What? Two reviews in two days? It’s because Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife is impossible to put down. (And because I am between series on tv) The short story collection has common threads in Lao immigrant experiences of labour and family, but also of something like dignity and something like connection. I say something like because I’ve been lately trying to explain more and more abstractions to the kid and realizing how a word like dignity connotes so much more than ‘respect’ and ‘connection’ so much more than ‘linked’ so you’ll have to trust me that this collection makes an argument for the dignity of labour and the vitality of touch.
It is a collection free in its imagination and particular in detail. Reciting a list of the range of plot points and settings is the stuff of book jackets and you can take my word that the stories are wide ranging. Instead I’ll share the moments I liked best were of children experiencing the gutting mixture of mortification and gratitude that comes with parents making sacrifices and doing their best and yet – to the child – never quite doing or being what they hoped. And of characters who tolerate the impossible – e.g. living with your wife’s adulterer – because action would be admitting this impossible thing was happening and might necessitate a response.
The writing is exceptional; the stories swift and absorbing. Thanks to the non-book-book-club for the conversation and for K. for putting the book in my hands.
We read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day with book club, and I’m 100% sure we should read Klara and the Sun together, too, because there are so many moments of ‘what would you do if’ that are both fascinating and (for the moment) speculative (but carry the near-future quality of only a matter of time). Mostly I can’t begin to answer these on my own during the length of nap I have to write this, and I am even more confident that having some wine and a snack sampler would make my answers better. So I offer you instead the questions I might ask and try to answer should we be gathering (with *spoilers):
- You have the choice to ‘lift’ your child by genetically tinkering to make them much smarter. Doing so carries some small risk of a lifetime of illness and death. Not doing so destines them to a life of subpar education/employment and social ostracism. What do you do?
- Your child dies. You could purchase a robot that will resemble your child in every way from appearance, to mannerisms, to speech. What do you do?
- Can a person be replaced in the most essential way by a robot – like not in the space of work, but in the literal replacement of a human? What qualities of human-ness cannot be replaced, if any?
- What and how is a ‘god’ or higher power constituted? What acts of faith and what proof of divinity do we need in order to conclude greater forces at play?
So yes. It’s an excellent book with an incredibly interesting narrator, fascinating questions to figure out and all kinds of unexpected and delightful plot moments. And given my best loved book club is still on hiatus, if you have thoughts on these questions or others… get in touch. xo
I think we are meant to be shocked reading Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley to discover the Silicon Valley and the tech industry is toxic for women, or that tech companies are tracking and using our data (for nefarious purposes) or that most of the CEOs of companies are young and some of them are mean. I think.
Wiener leaves her shitty job in publishing in New York, moves to Silicon Valley, learns about computers and software and does customer relations. She’s good at her job because she has feelings and emotional intelligence and apparently none of the programmers do. She gets paid well but always feels a little uncomfortable (but not that uncomfortable) about how much money she makes. She buys fancy boots. Her boss makes her cry once and it is Traumatic.
I don’t know. I just didn’t care about most of it, and didn’t find any of it particularly revealing or surprising. Like I think we’re supposed to be Shocked at gentrification and the San Fransisco housing crisis. Or floored by the revelations that companies are selling our data (the only time I’ve known anyone to be upset about data collection is when the Canadian government created the Covid App and suddenly every one I know was Deeply Concerned about the government possibly having a tiny bit of data). Or horrified by the dismal state of diversity in the tech sector. And I mean, we should be outraged by all of it, but the book doesn’t make a case for outrage. It’s more “hey, did you know this was happening?” Which maybe it’s not a fair complaint to ask a memoir to be about action rather than description, but Wiener’s ‘conclusion’ of dropping out of the tech sector to turn to writing hardly seems an inspiring course for the world.
Oh. I do think Wiener has a spot on eye for describing whole classes of white men by the way they dress and shave. [Which let us pause and consider whether this kind of synecdoche would be okay if it was for any other group].
But sure. It’s on a bunch of best of lists and maybe it is very, very good and I missed the point. But for this reader I just shrugged and thought yeah.
Is it ‘non fiction’? ‘non-fiction’? ‘nonfiction’? I have so much to learn.
I started with Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing and it was an education. Turns out nonfiction (or non-fiction) is… good. Or THIS book was good. It was also long. Is all of nonfiction long? (Don’t answer that. I’m currently reading a memoir and it’s only medium to short. Maybe memoirs are short? And books about the IRA are long? [Sorry, M., the memoir is not one from your list – but they’re coming!]).
I liked it because I learned some things about Ireland and the IRA but there was also a lot of murder mystery. Less character than I like. Though still some characters. Because there were people.
Guys. When I try to write book reviews about nonfiction it reads like I’m stoned. I am not stoned. Though I did just eat a lot of really salty popcorn?
Okay let me try this again. It’s a book about Belfast and Northern Ireland in the 60s-2010s and the people Disappeared by the IRA through these years and the who and how of their Disappearance. I didn’t know most of the things in the book because I didn’t know anything about the Troubles. And now I know some things!
So yes. So far nonfiction: I learned some things, enjoyed the reading, and am concerned that all of it may be Very Long.
I hope my next review is better. Or else this 2021 resolution of 1 in 5 is going to ruin me as a reviewer. I WILL IMPROVE.