Reading Update: Big Fat Book and More

Big Fat Book: Done!

I finished David Van Reybrouck’s Congo in just under three weeks–nothing like a library deadline for motivation. The second half, covering 1990 on, was much harder to read emotionally. I had not realized the extent to which the Democratic Republic of Congo was and continues to be caught up in the ethnic violence of Rwanda. Outright war, massacre of refugees, ongoing conflict among various militias, endemic rape, forced servitude in mines–these chapters were very bleak.

Van Reybrouck argues convincingly that the history of the Congo is interwoven with world history rather than being an unimportant byway. Why, then, don’t Westerners know more about it? One reason is provided in this timely (for me) piece by Anjam Sundaram, who worked as an AP stringer in the DRC: “We’re Missing the Story: The Media’s Retreat from Foreign Reporting.” (I added his book, Stringer, to my library wishlist).


It’s hard to say whether Congo ends on a hopeful note (the author depicts himself as confused at book’s end). Van Reybrouck documents China’s involvement in Congo, which is bringing infrastructure development and economic opportunity in exchange for natural resources. But China has no regard for human rights, and its long-term strategy for involvement in Africa isn’t entirely positive–from a Western point of view, and perhaps not from an African one. It’s hard not to sound like a colonizer saying “they should be civilizing the savages!” but China is not interested in encouraging good governance or civil society (the deals Chinese industries cut were done behind closed doors, without involving Congo’s rather ineffectual Parliament).

One of the most interesting arguments in this section of the book was Van Reybrouck’s criticism of Western democracies’ fundamentalist view of free elections (which they supported in Congo to the tune of millions of dollars). He believes that national elections should not be the starting point of democracy but something to work towards, in part by building competence and trust via local elections first. When Western nations start by insisting on national elections, they cut themselves out of diplomatic involvement in a troubled state (the new head of state can simply dismiss them with “I’m democratically elected, butt out”). Van Reybrouck’s view is undoubtedly controversial, but he’s got a point.


For work, I just sent off the complete draft of a revised Grade Appeal Policy that I’ve had on my plate for wayyyy too long. It’s got some big changes from the way we do things now, so I expect there will be further work before we’re all done, but it’s a load off my mind. After all this hard writing and reading, and with my summer travel coming up in a week, I’m ready for some light reading and listening.

Other Reading/Listening/Watching

Congo has eaten all my reading time for the last couple of weeks. I returned my other library books unread. But I have been listening, both to old favorites like Heyer and Austen and to Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. I read it when it first came out, and picked up the audiobook when it was a daily deal awhile back. What prompted me to listen now was this NPR piece on Landlinewhich is wrong in so many ways (No meet-cutes in Rowell? Attachments is basically one long meet-cute, and what else is sharing a seat on the bus in Eleanor & Park?). The biggest factual error is saying Landline is Rowell’s first book for adults.

Or is it an error? Listening to Attachments, I’m struck by how Young Adult it sometimes feels–perhaps in part because of narrator Laura Hamilton’s rather girlish style. (The Globe and Mail review of Landline finds the same YA feel there). Yes, it’s set mostly at the newspaper where the characters work; yes, they’re in their late 20s; yes, Jennifer is pondering whether to have a baby while Beth wonders if her boyfriend will ever marry her. But it’s essentially a coming-of-age novel, and the characters’ insecurities feel very young to me. Except that I often felt that young and insecure in my late 20s, even when I was employed, married, and planning to have a baby. I think Rowell is great at emotional story-telling, and particularly at tapping into those “young adult” emotions that are still somewhere inside many of us. Are we ever really done coming of age?

There’s a strong vein of nostalgia in both Rowell books I’ve read, as there often is in children’s and young adult fiction, which is, after all, written by adults. Eleanor & Park is set in the 80s, Attachments around the turn of the millenium (Y2K fears play a role). In the NPR piece linked above, Rowell expresses nostalgia for corded phones–without appearing to realize how romantic attachment to the materiality of the cord is particular to her own memories. The strong emotional appeal of her stories, like nostalgia, can obscure weaknesses; I was embarrassed that I didn’t notice any problems with Eleanor & Park‘s depiction of race while I was reading, for example.

I’m having the same experience of more moderated enjoyment watching The West Wing again, which I’ve been doing while I work out. There’s strong emotional storytelling here, too (that Christmas episode where Toby arranges a funeral for a homeless vet! no, that’s just sweat in my eyes, I swear). But there are also problems I didn’t notice the first time I watched. What’s with killing the African American army doctor with the new baby so President Bartlet can man up and learn to be Commander in Chief? And how condescending is “The Crackpots and These Women,” where, as Wikipedia says, “In a private conversation, the President, Leo and Josh marvel at the extraordinary strength and integrity of the women in their lives” (who are almost all their assistants).

When I finish a book like Congo, I can’t decide what to pick up next. Maybe I just need a breather for a day or two. I read a chapter of Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground, which I started on my May trip but then set aside, and I think it will suck me in to finish. Faced with choosing from a huge TBR, buy a new book! So I downloaded Lia Silver’s Prisoner: recommended by readers as different as Dear Author’s Jane and Victoria Janssen, good banter, and some people complained there wasn’t enough sex? Sounds promising.

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27 Responses to Reading Update: Big Fat Book and More

  1. rosario001 says:

    Attachments is what I hoped the New Adult genre would be. I got really excited when the genre emerged, because I’m really interested in the experience of making the transition from child to adult and how it might be different today than it was when I did it. It hasn’t quite turned out the way I hoped.

    • willaful says:

      Yes! Fangirl, too. I think these NA books are out there, but not enough and they’re not getting the label because cliches have defined the genre.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I have Fangirl in my TBR–my daughter had it pressed on her in a bookstore by a peer. (She’s only 12 so I wasn’t sure how it would go over, but she liked it; she understands/participates in fandom and I think she loved seeing that experience reflected). I guess technically the characters in Attachments, because they are late 20s, are older than “New Adult” (and part of my issue with the book is that they felt younger than they are), but I agree, there was a lot about it that I recognized emotionally, and I’d love to find more books that dealt with the college/post-college experience in a realistic way. It is a bit like chick lit, too, but mostly without the humiliation aspects, and, of course, with Lincoln’s point of view. This time through I found the emotional magic didn’t work quite as well on me and I could kind of see her pulling strings more (it’s awfully fairytale at points and I’m dubious about its view of love) but I still really like it and I expect I’ll listen to it again.

  2. Sunita says:

    Congratulations! I’m about three-quarters of the way through mine and I will definitely finish it and post about it before the month is over. Well, I’ll finish it before the month is over.

    I think a lot of political scientists would agree with van Reybrouck. Free and fair elections are necessary for democracy but they certainly aren’t sufficient, and the need to create parties run for office often leads to patronage-based or personality-based parties (or a combination of the two) rather than an aggregator of interests with deep roots in the electorate. An eminent political scientist has remarked that democracies need elections where the outcome is in doubt (procedurally if not practically) and the losers accept the results. It turns out to be harder to achieve than it sounds.

    I haven’t hopped on the Rowell train. I almost did when DA Jayne reviewed Attachments a couple of years ago, but it was expensive and I never got around to it. My sense is also that she is mining a deep vein of nostalgia, which can be very enjoyable but the spin has to work for you. I doubt her growing-up experiences in the US would resonate for me, despite our midwestern overlap.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There’s midwest and midwest! I mean, I moved 2 hours away from my childhood home and felt I’d fallen off the edge of the earth. It was partly a city to small-town move, but not only that. Despite the place markers, I felt like setting was pretty unimportant in both the Rowell books I read. They are all about the relationships/feelings and in a way could take place anywhere.

      Yes–the point about elections was really eye-opening to me. Oddly, it reminded me of some of the Victorian social problem novels I read, which wrestle with the issue of giving the working class more power before they are “ready” for it (educated, etc.). Of course that view can be condescending/oppressive and an excuse for preserving the status quo. But free elections have certainly not solved the problems in the Congo, and as you say, the political parties basically aligned with the militias/sides in the ethnic conflicts. Political Science: another class I wish I had taken when I had the chance.

      • Sunita says:

        I meant relationships too; my mother is from a small town in the midwest, I lived in Chicago, my relatives lived in various parts of Illinois and Indiana, and now I live most of the year in St. Louis (and TheH has family in Nebraska). I agree that the midwest is quite diverse, and I should have been clearer. I was just thinking of my experiences in the midwest and how they aren’t as nostalgically positive when it comes to the kind of relationship she depicts in Eleanor and Park. But I should really shut up about books I haven’t read.

        Yes, the “they’re not ready for it” argument looms large; it was still going strong in the 1950s and 1960s. What we’ve learned, though, is that even when people are ready and able to participate in democratic processes, you need institutions that are sufficiently strong that they structure widespread participation rather than provide capture opportunities for private gains for small groups.

    • willaful says:

      I need to comment on the nostalgia factor. I agree it’s big in Rowell’s books ( although Fangirl is contemporary and Attachments was only set ten years before it was written.) But… nostalgia as a term tends to imply sentimental, fuzzy, warm, rose-colored, etc. That is not what you get in Eleanor and Park. (Or at least not all you get.) I think I’ve commented before that the book contained a lot of both my adolescence and that of my best friend, but I may not have mentioned that I’m talking about the some of *the worst elements of both of our lives.* It is in many respects a terrifying book — I had to spoil it for my husband, because he was a nervous wreck while reading it — and the parts that are terrifying were very real to me. It’s not just about two outsiders falling in love, it’s also about being really poor and having crazy people in your life that you can’t get away from. What I appreciated about it had pretty much nothing to do with nostalgia in the usual sense; it’s really rare for me to find my reality in fiction, and I intensely appreciate it when it happens. One of the reasons I love all of Rowell’s work is I find myself in everything she writes.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I found it terrifying, too, and I agree there are aspects of Eleanor’s life, in particular, that it depicts really, really well. The nostalgia element is partly just in their cultural interests (the music they like, etc.) which is fine–though I do wonder how much that reflects/appeals to the adult readership of a lot of YA today. I thought there were a LOT of good things about the book, which was part of why while I was reading, I didn’t see things that in retrospect seemed kind of problematic. The romantic feelings struck me as much more nostaligically presented–teenaged love was never that swoony for me. But I could just be unlucky.

        In some ways, maybe nostalgia is not even the right word; some of her books, at least, seem to be set at times where Rowell herself was the age of her protagonists: the teens in the 80s, the late-20s characters in 1999. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I think it contributes to the intense emotionality of her fiction in ways both good and bad. I’m not sure I can express exactly what I mean.

      • kaetrin says:

        I found Eleanor and Park very painful to read in many ways as well – even though it had a happy enough ending, it cut close to the bone in some parts for me and my home life wasn’t too bad all things considered.

      • willaful says:

        Replying to Liz, not to myself… Christine Lavin on teenage love:

        The cultural stuff meant nothing to me… not my music, not my reading. I enjoyed it anyway.

      • Sunita says:

        I did use the word “enjoyable” when talking about nostalgia, and that was sloppy of me. Nostalgia isn’t just about positive feelings, it’s about both positive and negative memories of the past. You can feel sadness and melancholy too. Look at the nostalgic remembrance of WW2 and increasingly WW1, for example. The point of nostalgic remembrance, as opposed to flashbacks, say, is that you control the way you experience those feelings. It sounds as if the three of you felt both difficult and enjoyable feelings in revisiting that era via the book. But the HEA, the presence of warm fuzzy cultural stuff in addition to the tough stuff, also provides positive context and cushions some of the worst of it. That reshaping of difficult memories is also what makes them commodifiable; most people aren’t going to revisit something that is uncompromisingly painful, but they will revisit something that surrounds those painful feelings with something more uplifting or comforting.

        I’m not saying that what I would find problematic is the only thing worth paying attention to in the book, and I don’t mean to denigrate or erase the positive experiences of people who read and identified with those other aspects of it. But the multicultural relationship and Park’s depiction (and that of his mother) is a key part of the book, and it doesn’t sound as if it’s been done in a way that works for at least some of us who shared the ethnicity-influenced parts of their lives. I invoked the midwest because my experiences in the midwest were a bit different than my experiences in California, in ways that mattered. I’m not even sure I could articulate them, but my parents chose to settle on the west coast rather than the midwest when they came to the US because of their own experiences and those of other mixed-race couples they’d known.

      • willaful says:

        SPOILERS. Just to be clear about what we’re talking about — there is no HEA in Eleanor and Park. The end is actually quite painful.

        • kaetrin says:

          @Willaful The ending to Eleanor & Park certainly isn’t HEA but it isn’t all that bad – I’d describe it as generally happy – both are certainly better off at the end than at the beginning. The characters are in high school so I felt where it was left was believable and hopeful. I do recall being frustrated by some of the ambiguities but they revolved more around her family relationships I think and not the romantic aspects.

          The journey to it was definitely painful and I’m unlikely to ever read it again.

          It is valuable for me to take a look through a different lens though and see issues related to how race was portrayed in the book which I missed/didn’t see as problematic when I read it. It’s so hard to know how much of my reaction to it was my white privilege showing and how much was just a genuinely different take on those same issues. (is that even possible? to have a genuinely different take that’s *not* based on my own ethnicity? probably not I suppose.)

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I think I have managed to acquire three of Rainbow Rowell’s books without reading a single one. And now that I’ve read the Angry Girl Comics post you linked to, I no longer want to read Eleanor and Park.

    Interesting about watching the West Wing all these years later. I only watched the show during the time when it was still on, later in its run, and I didn’t notice the sexist remarks at the time, but I remember feeling that they needed more POC and women in that administration.

    I started Prisoner and it was engaging but I put it down to finish a book I had to review. I’ll get back to it eventually.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am 60% in to Prisoner and really enjoying it. And I don’t even like PNR much. A lot of the elements are conventional, but the voice and, I think, the realistic emotional responses make them feel fresh.

      I still think Eleanor & Park is a book with lots of strengths; I thought the depiction of poverty was well-done, for instance. I don’t totally agree with everything in that review (though I don’t remember a lot of details). But I definitely feel that I was swept up by the emotional story-telling (which she does SO well) and missed problematic elements.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I picked Prisoner back up yesterday and finished it today. I liked it too. I wanted more of Echo’s backstory, especially in regard to who it was who raised her and how she and her sisters come out as normal as they did if the answer is Dr. Semple and Mr. Dowling. But maybe we’ll get more of that in the next book. I had also managed to forget that this was part I of a three part story, so the ending brought me up short. But otherwise, yeah, I agree with your assessment of it.

        Good to know that about Eleanor & Park— I am still somewhat hesitant though.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, I thought Echo and Charlie weren’t entirely plausible. Or maybe Echo was not ever as unfeeling as she initially wanted to believe she was. But I liked the kind of gender reversal in her being the more closed off one and it made complete sense. I thought a lot of her and DJ’s reactions seem emotionally real (I’m only at 70% or so), especially the slow development of the romance that some people objected to. It was really important to their characters and in fact set DJ apart from the beginning from the men Echo picked up for emotion-free sex.

          Maybe once I’ve swallowed werewolves and genetically modified assassins, I’ve suspended disbelief for just about anything, including Echo not being more messed up.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I also appreciated the gender role reversal, but moreso with DJ’s character than with Echo’s. I don’t often come across heroes that trusting and that aware from the outset of their need for affection. I also enjoyed the commentary on the romance genre with Charile’s books; the conversation about possessiveness (you’re not there yet) was great.

  4. willaful says:

    “But there are also problems I didn’t notice the first time I watched. What’s with killing the African American army doctor with the new baby so President Bartlet can man up and learn to be Commander in Chief?”

    Ayup. I’m seeing that a lot in my Buffy marathon too. Black characters are either villains or dead inspiration for the true white heroes.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yeah–Buffy is another one with lots of great elements and strong emotional storytelling, where the first time through you just don’t see things that a later reading/viewing may reveal. I had that experience rereading the early Julie James books I’d really loved. They just didn’t work for me anymore. I guess that’s the downside of re-reading/watching, but to me its still worth doing. It didn’t really spoil my earlier pleasure–that still happened! It’s just a different experience.

  5. lawless says:

    I think van Reybrouck is onto something when he criticizes national elections as the end-all and be-all of democracy in countries with no history of it, especially when the countries themselves don’t have a cohesive national history beyond colonialism. Democracy, if there is to be any, needs to grow organically and from the bottom up. It needs a certain baseline level of economic and social stability and political will free from corruption, which in part depends on having an electorate that is well enough educated to cast an informed ballot without being overly swayed by money or emotion and in part depends on having a political elite that isn’t just in it for the money or glory. Other forms of national government (constitutional monarchy, tribal federations) may actually be more suited to some cases while the nation works on achieving democratic local elections.

    Congratulations on getting the draft of a new grade appeal policy off your plate. It must feel good to have that behind you.

    I haven’t read anything of Rainbow Rowell’s, but I’ve read an excerpt from Eleanor and Park that impressed me and had a friend recommend it to me in the strongest terms. Nevertheless, as someone who is half-Korean, half-white and is done with patronizing descriptions of biracial and non-white people, I find those quotes troubling. I chose not to purchase the L.H. Cosway book that Dear Author recently featured in its Daily Deals because the female MC described the male MC similarly. I didn’t get far enough to find out whether he’s actually half-Asian, but it doesn’t matter; once someone who’s not 100% white gets described as “exotic,” I’m more than halfway to a DNF anyway.

    It is disheartening how often white folks who consider themselves liberal and progressive in fact make it all about them when they write about non-white folks.

    I’m partway through Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, which may wind up being tied with My Brother Michael for my favorite of her novels of romantic suspense that I’ve read. I have yet to read Airs Above the Ground, though; I’d be interested in your thoughts on it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have mixed feelings about the racial depictions in E&P. On the one hand, Eleanor does see Park as pretty, he’s small, etc. And he does martial arts. But he’s also a real romantic (and other kinds, I think) hero, and we rarely get to see an Asian/part-Asian character in that role. I am planning to read Alex Tizon’s LITTLE BIG MAN, which deals in part with these issues. BTW, the hero in PRISONER is Filipino-American, and I like the way he is portrayed, though his werewolf culture is more central in the book than his ethnicity.

      AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND appeals in part to the 12-year-old me who read every Marguerite Henry horse book. Lipizzaners!!!!!! But I also like the competent heroine who just gets on with it when she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, and her relationships with her husband and the teenaged boy she’s travelling with (who’s also refreshingly competent and knowing–if perhaps unlikely). It’s a lot of fun–and great descriptions of the setting as usual for Stewart.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Oh, and–Van Reybrouck points out that though many Western democracies have had a long time to work on getting it right, we still haven’t exactly nailed things like having a process that isn’t swayed by money, or an electorate that’s well educated on the issues. So maybe sanctimony isn’t the best position for us to speak from.

  6. kaetrin says:

    I read Angry Girl’s review of Eleanor and Park but I didn’t see the race issues she did when I read it. I thought Park was talking about his own experiences with racism rather than the book being racist. I thought he *felt* other all the time. He struggled with feeling other (and, to him, other meant “less than”) and that’s how I reacted to the book – even to the point that he wanted to wear guyliner but his dad rejected him when he did. I thought he was reflecting what the culture was telling him about himself and which made him unhappy. When he first meets Eleanor he doesn’t want to sit next to her on the bus, he doesn’t want to be her friend because she’s so uncool she will be just another way for him to feel other. (I could relate – even though I’m white I remember similar feelings when people socially worse off than I was at school made overtures to me. I remember wanting to fit in and be like everyone else as being a big deal at school.) It’s been a while since I read it but I remember there being plenty about him.

    But maybe I didn’t read it closely enough and/or maybe it’s my white privilege talking. Maybe I’d feel differently if I read it again. (But I doubt I will read it again because I found it melancholy and not the sort of story I’d revisit, even though I liked it.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s been a while since I read it too, and as I said, I didn’t agree with her completely (but then, I’m also white). I think there are a lot of nuances to Park’s character that can be interpreted different ways. Like the guyliner: on the one hand, it’s the 80s (*I* remember a couple of guys who wore eyeliner in my suburban HS) and yay for some gender fluidity. On the other hand, Asian men are often viewed as delicate and feminine, so for *Park* to be given those qualities seems potentially stereotyping. That Eleanor (and we) admire him doesn’t entirely negate that.

      I also think it feels natural that Eleanor would respond to both Park and his mother as she does. She feels giant and ugly and fat and unfeminine. Park’s mom is kind of the opposite of all that, and in some ways Park himself is too. She admires/envies/fears in them what she doesn’t have herself (as I remember it). But again, Rowell *created* her characters that way, and for me, it ended up with me going along uncritically with Eleanor’s response and not stopping to think that that makes Park’s mom a pretty stereotypical Asian woman, and Park somewhat stereotypical too.

      And what is with things like the name Park, which is a surname? That could be explained, but I don’t recall that it is explained (it’s kind of like Rowling naming a character Cho Chang). Park’s mom is kind of stereotypical, but she doesn’t seem to give a grounding in her own culture to her children–and again, I could be misremembering.

      I, personally, wouldn’t dismiss the book out of hand as racist. It’s more complex than that in my opinion. But when I read that review, I could see what she was talking about, and I read right over all of it at the time.

  7. Sunita says:

    @ Willaful: Thanks for the correction. I assumed since Kaetrin had read the book that it did not have a dire ending, but of course that is not the same thing as an HEA.

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