BOOK REVIEW: I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp by Zumrat Dawut & Anthony Del Col

I Escaped a Chinese Internment CampI Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp by Zumrat Dawut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: April 11, 2023

This short but evocative graphic novella tells the story of a Uyghur woman who is sent away to a reeducation camp and who is also sterilized against her will. It shows the brutality of China’s totalitarianism at its most oppressive. It’s easy to see China as a fairly benign – if autocratic – regime until one learns about the Orwellian nightmare that exists for some minorities deep within the country.

FYI – This book won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for “Illustrated Reporting and Commentary.”

I’d highly recommend reading this work as it shines a light deep down the rabbit hole of Chinese governance.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’ve heard of this book, but not read it, you’re probably aware of the troubled circumstance of its publication. Several years after having failed to be published, Toole committed suicide. The story of the book would have ended there, except Toole’s mother found the typescript and carted it around to people in the literary community. After much persistence and not taking no for an answer, she managed to get Walker Percy to read the manuscript, and the rest is posthumous Pulitzer Prize winning history.

It would be easy to dismiss the editors involved in rejecting this manuscript as grade-A lunkheads, or as the lead character (Ignatius J. Reilly) likes to verbally skewer his victims “Mongoloids.” However, one can see how said lunkheads would find this much-beloved novel risky. It’s a character-driven novel in which the lead character is obnoxious and unlovable in the extreme. Reilly is a pretentious and pedantic professorial type–verbally speaking– wrapped into the obese body of a man-child who is emotionally an ill-mannered five-year old with a bombastic vocabulary. Reilly has no impulse control, takes no responsibility, and is prone to tantrums, sympathy-seeking dramatic displays, and wanton lies. He’s the worst because he thinks he’s better than everyone despite the fact that in all ways except his acerbic tongue, he’s worse than everyone.

That said, the book—like its unsympathetic lead character—is hilarious through and through. What it lacks in a taught story arc and a theme / moral argument (the latter being why the editor at Simon and Schuster rejected the book after showing initial interest in it) it more than makes up in hilarity.

I should point out that when I say that this isn’t a plot-driven book, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an interesting wrap-up at the end—which I will not discuss to avoid spoiling it. The plot revolves around events in the life of a lazy man-child forced to go to work. It’s not a journey of change, discovery, or adventure. While, in most cases, a character-driven story with an unmalleable lead would be a recipe for a book that flops, here it keeps one reading to the last page because it’s Ignatius’s failure to become a better man that ensures the book is funny to the end. Reilly is constantly making decisions that are both overly contemplated and yet ill-considered.

The book follows Ignatius Reilly through an event that results in a tremendous loss of money for Ignatius’s mother. This forces her to finally put her foot down and insist the man—who she still thinks of as her little boy—get a job. It should be noted that Ignatius’s mother’s eventual coming around to the monster her son has become is a major driving force in the story—though we can see a distinct lack of taking of responsibility that echoes that of Ignatius, himself. Ignatius gets a fine—if lowly, clerical–job at the slowly-dying Levy Pants Company, but gets fired after he encourages a worker protest that goes awry. He then gets a job as a hot-dog cart vendor—a job considered the lowest of the low by both his mother and New Orleans’ society-at-large. The latter is the job he has at the end when a final chain of events unfolds (not without tension and drama, I might add.)

On the theme issue, the Simon & Schuster editor was correct that the book isn’t really about anything except how to muddle through life as a lazy, cranky, emotionally-stunted, and overly-verbose doofus. (But he was oh-so wrong about that being a lethal deficit—according to the Pulitzer Prize committee as well as innumerable readers.)

I’d recommend this for any reader with a sense of humor. You won’t like Ignatius J. Reilly, but you’ll find his antics hilarious, and you’ll want to know what happens to him in the end even if he is irredeemable.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Theo Decker is thirteen years old when, during a visit to an art museum, a bomb explodes–killing his mother and defining the course of his life into adulthood. There are the obvious impacts on the life of a child separated from a loving and responsible parent. Furthermore, Decker feels guilty because he and his art-loving mother only stopped in the museum on the way to a meeting with the Principal. Theo’s dad had flown the coup before the book’s start, and is an alcoholic gambler in addition to being a deadbeat dad. The lack of a reliable family member who can (and wants to) take Theo puts tremendous stress on the boy, encouraging him to fall into the same patterns as the father he despises.

Theo spends the remainder of his adolescence in a mix of homes: a caring and wealthy (but in many ways dysfunctional) household where he feels his outsider status, his father’s neglectful Las Vegas home where he makes a solitary friend—Boris–of similar circumstance, and, finally, the home of a wise craftsman to whom Theo is connected only indirectly by the events of that fateful day. No matter whether he is in a good home with a responsible and respectable guardian or in his father’s white trash estate, there’s always a cloud of uncertainty over the boy’s life.

There’s also an unexpected way in which Decker’s life is defined by the bombing. Waking up amid the debris and dust, he tries to help an old man in the last minutes of life, only to witness the man’s death. Shaken, fearful, and unable to find his mother, Theo stumbles his way out through the back of evacuated museum having absconded with a small but famous painting, Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch.” He knows he should return the painting, but the fact that it was one of his mother’s favorites and that he doesn’t want to rock the boat and get sent to an institution leads him to keep it. Furthermore, as much as he loathes the idea of being like his father, he shares his old man’s tendency to get himself into pickles because of a desire to be liked that is so extreme that it keeps him from taking responsibility for his actions and encourages him to self-medicate to deal with the stress of always having dark clouds overhead. The journey of the book, which takes us from the bombing to Decker’s life as a 20-something adult, is all about whether his own innate goodness in combination with the positive role models (living and deceased) around him will allow him to shake off the demons his father never could.

Tartt wrote this book masterfully. The fact that it won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize is more praise than I can heap on it. The book actually opens with an adult Theo Decker in an Amsterdam hotel room, afraid to go outside for reasons the reader isn’t yet let in on. Later we discover that this is chronologically near the story’s resolution, and it serves as a brilliant hook. For the entire book, that hook is set and the question of why resounds in the back of one’s mind.

It’s a rare 800+ page book that doesn’t drag, but this one pulls one through beautifully. This is in large part owing to the character development of all the major characters, and there are quite a few important characters in a book of this scope. While some are cads (e.g. Theo’s dad and his girlfriend “Xandra”) and some are virtuous to a fault (e.g. Hobie, Theo’s guardian from age 15 onward), one sees enough depth to experience the humanity of them all: the good in the bad and the bad in the good. Other than the lead—and possibly inclusive of him—the most fascinating character is his best friend, Boris, who features prominently in Theo’s Las Vegas years as well as during the novel’s climax and resolution.

The other factor that keeps the tension on is the dysfunctionality of many of these characters. There’s always drama to be had. In fact, when things are looking up in the novel is when the reader gets the biggest sense of foreboding, a feeling that the bottom will inevitably fall out. We know the bottom will drop out because Decker has set himself up for it to—and not entirely unwittingly. We just don’t know how until the book’s end.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction. Don’t let the large page count and suggestion of stuffiness (art, antiques, and high society New York all featuring prominently in the book) dissuade one. It’s readable and engaging, and it offers the same authenticity then describing Boris and Theo smoking pot and eating sugar on bread for dinner as it does when it’s talking about the sale of a fake 18th century armoire.

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