Born a Crime–Stories from a South African Childhood: Trevor Noah

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus when it comes to posting on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. Rather, I’ve noticed an interesting shift in my reading habits in the past few weeks. I’ve had a lifelong love for fiction, particularly literary fiction, and I found myself gravitating more towards memoir and other nonfiction. It began with Born a Crime.

I’ve been a fan of the Daily Show for years, and while Trevor Noah is no Jon Stewart, I always enjoyed his commentary and unique perspective on America as a native South African. Trevor Noah is biracial, born in the waning years of apartheid, and was therefore ‘born a crime’. I knew nothing of apartheid except Nelson Mandela, and was excited to delve into the past and present of this smart, successful public figure. How racism played a role in who he was today.

I was not prepared for this.

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Audible free trials are great

Firstly, I highly recommend the audiobook for this, and for memoirs in general. I’m fairly new to audiobooks, but sometimes I find it nice just to listen while keeping my hands busy with a knitted scarf. A memoir on audiobook evokes the magical feeling of being told a bedtime story as a child. My father was a storyteller. And like Trevor Noah, he loved telling stories of his childhood and adolescence in a foreign land, drawing parallels to the comparatively cushy life I live today. Even in the darkest moments of the book, I felt a certain comfort in hearing Trevor’s voice, his emphases and pauses.

And of course, the accent. There’s no way I could’ve pronounced those native Zulu and Xhosa words correctly in my head. I needed Trevor, a polyglot, to guide me. Not to mention his voice is pretty easy on the ears.

If anything, he made me want to learn my own mother tongue, long forgotten in years of English immersion.

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.

What Trevor brings to the table in Born a Crime is authenticity. It’s one of the very qualities of memoir I love the most. There’s always a certain amount of subjectivity, narrow focus, details missed, when you listen to someone tell a story from thirty years ago. But it’s their truth, and it’s magnificent. It makes you consider all the mundane details of your life, gather them together, and wonder if there’s a serviceable story if you glue all those pieces together. In Trevor’s case, there was. Growing up poor, ostracized from every predetermined group of people, making sense of fractured culture, Western educaton, and patriarchy. And Trevor doesn’t come out of this unscathed. At points he’s undeniably the bad guy. He treats his long-suffering mother rather poorly at points. He treats women as objects. He hustles dozens of people out of money instead of cobbling together an honest living. But he owns up, self-reflects, and moves forward. You don’t have to be perfect to write a book like this. Far from it.

I learned so much about apartheid too. I assumed it was simple segregation, not unlike the Jim Crow Era of the United States. Instead, it was written, systemic oppression with clear lines, palpable hatred, and purely malicious intent. It was designed based on the precedents of Nazi Germany and it shows. Apartheid isn’t taught properly in American schools. And if anything, it should be. It casts a very bright spotlight on ourselves, especially in the current political climate.

If there are any drawbacks to this book, it’s how Trevor attempts to shoehorn in references to American politics. They’re easily extrapolated, and sometimes feel out of place when Trevor mentions them. They sometimes feel like little nagging reminders of his job as host of a political comedy program. But this is small, barely an annoyance. It hardly detracts from the power of the narrative.

Born a Crime inspired me to read more memoirs. I finished Alana Okun’s The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater. I’m in the middle of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire. I might write reviews on some of them too.

BookCon Freebies!

This past June I had the chance to go to BookCon, an annual convention for writers, publishers, and book lovers all over the country. Now that I live in New York it feels there are events like this everywhere, and while ComicCon skews a little too nerdy for me, BookCon seemed right up my alley. My very patient fiance agreed to come along, and we spent the afternoon at booths, walking the floors, in lines.

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Oh Lord, the lines. The misconception with BookCon is that there are free books everywhere, when in reality there are a scattering of them and each line takes an hour to wade through. Somehow in my trip to BookCon, we managed to pick up a few free books: four to be exact. I decided to read them all and review them briefly. Were they worth the price? Let’s see.

 

1. Confusion is Nothing New: Paul Acampora

This one was a light middle-grade read, it took about an hour and I clearly wasn’t the audience for it. It’s a pleasant enough story about a girl trying to learn about her deceased mother, a backdrop of 80s music all around. The characters were mildly quirky and entertaining, but I find that this genre isn’t nearly as bright as insightful as it used to feel to me. I could blame it on the book, but it’s likely because I got older. Anyway, as far as middle grade reads, this one devotes a lot of its time to chit-chat and meandering, detracting from what little plot there is. Inoffensive overall, but hardly memorable.

2. Cold Hard Truth: Anne Greenwood Brown

This was one of two books here that I actually had signed by the author. Ms. Brown herself is lovely, and offered me encouragement as an aspiring writer myself. Her book was a healthy slice of young adult chick-lit, with darker moments scattered in. The protagonist is a young girl caught up in an abusive relationship and the world of drugs, trying to rebuild her life while on probation of sorts. She meets a young man with an anger problem…and immediately when I learned of this character trait I was annoyed. If anyone’s seen The Kissing Booth, that godawful Netflix movie people are talking about, it’s reminiscent of that. But what redeems Cold Hard Truth compared to that movie is justification. Max, the novel’s ‘hot angry guy’, is given reasons for his actions but not as many excuses. He is still held accountable by those around him, although this does start to fall apart by the ending, and damsel-in-distress tropes return. Nevertheless, the book is harmless enough and had some decent suspense and character development.

3. The City of Brass: S.A. Chakraborty

So, I’m not a fantasy reader, especially not immersive, high fantasy like this one. I usually find the genre’s callback to dirty, dull medieval Europe quite tiresome, and I get bogged down by endless languages, clan systems, and other aspects of the intense worldbuilding that often comes with the genre. Simply put, I usually don’t have the patience. But…I make exceptions. I took all 550 pages of City of Brass on a trip to Maine and finished it in three days. I was immediately drawn in by the new mythologies of the Middle East, lush imagery, tangible character motivations, and political intrigue. There were quite a few languages and types of people to distinguish, as to be expected, but I felt personally invested in each conflict and in the tenuous relationships of Daevabad as a whole. I do believe that the climax and falling action were incredibly rushed, too drastic of a pace change for a slow burning novel like this one.

The only other downside is, well, I have to wait until 2019 for the next book in the trilogy. I never thought I’d be so invested in a series since Harry Potter, but here I am.

4. We Sold Our Souls: Grady Hendrix

This was the second book I had signed at BookCon. Mr. Hendrix was a bright, bubbly personality that took the time to sign each book personally, even if that meant his line took twice as long as the others. I didn’t know what to expect from We Sold Our Souls, but from the cover art subject matter I assumed it was the tale of teenagers starting a band.

Not quite. Instead, we follow aging metal musicians in a moral wasteland, rife with gore, deceit, murder, and all the seediest parts of society. Juxtaposed with this dark subject matter are metal lyrics, all of which are so difficult to take seriously. In fact, the mythos that Hendrix builds up, with Black Iron Mountain, the Blue Door, the Faustian environment, it all feels so cobbled together and poorly thought out. Everything reads juvenile, which is especially jarring when told by a 50 year old protagonist. I didn’t buy any of it, apart from a few scenes written so bluntly and effectively that I visibly cringed. That takes talent, which I respect, but this story was not crafted well at all and makes no discernible impact at novel’s end. Additionally, I’m not a metal fan, so a lot of the references fall flat and don’t have the resonating nostalgia that the book is aiming for. Again, I’m not the right audience.

You know, maybe I just don’t care for books about rock stars. I haven’t really had a great track record with them lately.

* * *

Overall, these were definitely a mixed bag, but definitely a worthy project. I find that I really enjoy discovering new, lesser-known writers and learning more about myself as a reader. I’m not sure if I’ll make it to BookCon again, but if I do, I’ll be back in those freebie lines hunting for more.

A Visit from the Goon Squad: Jennifer Egan

I was drawn in by the hype for this one. A Pulitzer Prize winning novel with the mass appeal of rock stars, drugs, warfare, and celebrity culture? How couldn’t I like this one? Multiple friends recommended it as well, and I found this copy for less than four dollars. There was no reason not to read it, and sometimes that’s all you really need for a book.

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I suppose you could say that this salad and book…peared well?

In my case, the hype wasn’t real.

I actually started this book in May, and only finished it some days ago. It’s not a particularly long read, but an easy one to ignore. For at least a month it sat untouched on my bookshelf in favor of other books, other hobbies, even household chores.

This isn’t to say that A Visit from the Goon Squad was a terrible book. The writing quality is there, and Jennifer Egan has a knack for rendering individual voices. In a book with multiple perspectives, this is absolutely essential. From the painful hope of Scotty Hausmann to Sasha’s paranoia, it’s clear that Egan tries hard to make her characters memorable. Her attention to detail is paramount as well, especially when describing the seedy and grotesque.

She gaped in frozen disbelief as her guests shrieked and staggered and covered their heads, tore hot, soaked garments from their flesh and crawled over the floor like people in medieval altar paintings whose earthly luxuries have consigned them to hell.

Additionally, I have to give credit where credit is due for the famous PowerPoint chapter. It comes towards the end of the book and motivated me to finish. I’m curious to know how this style would have read as a longer piece, and it was one of the only examples of quirkiness I felt paid off.

Because, by God, this book is irredeemably quirky. Each character is ‘zany’ or ‘wacky’ in some way, or their situations are so over the top that it reads farcical at times. This juxtaposed with a relatively plaintive writing style, especially when Egan writes in third person, felt dull and tiresome. There’s an entire chapter written with heavy annotated footnotes, which just gave me flashbacks to my failed reading of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Characters with little to do and far less to say, such as Sasha’s uncle Ted, are given quite a bit of breathing room to expand upon their vague, middle-class gripes. This isn’t to say that such material can’t be interesting, but the constant shifting focus from one character to another gives the narrative little weight.

In fact, this is probably my greatest gripe with the novel overall. To what do these snippets and voices add up? The ending attempts to bring the novel together, bringing characters back from the beginning, but so much time has passed and so many other voices have been heard, that there is no payoff to an ending like this. The themes of the book feel just as scattered, and what results is a damp, middling collection of related short stories, rather than any cohesive novel.

This was not for me. I find it hard to imagine what the Pulitzer committee saw in this novel, because even the frankness of Egan’s writing did not feel particularly memorable. In fact, I may read the runners-up for the Pulitzer from that year just to compare. They can’t have been all bad, right?

The Buddha of Suburbia: Hanif Kureishi

A few weeks ago I joined a book discussion group on Discord, in hopes of hearing from fellow readers about books I normally wouldn’t have picked up. The first suggestion was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I had already read some years ago. The second was this, The Buddha of Suburbia, the debut novel by Pakistani-English writer Hanif Kureishi.

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Avocado toast on homemade bread, a good breakfast for a good read

It’s interesting how reading a new book can influence your opinions of other works. The Buddha of Suburbia takes on themes of assimilation and alienation for an immigrant to a new world, much like Londonstani and A Bend in the River, which I’ve reviewed before. Reading another take on these themes made me appreciate the subtleties in A Bend in the River much more, and made me read the twist ending of Londonstani as a bit more gimmicky and shoehorned than I originally saw. But enough on old books, let’s get to the new.

The Buddha of Suburbia concerns Karim Amir, a half English, half Indian young man navigating his existence and contemplating what he wants for the future. His father, Haroon, abandons his wife and family for an aspiring socialite and spreading Eastern philosophy as the so-called ‘Buddha of Suburbia’. Karim often finds himself caught in the middle, and bounces from friend to friend in an effort to find his own purpose. This takes him to London and America, in a world of drugs, intellectualism, and erotic excess. All the while, there are undercurrents of class warfare through punk music and socialism. Some characters are shameless social climbers, and others embrace the counterculture with open arms. Even more interesting is the question of race in such a movement. Kureishi is critical of such movements at times, showing that there’s little room for minorities in a ‘white struggle’. The concept of intersectionality is commonplace today, but considering this book was written in 1990 about the events of the 1970s, it’s really quite remarkable how relatable it all feels.

And we pursued English roses as we pursued England; by possessing these prizes, this kindness and beauty, we stared defiantly into the eye of the Empire and all its self-regard–into the eye of Hairy Back, into the eye of the Great Fucking Dane. We became part of England and yet proudly stood outside it. But to be truly free we had to free ourselves of all bitterness and resentment, too. How was this possible when bitterness and resentment were generated afresh every day?

A highlight of Kureishi’s work is his characterization. This book has an ensemble cast and a variety of subplots and character arcs, and each one was compelling. None of these characters are perfect, far from it. At points it’s hard to find someone to root for. Haroon is absent-minded, Karim is flippant and self-absorbed, Charlie is fame-obsessed, and even Jamilla, who I probably liked most, is cold and haughty. In a way, these flawed figures is what made the book stand out. While some parts meander along, hoping for greater significance, the dynamic characterization made me devour this book in a matter of days. I hoped for some sort of resolution and a few tied-up ends.

That didn’t happen.

Like a lot of the books I’ve reviewed, this book sputters to a weak ending that ignores several of the thematic elements brought up earlier on. Characters are left in conflict, and even Karim is left to reflect on this state of uncertainty. As a snapshot of his life, it makes sense, but as a novel it provides no payoff to the reader. I’m not even asking for a happy ending, but more for some sort of settlement. Perhaps this just speaks to me as a lover of conventional story arcs. I could’ve done with a few more chapters to close what otherwise would’ve been an insightful, entertaining book.

You Are A Badass: Jen Sincero

I’m new to reviewing nonfiction, partially because I’m fairly new at reading it. Self-help books especially aren’t my forte, as I usually turn to blog posts and Dear Abby columns when I’m in need of advice. But I read this book, cover to cover, since it had been recommended and I received a copy for free. Yes, free! Thank you, BookCon!

The premise of You are a Badass is summed up in the subtitle: how to stop doubting your greatness and start living an awesome life. Jen Sincero, the author and professional life coach, is vigorous and matter of fact. This is the book equivalent of a foghorn alarm clock, when other advice can feel like birds twittering. In some ways it’s quite refreshing. Sincero doesn’t shy away from blunt truths, swearing, personal disclosure. Even the bright yellow cover is bold and unassuming.

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The view from my apartment on a bright, sunny day

In terms of content, the advice is actually quite simple. Love yourself, because you only have one life to live and there’s no point in wasting time on misery. Love yourself, because you are unique and special with your own thoughts and perspectives. Love yourself, because it’s the only way to happiness. She reiterates this many different times in many different ways, which can feel repetitive after a while and start to lose its meaning. However, there were genuine poignant moments, and what those were for me may not be the same for you.

To elaborate, I personally struggle with self-discipline and working towards long-term goals. It’s June and the novel draft I told myself I’d finish by New Years is barely 40 pages. I’ve been carrying the same extra twenty pounds since high school. You get the idea. Sincero encouraged me to look at the benefits of my inaction, to see what I’m gaining by not writing, not exercising. Comfort, mainly. No risk of failure. These are things I knew before, but phrased in an illuminating way.

You have to change your thinking first, and then the evidence appears. Our big mistake is that we do it the other way around. We demand to see the evidence before we believe it to be true.

Where this book falls short is in Sincero herself. While I appreciate her straightforwardness, I find it hard to relate to her. She peppers the book full of anecdotes, but not one ends in failure. The woman works as a nomadic life coach, with no ties to places or people. While she tries to make her message universal, there is an element of condescension about it all. She recalls a story of buying an Audi with money she doesn’t have, and coming up with the cash somehow because she really wants to afford it, and the statement reeks with privilege. Her monetary advice in general was eyebrow-raising, which is interesting since she has an entire follow-up book based solely on money.

Additionally, the book rambles on far too long at points, and doesn’t get into actionable items until well past the halfway point. As someone who loves goals and strategies, this was immensely frustrating.

Nevertheless, her intentions are good and there are gems mixed in with the topsoil. I’d recommend this book, lightly perhaps, but a recommendation all the same.

 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Jonathan Safran Foer

This one was another recommendation from my fiance, who read this book for a high school English class and remembers it fondly to this day. Yes, I realize there’s a movie as well. No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard it’s treacly bloated award bait, though it does have Tom Hanks, which is always a redeeming factor.

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Enjoyed some homemade s’more brownies with my book

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of Oskar Schell, a curious 9 year old boy, and his struggle to process the loss of his father, who passed away on September 11, 2001. The stated plot is Oskar trying to find the owner of a mysterious key in his father’s closet. The key is nondescript and labeled ‘Black’. He traipses about New York City, with a phone book as a guide, looking for everyone with the surname Black that he can possibly meet. Oskar meets an assortment of people, each with trauma and history, and learns the beginnings of what it means to move on.

Oskar struggles to relate to his mother, his grandmother, and those around him. They appear to be healing faster, moving on too quickly. The pain he feels is palpable, and it’s this genuine pain and outward grief that propels the novel forward and makes the narrative interesting.

In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.

However, my compliments end here.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the few novels I’ve read that buries a solid concept and theme under layers of artifice and pretentiousness. Foer wastes entire pages on single lines, which might just be a personal pet peeve, but it annoyed me to no end. The black and white photographs were interesting, but I didn’t feel that they added to the narrative in any way. Oskar’s story itself is so compelling, a child’s perspective on loss juxtaposed with a national tragedy, but Foer can’t let the story speak for itself.

This is exemplified by Oskar himself. I enjoyed his precociousness, but at times it felt like the author lost perspective. No matter how mature and intelligent, Oskar is a child. I’ve heard the movie tries to excuse his perspective with Asperger’s syndrome, but this is hardly a competent reason why.

Additionally, I found that the subplot concerning Oskar’s grandparents, complete with letters and chapters written in their own shattered stream of consciousness, didn’t contribute to a cohesive work at all. It felt as if Foer had two distinct stories to tell, and just cobbled them together with pieces of tape. The melodrama of their lives had its fair share of interest, but proved exhausting in the context of this novel. Perhaps he should have written a self contained piece, of the Dresden attacks and growing old.

I could go on about this one, I honestly could. My overall impression was enjoyment, but this is nothing if not a flawed novel, inflated by ego. I’ll take what I enjoyed from the book and leave behind the rest.

The Trumpet of the Swan: E.B. White (Childhood Favorites)

Like a lot of people, I read voraciously in childhood. My mom likes to say that I would read any cereal box in front of me, any newspaper ad. Still, there were some standout books from my early years that I cherish to this day. I thought I’d devote a handful of reviews to some of those books.

The Trumpet of the Swan is an old classic, written by the legendary essayist E.B. White. White is mostly known these days for his contributions to The Elements of Style and for his children’s books. The Trumpet of the Swan tends to be overlooked next to his more popular books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. However, neither of them has stuck with me quite like the tale of Louis the swan.

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My copy is nothing fancy, but just look at that artwork!

The premise of The Trumpet of the Swan is simple. You might know the story yourself, the book has been around for nearly fifty years. Louis is a young trumpeter swan that was born mute, and struggles to communicate with his family and friends. With the help of a sympathetic human, Sam, Louis learns to play the trumpet, write, and accumulates some notoriety along the way. Louis eventually finds love and tranquility in serene Canadian campgrounds. It’s a heartwarming story to say the least.

The Trumpet of the Swan skews a little older than E.B. White’s other children’s books. It never quite stood the test of time either. Its film adaptation (which I didn’t even know existed until now) was panned critically, and the story as a whole has mostly faded from public eye. True, it’s not flashy, especially compared to the bizarreness of Stuart Little and the pure imagination of Charlotte’s Web. But Louis himself is a captivating character with bold statements of his own.

‘The sky,’ he wrote on his slate, ‘is my living room. The woods are my parlor. The lonely lake is my bath. I can’t remain behind a fence all my life.’

More than anything, it’s White that sells the story. His writing style is reminiscent of A.A. Milne, matter-of-fact and adult, yet unafraid of whimsy. There’s an especially fun scene of Louis exploring a hotel room, ordering room service, and discovering that he doesn’t care for mayonnaise. It’s a simple anecdote but so detailed and captivating that I haven’t forgotten it, all these years later.

If you haven’t read The Trumpet of the Swan, or you’ve forgotten it with time, I urge you to pick it up and delve a little into tranquil nostalgia. Read it to your children, if you have them. Quiet moments are so hard to come by these days, and this book is nothing if not a quiet moment in the midst of a hectic, busy life.

The Vegetarian: Han Kang

I’m usually good about saving money, but I do have a weakness: books. I try to buy used or sale books whenever possible, but every now and then I find myself unable to resist an attractive cover and intriguing premise.

I passed by The Vegetarian for months and finally succumbed. 

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Homemade vegetarian nachos to go with an aptly titled book

I have little experience with Korean literature, and all I knew of this novel was its reputation. 2016’s Man Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian has been translated into several languages and has gained worldwide attention. I wanted to read what was fresh and talked about, rather than always combing through books of yesteryear.

I paid full bookstore price for The Vegetarian and it was worth every penny.

This novel is a triptych of sorts, each portion of the story told by a different narrator, and all centered around the same woman, Yeong-Hye. Yeong-Hye is tormented by strange, bizarre nightmares and sees vegetarianism as the only solution. Her obstinate nature tears apart the tenuous relationships in her family, and sends everyone spiraling to points of no return. I realize this depiction sounds a great deal like the blurb on the back of a book, but telling you more would spoil the drastic twists and turns this story takes.

What I can tell you is that this novel is so visceral and matter of fact, it borders on depravity. These are not easy characters to understand, let alone like. The sexuality of this novel is perverse, yet unashamed. Han counters the awkwardness and stoic nature of her culture, with absolute fearlessness.

The sunlight coming into the room was bright. Her disheveled hair wrapped around her head like an animal’s mane, while the crumpled sheet was coiled around her lower body. The smell of her body filled the room, a sour, tangy smell with notes of sweetness, bitterness, and a rank animal musk.

There are other points where this novel haunted me as I slept. I loved every moment.

What sells me most on The Vegetarian is theme. This is not a horror novel, or even fantasy, despite all its supernatural elements. This is a work of feminism, and more broadly speaking, a work of human failings. The most heartbreaking moments are its most human: loveless marriages, dreams deferred, family conflict. It’s clear that Han attracts a disparate audience, lovers of the real and surreal can come together and appreciate all this novel has to offer.

I know I certainly did.

One Hundred Years of Solitude: Gabriel García Márquez

This will not be an easy book to discuss. I considered waiting a few days to write this review, since I finished the book just yesterday afternoon. However, doing so would risk me losing the odd swirling feeling I’ve experienced for the last day and a half.

I ask you all this: have you ever closed a book, looked around the room, and pondered your own existence? Where am I? What year is it?

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Perhaps not the best idea to finish a book of this magnitude with my desk lunch in the middle of the workday

This was One Hundred Years of Solitude. And if you ask me whether I liked it, the most basic question about any book, I wouldn’t really have an answer. Liking something involves a certain level of contentment and ease, but I finished this book with none of those feelings. Just bewilderment and a long dull ache.

Considered to be one of the greatest works of Latin American fiction, One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the saga of the Buendía family and their life in Macondo, an isolated land that their patriarch founded. To describe a ‘plot’ for this novel, as if there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, is a bit of a fruitless endeavor. This book is the meandering, collage history of dozens of characters, each of which dies in misery. Happiness is short lived. Disaster is imminent for each and every Buendía. Some suffer slowly, other suddenly.

What keeps you reading One Hundred Years of Solitude is not the plot, but García Márquez’s impeccable imagery and seamless weaving in of the supernatural. The writing is nothing short of top notch, especially in moments where the most mundane, off-putting anecdotes are rendered beautiful:

She would put handfuls of earth in her pockets, and ate them in small bits without being seen, with a confused feeling of pleasure and rage, as she instructed her girl friends in the most difficult needlepoint and spoke about other men, who did not deserve the sacrifice of having one eat the whitewash on the walls because of them. The handfuls of earth made the only man who deserved that show of degradation less remote and more certain, as if the ground that he walked on with his fine patent leather boots in another part of the world were transmitting to her the weight and the temperature of his blood in a mineral savor that left a harsh aftertaste in her mouth and a sediment of peace in her heart.”

In terms of the supernatural, García Márquez weaves in prophets, ghosts, mythology, and alchemy so seamlessly that at times you forget that this is a world unlike our own. It simply feels like a distant culture, and magic just part of the folklore. He’s a master of the genre for a reason. He practically defined.

So, did I like the book? Again, hard to say. But there’s a deep confusion, a deep affection, and I have a strong feeling I’ll never forget it.

The Year of Magical Thinking: Joan Didion

There is a folk singer named Phil Elverum, also known as Mount Eerie, who released an album last year entitled A Crow Looked at Me. The album was a raw, aching exploration of his own feelings after the death of his wife. I never listened to the whole album. In fact, I could barely get through the first song, ‘Real Death’. I felt like I was invading on a stranger’s innermost thoughts and darkest feelings. It was a frightening place to be.

In a way, I expected a little of this from The Year of Magical Thinking. Both are pieces of art that stem from grief, from the loss of a beloved spouse, from difficulty coping with a new existence. But Didion’s experience is not Elverum’s experience is not anyone else’s experience with death. It’s one of the most potent themes in literature, like love, because no two experiences are the same.

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I needed cookies for this one.

Didion’s work welcomes readers and observers. It is not the invasion of listening to A Crow Looked at Me. She opens with a kind of quartet that finds its way to many places in the book:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

This quartet calls the reader to her narrative and her struggle, invites comparison and empathy. There are passages throughout that meditate on the very nature of grief. There are other passages that reference exact pieces of art that Didion uses to process her feelings, everything from a play by Euripides to Clinical Neuroanatomy. It’s all very populist in a sense.

At the same time, the work is personal. Didion pulls from her own novels and those of her late husband. There are memories of Paris, Hawaii, New York. Past and present are muddled together. Complicating her work further is the idea of interrupted grief. Not only has her husband passed away, her daughter spends several months in and out of hospitals recovering from one trauma after the next. In classes I’ve taken on bereavement, we’ve discussed how interrupted grief can be the most painful and disjointed of all. Didion’s pain is palpable. She was so close to losing both a husband and child.

There are moments that feel circular, bogged down by mundane details of travel and small talk and bureaucracy. I believe there aren’t enough raw moments. Not enough risks taken. The work reads as guarded, but perhaps that’s because I’m used to more unabashed portrayals of grief. There was no wailing in The Year of Magical Thinking. There were barely even tears.

Still, this is one of the seminal memoirs on grief for a reason. There is much to appreciate in The Year of Magical Thinking. When it comes to these fundamental human experiences, such as grief, read it all. Each person stands alone.