Stevie Davies' "Emily Bronte: Heretic" is an incredibly insightful and fascinatingly written analysis of Emily Jane's work and (to a smaller extent) l...moreStevie Davies' "Emily Bronte: Heretic" is an incredibly insightful and fascinatingly written analysis of Emily Jane's work and (to a smaller extent) life. That Davies is a novelist lends to this critical work a highly accessible and interesting style. She attempts to dispel some of the myths about Bronte--namely those of her as hermited virgin, suicidal misanthropist, and amateur. The chapters on double-readings in Wuthering Heights and Bronte's fascination with animals v. human nature are probably the most intriguing. I'm in the process of writing a final paper on WH, and Davies' text really helped to illuminate a lot of things in the novel that I hadn't thought of before in my (many many) readings of it. Her look to the "one soul" of Cathy and Heathcliff, in particular, was provocative and incredibly detailed/evolved. The last chapter on Bronte's final days really challenged the conceptions of her as outside of reality; Davies attempts to raise awareness of Bronte's works (particularly her Gondal poems) as engaging with the world strife around her. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys Wuthering Heights, biographies, the Brontes, or simply a fascinating and feminist-leaning critical essay.(less)
**spoiler alert** X-posted to my Beloved review page, as well.
It always feels slightly blasphemous to review Toni Morrison’s work—even worse if you’re...more**spoiler alert** X-posted to my Beloved review page, as well.
It always feels slightly blasphemous to review Toni Morrison’s work—even worse if you’re discussing her in an uppity, academic setting. There seems to be some disservice done if you aren’t simply basking in her glory. This is not to say that her work is untouchable (read Love and you’ll know what I mean), and I certainly don’t believe she thinks as much (though she wields a far heavier hand in critical reception to her work), but that any review I might eke out will inevitably fall short. Perhaps this is why I’ve felt so uncomfortable over the past several weeks; I re-read Beloved and Sula one after another (Beloved for my longest seminar paper; Sula for a presentation), and in a scholarly capacity. Not only did I feel slightly, as I said, presumptuous—but also inadequate, for how does one write about a novel as emotionally complex and ethically indeterminate as Beloved? How does one argue against Sula as a positive model for the ‘new black woman’ in a classroom—especially when you yourself love Sula, even despite your inclination to think of her as an awful person? At the end of the two weeks or so it took to get through both novels, I felt like a picked scab. I was emotionally tired out.
It seems strange that it had been so long since I’d read either novel—above three years for both of them—because so many moments from each have become imprinted on my psyche, it seems. Of course, one forgets much: the strange spectacle of Shadrack’s final National Suicide Day; Helene Wright turning to ‘custard’ on the train; the fact that Paul D made an impact on 124 Bluestone Road (or Paul D more generally; it seems I only remember the women of Beloved). But there is also much that feels inescapable: the ‘O-gape’ of despair in Nel’s final howl for Sula; the chokecherry tree that blossoms on Sethe’s dead-skinned back; that strange rose-shaped birthmark over Sula’s eye; Amy Denver’s yearning for velvet and for Boston, where she’ll find that velvet. In some ways, I can only describe the power these novels have had over me in Sethe’s terms—they follow me, my rememory, and I run into these images and moments at unexpected times, with unexpected reactions to them. I say rememory because for Sethe, rememory signals the tangible quality of the past—you encounter your own history as tactile, rather than ephemeral, and at times, this past is something you simply cannot get away from. Not that I want to escape Morrison’s work, but that her novels have that beautifully tangible quality for me; I don’t simply scan the pages, but enter into some other world, an elsewhere, where I confront my self even as I confront all that is narrated.
Re-reading Beloved this go-round was particularly difficult. It took me nearly two weeks to get through the novel—for no other reason than that there were many occasions where I simply had to put it down and step back for a spell. I won’t pretend that I feel the emotional resonances of black experience—but even as a white, gay, male reader, I can feel the resonances of the human experience, which is precisely what I think Morrison intends. The politics of slavery and the tensions of the post-Reconstruction era are of course central to the novel, but Beloved is never a polemical minstrel show—the powerful political work is done, it seems, simply by granting her characters an implicit and enduring humanity. One of the things I’ve always admired about Morrison’s work is her capacity to imagine the nuances of every person, no matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they might seem at surface. Thus, in the face of the awful atrocities Schoolteacher and his pupils commit against the Sweet Home slaves, there are whitepeople like Amy Denver, like the Garners and the Bodwins—and even in the case of Schoolteacher, who horrifyingly instructs his pupils to put Sethe’s ‘human’ qualities on one side of a list and her ‘animal’ on the other, there is an indication that he has some capacity for sympathetic feeling, if only in his treatment of his dying sister-in-law. Likewise, Sethe is the emotional core of the novel, but she has committed one of the only crimes that is literally unrepresentable—infanticide. Morrison neither condemns her, nor lets her entirely off the hook. Even in their most fraught and horrifying sins, these characters are for Morrison essentially human, and she treats each one on their own terms. A novel about slavery and infanticide—a ghost story, in some capacity, as well—never manages to become moralizing or alienating, because Morrison refuses to let either her narrative or her reader take any easy outs.
Sula once tried to battle Beloved for my top-Morrison spot, but I think this re-reading has cemented the hierarchy for me. Nonetheless, they both remain among my favorite novels of all time (Beloved, in fact, has to be in the top five for me). Sula offers a wonderful exploration of female-female relationships (not necessarily erotic, though one can certainly read the Sula/Nel pairing as erotic in some capacity—I would argue more autoerotic than anything), and imagines a space in which women necessarily rely upon one another in a woman-centered community. My professor asked as we discussed the novel: ‘Do you think Morrison suggests that men have to leave in order for these characters to establish healthy and productive intimacies?’ And in fact, I tend to agree. We talked about the novel as contextualized alongside the Moynihan Report (a 1965 sociological ‘study’ that essentially claimed that female-headed black households kept ‘the race’ down, and generated figures like the Welfare Queen)—and so wondered together whether Morrison’s novel offers an alternative to these sorts of (white) hegemonic discourses on matrilineal systems in black communities. For Sula, this is the only available model; and in the case of Sula and Nel, female intersubjectivity is the most powerful and generative model of subject formation. Notice that the real troubles of the novel occur only after Nel and Sula’s strangely indistinguishable identities are fractured. Oh, look. There I went and did an academic discussion of the novel. But these issues weren’t what first drew me to the novel; rather, I think I was pulled in by the vulnerability of Nel, who ‘pulls her nose’ to make it seem more ‘white’ in the eyes of her mother. I was drawn to the way Morrison describes the ‘expanse of khaki’ that covers the men’s predatory/dormant dicks—and how Nel and Sula are unable to comprehend—but simultaneously able to intuit—what it means to be called ‘pig meat’ by these men. I was seduced by Sula, much the way she seduces everyone around her, and repulsed by her selfish actions—I was lured into imagining what it would be to function as the ‘dumping ground’ for a community’s frustrations, but being self-sufficient enough (as Sula is) to not give a damn. I felt my chest tighten when Nel lets out that final roar of utter grief (sidenote: Morrison has a real way of illustrating inarticulable emotions through guttural sounds). I considered my own conflicting desires to assimilate, as Nel does, and to deviate, as Sula does—the novel asks, in many ways, how we might discover a middle ground, and if such a thing can sustain itself. Sula doesn’t have the weight of Beloved, but it is in many ways so different from Beloved (even though many of the same issues arise—woman-centered communities, the mother-right, infanticide, & co.) that it carries the same sense of power.
As I mentioned at the top, Morrison has had her hits and her misses. Love is scatterbrained, meandering, and a bit of a hackneyed reworking/amalgam of her earlier novels. Song of Solomon may be a powerful novel, quite well written (with an absolutely amazing opening scene)—but for me, Morrison simply can’t write men in the same way she writes women, and the novel suffers for it. Her most recent, A Mercy, is positively stunning; The Bluest Eye was an eye-opening experience for silly-freshman-me, who had read perhaps one black author previously (Ellison’s Invisible Man). Jazz, Paradise, and Tar Baby all sit on my shelf, beckoning to me—but will likely have to wait until summer, as Atwood and Byatt’s new novels will dominate my winter break.
But Beloved and Sula are truly two works beyond comparison. As schmaltzy as it sounds, they changed my life. And it’s almost heartbreaking to see so many vicious reviews on goodreads, where people tear Beloved apart, call it the ‘worst novel’ they’ve ever read, decry Morrison’s illuminative faculties as a prose writer. I can only tell myself that art is subjective that these people are fucking idiots, like most people, and that I’ll keep-on-keepin’-on with my worship at the altar of Toni. (less)
It's amusing to read the negative reviews for this book on the site; it seems almost easier, I guess, to dismiss it as unmanageable (and thereby, "bad...moreIt's amusing to read the negative reviews for this book on the site; it seems almost easier, I guess, to dismiss it as unmanageable (and thereby, "bad") than to honestly try and tackle the novel for what it is--a thoroughly complex and beautifully written drama of the different kinds of love and the betrayals that twist them.
This is the fourth Morrison novel I've read, and while it isn't my favorite by a long shot--it's not haunting in the way Beloved is, perverse in the way The Bluest Eye is, or powerful in the way Sula is--it has some of the best character portraits I've read in a long time. I'll admit that it was a difficult read in that it's hard to keep the characters and the actual plotline organized because of Morrison's strategy of selectively revealing information, but I like a good challenge and felt rewarded by the end of it, which I think is the important part.
It's not so much the details that count here, anyhow, but the understanding of how betrayals are able to twist innocent love and harden the people involved. I hated Christine and Heed almost until the end, but nonetheless, was so incredibly fascinated by them. Morrison's strength in all of her novels (that I've read) is her ability to present such bleak situation and such perverse characters while never passing moral judgment--for example, Bill Cosey's sexual violation of and eventual wedding to eleven year-old Heed could easily have been written as something so disgusting as to be unreadable, but Morrison allows for all sides of the story to be played out. She always manages somehow to evoke sympathy in the reader for her "villains." Anyhow, I found it to be a great novel--if you're just getting started with Morrison, this is not the book to go to (try "The Bluest Eye"), but if you enjoyed her other works, you'll certainly enjoy her stunning prose and her ceaseless ability to surprise and provoke. Happy reading!(less)
Perhaps one of the most frightening things about re-reading books: returning to an old goodreads review & r...more**spoiler alert** **Update January 2011
Perhaps one of the most frightening things about re-reading books: returning to an old goodreads review & realizing that a book one feels one has read only months ago was in fact put down two and a half years before. Another frightening, but as thrilling thing about the re-reading experience: how vastly different one feels about a book on the experience of returning to it (for the third time, no less!).
Jacob's Room is one such example. I think I "read" it early in my college career (& by 'reading' I mean my eyes moved sequentially over each word, though I retained none of it & couldn't have cared less). Then again for a Woolf seminar in my last year of undergrad; again, it left hardly a shadow of an imprint. I thought: how can one feel anything at all for Jacob when he's caught only in the briefest glimpses, camera snapshots & passing specters of his presence. Of course, I see now that, well, that's sort of the point. I think in fact that the inception of Woolf's problematic relationship with biographical writing can be found in her handling of Jacob. On this go-round, I began to see the narrator of the novel as more-than-tenuously resonant with the narrator of Orlando; could JR be called a kind of 'mock biography,' as is the latter work? The metaphor of the camera snapshot, indeed, seems peculiarly apt here: think of the moment in Greece when Jacob finds himself being captured on film by the monstrous Frenchwomen; how horrified he is by the prospect of being pinned, boxed, bound. Jacob is, oddly enough, merely the outline of a character--though he's the primary object of the novel's desire (of the narrator, of the women & the men; all are drawn to J's magnetism).
Yet he couldn't be more ordinary. Though he believes himself and Timmy Durrant to be the only two men in all the world to understand the Greeks, J is little more than a cookie cutter parody of the ruling white male. I think something else I'd missed up to now in the novel is the profound sense of parody, of satire or mockery; though the narrator--as well as everyone else, including this reader--finds J incredibly seductive, there's too a sense of anxiety around the possibility of his success. J seems to be the very reason Clara, for example, must be such a dumb dog (as J sees her). It is by the ascendancy of his star that women like Clara and Florinda must remain forever in obscurity. Jacob, when you come right down to it, is the very domestic tyrant that Woolf cuts down so vehemently later in Three Guineas; he's also the moronic man of "A Society"; the 'adorable' but domineering Richard Dalloway figure. He is nothing special at all; he's just been told his entire life that he must be. And in this formulation of his character, all orbiting around him come to the very same delusion.
There is a grieving here for him though; I think, however, I read that grief as for a prewar sense of stability. With the catastrophic interruption of the 'Great War' (as Woolf knew it), the figure of Jacob--and his ilk; the allure of the rock-like patriarch; the uneasy comfort of knowing that men would be eternally beautiful & guided through life & women would assist them--was unceremoniously snuffed out. The sense of loss is not, then, for Jacob; not necessarily, though certainly this is an elegiac novel; not for the 'old guard'; not for being kept in line. It is for the end of an age, as terrible as that age may have been. A grieving for the end, in fact, of an entire world, to which no one can fathom returning.
I bought this edition as I couldn't bear to read my old Dover Thrift one again (those editions are cheap, sure, but they're just abominably unattractive). The introduction is long & useful, but probably only if you aren't too familiar with Woolf. It's fairly foundational information. The annotations, however, are spectacular--really, really useful; and I think particularly helped me get a better feel for what Woolf was doing with the novel on this reading of it. Also, the design is just beautiful--highly recommended.
[September 2008 review] Though this was certainly not my favorite Woolf novel, it's definitely worth a shot if you don't mind the challenge. Jacob's Room is, I think, far more interesting after reading criticism on the text and in using for classroom discussion than in sitting down to read the text itself. One of the reasons for this is, I imagine, that Woolf was trying to empty the text of interior consciousness (as she does to a more interesting effect in "Between the Acts")--and I find I love Woolf far more when she's looking predominantly through an individual consciousness, as in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. What is interesting about JR, though, is the ways in which it functions as an anti-epic, or with Jacob as an anti-hero. I love that Woolf refuses to mythologize Jacob as this heroic soldier--and further, that we really gain no knowledge of him by the end of the text. I think she has a wonderful way of depicting grief in the text--especially in terms of the women left behind by the war; mothers, lovers, sisters, and so forth. I was also fascinated by her dealings with alienated figures of desire--in the prostitutes of the novel and in Bonamy, an almost obviously gay character in love with Jacob. I'm always interested in the way Woolf is able to sneak taboo topics in under the radar. So tackle the book if you love Woolf--but good luck!(less)
Fascinating read, though I know most Woolf-heads don't hold it too high among her oeuvre. Essentially a coming-of-age novel (with Rachel Vinrace), the...moreFascinating read, though I know most Woolf-heads don't hold it too high among her oeuvre. Essentially a coming-of-age novel (with Rachel Vinrace), there are also some really terrific visions of the female initiation process into culture, sexuality, and self in the novel. It drags at moments, but some others--particularly the (in)famous kiss scene and the last several chapters--are absolutely riveting. I'm in a Woolf course at the moment, so who knows what my opinion will be as I become increasingly acquainted with her!(less)
**spoiler alert** Warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. Warning (Pt. II): this book is not for the dull of wit. Well, I should rephrase. T...more**spoiler alert** Warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. Warning (Pt. II): this book is not for the dull of wit. Well, I should rephrase. This is by no means a beach read, a rainy day read, a quick-n-easy read. As with most of Carter's work (well, all I've come across, anyhow), you'll likely scratch your head through most of the text, and hopefully come away with a dozen glittering nuggets of truth or beauty or profundity.
"Infernal Desire Machines" is a heroic-quest narrative, though as with any Carter, she's not going to allow such a narrative to remain unscathed. Desiderio is an unwilling hero, beset by ennui and strangely slavish to his desire for a seemingly impossible swan/woman/transvestite creature names Albertina. Dr. Hoffman has created a so-termed "Reality War" and is attempting to transform the world into a totalitarian system of actualized desire. He's destroyed space and time, erased the division between the abstract and the object, and left his 'subjects' in a state of mass chaos. As I said, if you don't like a book that will leave you dazed and confused, this isn't necessarily the book for you. Carter's engagement with theory is in full-force here, as she draws from Freud and Jung, Lacan--and either pulls from or pre-dates a lot of feminist and queer theory (particularly in terms of performativity and illusory identity). And I don't mean simply that she illustrates such theory, but that the book itself reads like theory at several points.
However, her prose never ceases to amaze, of course. Take this passage, for example:
"All, without exception, passed beyond of did not enter the realm of simple humanity. They were sinister, abominable, inverted mutations, part clockwork, part vegetable, and part brute...Their hides were streaked, blotched and marbled and some trembled on the point of reverting completely to the beast...Perhaps that was why they kept them in cages...But, if some were antlered like stags, others had the branches of trees sprouting out of their bland foreheads and showed us the clusters of roses growing in their armpits when they held out their hands to us...All the figures presented a dream-like fusion of diverse states of being, blind, speechless beings from a nocturnal forest where trees had eyes and dragons rolled about on wheels."
That's but one brief moment of absolute genius in the novel--her style shimmers, is iridescent--and often, the strange thoughts Carter attempts to convey in her work have a similar effect. Which is why, at times, take her ideologies with a grain of salt, because I think Carter would cackle to think readers were taking everything seriously and intellectually.
The one issue I had with this book (and often have with Carter) is that her intellectual stance maintains an undercurrent of detachment between reader and text. I suppose this is a side-effect of her self-proclaimed "demythologizing" project; she doesn't want to allow the reader to nestle into pure escapism. And this doesn't discount the novel on the whole, but there were definite points where I was left a bit colder than at others. For example, I was wholly engrossed in the chapters "The River People," "The Acrobats of Desire," "The Erotic Traveler," and "The Castle." This is because those chapters feature settings and a cast I was more fascinated by; whereas, in some of the other chapters, the subject matter was less interesting, and because Carter maintains that detachment, I was less able to enter fully into them. Make sense? Carter remains one of my absolute favorite authors, though-so don't get me wrong. As I note in the little review option, I suggest you read this one if you love Carter, and/or if you love theory--particularly those pertaining to performativity, the processes of desire, the mirror image and Lacan's ideological imaginary/the Real, and semiotic theory.
Otherwise, I'd suggest you start with The Bloody Chamber or Nights at the Circus for an entrance into the wacky world of Carter. Either way, give her a shot. (less)
**spoiler alert** I've read this now twice for different classes and have watched friends similarly delve through it for their own projects. Lady Audl...more**spoiler alert** I've read this now twice for different classes and have watched friends similarly delve through it for their own projects. Lady Audley's Secret is a landmark in the sensationalist subgenre of Victorian lit. The quest throughout the entire novel is, of course, to discover Lady Audley's secret--and for many, it isn't necessarily so great a secret by the time it's outed. Nonetheless, it's a fairly interesting page-turner to go to if you like Victorian novels, or if you like a good ol' fashioned mystery in the vein of (dare I say) "Rebecca" or Agatha Christie novels. My interest in the novel was its dealings with theatricality, particularly in terms of gender performance (Braddon worked in the theatre herself), and the thinly-veiled homoerotic desire of Robert Audley for his friend George Talboys. Really. Look a bit closer at Robert's evident 'lust' for another woman (I don't want to spoil too much) in the text. (less)
Anais Nin's "Henry and June" is a fascinating glimpse into one woman's erotic awakening. Her writing style is absolutely stunning and it's still almos...moreAnais Nin's "Henry and June" is a fascinating glimpse into one woman's erotic awakening. Her writing style is absolutely stunning and it's still almost bizarre to imagine someone writing about these moments and salacious details in the 30s--quite a brazen statement of identity. For a diary, "Henry and June" reads like a developed novel; it makes me want to kick up my own journal writing a notch or million. My only criticism of it would be that (and this is also because it's a diary) it gets a bit repetitive as it goes on. We hear about how she's fucking this man and that one, but actually wants to seduce another one while still maintaining relationships with her husband and other fuck buddies--and then the cycle repeats. But that is, of course, the danger of reading a diary; life is a series of repetitive actions, moments, and performances. I suppose that's why it took me so long to get through, but I finally forced myself to sit down and finish it. It's an enjoyable read, though, don't get me wrong--it's just something I think requires multiple sittings, not necessarily one of those texts you plop down and finish in a day. It definitely caught my interest in the other works of Anais (A Spy in the House of Love is on its way to me now) and Henry (I'd love to read Tropic of Cancer, which is what he was evidently writing during the span of their relationship in the journal). Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys delving into a writer's biographical interior, the bohemian lifestyle, or some good ol' fashioned naughty erotica.(less)
Margaret Atwood occupies a strange nook in my heart. She's become a bit of a chore lately, as I'm including her in my senior honors thesis; on the oth...moreMargaret Atwood occupies a strange nook in my heart. She's become a bit of a chore lately, as I'm including her in my senior honors thesis; on the other hand, I've now read almost all of her novels, and while none are bad or even...not really good. Just that because a few of the novels shine so brightly, that the others seem duller in comparison.
Well, Alias Grace is a supernova. It's an absolutely phenomenal novel, and a truly thrilling read. It's a departure for Atwood, as it's historical fiction (of course, she did do the Journals of Susanna Moodie before), but moreover, it employs similar narrative techniques as detective fiction, while turning them on their head--in any case, it's definitely a page-turner, which is not something you usually mention in conjunction with Atwood. This doesn't discount the literary merit--there's enough meat in the book to write a dissertation or five on it. There's something quite fresh in her style here, with many many passages I absolutely had to read aloud to whomever was (un)fortunate enough to be near me as I read.
The general structure of the novel is from the outset quite fascinating--each section is tied under the flag of a quilt pattern, and each begins with a series of epigraphs, combining historical documents, poetry, "witness accounts" and so forth--ultimately questioning the validity of each, and how we reconfigure the past with necessarily limited frameworks at hand. Writing a fictionalized account of a historical person is itself an indictment of history, but Atwood takes it so much farther, and in much more wonderfully 'political' ways. Grace is still a frustrating enigma by the end of the text, but you'll adore her and her sly moves, her secret longings, and her storytelling ability--Dr. Jordan, as we discover, has no idea what he's getting into with her. It's certainly a dark read, and often I would have to lay the book down for at least a minute or two to catch my breath. But Atwood has a wonderful way of infusing humor into even the bleakest of moments, so there were just as many times when I found myself laughing aloud. This book will not leave you for a long time.(less)
I've read this novel twice now and still can't seem to figure out how I feel about it. Valenzuela's writing is tight and evocative; the magic-realism-...moreI've read this novel twice now and still can't seem to figure out how I feel about it. Valenzuela's writing is tight and evocative; the magic-realism-esque aesthetic makes for an enjoyable read; the politics of the novel are provocative and fairly easy to digest. But for some reason, it just won't stick with me. Her essays "Dirty Words" and "Dangerous Words" are absolutely wonderful, and I adore her collection of short stories, "Symmetries," but I can't make up my mind on "Bedside Manners." I think it might be the kind of book that's fun to discuss in class, but that I would otherwise find forgettable, if I hadn't read it with a specific purpose in mind. So if you're interested in Valenzuela, I say look to those essays and the stories--this is worthwhile, too, but not as memorable for me. Need to check out "The Lizard's Tail," though.(less)