Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li–A Review

 

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Kinder Than Solitude is a book that I received from NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased review. The story opens with the death of Shaiao, whose poisoning led to her lingering in a vegetative state for twenty years before succumbing. The mystery of her poisoning is connected to a group of three Chinese friends, Ruyu, Boyang and Moran.

The book cycles through the three viewpoint characters between the past when Shaoia was alive just around the time of Tiananmen Square Protests and the present immediately after her death. Although the book is labeled a mystery, it isn’t a traditional mystery because no one’s on a quest to solve the mystery. Instead we get the minute to minute ruminations, tedious conversations, angsty wanderings of the three characters. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of sadness and passivity, and the lot of the reasons cannot be excused away lightly due to tragedy or bad circumstances. The reasons are a lot stupider–the characters are simply unable to see beyond the dark prison of themselves for the light of cheer. Yes, the writing is crisp and Yiyun’s observations are piquant and perspicacious, but really the story is joyless little tale of profoundly miserable characters. And in the end the twist on mystery doesn’t save the book from its drudgery, as the culprit is still whom you expected it to be all along.

Every page has a quotable passage, and not the jejune hallmark offerings either, but highlight a penetrating analysis of the human heart. Either way, the preponderance of resonant observation could not save the lot of dialogue from feeling tedious. Every occasion of dialogue turns into the most dreary interrogation because everyone questions everyone else’s motives over the most trivial things. For instance, if someone said hello, the other person would ask, “why are you telling me hello?” the other would reply, “Are you saying there’s something wrong about asking hello?” and on and on they would go.

Why is this book three stars, not two? The writing. Yiyun Li has talent nevertheless that shines on every page, but dear God the characters …. It felt like such a waste.

Still I’d say you should read Kinder Than Solitude because the profundity of Yiyun Li’s writing is worth it.

by Wando Wande

Swann’s way, the Yale anniversary edition


Proust, yeah that Proust who writes books with paragraph long sentences about nothing. Many think him the example of dull indulgent literary fiction; others sing odes that somehow fail to rouse the most passionate of readers to try his books, and there are those for whom Proust is another author to namedrop in front of the pulp fiction reading masses.  When NetGalley offered a new edition of Swann’s Way (Volume one of the seven volume In Search of Lost Time, also know as Remembrance of Things Past) published by Yale University Press,  I decided I might as well see all about Proust for myself.

Yes, it is a long read, and yes, it veers towards the ponderous and the tedious, but it is not uninteresting. Even though the reading does demand a certain patience and concentration, I found myself drawn in. His observations of childhood were engrossing, more so because of his precise explorations of its exaggerated fears and the outsized anxieties. The attention to detail can overwhelm, but they do weave magical tapestry of  feeling and depth.  His explorations of characters, e.g. the narrator’s aunts and grandmother, captured humans in their most ordinary and their most captivating moments.  

An important theme of the volume is memory and its fickleness, its uncertain divagations, its distressing lack of assurances. A lot of passages were  long and impressionistic, dreamscapes so dense with images and vague feelings that I had to read a few times to comprehend the breathtaking immensity of it. Take the book cover image of a Madeleine, for instance:  the narrator’s simple act of tasting a Madeleine unleashes a torrent of feelings and flitting images that last for more than two pages.  After a while, you sense that the point of reading Swann’s way is not to consume wholesale, but to savor in piecemeal fashion–this is not a text you can read quickly like the latest pulp fiction novel.

As I understand it, this edition is a revision of the 1923 Scott Montcrief’s translation, revisions done by the editor and Proust scholar,William Carter. His annotations on French culture and French historical references were helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the text.  And the prose style was modern and readable enough for my standards. If you have been wary about trying Proust, you can do no better than trying a copy of this edition.

Kicking the Sky by Anthony Sa


I recently joined NetGalley, where you can sign up to read books in exchange for reviews. I picked up  Kicking the Sky, by Anthony Sa, a coming of age tale set in the Portuguese immigrant community in 1970’s Toronto.  The story takes places after the disappearance of twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques aka The Shoeshine Boy. The twelve-year-old narrator, Antonio Rubelo, and his friends, Manny and Ricky, make a pact to be brothers and see each other through good and bad.  They need all help they can muster in a neighborhood full of hustlers, prostitutes, and massage parlors.

Events take a dark turn when Emanuel is found raped and murdered.   Antonio finds himself, hurt, vulnerable and full of questions, but the adults in his life are too busy, too hard-pressed to guide him as they too are struggling to survive in their rundown neighborhood. The confused circumstances set stage for Antonio and his friends to come under the influence of James, whom I would describe as a one of the shadiest characters I have had the pleasure to read.

The mystery of James runs through the heart of the book.  Is he a good man rundown on his luck, or is he another pervert like Emanuel’s murderers? Antonio himself does not know what to think. And his feelings are complicated by the fact of his own awkward sexual attraction to the twenty-one-year old James. Antonio is a engaging character in his own right. He tries to do right by his friends. He tries to be the man his father wants him to be. It is heartbreaking to see his innocence tainted by the harsh world he forced to confront.

Another central theme is the Portuguese immigrant experience.  His parents try to keep alive their native culture in the face of a hegemonic culture that seeks to reduce their identity to nothing more than cheap workers.  The various aspects of Portuguese culture were a delight to read especially since I know nothing of Portugal.

Setting aside the lurid episodes of child abuse, physical and sexual, homophobia, racism, the awkwardness and confusion of prepubescent sexuality, the book does a good job of balancing the dark with hope.  There were a few exciting boys-will-be-boys episodes. The prose, however, was not to my liking because I found it too ‘simple’. Child narrators do bore me easily; however the issues in the book were far from simple, so the depth of the story easily overcame my distaste for his prose style.

If you do not mind a dark, gritty read, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.