Every now and then I venture into the so called ‘young adult’ literature realm and each time I’m surprised by how we completely redefined what constit...moreEvery now and then I venture into the so called ‘young adult’ literature realm and each time I’m surprised by how we completely redefined what constitutes the acceptable reading material for this age group. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. Not at all. In fact, I’m excited over the sheer volume of stuff for teenagers that gets published these days. It might be because I grew up in the post-communist Poland but I’m sure the choice was nowhere near as broad. Additionally, the books the librarians put in my hands seemed so tame in comparison to the current offerings. They even seemed tame compared to my own life, which is why eventually my own life won over and I stopped reading for a few years (until I was ready for proper adult books).
However, the thing that excites me most of all about the current YA books is the proliferation of kick-ass heroines. When I was a girl, there were few heroines I wanted to be. There was Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, maybe, but generally it was boys who had adventures. Girls did their homework and were afraid of mice. This is why I loved Katsa, the heroine of Graceling. She definitely wasn’t afraid of mice, or anything else for that matter, being the most fearsome killer in the kingdom with some ultra ninja skills. In the beginning of the book she meets Prince Po, who is quite of an awesome fighter as well but not match for Katsa’s superpowers. They get to train together but of course she still has to pull her punches, so as not to kill him. Well, if this isn’t love…
The adventure they will embark on together will teach Katsa a lot new things, like accepting her own weaknesses, learning to trust someone else with her safety and generally handing over control when needed. It’s Prince Po who knows about people’s emotions, fears and motivations, while Katsa is just a killing machine and occasionally a bit of a dickhead actually, but then most teenagers are. I really like what you did there, Kristin. And I really like how it’s still sexy and very clever, even if the quality of prose is really nothing to write home about, but that’s ok, for that I have Mario Vargas Llosa.
I noticed some reviewers were actually genuinely offended by the fact that Katsa liked her hair short, didn’t like wearing dresses, didn’t want to get married or have children. They were even spouting nonsense that this book is some sort of ‘militant feminism’ or what not. As if Katsa being the way she is, means that all women should be exactly like that. I literally read sentences such as ‘I was offended by the fact Katsa didn’t want to get married.’ I can only hope they were written by time-travellers from the 18th century. (less)
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times. This title, distilled to the three keywords: "asylum, memoir, madness" is what caught my attention....moreThe Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times. This title, distilled to the three keywords: "asylum, memoir, madness" is what caught my attention. Together, of course, with a photo on the cover depicting the longest corridor in a mental institution – the thing that Will Self called so beautifully ‘the North Circular of the soul’ (I promise myself this is the only nice thing I will ever say about Will Self).
Barbara Taylor is an accomplished historian who went quite mad during her early thirties. It started off innocently enough but soon enough she was doing psychotherapy five times a week, and eventually ended up in a ‘looney bin’. Now, I wanted to feel for her but it was hard, because Taylor is no Sylvia Plath and her descriptions of her psychoanalysis and her descend into madness are not very interesting. To be perfectly honest, to this lay reader it seemed that it was the daily psychoanalysis that was making her so unstable. I am a very practical person who has gone through a short period of being very unwell mentally and I know for a fact that if I had spent my days vivisecting my childhood then, I would've been medicating heavily now.
The problem I had with Taylor’s account was that I could never understand what her madness really was, how the psychoanalysis was helping her and how she finally got better. Blame my low empathy levels but I haven’t read about a person struggling with her own mind and her demons. I have only seen a baby-emperor (as she once aptly called herself). She makes it almost impossible to feel any empathy towards her. She was young, she didn’t have to work 9-5, she drank a lot, had lots of sex with unsuitable men, had anxiety attacks and horrible dreams. That’s me and half of my friends on any given weekend. Thank God, I absolutely cannot afford twenty one years of psychoanalysis. Twenty-one! Daily.
Frankly, she doesn’t make a good case for psychoanalysis. She quotes constant shouting matches with her therapist and then even in the chapter called ‘Cure’ I couldn’t see how the cure had anything to do with those years of therapy. She presented it as if she just grew out of it. I don’t doubt that she gained a disturbingly deep knowledge of herself but I don’t see how knowing what makes you ill can make you better. Additionally, her sister who obviously grew up with the same set of parents turned out perfectly fine. So what’s the point of this torturous analysis?
She does a way better job in the second part of the book where she takes on a role of a historian and observer and treats us to a crash course of the mental health system as well as insightful observations of her fellow patients. Those parts are definitely the highlights of this book. She describes asylums (now almost all gone) as generally safe places offering a respite from life with all its obligations once those obligations became unmanageable. She also describes warmly the community feel of them, even despite the fact they were often violent places full of hostile patients. Now the asylums are gone and have been replaced by the so called ‘community care’ which emphasizes independence and self-reliance. For people weakened and often basically paralysed by a mental illness it doesn’t seem to work very well. Despite its many flaws Taylor is a defender of 'bins' and I guess, so am I.
So what’s the lesson and note to myself here? Don’t go mad, Kinga. Don’t go mad. Don’t go mad because if you go mad there will be nowhere for you to go. (less)
Unwed and Unrepentant – just ponder a little at the brilliance of this title. Alliteration is common among historical romance titles, see: ‘Tryst with...moreUnwed and Unrepentant – just ponder a little at the brilliance of this title. Alliteration is common among historical romance titles, see: ‘Tryst with Trouble’, ‘Dancing with the Duke’, ‘To Defy a Duke’, ‘How to Master Your Marquis’ etc. etc. These playful titles go to show that the authors don’t take themselves and their novels too seriously, so don’t you even start with ‘anachronistic this’ and ‘anachronistic that’. Let’s accept that these books take place in an alternative universe called Victorian Lalaland, where Lady Cordelia Armstrong can go to Scotland and have an amazing one night stand there. This obviously caused me to have unrealistic expectations and when I had to make a few trips to Scotland myself recently I was very disappointed to only get a dinner and a handshake. I guess those were different times.
Have you ever had a one night stand that was so good and magical it freaked you out? No, me neither. How is that fair that those romance novels heroines get not only a happily ever after but they also get way better one night stands than us, the regular 21st century girls?
This is the last one in the Armstrong sister series. One last sister to be married off by their mean, calculating father. All his previous plans failed or backfired; his daughters running off with foreigners or worse, so I guess he is a bit tired (also knows his last daughter is damaged goods so his prospects here are limited) and decides to shift this last one on the first man who comes along, and it just happens that the first man to come along is his business associate Iain Hunter.
So now I want you to picture this: it’s the first time you see your father in ages and he announces he’s found you a husband, here, meet Iain. And to your horror you realise it’s the very same guy you had a one night stand a year ago. But Cordelia and Iain decide to play along and take all the benefits they can from this situation, so enter: Pretend Engagement! How I love pretend engagements! (note to the UK Visas and Immigration Office: NOT in real life, I would never do that, I promise.) Of course, you know what happens with pretend engagements in romance novels and so it happens here as well, but not before the hero and heroine go across the world. Iain and Cordelia’s relationship is all fire. Sometimes I thought maybe too much fire, just because I’m cynical like that. Additionally with that much fire their reluctance was baffling. Nonetheless the writing is superb as Kaye’s writing usually is.
And the irony - for once the evil father got his way! He successfully married off one of his daughters. He’s got 20% success rate. And in the end it still seems the joke is on him.
Susan Sontag was more of a figure than a person. Intimidatingly intelligent and self-assured, she was an embodiment of an intellectual. Suffice to say...moreSusan Sontag was more of a figure than a person. Intimidatingly intelligent and self-assured, she was an embodiment of an intellectual. Suffice to say there is only one woman Hitchens talks in any length about in his memoir (other than his mother) and it’s Susan Sontag. Even Hitchens, the notorious woman-ignorer (if not necessarily a woman-hater) couldn’t ignore Sontag.
It felt good to be reading Susan Sontag. Also I sure looked good reading Sontag, walking around with black and white Penguin Modern Classic that just spelled class. I milked it, taking the Circle line and going in circles for hours basking in my intellectual superiority, looking down on my fellow commuters reading Fifty Shades of Horsecrap or some hyped thriller of the day. (I didn’t really do that. That would be crazy. I’m not crazy.) I even took a photo, so that I could post it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and let everyone know just how smart I was. (But for some reason I decided against brushing my hair that day - you can see it on my blog )
Of course, if I were taking this intellectual adventure seriously, I’d be reading Sontag’s essays, not novels, and they obviously are on my four or five thousand items strong to-read list but meanwhile let’s have a quick look at this (post)modernist trip.
Sontag was not a great novelist, mostly because she was a great critic and it seems you can’t be both. (I really hope that means I will be a great novelist). But that is not to say that this ‘Death Kit’ is completely without its merit – even though the book seems too calculated and self-aware, there passages of unexceptional brilliance.
Diddy, the protagonist, barely deserves to be called the hero of the novel because he is just so unmemorable and pedestrian. If I were to compare him to a famous figure, it would be Nick Clegg. I don’t know about you but I have to Google him every time to remind myself what his face looks like (I just did it again).
So we have Diddy: "Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives." Diddy, who tried to take his non-life but failed and after having been released from hospital embarks on a non-adventure, where things might or might have not happened. He might have killed a railway worker and might have started an affair with a blind girl. But of course the air of ‘is this all a dream’ pervades the novel and causes a mild frustration to the reader (or at least it did to this particular reader). It’s all very Kafkaesque, and now that I’ve actually read Kafka, I can say it with some authority.
As many critics writing novels Sontag uses this rather poor excuse of a plot to continue writing essays about art and philosophy and what’s real and what’s not real, and how real is real anyway, but really these ruminations should have never happened in the mind of her ‘Diddy the bland’ protagonist. He’s just really not that kind of guy. As a result we have embryos here – an embryo of a novel and an embryo of a collection of essays. And they could potentially grow into something fabulous but they just never have the chance. So sad.
In her Paris Review interview Sontag says:
“Oddly enough, the plot is what seems to come all of a piece—like a gift. It’s very mysterious. Something I hear or see or read conjures up a whole story in all its concreteness—scenes, characters, landscapes, catastrophes. With Death Kit, it was hearing someone utter the childhood nickname of a mutual friend named Richard—just the hearing of the name Diddy.”
‘Snow In May’ was a special book for me. Those stories of a far east Siberian town resonated with me on many levels. There is a common ground, some sh...more‘Snow In May’ was a special book for me. Those stories of a far east Siberian town resonated with me on many levels. There is a common ground, some shared experience of all those who lived in the Soviet Bloc during communism. It’s quite amazing how the themes and tropes would repeat itself thousands of miles away from Warsaw, somewhere at the end of the world. And yet, the world behind the Iron Curtain was a unique experience, difficult to explain to outsiders but wordlessly recognizable to anyone who’s lived there.
It’s a world where the constant fight for basic survival still left room for producing world class pianists, chess players or ballet dancers. A person might worry about the shortages of food and their three hour daily piano practice all on the same day. It’s a world which formed individuals particularly unfit to survive in rampant capitalism. Melnik paints this world exceptionally and adds a special Siberian flavour to it.
The stories often mingle, letting some of the characters return and then they walk away from each other. Like any good story collection, it is striving for the human and universal and it succeeds. Ex-Soviet Bloc inhabitants might recognize themselves in details but anyone can relate to the bigger themes of the usual stuff of human experience, loss, love, pain and what have you.
I think Melnik is particularly successful with stories featuring children and teenagers. It might be that I just relate to them better because I was once was a child behind the Iron Curtain, or maybe Melnik writes them better because she was one herself before she left Siberia to move to Alaska. I can see she must have got tired of snow at last as she now lives in Texas. I must say I’m terribly jealous of her talent and success but will try not to hold that against her.
These scattered, cryptic comments probably don’t the book justice, so just take my word for it – it’s simply beautiful and I hope it will be noticed and appreciated. Melnik is definitely an author to watch. (less)
Today my sister and I sat down to talk about a book by a Polish writer, literary critic, university professor and a feminist. Below you will find the...moreToday my sister and I sat down to talk about a book by a Polish writer, literary critic, university professor and a feminist. Below you will find the transcript shabbily translated from Polish by me.
Kinga: Some time ago I asked you: Basia, do we like that Inga Iwasiów or not? And you told me that we didn’t have an official position on that yet and then you went and bought me ‘Blogotony’ which we read together. What are your impressions?
Basia: ‘Blogotony’ consists mostly of Inga Iwasiów’s blog published in a book form. It’s hard to describe my feelings about it in one word, because, as usual with different collections, I was taken in by some chapters and irritated by others. However, if you asked me now if we like that Inga Iwasiów , I would tell you that we do. Before we proceed to talk about the book in detail and the reasons why I decided for both of us that we like Ms Iwasiów, I wanted to ask you if you think publishing an Internet blog in a book form makes sense?
Kinga: I suppose you can say, it doesn't make sense, because it’s all already been published on the internet so what’s the point? However, I dare to say that a book is a slightly more mainstream product and, in a way, it elevates the blog. Anyone can write a blog, but a book published by an established publisher is only achieved by some. A blog in book form is like a seal of approval and, of course, it’s another (tiny) revenue stream for our forever broke Polish men and women of letters. On the other hand, there is a problem with such a book because a blog, by its nature, describes everything as it happens, and without its temporal context it might appear undecipherable and in need of footnotes.
Basia: Indeed. I agree with you about publishing things earlier available on the internet. They say nothing is ever lost on the internet but why tempt fate? Some time ago W.A.B. published Jacek Dehnel’s essays, which can be easily found online, but I’m happy they've been published in a book form. The problem with ‘Blogotony’ is that they are not essays but your typical blog posts, often commenting on current events, and some of them long past their due date, like the one talking about the rape joke about a Ukrainian cleaner spoken on air by Figurski and Wojewódzki. The issue which Iwasiów writes about will sadly be valid still for a long time, but here it appears as a comment on a micro-event which won’t be remembered a few years from now, and I assume while reading a book you don’t want to have to go on the internet all the time to understand what’s going on. That’s why I think the book would’ve been a lot better if the author implemented some changes in the text before publishing it. But since we are talking about that post about Wojewódzki and Figurski, I’d be interested to know what you think about it. Do you agree with the author that there was nothing funny about it or do you think that maybe there is some truth to the stereotype that ‘feminists don’t have a sense of humour, especially if they are the butt of a joke’?
Kinga: Feminists have an amazing sense of humour, a case in point being that they don’t find Wojewódzki and Figurski’s jokes funny. The issue here is the kind of humour. I expect more originality and finesse from my comedians than just spitting out crass, done-to-death, sexist lines. Maybe one day, when sexism in Poland stops being such a pressing issue we will be able to make jokes about it. Right now those are not funny because they are just too close to the sad reality. For the same reason I don’t find funny jokes about Slavic girls, who are Poland’s main ‘natural resource’ and ‘most precious export product’ (vide: Polish Eurovision entry this year), because human trafficking of women from Eastern Europe is a real issue and I’d rather we didn't reinforce the stereotypes that Slavic women are a commodity. Anyway, feminism in Poland is still strange. I have lived abroad long enough to forget that in Poland educated men and women are still using the word ‘feminist’ as an insult so they distance themselves from it just in case. Here, I would say the majority of my friends of both sexes would call themselves feminists. Before our conversation I read a few reviews of ‘Blogotony’ on the internet and almost every one of them mentioned in the beginning that Iwasiów is a writer, university professor, literary critic, but also…, and here a pregnant pause, a feminist. As if Iwasiów were a hermaphrodite unicorn. And obviously in the next paragraph the reviewers would reassure their worried readers that they were not feminists themselves, they disagreed with feminist views but generally they praised the book. In none of those (rather uninspired) reviews did I find a single mention of any of those revolutionary views that the reviewers disagreed with.
Basia: Maybe those from the post where Iwasiów explains why she thinks reading romance novels can be harmful, even modern ones, or maybe especially those, because while we know exactly what to expect from Monika Szwaja or Małgorzata Kalicińska, some younger authors fool us with their liberated, independent heroines, while really presenting a distorted image of male-female relationships.
“It’s about, [l3] to cut it short, the fact that women are cunning and men are childish. […] Because men are never good, and being a housewife is terrible, it is necessary to use some mythical female potions and con men. There is no room for understanding, openness, dialogue, community. In this narrative men and women really do come from different planets, they are enemies, but they have to (I feel so sorry for them!) live together. […] Ladies, luckily, have their little ways. They never forget to put make up on, the bra strap […] Brrr! Just thinking about such a life, where you can’t tell your life partner the truth […], you always have to act, always look pretty […] fills me with dread. […] Men and women fit together only anatomically, and manipulation is the only way for both sexes to co-exist.”
Maybe those women who declare they are not feminists because it’s repulsive to them prefer to live in a world where there is a never-ending war between sexes because we come from different planets.
Kinga: I really find it hard to believe that any emotionally mature person would want to play such games. That constant strategising to fool the other person, bend them to your will. Many men (as well as women) like to accuse feminists of starting some war with men, which is total nonsense. It’s the feminists who want to be equal partners to their men, they want to play on the same team. I feel that people with limited and superficial interests are more prone to such dysfunctional antagonistic attitudes. If he only cares about football and beer, and she only likes chocolate ice-cream and shoes, then it’s easier for them to get involved in such a guerrilla war, because they have no common ground they could meet on. Additionally, all this insisting on what men and women should be interested in has a negative impact on their ability to communicate with each other, because it reinforces that idiotic notion that we are so different from each other that we need manuals and articles in magazines to learn how to deal with one another. This is what feminists are trying to fight against and it should be in everyone’s interest that they win.
Basia: So this is what we agree with Iwasiów on. And what didn’t you like?
Kinga: I disagree with Iwasiów in her vendetta against pop culture. Of course, there are many aspects to it I don’t like, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Iwasiów says “I believe, however, that feminism today has more to lose than to win from its flirting with popculture”. I don’t think that’s true. But then Iwasiów and I have a very different vantage point – she treats feminism as an academic discipline and my approach is more pragmatic – I actually want to change the world (yeah, still haven’t outgrown that). And to change the world you need to appeal to it and speak its language. Another thing is that I find it really hard to divide all cultural production into two camps: high culture and pop culture. It’s all fluid and more of a spectrum than a dichotomy. That is not to say I am ok with the degradation of high culture and I agree with Iwasiów that the intellectual effort required to commune with is an important value but I would focus on promoting the pleasure that effort brings. Just like physical effort, intellectual effort can bring pure, almost hedonistic pleasure.
Basia: I agree with you to an extent but I also understand that Iwasiów’s view is coloured by the frustration of someone whose students insist on discussing ‘Dom nad rozlewiskiem’* in class and I feel we are also giving up too easily. I have seen different campaigns in defense of bad romance novels, because it’s supposedly better if Polish people read that than nothing at all. I’m really not sure it’s like that – that you start from ‘Dom nad rozlewiskiem’ and then evolve towards Faludi’s ‘Backlash’ . What I didn’t like, though, was that occasionally the author, who insisted people stop using stereotypes, was using them herself, like when she was judging elegant women on business trips to be the ones who would never read her books. And it’s not like that. I used to be one of those women from corporations, not because that was what my heart told me to do, but because that was what life made me do. So I feel like on this occasion Iwasiów lacks some sensitivity and humility.
Kinga: Yes, I was struck by that as well, because, it’s worth mentioning, I’m conducting this conversation with you from a company laptop from a company flat, where I live temporarily while shuttling between London and Scotland, carrying Iwasiów’s ‘Na krótko’ in my suitcase. Of course, I dream of a life like the kind Iwasiów leads, but things just didn’t work out that way. I feel that Iwasiów inhabits a world drastically different from ours. She even admits that herself, and I suppose she finds it hard to believe that that her works could make it over to the other side. But she shouldn’t worry because they find us here just fine. Just as a quick after note about some other things I liked about the book – it’s of course our idee fixe – women in literature. Iwasiów doesn’t say anything new about the problem, but why should she if the old problem is still unsolved. Men’s stories are universal, and women’s stories are women’s. I really liked this quote: "The blood of childbirth, the blood of menstruation can only cause condescending smirks. It’s hard to call this blood a taboo because in our world of birth and tampon ads, no one is still seriously perpetuating the myths about the impure nature of women. Female blood is simply trivial, unworthy of poems or novels. Unlike male hangovers."
Of course we only touched on a slice of subjects discussed by Iwasiów, because it would be impossible to go through them all. We would need to be talking for two days and we have to go to work tomorrow, so let me just end this with a reiteration that our official position on Iwasiów is that we like her .
* Dom nad rozlewiskiem - (tr. House by a Marsh) is a sappy uber-successful Polish novel about a woman who escapes the city and moves to a village in a lake region, where I assume she finds love and happiness. I have only managed to read two pages because the writing was absolutely dreadful. It has also been turned into a very bad TV Series. (less)
We had no winter in UK this year. This was probably the first winter in my life with absolutely zero snow. I know the US had quite the opposite of tha...moreWe had no winter in UK this year. This was probably the first winter in my life with absolutely zero snow. I know the US had quite the opposite of that but we just got loads of rain. I’m Polish – I miss the snow and I miss the cold, so I asked people to recommend me romance novels with lots of snow and cold and people having to share their body heat to survive or some such.
‘Up, Close and Dangerous’ was a perfect choice. The hero needs to crash land a plane with the heroine on board somewhere up in the mountains. Of course they don’t like each other at first but they need each other to survive, etcetera, etcetera. The survival bits were fantastic. I was very happy I was provided with every single detail – what they ate, what they drank, what they wore, how they built a shelter, and what afflictions they suffered from. I do love me a good survival story. The romance itself though, was lacking. If you took away all the excitement of being stuck in the wilderness, there just wouldn’t be much to it.
First of all, there is one lesson I learnt from Sandra Bullock in Speed the Sequel and that is that the relationships formed in extreme circumstances hardly ever survive (that’s how they explain the lack Keanu Reeves in the sequel), so maybe these two should slow down with their talk of moving in together, marriage and living happily ever after, because even though I’m sure they learnt a lot about themselves in those three days of sharing their body heat, I don’t know if it is quite enough. I mean, they should be a bit traumatized after that ordeal and maybe some time off would actually be useful. Additionally, there is that final twist, and while I appreciate the author trying to make things more interesting, that twist means that both the hero and the heroine would need at least six months of intense psychotherapy to even be a normal, trusting person again. Jumping head first into a super-serious relationship would be the last thing anyone in such circumstances would or should do.
And yet, I gave it four stars. Because in the end it did what I wanted it to do and that was to have a good snow-related survival story and outdoor sex scenes. (less)
I read this because Jill made me. Every now and then we force each other to read books we probably would not have read otherwise. I’m not going to lie...moreI read this because Jill made me. Every now and then we force each other to read books we probably would not have read otherwise. I’m not going to lie - many times during reading this book I was asking myself: what is this? Why am I reading it?
And yet, it’s clear to me there is a five star book hidden in this 1000 page long behemoth of a novel. R Lee Smith is a fantastic storyteller but she could use a good editor to just trim her production. There were so many repetitive scenes, and don’t get me wrong, they were all fairly well-written but I got the point the first time round. There is no need to beat me with it in the head. On the other hand I can’t see any mainstream publisher taking this weird number on because their marketing department would go mad trying to figure out which of the neat publishing boxes to stick into. Is it sci-fi? Epic fantasy? Post apocalyptic survival? Paranormal romance?
There is no point in summarizing a 1000 page long book in a review but the basic premise is this: It’s sometime in the future and of course the world has gone to shit. Amber and her annoying sister find themselves in dire straits and decide to sign up to colonise some distant planet. Things go wrong and they crash land somewhere further they ever meant to go with only a handful of survivors. Lots of things happen and Amber meets Meoraq, an alien looking like a cross between a lizard and a man. Surely they will eventually fall in love but the romance develops slowly, understandingly, as both of them at first consider any relationship between them as a form of bestiality. So they have to get over that first. And the reader has to get over things like snouts instead of faces and retractable penises. Retractable penises! Sexy times.
Except for Amber, every other surviving human is an idiot and an asshole, especially Scott, the self-proclaimed leader who hates Amber’s guts. This is where the book gets a bit confusing, because while I can understand why Amber wants to stick with those human assholes despite everything (they are on an alien planet, they are the only humans she will ever see again, I get it, I’ve spent enough time in some God-forgotten places to know how quickly your standards for what is acceptable human company drop) but why do all these morons follow Scott is beyond me. In normal circumstances populist idiots like Scott get voted into governments because they can wax poetic about all the fantastic things they are going to give the people because those people have no idea how the economy or government work so it’s easier for them to buy that sort of crap. But on that alien planet all Scott’s theories are put to test immediately and he fails repeatedly. It’s Amber who brings them food and guarantees their survival. Even if they don’t like her, their self-preservation instinct should’ve kicked in and told them who to stick with. I understand that you had to be either very stupid or very desperate or both to join that foolhardy mission in the first place but it’s still amazing how poor Amber found herself on an alien planet with 50 of the stupidest humans Earth had to offer.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I didn’t enjoy this book because I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not an escapist read – which is what I normally want from my romance novels. I would never want Amber’s reality over my own reality, even if hers comes with this larger-than-life love. No hung lizardman is worth going through such a fucking ordeal that includes murder, rapes and near starvation. I’d do anything for love, but I won’t do that. One of my favourite aspects of the book was the very clever meditation on religion and society. Amber is a sarcastic atheist while Meoraq is serious and fiercely religious. Props to the author for making their romance feel authentic. Bizarrely, this book reinforced my atheism while according to another reviewer it strengthened her belief in God. It really was very balanced.
Narration was also very good. I particularly remember that one bit when suddenly things became weird and distorted and after a while you realise Amber got hit in the head.
And then there is the world building, of course. It was very clever and so internally coherent that it would be a shame to classify it as a simple romance novel.
I chose this book because I heard somewhere that it was about ice apocalypse. In snowless England I wanted to read something to make me grateful for a...moreI chose this book because I heard somewhere that it was about ice apocalypse. In snowless England I wanted to read something to make me grateful for a mild climate (which I’m otherwise not that happy with). So yes, this book did make me appreciate a mild climate and also the fact I don’t do drugs (generally).
I am yet to read a book which was published in the 60s and wasn’t completely bonkers. Our generation seems so tame and conservative in comparison. I can’t imagine contemporary big publishers taking a chance on something that makes so little obvious sense.
The great thing about Ice is that you can have fun with it. I mean you can interpret it in a million ways – not sure if it is your idea of fun but for me it is. On the surface it’s a story of an unnamed narrator searching for unnamed girl while fighting another unnamed man for her affection (why name your characters? That’s sooo 1950s.) And all of this while the planet is facing the apocalypse and ice is threatening to swallow everything. The reader follows this frustrating chase which makes less and less sense and it feels like one of those unnerving dreams.
One of the first interpretations that came to my mind was that of the Cold War. The brutal reality of that world, military governments, ice plus the fact the book was written in the 60s all seem to fit nicely with this theory. But why stop there? Anna Kavan was a heroin addict and you will have no trouble with seeing the whole book as an allegory of addiction.
Let’s remove the book from its author and its time. Then really – the sky is the limit. I think my favourite interpretation is that of a power struggle in a relationship. This whole ‘I can’t love you without possessing you’ conundrum. The whole you are the OBJECT (of my affection). Both men in the book are actually one man trying to disown the part of his personality he is not comfortable with.
All in all, it’s a typical 60s book. You finish the last page, close it and ask yourself: what the hell did I just read? And yet, you keep thinking about it. Every now and then something reminds you of this book. Some time later you are reorganizing your bookshelves, or maybe just looking for that book you were sure you had but instead you come across Ice. You open it at random and start reading it again.
“My window overlooked an empty landscape where nothing ever moved. No houses were visible, only the debris of the collapsed wall, a bleak stretch of snow, the fjord, the fir forest, the mountains. No colour, only monotonous shades of grey to the ultimate dead white of the snow. The water lifeless in its dead calm, the ranks of black trees marching everywhere in uniform gloom.” (less)
Before we talk about Zadie Smith, let’s talk about me first. Here issomething you should know – I was a serious book-worm up until I turned 16 (more o...moreBefore we talk about Zadie Smith, let’s talk about me first. Here issomething you should know – I was a serious book-worm up until I turned 16 (more or less) at which point I lost all interest in anything that wasn’t parties, boys, alcohol, drugs or sex. There, I said it. For the next five years my brain didn’t see much action (I somehow managed to finish high school and got accepted into the University of Warsaw but generally I found education a big distraction to my social life). I was about 21 when finally the fog surrounding my brain cleared a little and I decided to go to my local library. I had no idea what to read or how to choose. I was just browsing idly when I saw a book called ‘White Teeth’ with an interesting cover. I checked it out, went home and started reading. Soon I was mesmerized. I had no idea there were books like that, that there were stories like that and that people were telling them. I can’t quite recall now what it was about ‘White Teeth’ that spoke to me so but it was as if a curse was lifted and I could read and use my brain again.
For this OCD reason or another, a decade had to pass before I read another Zadie Smith’s book. I am more cynical now and not so easily impressed as I was back then. I felt l could see what Smith was doing there; I was onto all her tricks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book tremendously. All this mixing of race, politics, academia, art, love and death – what’s not to love? Even if some of the observations were not particularly revelatory to me I have to give it to Zadie – she knows how to write people. That’s what the characters in ‘On Beauty’ were – people, rather than characters. They were so well put together I feel I would recognize them if I chanced upon them at a party (you know, I still go to parties). Zadie Smith is at the same cruel and merciful towards her subjects. She won’t hesitate to point out all the silliness of their lives but allows us to feel compassion for them and look upon their futile attempts to practice what they preach with forgiveness.
Also the climax was quite astonishing. I begin to believe that the ability to write a good climax, to make the reader understand you knew exactly what you were doing from page one is exactly what separates great writers from everybody else.
But we shouldn’t forget humour either:
‘[…] A brother don’t need a gate – he jumps the fence. That’s street.’ ‘Again, please?’ said Howard. ‘Street, street,’ bellowed Zora. It’s like, “being street”, knowing the street – in Levi’s sad little world if you’re a Negro you have some kind of mysterious holy communion with sidewalks and corners.’
And descriptions. Here is my personal favourite (for obvious reasons):
The African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her trucksuit, the unmistakeable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig fair in Kerry…
Bone structure! You can thank us for that later. (less)