embrace of a life split between residence in the US and in egypt as a muslim woman. wilson gives startling insight into the difficulty of discussing faith in a US culture that is steadily rejecting religion as having any value and the especial difficulty of converting to a religion as maligned as Islam. the embarrassment and hurt that one can feel in wanting to express a faith that perhaps might not be “cool” to your peers or family, but that has touched an intrinsic part of your being is so effectively related, the book is useful reading for the religious and the non-religious alike. furthermore her particular insights on her relationship to Islam as a woman are among the most informative and eye-opening aspects of her story. while acknowledging that obviously there are imperfect and heinous aspects to treatment of women within egypt, Islam in general, and throughout the middle east, there is also broad acknowledgment of examples where her treatment in the middle east in many instances afforded her a deeper respect for her sex than she would otherwise experience in the supposedly progressive realm of the united states. her descriptions of cairo and her adjustments to the culture shock of being in such a bustling and chaotic place reminded me so much of my experiences in india, how nothing can really prepare you for the sights, smells, and sounds of cities such as cairo, and the images she paints are vivid and emotionally evocative. it’s also so wonderful that g. willow wilson happens to be a comic book, video game, and general “nerd culture” connoisseur, not only making her infinitely more relatable, but her story all the more unlikely yet simultaneously confirmed as entirely honest in her distinct lack of egotism.

#16 the housekeeper and the professor by yoko ogawa

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this is quite simply a beautiful book. it tells the story of a housekeeper who is assigned to take care of a former math professor who is crippled by his inability to create new memories beyond 80 minutes, a condition he sustained after a serious car accident. meaning every 80 minutes if he didn’t know you prior to the car accident he will forget you and everything else he has learned during that short passage of time. the housekeeper’s son ends up being a source of great inspiration for the professor, who nicknames the boy “root”, and who he desires to impart the wisdom and wonders of mathematics to, but who he forgets on a day to day basis, along with the housekeeper unless he leaves notes to remind himself of their identities. very little happens in the book in terms of plot, but it is more concerned with the minutiae of interaction, the subtle dynamics of odd friendships and the fragility of life. it’s so well written and so compellingly drawn that the smallest details become the most savored images. the pain and frustration that the housekeeper feels in watching this otherwise brilliant man struggle with his debilitating condition is palpable as she debates within herself about how close she should allow her child and herself to get to this steadily fading man and her conflict over the white lies she must tell to avoid shaming the professor for his lack of memory. you feel deeply connected to each of the characters in the book, and their interests become yours whether it be their fascinations with baseball, mathematics, or simply how to care for fellow human beings. it moves seamlessly from the heartbreaking to the truly funny with just the right sentimental, never becoming saccharine or manipulative. a clever, focused book, that is immensely readable and moving.

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2 thoughts on “books #14-16: jennifer egan, g. willow wilson, and yoko ogawa

  1. Alexander – these are stunning responses. I’ve read “Goon Squad,” and you make me want to revisit it to see what I missed. I’ve added the other two to my list – you make me want to read them, especially the one that explores religion/faith/spirituality. Thanks so much for sharing. I deeply appreciate it.

    • Thank you for visiting Mark, I hope you enjoy both of those books when you get to reading them, I found them both to be deeply satisfying reads. More recommendations coming soon, had the great fortune of reading some really wonderful books this year! Thanks again.

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