There was just not going to be a situation where I didn’t read this. The prominence, influence and staying power that this book has achieved, particulThere was just not going to be a situation where I didn’t read this. The prominence, influence and staying power that this book has achieved, particularly its position in general discourse around the mounting investigation of the special counsel meant I was going be reading it for myself. Possibly while holding my nose, but nonetheless while coming to my own conclusions. As you might expect, there’s a fair bit of breathless tabloid and tawdriness throughout, some of it a little unfair and irrelevant, other times necessary for context and portrayal. To be clear, I find the gossipy observations of extramarital affairs, tears on the street, and speculative characterisations of those loosely, passingly attached to the administration in particular a little excessive. However, Wolff has made a strong case for the sheer lack of talent, decorum, professionalism and experience that cuts right through the administration, so all of it may be fair, too.
The book helped me sort out a bewildering, flurrying cast of characters. Pence has almost no role (“I do funerals and ribbon cuttings”), Melania is also virtually absent, Ivanka is a perpetual and guileless meddler, Spicer is given something like pity, and the White House is really a spinning top driven by the contentious and competing interests of Priebus, Bannon and Kushner. Bannon is the one person depicted with something like depth, and I’m not sure if it’s because he spent the most time with Wolff (certainly he has by far the most quotes throughout), or because he’s the most boastful, overconfident rogue of them all.
The book definitely also has some amusing moments, like when Wolff describes Jared Kushner as ‘Candide-like’ (you know you’ve got a specialized audience there if you’re making reference to Voltaire), recalls Scaramucci ‘exuberantly dancing alongside the son of Muammar Gaddafi’ in Davos, or when depicting the moment that Priebus found out he was no longer chief of staff, shortly after deplaning from Air Force One when Trump discussed how they would carefully manage a transition and then immediately tweeted his appointment of Kelly, who was also unaware of his appointment.
Also, the way he describes Trump’s speeches is basically Wolff just showing off, and I love it:
“It’s part hortatory, part personal testimony, part barstool blow-hard, a rambling, disjointed, digressive, what-me-worry approach that combined aspects of cable television rage, big-tent religious revivalism, Borscht Belt tumbler, motivational speaking, and YouTube vlogging.”
The media seemed to focus primarily on the cheeseburger in bed, Melania’s tears of sadness the night of the election, and Bannon’s endless slander and ad hominems. I think there’s a bit more than that to take from this, and there’s good reason that talk of the 25th Amendment has surged in the wake of this book’s publication....more
Hunger is partly what it’s like to be overweight in a fat-phobic world, but more than that, it’s a memoir of Roxane Gay’s specific experience, what heHunger is partly what it’s like to be overweight in a fat-phobic world, but more than that, it’s a memoir of Roxane Gay’s specific experience, what her body has gone through, and she’s not speaking for anyone but herself. Unlike most personal stories about weight, this is not a ‘triumph’ narrative about her losing weight or conquering her ‘unruly’ body.
As a super obese woman (someone with a BMI of 50 or more), Gay details the daily intrusions and humiliating ordeals that she endures from shopping for food (strangers being so brazen as to remove items from her shopping cart), clothes (where options are incredibly limited), boarding a plane (and dealing with non-compatible belt extenders and casual cruelty from other passengers or attendants), going to a restaurant (where careful investigations need to happen in advance to determine whether chairs have fixed armrests), walking down the street (where her body is treated like a public space itself – highly visible but invisible – bumped into, stepped on, shoved aside), even going to the doctor’s office (where she deals with condescension and dehumanization).
Many of the aspects of her daily experiences should (and do) provoke empathy, not pity. Even her father – who would clearly do anything to support her –naively says things like “I am only telling you what no one else will,” when what he says is what the world tells her – forcefully and contemptuously – every day.
Eating for Roxane is something of a coping mechanism, which seems to have tipped into a blurred act of compulsion, too. Her weight gain hinges on a before and after; before, she had a trouble-free childhood playing with her brothers and feeling deeply loved and safe with her family. Then at age 12, she is the victim of a sickening, monstrous rape, which destroys any sense of security she once had, while also bringing her overwhelming, life-long shame. She is unable to say anything to her family, and processes this trauma on her own. Eating therefore becomes a way for Roxane to feel safe.
The writing sometimes feels repetitious, but it reflects the near-constant frustrations, negative messaging, and indignity that she lives with in a world both fixated on evaluating, monitoring and reporting on her body, while also refusing to accommodate her.
It’s an intensely honest book, and there are many passages that are tough to read, but I think it’s a profoundly important narrative, and a perspective that was missing – conspicuously absent on reflection – in our world....more
The Sympathizer starts on the day that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, when the narrator manages to escape on the last helicopter leaving the citThe Sympathizer starts on the day that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, when the narrator manages to escape on the last helicopter leaving the city, headed for Guam (and then Southern California). The narrator – the sympathizer as he refers to himself – is a placeless character of conflicting identities and principles; a man of two faces (at least). He is half French, half Vietnamese; he’s a spy for the Northern Vietnamese, but displaced with former ARVN in Southern California; a devout Communist but also a grateful recipient of sponsorship, and a self-admitted man-child. He’s tender and sensitive in some ways (largely his lens of the world), brutal and selfish in others.
“I laughed, even though inside me the little dog of my soul was sitting at attention, nose and ears to the wind.”
The story is one long confession, though it’s unclear what the context is until the end. It’s easy to forget because of the magnificence of the writing, the remarkable phrasing, the vivid, textural shimmering experience of being on the streets of Saigon or San Jose. It’s almost impossible for me to focus and give you one or two examples, since so much has been noted. Okay, how about this, presented without explanation:
“He wept, his tears falling into the vast waters of his forgetting, and that slight saline change to the liquid constitution of his amnesia provoked the obsidian past to rise. An obelisk slowly emerged from his ocean of disremembering, the resurrection of what he did not even know was dead since it had been buried at sea.”
While the Sympathizer is a fictional account (Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut work!), the book was released at the same time as the author’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which is the author’s academic handling and interpretation of many of the themes presented (shown, not told) in the Sympathizer on the history of the Vietnam War, from a much broader perspective, including Laotian, Cambodian, Southeast Asian American. I hadn’t realized, for example, that there was an effort to take back the country (via Thailand and Laos) following the end of US involvement. Or that Ho Chi Minh actually reached out to the CIA (then the OSS) in fighting the French. There’s a very strong critique of how the war is remembered, whether through selective valorisation, or in particular through sensationalized movies like Apocalypse Now!, which constituted much of the American public memory of the war.
“What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?”...more