In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

In the Distance tells the story of Hakan, a young Swedish boy who is sent with his brother to travel to New York to make a new (and better) life. Before they even leave Sweden, Hakan and Linus are separated and since Hakan’s understanding of anything of the world outside his home village is limited to  the words“New York,” he determines that the best course of action is to continue on to New York on his own and meet Linus there. He ends up in Argentina and then California, and his quest truly begins.

Hakan had never before left his small village in Sweden, and knew no one and no language other than Swedish. He was young and impressionable and the cast of characters he met took on an almost Odyssian proportion. He meets a prospector, a female saloon proprieter and landowner (perhaps- her exact role beyond Hakan is unclear in the book, as it was unclear to Hakan), and a naturalist, among others, but mostly his journey is one of extreme solitude.

In this journey, Hakan, or ‘The Hawk,” to non-Swedish speakers, ponders questions about the nature of humanity, god, and nature. Upon hearing, and mostly accepting, a theory of evolution from his naturalist companion, Hakan thinks, “Even more outrageous and insulting was the notion of the primordial snot. Had he not been created in god’s image? What, then, was god?” (66). Statements like these gave me the unique experience of both snorting in laughter and yet contemplating the profound question at the same time.

The nature and land around Hakan become a character in the story. This makes the book about a single man who spends most of his time avoiding other people feel rich and descriptive rather than barren and navel-gazing. Hakan becomes enveloped in the different landscapes he encounters, and makes them each feel alive to the reader, while at the same time allowing the reader to feel not just the beauty, but also the starkness, fear, and danger which accompanies each new terrain.

The people in the story, although there aren’t many, give us windows into humanity and humanity’s many sides. Most of it isn’t pretty, as we’re exposed to greed, lust, possession, religion, and violence. But we get as well a small glimpse of knowledge, friendship, and love which sustain the book and save it from utter bleakness.

The language is truly one of the books strengths, and while it’s magnificent, it’s not pretentious. It had me returning to the book in my thoughts when I couldn’t return to it physically, but at the same time, my notes are surprisingly spare. I got caught up in reading experience and didn’t get feel blasted by forced platitudes.

This book is a great choice for someone who loves the American West (although not too much, for this isn’t your typical triumph of white man over nature story), adventure tales, and stories of introspection and a touch of magical realism.

Questions for Discussion:
How does Hakan’s growth and size both influence and represent the story as a whole?

What role did nature and landscape play in the story- could it have been told in any other place?

On page 105, there’s this sentence: “Sometimes it rained, and it was always a miracle.” What other miracles did Hakan witness, and did he always recognize them? Did he make you see ordinary events as miraculous?

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a retiring classics professor who becomes intrigued by the story of some African refugees after they stage a hunger strike to raise their visibility in Berlin. Richard has nearly no previous knowledge about he refugees, but is well equipped to do research and learn about things in general, so he sets out to do just this and goes to meet and learn about and from the refugees.

The early parts of this book have an almost surreal quality to them- as Richard has just retired and becomes intrigued by the situation of the refugees, but he is still ruled by the quotidian routines of his widower life- he has Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar for breakfast, along with one slice of bread with honey and one with cheese. Without his wife, lover, or work, these routines provide both structure and purpose for his day. As he takes on this new ‘project’ of learning what he can- the project itself takes on a “life of its own” and we get more and more glimpses into Richard himself.

Frustratingly, in order to set the stage for just how Richard (and the larger German population, which he is meant to represent), we have to wade through phrases like “For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans” (51), and “one person’s vantage point is just as valid as an others, and, in seeing, there is no right, no wrong” (55). These are revelatory for Richard, but it’s hard to believe that he could have made it through the academy without having some exposure to post-colonial thought.

Once we wade through these preliminaries, however, Richard gets to know the refugee men. This part of the story is well done- while Richard is learning about the Africans, he does so without passing judgements on them or attempting to impose on them an inappropriate value system. He contrasts what he’s learning about them in discussions with them with the vitriol he reads about them on the internet as he does more and more research to learn about their legal conundrum.

I appreciated this book because, while I knew in a vague sense that there was a significant difference in the refugee situation in continental Europe than here in the U.S., I actually had no idea what that meant legally. It explains the conundrum of only being legally able to work in Italy, where there are no jobs, and then traveling to Germany where there’s a labor shortage only to be denied the legal ability to work. As each man tells his story, we get a small taste of the politics that drove him out of his native country and continent, and what that journey and transition was like.

The lives of the refugees are often juxtaposed with the mundanity of Richard’s life. Even the greatest upheaval in his life- the fall of the Berlin Wall and the GDR- pales in comparison with the lives of these men, who have no idea that there was once an East and West Germany. Yet at the same time, the loss of one’s wife and partner is a universal theme that they all can bond over.

Richard helps the men in the small (and larger) ways that he can- but I appreciated that this book didn’t present these small assists as any sort of savior actions. Even when Richard is able to help one of the refugees buy land in his native country- it’s clear that the family back home will have to wait a year for the crops to grow and the refugee in Germany would still be unable to go home.

I can see why this book was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. It illuminates an important issue and does so for a broader audience than merely that of its original language. It explores themes of transitions, memory, and power (both personal and political), applied in an all-too real setting.

 

Questions for Discussion:

What was the significance of the man drowned in the lake?

Richard returns time and again, in his thoughts, to the transition when the Berlin Wall fell and the GDR was dissolved. Why does he do this? Is it an appropriate juxtaposition with the refugees’ experiences?

Ultimately, is it appropriate for this story to be told through Richard’s eyes? Or is this yet another example of a white man trying to understand refugees? Would it have been more or less powerful or educational through another viewpoint?

Free Food For Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

FFFM tells the story of Casey Han, a recent Princeton graduate who immigrated to the United States with her family as a young child. As the story opens, she’s at a family dinner with her parents at the beginning of her first summer as a college graduate. She’s moved in with them, but hasn’t told them that she’s deferred admission to Columbia Law School and has no plans for her post-college life. She also hasn’t told them that she’s been dating a white American, which would be an even more egregious offense to her traditional Korean parents. Casey is clearly of a different generation and a different world than her parents. As a result she felt

If her rotten choices hurt her, well then, she’d be willing to take that wager, but it was hard to think of letting her parents down again and again. But her choices were always hurting her parents, or so they said. Yet Casey was an American, too — she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she’d never considered such wishes to be Korean ones (123).

This tension between the Korean values and wishes of her family and her American values and wishes runs through the book. We also see themes of religion, class, and race.

As this first night (predictably) ends explosively, Casey’s life is irrevocably changed and the rest of the book tells the story of her attempting to (re)gain a sense of self and purpose in a world that isn’t governed wholly by her parents’ traditions or her white American peers’ privilege. The things Casey knows best are shopping and hats, although she has an ivy-league education, and she has to reinvent her life a lot more quickly and urgently than she had planned.

This book was immersive in a way that, even though I really feel that I didn’t relate to Casey, I felt so invested in the characters that I couldn’t wait to keep reading. The characters were so real that at times they felt predictable, simply because they seemed like real people and they acted like real people would. Their flaws were real flaws, and their successes, therefore, were real successes.

I felt that there were some loose ends that could have been tied up more cleanly, or alternatively omitted altogether, but the book was panoramic in scope even despite these loose ends and gave us a comprehensive look at the immigrant experience for this family and their new community in New York.

Questions for Discussion:

Is Casey’s spending (and possibly Unu’s gambling?) a unique result of the immigrant experience?

What can we learn about the experiences of this family by comparing and contrasting Casey to Tina, and is this actually a valuable exercise? Or is Tina’s story so different that comparing to Casey cheapens them both? I felt as though Tina was almost entirely in the story as a foil to Casey and really wanted to know more of her story.

What role did hats and millinery play in the story?

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Dark at the Crossing tells a story of war, love, and second chances.The story begins with main character Haris landing in Turkey and traveling toward the Syrian border to join the Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime. From there the book recounts Haris’s movement forward toward joining the regime, and also flashes back to show how he came to this decision. Born in Iraq, he earned American citizenship by saving an American soldier, Jessica Lynch-style. He then worked with the U.S. Army in Iraq also to earn citizenship for his younger sister. When they move to the U.S., his sister flourished as an American college student and Haris, attempting to provide for her, worked as a janitor at the same college. Unsatisfied with this life, and his past role in the war in his own country, Haris waited for his sister to be provided for by way of a marriage engagement, and then left to join the rebels in Syria.

Haris has contacted a “fixer” to take him across the border and connect him with the rebels, but things don’t go as planned, and he meets Amir, a Syrian native living and working in Turkey for a think tank studying the Syrian conflict. Even more important than the connection with Amir, Haris also meets Amir’s wife, Daphne, who has a scarred back and sleeps with the light on. The relationships that develop between Haris, Amir, Daphne, and also the relationships which are explored through flashbacks with Daphne’s daughter, Haris’s sister, and an American soldier acquaintance of Haris from Iraq, explore different ways that people can love each other, and the lengths we’ll go to for a second chance.

This isn’t an own voices book- Ackerman is a white man from the U.S.- but although he isn’t from Iraq like his character Haris, he was a U.S. soldier and spent a significant amount of time in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters and currently writes about Syria. This familiarity with conflict and soldiering is apparent in the book. The reader is left with the sense that Haris, and the other characters, are based on people known to Ackerman, rather than being pure inventions.

Haris isn’t endeavoring to fight in the war because of any particular convictions, religious or political, and in fact “he believed in the war but not as a cause. He believed in it as an impulse, the way a painter paints, or a musician plays, a necessary impulse.” The Syrian conflict is a second chance for him- he is unhappy with his role in the war in his own country, and thus Syria is an attempt for redemption. The book further claims that “[a] true cause, meaning an honest cause, must be personal, specific.” We see this in both Haris and Daphne’s desire to return to Syria.

This book felt true to the conflict, for me. Syria isn’t at all my area of specialty, but Haris’s experiences and feelings came across as complicated and messy, not  a neat and tidy black and white package. The book wasn’t much about Syria in specific, but rather more about conflict in general in this day and age, and the toll it takes on survivors. It really shows well that escaping the physical fighting is only one part of survival.

Full disclosure (and possible spoiler): I like reading about wars (both fiction and non, in fact one of my masters degrees is in Diplomacy and Military studies), but I truly dislike reading fiction that doesn’t have a happy ending or a redemption arc or some kind of tie-up at the end. That being said, this book had none of those things, and I really enjoyed it.

 

Questions for further discussion:

Part of the book is an examination of belonging through citizenship or sense of place. What is the role of being an American for Haris? An Iraqi?

Some of the auxiliary characters in this story are intriguing. What could we gain by looking more into Haris’s sister, Amir’s boss Marty, or the child Jamil who also journeys into Syria with Haris and Daphne to join the fighting?