A week ago, I finished reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which has been on my to-read list since it first won the Pulitzer a few years ago. I first started reading it at Mepkin Abbey, where it made a strange juxtaposition with The Underground Railroad, which I had reread the week-end before. I was blown away by the first chapter of Nguyen's book--so lyrical, so beautiful, such promise. No wonder it won the Pulitzer.
But after I finished, I felt much less easy about the book. There's a torture scene at the end that lasts for a long time and is quite brutal, and I wondered if it was necessary. It didn't haunt me the way that the torture scenes in Whitehead's novel have haunted me. I continue to be amazed that Whitehead could explore slavery and race and history in the U.S. in ways that felt fresh. Nguyen's writing began to feel clichéd by the end.
And I found the characters wearisome. By the end of The Sympathizer, I hated them all. I wasn't expecting that development. But I kept reading, in part because I was aware of my developing negative feelings, and I knew the book had won the Pulitzer, and I wanted to see if there were better chunks to come at the end.
I was glad to return the book to the library. Yesterday, I picked up a very different book, Rebecca Solnit's The Mother of All Questions. I was surprised that my public library had it, since it was published so recently.
About a month ago, I felt like all roads were leading to Solnit. I read this wonderful article on Donald Trump; it's the kind of writing that says exactly what I'm feeling, but does it so eloquently. I admired Solnit's ability to stay somewhat sympathetic to Trump, even while excoriating him: "We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us; and those who do not have to cope with that are brittle, weak, unable to endure contradiction, convinced of the necessity of always having one’s own way. The rich kids I met in college were flailing as though they wanted to find walls around them, leapt as though they wanted there to be gravity and to hit ground, even bottom, but parents and privilege kept throwing out safety nets and buffers, kept padding the walls and picking up the pieces, so that all their acts were meaningless, literally inconsequential. They floated like astronauts in outer space."
I have only read one essay in Solnit's collection, and I can't wait to return to the book because the first essay, "The Mother of All Questions," is so wonderful. She explores motherhood, and why we're so eager to know why people--especially artists--don't choose motherhood.
This kind of essay runs the risk of being trite--or worse, saying what's already been said. But this quote gives you a sense of Solnit's insight: "One of the reasons people lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity is the belief that children are the way to fulfill your capacity to love. But there are so many things to love besides one's own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world" (p. 9).
It's that last part that made me catch my breath: so much other work love has to do in the world. It's a wonderful twist, to change love from a verb to a noun that's the subject of the sentence: love as an active agent of change in the world.
I can't wait to see what other surprises are in store for me as I read this book.
Best Essay Collections of 2017 by Women Authors
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