Thursday, November 27, 2008


The title of Ha Jin's Waiting succinctly expresses the book's theme. Lin Kong, a doctor in a city hospital in China, is ashamed of his unattractive wife Shuyu and her tiny deformed feet that were bound as a child. She and their daughter Hua live in the country, where Lin visits them every summer. Meanwhile, Lin has struck up a platonic but loving relationship with the head nurse Manna at the hospital. Each year when Lin returns home, Shuyu agrees to a divorce but then reneges in court. Finally, after 18 years, the law allows Lin to divorce her without her permission. Of course, by this time, the spark has gone out of his relationship with Manna. The irony of the title is that all three main characters are waiting for something, but once that something materializes, it's anti-climactic. The reader does a lot of waiting, too, for something tragic to happen, but when it does, it's a bit of a surprise. Still, like the characters, the reader realizes at the end that the waiting was the best part.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

INTO THE WILD by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild is the haunting, heartbreaking, true story of Chris McCandless, who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness at the age of 24, trying to survive by hunting and gathering all of his food. Krakauer's article on McCandless for Outside magazine apparently brought a number of Chris's friends and acquaintances out of the woodwork, giving Krakauer enough material to fill in some of the blanks in Chris's two-year odyssey, as well as correct a few errors. Krakauer argues convincingly that McCandless was not as unprepared and foolhardy as many people believed for a stint in the wild. McCandless did, however, make some tragic mistakes that cost him his life. Krakauer also includes in the book the story of his own solo trek in Alaska that could have very easily resulted in the same fate. McCandless was a fascinating but frustrating and headstrong young man and remains an enigma. He was smart, musical, athletic, and well-liked by almost everyone who came in contact with him, but he struck out on his own for two years without a word to his family. Time and again, people he met on the road helped him out despite their initial reluctance. His heroes were Leo Tolstoy and Jack London, but as Krakauer points out, he was trying to live Jack London's fiction, which was a far cry from Jack London's life. My favorite anecdote in the book is the story of Chris's abandoned Datsun, which, ironically, was rescued and resurrected. Krakauer's storytelling is so vivid that it kept me awake at night, long after I finished the book.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Irene Dische gets extra credit for the staccato writing style of The Empress of Weehawken. The brisk—almost breathless—sentences add to the inherent humor. The book is fiction, but it's narrated by the author's Catholic grandmother, affectionately known as Mops, a nurse who marries a Jewish doctor, Carl Rother, in 1930's Germany. Carl converts to Catholicism, but it doesn't stop the SS from barring Aryan citizens from seeking Carl's medical attention. His wife's relatives help Carl emigrate to the U.S., where his poor command of the English language stymies his attempts to pass the pathology board exam that will enable him to practice medicine. Also in danger is Carl's half-Jewish daughter Renate, a headstrong teenager who refuses to conceal her lineage in Nazi Germany. After Carl gets his M.D. but loses his job prospect, his wife and daughter join him in New York. There Renate marries Dische, known primarily by his last name and for "hogging the eccentricity limelight." I know this doesn't sound like it should be funny, but the narration makes it so. Oddly enough, the humor diminishes when Irene herself becomes a more central character.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov

If Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire were not so high-brow, it might be fun. This book is obviously not your everyday novel. It's a poem with a pompous, inapplicable, absurd foreword and commentary surrounding it. The fictitious poet is the late John Shade, and the notes are authored by his pesky neighbor, Professor Charles Kinbote, from the northern kingdom of Zembla. The commentary is mostly tales of Zembla, so that it's almost as if Nabokov had two ideas, one for the poem and one for the Zembla folklore, and decided to juxtapose them in this farcical fashion. The result is something like the Lennon and McCartney song "A Day in the Life," with two completely different works spliced into one. It's difficult to keep the Zembla characters straight, despite the index at the end, especially since the stories are interspersed with off-kilter observations on the poem. Plus, it would be helpful to have two copies so that you could read the poem side-by-side with the commentary, as recommended in the foreword, although actual commentary on the poem is really pretty negligible. The funniest story line, though, is that of Kinbote's relationship with Shade and his wife Sylvia. Kinbote's attempts to spy on Shade, even vacationing where he thinks Shade is going, and his disappointment at not being invited to Shade's birthday party are embarrassingly pathetic. Despite Kinbote's lack of success in persuading Shade to incorporate some Zembla stories into the poem, he draws parallels between lines of the poem and Zembla anyway. It really would be hilarious, particularly the way in which everything comes together in the end, if it weren't so challenging to read.