Review: Island beneath the sea

A truly extraordinary novel of wide, sweeping historical vision, hope and beauty among the darkest of times and places.

I was gripped for its hundreds of detailed pages and learned a great deal I didn’t know before about a breathtaking array of topics, including: the French and Spanish in Haiti and Cuba, the reverberations of the French Revolution in the colonies, the slave trade in the colonies vs in Louisiana, sugar cane plantation life, New Orleans culture and society around the 1800s and its complex system of caste based on skin color.

The cast of characters includes slaves of all kinds, plantation owners and overseers both cruel and kind, wealthy and conniving society ladies, revolutionary warriors both black and white, pragmatic pirates, early abolitionists, dashing bon vivants and beautiful courtesans. The mystery of both voodoo and the Christian faith infuse the narrative with occasional dashes of magic. Dance through this fascinating history alongside Tété, and feel inspired as she finds endless courage and hope within herself in places where humanity and love seem impossible…but aren’t.

Book review: Island beneath the sea, by Isabelle Allende
5/5 stars

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This slim volume is partly a guide to training for long distance running, part memoir of a writer’s life and career, part zen philosophy of life and death. I’ve heard it repeatedly described as “intimate” and “thoughtful” and it is both of these things, yet also it is more.

For someone who hates to run, I sure have read a lot about long distance running lately. I read Scott Jurek’s ultramarathon running memoir/vegan cookbook, I’ve read more articles about the sport than I can count – partially because I’m trying to understand my husband (who loves running) but partially because I’m trying to understand other things, about life, discipline and repetition as the path to greatness in any of life’s pursuits, athletic or not.

While I am not a fan of running, I am a fan of stories that tell of human will and triumph, and I am a great fan of Murakami, so I was drawn to this book. It seemed inevitable that I should read it and the changing of the year always brings with it for me a more focused than usual contemplation of discipline, of goals and will.

Murakami draws some fairly obvious parallels here between the lonely, plodding labors of long-distance running and regular novel-writing. (This book makes a good companion to Stephen King’s “On Writing” which I also recently read and enjoyed.) The marathons and triathlons for which Murakami trains and in which he competes provide some narrative flow and shape. But I would tell you not to read this book for the narrative, and not even for the autobiographical insight into Murakami (how he became a writer, how he and his wife sold their successful bar and changed their lives with calm-eyed purpose).

Read this book for the unexpected beauty of its sentences, for the small bits of descriptive genius that Murakami creates so often. The small wry jokes, the delightful insistence on personifying objects. Though some reviewers have complained about his stubborn vagueness, it’s clear to me that when he says something is “pretty good” or that he is “kind of naive” or that his leg felt “really painful” or some similarly terse and boring statement, it’s deliberate. And he is unrelentingly Japanese in his subtle deliberateness. If he unleashed all the words in his vocabulary at all times, we wouldn’t notice the most wonderful bits, where every word is so easily, perfectly placed, where every small choice matters.

These are few of my favorite moments:

From chapter 6: “I had plenty of desire to run, but my legs had their own opinion about this.”

“I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.”

“[One] of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honor of physical decline is waiting.”

From chapter 7: “Has the dark shadow really disappeared? Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?”

From chapter 9: “The sad spreadsheet of my life that reveals how much my debts far outweighs my assets.”

As I review these scraps I find they do not quite retain their magic or meaning all alone, excerpted here, the spell broken. I also find I can’t quite describe what makes Murakami’s particular way of speaking and writing so special to me. If you do not like Murakami, perhaps this book is not for you. I do not like running, but this book delighted and touched me to the core.

Book review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
5/5 stars

Review: Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari’s humorous stroll through the jungle of modern (highly digital) dating is a treat to read. With its breezy, often hysterical, style and well-researched tidbits about human behavior and the neuroscience behind why we act and react the way we do during mating activities, its bestseller status is no surprise to me.

This is not a “comedy” book per se; it’s a very serious book about a silly topic, as written by a funny person. Ansari seems to have really found his voice here – it’s the voice of a slightly goofy smart guy observing, not quite believing the silly things he sees, and delving deeper into the research to show us that things really are this silly in most modern internet-enabled dating.

To write this book, Ansari teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and designed experiments, surveys, even dedicated Reddit forums to collect information and (often sad and hilarious) personal stories from people all over the world. They do an excellent job of illustrating the modern “problem” of becoming paralyzed and exhausted by having so many choices, the ability to endlessly research them all, and the conviction that if we CAN have “the best” then we SHOULD have it. Of course, when we apply this set of ideas to dating, we’re setting ourselves up for fatigue, misery and probably, failure. This is demonstrated in a number of ways, data and anecdotes.

A highlight for me was the overview of the neurochemistry behind “companionate” vs “passionate” love (a subject I would expect to see explored more thoroughly in more relationship books actually) and the comments from Jonathan Haidt, an NYU psychologist specializing in morality and emotions. Some of the soundest relationship- and life-advice came from this section. I was also happy to see that Dan Savage was consulted and quoted with regard to exploring non-monogamy as a serious option.

With any book about modern dating, I expect to be appalled at least some of the time by sexism, but on the whole I think Ansari does a good job of representing the bullshit that women face and remaining neutral, not falling into many potential sexist or slut-shaming traps. Regarding different reasons for women vs men to date and get married, I enjoyed the discussion of how the internet has freed young people (especially women) in repressive cultures to interact more freely in secret than their parents might allow. It’s interesting to think about how technology that seems to make life harder for more privileged women (i.e. giving dudes more power of choice, lowering women’s perceived “market value” – a horrible idea and worth a whole different discussion) also makes life easier for women in more restrictive cultures (giving them more freedom to participate in the world).

I have some quibbles with the book. At times it is repetitive and some of the jokes are mighty dumb. Another annoying thing that comes to mind is the glossing over of the Tinder origin story and the sexist erasure of co-founder Whitney Wolfe. They did so much research, you’d think they would have Googled a bit about Tinder and given credit where it was due, instead of participating in erasing Wolfe from history and giving her accomplishments to her male co-founders. (Catch up here if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Even more tragic, the way Wolfe was ousted from Tinder would have made some great dating horror story material, very relevant to this book!

I think this must have been an honest oversight – I hope so – Ansari has always struck me as more of a feminist, interested in fairness, in truth. Perhaps this is the type of thing that could be corrected in the next edition – I know I’d be happy to read another chapter in a few years, covering whatever new innovations in online dating come up in the meantime.

Book review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg
4/5 stars