Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer is 432-page speculative fiction novel, published by Tor in May of 2016. I received the book from NetGalley for review.

Too Like the LightningI requested this novel from NetGalley because I loved the cover and the title font. So yes, I judge books by their covers. Luckily, I wasn’t burned–Too Like the Lightning turned out to be a slow-burning, thought-provoking story.

The beginning of the novel crawls a bit since the narrator, Mycroft Canner, is actually a historian from 2454 who sets up the reader for a history that takes place in the reader’s past (see the first line of the book below). It took a few chapters to get used to Mycroft’s manner of speaking and story telling–there are plenty of “thee”s and “thou”s in the book, thanks to the future’s use of language (they’re also partial to using Latin). The payoff for this slow build is absolutely worth it. More

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is a 305-page sweeping historical/cultural fiction novel written by Yaa Gyasi, published by Knopf in June of 2016.

HomegoingI wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, but what I got was a mind-blowing experience. The novel follows the lineal descendants of half-sisters Effia and Esi, born in eighteenth-century Ghana. Each chapter features the successive descendants of these women, from eighteenth century Ghanaian slavery to twentieth-century Harlem. More

But What if We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

But What if We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman is a 288-page nonfiction book published by Blue Rider Press in June of 2016. I received the book from Penguin’s First to Read program.

But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck KlostermanThis book is a collection of essays and arguments revolving around a central theme–looking into the past with eyes colored by the present. Klosterman presents arguments ranging from future cultural popularity (who will define rock music–The Sex Pistols? Bob Dylan? Chuck Berry?) to scientific theories (will our theory of gravity seem as preposterous to future humans as the geocentric model of the universe seems to us?). More

In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

In Praise of Shadows is an essay written in 1933-4 by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. He covers quite a few topics, almost all comparing Oriental values with those of the Westerners. I think the main point he tries to convey is that while Westerners favor sunlight, brightness, cleanliness, and shine, in his own words, people from Japan and China “prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.”

The most enjoyable topic Tanizaki covers, in my opinion, is that of restaurants and food in China and Japan. He reminisces about when everything was lit by candles and the food and lacquered dining utensils made eating a much more enjoyable experience. The way he describes food makes you grow an appetite — you don’t even need to see the food.

Perhaps the ‘funniest’ thing he discusses is the comparison of Japanese and Western toilets. While we illuminate the bathroom,  shine light on everything in it, and remove all grime, the Japanese have outdoor toilets made from wood — not harsh, white linoleum — where one can enjoy nature, and think on life. He suspects that many great haiku poems have come from reflection time in Japanese toilets.

Of course, the largest theme in this essay is that of shadows and how to use them for beauty. While Westerners strive to brighten every corner and destroy shadows, the Orientals find beauty in them and structure architecture to ensure that not too much light ever enters a room. The way he describes a shadowy alcove with a perfectly picked scroll is enticing — I would love to experience the Japan he knew at that time just to see such a thing.

Even though I had to read this essay for a class (Asian cultures through literature and film), I enjoyed it quite a bit. I have always been fascinated with how different Asian culture is from our own, and wished that I had had the luck to have been brought up with those values, if not the luck to have been born there. Tanizaki does a wonderful job of highlighting (oh, how I’m going to start noticing our desire to enlighten, to bring to light, etc. — our obsession with light) the huge contrasts between even his early life of enjoying Kabuki theater in shadows and the harsh lighting it faces today. If you are interested in Asian culture, I definitely recommend this essay — it is a short, enjoyable 42 pages of cultural contrasts.