Igor Vishnevetsky's Leningrad combines poetry and prose, newspaper articles and personal journals, publicized tallies and top-secret communiques to paint a complete (and completely bleak) image of Leningrad Blockage-era Russia and the full scope of horrors that can rain down on a war-pummeled city while its residents try to hold their lives together throughout an increasingly turbulent period.
As history is reduced to numbers and outcomes and notable skirmishes with the ever-widening distance separating then from now, it's easy to forget that people did their best to live through times of far-reaching upheaval and misery that encroached most disastrously on their smaller worlds. Here, Vishnevetsky presents us with Gleb Alfani, a composer, and his lover, Vera, as the intimate connection between a ravaged city and its residents' desperate attempts to preserve the humanity that they need to survive in a brutal environment. Gleb distracts himself from both a hopeless world and the barrage of ammunition disfiguring his home by drowning out the cacophony of ceaseless fire with the opera he superstitiously believes will keep him and his beloved safe as long as he's composing it. Vera's safety becomes a paramount concern when she divulges her pregnancy, already a complication in turbulent times where death far outpaces births but an even more daunting hurdle since Vera's husband is both a naval officer in the war effort and very obviously not the child's father. She flees Leningrad in the hopes of finding refuge, instructing Gleb to follow her once he receives her next letter, but his emaciated body and weakened spirit soon fall victim to a flu that leaves him delirious and split from reality. Spring eventually returns to Leningrad and health finally returns to Gleb, but the world he is reborn to is nothing like the one he once knew.
Aside from their roles as the beating heart in the political history of war, Gleb and Vera, as well as their friends and family orbiting the periphery of the plot, are witnesses who provide their own personal narratives about struggling through another day, clinging to the things that gave their life meaning before, and how those things become frivolous necessities as the life rafts keeping their rapidly deflating morale afloat. The continuation and preservation of art is a recurring theme throughout this short book: A minor character retrieves rare books from bombed-out buildings; Vera's husband writes of how he feels that the time he once spent painting now seems "absolutely ludicrous in comparison with the immense, unifying cause propelling us all forward," though the painting to which he refers is the lone item in Vera's apartment that glimmers with hope when Gleb goes looking for her and finds only a long-empty residence; Gleb slips into poesy in some of his journal entries, finding dark beauty in a devastated world and imposing metered order on a time when chaos ruled, and later mourns the books he sacrificed to the fire that kept him warm throughout the unforgiving winter. The aesthetic value of artistic pursuits aside, holding tight to one's appreciation of art is how these characters preserved elements of pre-war life, fighting impending death and coping with persistent uncertainty by remembering the things that gave beauty to the world and brought them happiness.
The importance of bearing witness to the unenviable epoch in which they lived and to which they had front-row seats is among the primary functions Vishnevetsky's characters serve. One of Gleb's first journal entries talks of how a friend confessed that being confronted with death leaves him in a state of arousal; rather than being a deviant's admission, it highlights how the triumph of living when thousands die each month is an understandably muddled, confused thing. Some characters find themselves almost gloating to the corpses they've stepped over in the streets, so giddy they are with life--hard as it is--while others try not to take in too much (if any) of their squalid environment. But no judgement is imparted to make one reaction seem more honorable than the other: Vishnevetsky merely uses each character's response to meteoric body counts to color their personalities, demonstrating how the coping mechanisms of the living are as varied as their methods of survival. While some characters need to record the loss and desolation of the times, especially once discrepancies arise between what they've seen and what official documents claim, others merely want to survive, and looking too closely at the carnage surrounding them would only deliver the final blow of emotional defeat. Self-denial looks an awful lot like self-preservation in the right circumstances and, as accounts of cannibalism rise and Gleb's instructions to himself about what does and doesn't prove to be edible betray the desperate edges of madness, it is increasingly clear that each individual must decide for themselves what desperation looks like and how they must harness it to see another day.
Since the world has a cruel way of moving on despite the sufferings of its inhabitants, the first spring of the siege finally comes and is wholly incongruent with the winter that still clutches at the hearts of those who have lost and suffered through so much. But it is proof that all things will pass and that time always shuffles onward, and the most we can do is learn from the past and remember its harsh imperatives. While time does not heal all wounds, hindsight is a stern teacher that is keen to remind its students that life goes on for those who are strong enough to forge ahead with it. It is in this truth that the crux of Leningrad's lesson dwells, the affirmation of life's ability to take root in the most hard-scrabble, inconceivably hostile elements as long as there is something to live for.(less)
Of all the successes contained within Palmerino's deceptively slim form, chief among them is its sound example of why Melissa Pritchard should be everyone's factually based but fictionally rendered introduction to coarse, easily misunderstood and half-forgotten writers. WIth a sensitive touch, lush descriptions and a richly evocative narrative triptych, Pritchard's exhaustive research into Violet Paget--perhaps better known as her nome de plume and masculine alter ego, Vernon Lee, the grandiloquent feminist and penner of supernatural tales, aesthetic studies and travel essays--flawlessly blends the late-nineteenth century writer's life with that of her fictional modern-day biographer.
Sylvia Casey, also a writer who has fallen on hard times (namely her marriage's demise as signaled by her husband absconding with another man, not to mention the faltering critical and commercial reception of her two most recent books placing her career in precarious uncertainty), has retreated to Palmerino, an Italian villa not far from Florence where Violet had spent much of her life, to slip away and throw herself into writing a novel inspired by Violet's life. Through research and walking the same grounds Violet once did, Sylvia immerses herself in the life of her spirited muse, mostly unaware that her subject has become her possessor in an unintended bit of method biographing.
The triumvirate of narration is an effective collision of past and present: Sylvia's quest to alternately lose herself in and hide from Italian life as she learns about the tempestuous Violet and writes of her discoveries; snapshots of Violet's life ranging from girlhood to brief mentions of her parents' and beloved Clementina's deaths; and ethereal interjections from Violet herself, as not even death could silence such an indomitable spirit, watching (and becoming gradually besotted with) her biographer, guiding the still-corporeal writer to clarify the truths about a life that has grown tarnished by assumptions: Violet is not a figure to be pigeonholed into easy descriptions, and she is irritated by history's posthumous efforts to reduce her to flat absolutes.
Though Violet is the linchpin holding the trio of perspectives together, the commingling of biographer and subject is present in each section to increasing degrees as Violet breathes her own essence into Sylvia by gradual possession. Sylvia's own writings are the most obvious interplay between the two, with Violet's resurrection flowing from her fingers onto pages both typed and intimately scribbled. Violet herself has been observing her biographer since the latter's arrival, a benign watchfulness yielding to a ghostly seduction that becomes ever more apparent in the chapters that follow Sylvia's pursuits. As the present-day writer encounters relics and writings from Violet's life, Sylvia withdraws more into herself and her work, at first wondering almost wryly if Violet is guiding her and eventually shirking her own rigid writing methods to scrawl pages in a hand nearly as illegible as Violet's, certain that a female presence draws ever closer until "hearing her name, she understands who is calling her" and finally flees to Violet's secret garden in the book's final pages.
It is Pritchard's sympathetic but honest rendering of a woman some found tyrannical, some found charming and almost all found terrifyingly learned that urge her ghostly heroine into genial illumination. By preserving Violet's intellectual intensity as well as capturing the softness of her romantic pursuits, the hard-edged scribe becomes a fully realized figure rather than the wanly uneven caricature such a divisive female figure can so easily be written off as. It is this careful balance that lends so much female empowerment to the novel, as Violet publicly shuns all the social niceties that she believes exist "principally to defang" a woman but extends the compassionate sensitivity stereotypically attributed to the so-called fairer to those she feels most deserving of her affections, selectively embracing her femininity when she finds it necessary. It is easy to reduce a strong woman from a repressed era to the limited and scandalously taboo "lesbian" label but Violet was volumes more than her attraction to other women. She recognized the disadvantages of her gender the moment she was pitted for her ugliness and turned an unfair liability into an asset, which led her to adopt the mannerisms, dress and persona of a man, denying the world a chance to thwart her ascent, both as an intellectual and a human being, by seizing an opportunity to turn biology's lousy hand into something she could take control of and claim as her own.
If Violet's off-putting bravado and ferocity are pleasingly mitigated by inclusion of both her past and her first-person chapters, then her actions are justified by the more submissive Sylvia, who can't catch a break and shrinks from people in direct opposition to the way Violet sought to dominate them. Sylvia has merely inherited the equality for which her female predecessors have won and quietly moves through life, never questioning the path she has chosen until she begins to wonder what would have happened if she ever sought the pleasure of another woman's company, while Violet has struggled to assert herself in a male-dominated world, wrestling her way into commanding respect where she could get it and striking fear where she could not. The opposing trajectories of their writing lives--Sylvia chronicling the rise of Violet's career while her own is in rapid decline--and the sense of novelty with which each regards her near-perfect foil is a subtle affirmation that expression of one's sexuality can be a thing constricted by the absence of that perfect half, lying in wait for its cue to finally rise from dormancy.
The achingly gorgeous prose in which Palmerino is written strikes pitch-perfect harmony with its equally strong expression of humanity, promising that the hidden beauty within is always worth the time it takes to discover it. (less)
As Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twe...moreAs Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twentieth-century musings and poring over sweetly triumphant images of same-sex couples rushing to "legitimize" their long-running relationships with celebratory midnight marriages. As the strange continent of "inverts" draws horticultural allusions and comparisons to covert societies in Proust's time, the LGBTQ community is finally being recognized in a way that signals the slow unravelling of ignorance and inequality in mine.
For the first three volumes, it was easy to lose any sense of cultural or chronological divide when faced with so many universal constants of humanity that all but waltzed off their pages and pages of lyrical metaphors; in S&G, we have a Narrator who recalls how the first time he saw an airplane overhead filled him with childlike wonder and lives in a time when it is apparently totally normal for a man to pick out his female companion's evening attire, which are but a few examples that, like unchecked homophobia, for the first time in my journey with Proust heralded a struggle to bridge the gap between when these volumes were written and when I'm reading them, bringing into stark reality just how much separates modernism from modern times, regardless of how well the common ground of so many other shared human experiences minimized the inevitable differences in eras and epochs. I finally felt the full extent of the distance -- literal and figurative, in time and physical distance, of the real and fictionally polished -- between the richly depicted, intricately crafted images Proust used to construct his Narrator's winding halls of memory and the world to which I belong. It was a jarring transition, for sure, but it was also a rather well-timed one: As the Narrator become increasingly aware of adult life's complicated emotions stirring inside and the societal politics constantly changing around him (not to mention the slow encroachment of technology, which does cast a shroud of smoky modernization on a world previously draped in pristine laces and cloud-soft velvets), I, too, got a taste of that irrevocable shift from a reasonably expected understanding to desperate reconsideration of an ever-shifting world.
This installment, sadly, is one I read in staccato bursts of precious free time. It is unfortunate because Proust is best savored like good wine rather than chugged like cheap beer, and I fear I spent more time drunk on his beautiful words than intoxicated by his narrative insight. In those exhausted but relieved hours at home, in those stolen wedges of at-work bookwormery, in whatever few minutes were spent in quiet solitude, I clung to Proust with the desperation of a booklover in the throes of both work-related burnout and the dreaded reader's slump. And while a frantic heart may not be the best way to approach words that are ideally enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, I do believe the Narrator's burgeoning sense of humor and need to slowly drink in his surroundings kept me grounded during chaotic times. While S&G may not have been my favorite installment, it is the one that affected me the deepest.
Among the revolving door of social obligations and self-indulgent observations that seem to occupy the majority of Fictional Marcel's abundant free time, I found myself most invested in his delayed reaction to his grandmother's death. Having never known the magnitude of a transgenerational love like that which Narrator shared with his maternal grandmother, I felt his palpable grief just as keenly as the slow-arriving but no less heartrending clarity of permanent absence that hit him upon revisiting a place that once played such an important role in demonstrating the fondness and compassion that can exist between a grandmother and her grandson. As the Narrator contemplates how different Balbec is without his beloved grandmother, as he muses on how much his own once-young mother has taken on the visage of her own mother now that the elder woman's death has left a role unfulfilled, as he retraces rooms that once were filled with his grandmother's presence, the concrete reality of past time being truly lost time came thundering down against a mostly familiar landscape that derives most of its changes from the players inhabiting it. It is odd that the grief is intense but short-lived, yes, but I couldn't help but write it off as the Narrator's decision to forge ahead with his life rather than mawkishly wallow in grief -- such are the intermittences of the heart, no?
I continue to find the romantic entanglements of these characters to be a high-school level of ridiculous. It seems like so few of the relationships presented thus far in ISOLT -- Swann and Odette; the Narrator and Gilberte (and also Albertine); Saint-Loup and Rachel -- are healthy, mutually affectionate ones, but it could also be that I have little patience for romances, even fictional ones, that are built on a foundation of obsession and possession rather than respect and genuine fondness. And, really, the affair between Morel and Charlus isn't anything laudable, I know, but I can't help but find it one of the most believable examples of heady lust in terms of its execution and its players' emotionally fueled behaviors. There is little else but pure attraction drawing Charlus helplessly toward Morel, who can't help but take advantage of (or be manipulated by, depending on your vantage point) the older gentleman's affections and gifts. Still, the greed with which Charlus tries to keep Morel to himself while all but undressing him in public, the satisfaction he derives just from coaxing the younger musician into his presence is…. okay, a bit much, yes, but also keenly evocative of an irrationally all-consuming, unrealistically intense first crush and the reluctant empathy of understanding such memories drag along in their wake.
Sodom and Gomorrah struck me as proof that the memories of our past can't help but be intertwined with memories of others, a reminder that there are always multiple perspectives at play -- and that, as the ending scenes with Bloch reinforce, not everyone's assessment of a situation will always be reliable or anything more than actions born of misunderstanding a sticky situation that was handled badly because there are no do-over options in real life and things only make sense when hindsight lays down the rest of the puzzle. ISOLT might be fictional, sure, but it is written as an account of life, and sometimes learning life's lessons means that truths can be as ugly as our lesser selves. (less)
If you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less e...moreIf you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less effort to read a page than a face, a chapter than mixed body language: Even the subtext and allusions and metaphors are all naught but new takes on old tricks, and the most elusive hidden messages are often buried no deeper than a careful reexamination of text laid bare with a willingness most people eschew in the name of self-preservation and tactful modesty. Besides, I'm far (far, far, faaaar) more apt to dislike a person than a book, so why not be better acquainted with the entity that's more likely to strike me as pleasing?
Having encountered hundreds of agreeable books by now, I can tell when one is poised to bound across the threshold between casual acquaintance and trusted friend. Because no two books, in a rare display of commonality with us moodier mortals, share the same personality, the one variable is when the deepening of our relationship will become apparent -- will we know by the time the last word hits us like a too-soon au revoir or will we realize that our meeting was fated for roaring success before I've even turned the first page?
Confessions of a Common Reader and I were destined for each other. I knew this to be an undeniable truth simply from a mutual friend's appropriately glowing review that gave rise to the heartening pang reserved for the flash of recognition in spotting a kindred spirit from a distance that may be easily conquered but lengthened intolerably by the inconvenient fact that we'd not been properly introduced yet (thanks for playing matchmaker, Steve!). Like a friend insisting that I ought to meet this person they just know with whom I'll enjoy an easy rapport, I sought the aforementioned book's companionship immediately, knowing it would be one of those rare times reality and fantasy sung in pitch-perfect harmony. Anne Fadiman's collection of essays culled from a lifetime of bibliomania and I, in truth, needed no introduction once our eyes locked in a Barnes & Noble: We knew that we were about the enjoy the rare bliss of a fast friendship and flowing conversation buoyed by quiet but doggedly personality-defining quirks.
Forgoing the polite formalities of aimless small talk that I've never had any use for, we quickly discovered our kinship by way of unabashed conversation girded with the intimate admissions that are usually divulged to the friends whose loyalty was built on years of shared experiences: Ours was a love at first sight that is usually only relegated to the fictions we both treasure as though they are the pillars upon which our own personal histories rest (and, really, they decidedly do).
We found instantaneous common ground by confiding early on that we both regarded it as a monumental moment, indeed -- with an eye cast far more optimistically toward the future than a mere marriage proposal, infinitely more demonstrative of a trust we'd only felt for one person that we proclaimed it before a roomful of witnesses, embracing a humbling but welcome vulnerability light years beyond that first appearance of the two-backed beast -- when we allowed the person we've vowed to love and support until both of our bodies have expired to combine their personal libraries with our own lovingly tended but fiercely guarded treasure trove of tomes, that to allow such a commingling of the closest we'll ever come to an outward manifestation of our personalities' truest forms with another's is the very definition of the hard-won but popularly cliched and carelessly bandied-about designation of "soulmate."
As we freely offered each other the pieces of ourselves we usually sheltered beneath layers of protective trivia and adopted personae, sitting forehead-to-forehead as hours melted away like minutes during our sometimes tittering, sometimes somber but always generously peppered with earnest, animated outbursts of "I know exactly what you mean! I thought I was the only one!" conversation, we unearthed more and more gold nuggets of shared insights and experiences: rampant logophilia; an incorrigible but well-intentioned need to proofread everything made of words; the ongoing struggle against but secret thrill of one's living space looking less like a home and more like a used bookstore (which, really, is the only other place we're truly ourselves, anyway); the pleasure of carnally loving a book to the extent that its spine is permanently bent and its marginalia is such an imprint of the self that the very idea of letting someone else borrow it requires tapping into some inner peace to get over the anxiety akin to letting someone rifle through your diary with dirty fingers and malicious intent; the unavoidable comparison between a decadent meal and a five-course book and the primitive, multi-sensory satiation that accompany both.
Alas, all good things must come to an end and, as we blinked with disbelief into the light of a new day, we realized that our electrifying and animated first meeting was rushing toward its inevitable denouement. And I realized that the jealousies I'd brushed aside in the eager pursuit of getting to know this marvelous new ally with whom I shared multitudinous proclivities and compulsions were now a spreading stain that unfairly marred our enchanted first encounter, which is a personal failing that should say terrible things about me and should not, at all, be held against this exuberant and eloquent little book (but is why I docked a star off its rating -- I assume, with the heavy-handed clarity of hindsight, that Confessions of a Common Reader is dressed in green to warn me how deeply I'd envy anyone whose childhood was a warmly nurturing word nerd's dream and a booklover's haven). I know we'll meet again and, that when we do, my pettiness will have long ago been overshadowed by fond memories of a soul-baring heart-to-heart that is worth the dozens of instances of painfully insipid chatter I suffered through to find it. (less)
I have a tendency to annotate, underline and lovingly deface my reading material. I promised myself that I'd go easy on this one, settling for the les...moreI have a tendency to annotate, underline and lovingly deface my reading material. I promised myself that I'd go easy on this one, settling for the less-permanently-marring dog-ear method when something really jumped out at me; otherwise, I'd be leaving a trail of graffiti that would render this memoir unreadable should I want to revisit it in the future. My reserve lasted for 21 pages: The line "I always wondered what gave Dad the right to decide this maid or that driver was the person he assumed them to be," after I recovered from the way it struck every vulnerable nerve I have, was the moment I realized that this was going to be an excruciatingly familiar story.
I haven't spoken to my parents in almost three years. Three years without my mother's toxic narcissism and my father's inflexible, controlling approach to life. Three years without pretending everything's okay and smiling through the outbursts that exposed a rage not even in the same universe as being proportional to the instigation. Three years without holidays turning into both battlegrounds and showcases of superficiality in equal measures (let me tell you about the Thanksgiving that my now-husband and I were kicked out of my parents' house after asking for help in paying for our wedding). Three years without my "bleeding-heart liberal" perspective trivialized or my feelings negated. In other words, these have been three of the most peaceful, enjoyable years I've ever known. I finally feel like I'm coming into my own as an adult because there is no one telling me how wrong I am and making me feel like a disobedient child every step of the way.
This is Rachel Sontag's story, of course, but I superimposed so much of my own on hers that it was impossible to separate the two by the time I arrived at the last page. Rachel's journey and mine didn't align precisely and perfectly, of course, but hers was the first that made me feel like someone, somewhere, gets it -- hence this memoir reading like an understanding hug (which is still just as true as it is corny).
Because the bare necessities aren't enough for a child. Having things like a home and a full belly and both parents doesn't automatically equate to feeling swaddled in safety and security and love, as those necessary abstracts are not found in objects but in gestures. Attempting to manipulate a child into some predetermined parental ideal without showing any regard for her worth as an individual with her own wishes and aspirations and potential by belittling and bullying her does not make her stronger: It makes her scared and instills in her a smattering of issues that are going to make the ordinary act of living a daily victory (and some therapist a little richer).
There are three main differences between Rachel's story and mine: She had some early inkling that things were not normal about her family dynamic, that adhering to a stringent set of rules was not the glue keeping most families together and that most daughters didn't live like even the slightest deviation from a father's ironclad commandments would set the end of the world in motion, whereas I hero-worshipped my father until some time after college; she had extended family present in her life to occasionally rescue her and call her father out on his impossible expectations or reconstructed realities, whereas my paternal family is far-flung and was never that involved with my nuclear family during the few years they lived nearby (and, besides, my father was always not speaking to at least one of his siblings at any given time) -- and I don't even know my maternal family, as the last contact I had with them was in the mid-'90s; and her mother was weak-willed, another target at the mercy of a tyrannical force (though she at least demonstrated the ability to say "I'm sorry," a phrase I've never heard my own mother deign to offer), whereas mine lives like people are supporting characters in her movie and only seemed interested in presenting a united front with my father when it offered an opportunity for tag-teaming a child into psychologically battered submission.
The dissimilarities of our childhoods were why I was able to tear through this memoir in less than 24 hours without being reduced to a wobbling puddle of tears and self-pity. They kept reminding me that, for as much as I hate my own parents, at least my mother never physically weighed me down so she could wallop me or my father never woke me up at ungodly-o'-clock in the morning to accuse me of slowly killing my sickly grandmother by unloading some imaginary bitterness on her.
But, as Infinite Jest had taught me, there is a crucial difference between identifying and comparing, and I did keep that in mind while reading this. Because while some kids would kill for Rachel's Cancun vacations and European excursions, all she wanted was to "feel like somebody's child." She was lonely and alone, which she realized at 15. I got caught up in the illusion of normalcy (with a healthy serving of denial on the side) for so long that it took some caustic blow-outs and nasty e-mails for Adult Me to finally see my parents for what they are rather than what I wished them to be and decide that I was better off without that poison in my life.
And even though Rachel and I didn't travel the same path, different issues manifested in similar ways. Her mother's problem can be distilled down to her vision of marriage being a way to fill the void her own lack of a paternal figure had left in her, effectively seeking a father in a husband, a childhood in her own children and the dad for her daughters that she never had, regardless of the emotional cost. Rachel considers the possibility that neither of her parents had fully matured before their forays into marriage and parenthood, which I've often thought about my own mother and father, who were married at 19 and 22, respectively. And I distinctly recall a childhood trip to Disney where my father told my brother and me that "this is like a second childhood for your mother, since she never got to do things like this" -- a comment that didn't seem terribly significant until many, many years later when I realized that my mother got married as an escape and finally accepted that having children would encourage my father to both stay with her and leave the place she was trying to flee.
Like Rachel, my parents didn't physically abuse me (I was spanked once, which made my ass involuntarily clench every time someone raised their voice for the next decade; Rachel's mother hit her a few times but that was just.... sad more than anything else) but they also never said they were proud of me, or supported my decisions or made me feel like I was anything other than another possession for them to exert control over. The difference between abuse and neglect (and how the two are equally as damaging in their own ways) are explored subtly in this book until Rachel mentions a foster-care seminar she attended where the two extremes' end results were outright explained: "Neglected children feel invisible, as if their presence had no bearing on anyone or anything. Abused children feel all too visible, as if they were the center of everyone's world, because they had been the center of someone's world, the recipients of an abnormal amount of attention."
While Rachel clearly identifies with the abused-child personality, being her father's primary target (her younger sister, however, embodies much of the neglected child's symptoms), I feel it both ways. And that led me to a realization that a few years of unassisted but diligent psychological diggings hadn't yet unearthed: That I feel verbally abused but emotionally neglected. Rachel agonizes over whether a complete stranger she passes on a bus will be offended when she opts to sit next to another stranger, while I often feel the same way but then counter my inner turmoil with ".... but who am I to think that I matter enough to be more than a forgotten blip on a perfect stranger's radar?"
Even after all the parental destruction, what hit me hardest was the efforts Rachel and her sister have made to repair their relationship, as they know they are the other's most understanding source of comfort. The last time my little brother and I talked, we had agreed that we both feel like lonely planets (I can't remember which one of us invoked the comparison but it was something we both felt illustrated the point well): There's nothing for us to orbit but we've picked up satellites in the form of friends and significant others along the way that make the loneliness easier to bear and, occasionally, we find ourselves in tandem trajectories along our self-propelled paths. It's still hard for me to see him as anything other than either the competitor my mother set him up to be (nothing like telling your kids which one was "better" that day and playing favorites to feed into sibling rivalry, eh?) or my failure as a big sister to shield him from the damage I didn't even see 'til years later, but his girlfriend is turning out to be just as good to him as she is for us. She's the sister I always wanted and the good-hearted guidance he's always needed, as well as the outside observer who made me realize that I miss the hell out of the only person who truly understands how fucked up it was growing up in the conditions we did. The little glimpses of Rachel and her sister slowly rebuilding their bond made me just as certain that this is something my brother and I can handle as it did reinforce my determination to never, ever have children because I fear ruining a child even more than I fear being attacked by spiders in the shower (which is to say, psychotically so).
Quite honestly, I am tired of writing this "review" and am a little more than emotionally wrung out from it -- no one's fault but my own, yes, but true nonetheless. I'll end this with the passage that I could have written myself but am so grateful that I didn't have to: "There were simple things I needed to learn. Things that seemed to be common sense for most of my friends.... I didn't know how to tell the truth. I'd become so accustomed to arranging my words around what I was supposed to say, or what I thought most people wanted to hear, that basic communications were almost impossible for me. Saying "no" when I didn't want to do something, admitting to my own mistakes, asking for the things I wanted."
(ETA: I think I'll give this one a more traditional review in the future -- Rachel's story deserves more attention than I gave it here -- but I had to purge myself of all the old feelings this book brought to the surface first.)(less)
(Some spoilers for both the show and the graphic novel herein. I tried not to include too many. You have been warned.)
Okay. Forget everything you know...more(Some spoilers for both the show and the graphic novel herein. I tried not to include too many. You have been warned.)
Okay. Forget everything you know and hear me out: Zombies are the great equalizing scourge.
One of the first books my younger self fell hopelessly in love with (which probably explains an awful lot) was Stephen King's "The Stand." The book's been out for, like, more than three decades, so it's your own fault if this is a spoiler but all you need to know for this review of an entirely different creature is that a government-wrought super plague has wiped out something like 99.4% of the population, leaving the American survivors to be led by moral compasses/epically fucked-up dreams to their fated good-or-evil faction. Having watched society repeatedly crumble away so many times through this particular King-colored lens has left me kind of immune to dispatches from the end of the civilization as we know it -- y'know, in the literary sense.
Being one of the most affecting reads of my formative years, "The Stand" is also, for better or worse, what I can't help but measure other end-of-days fiction by. I've mentally revisited it quite a bit in the past few years (the stuff of that tale is lodged in my brainmeats for always because, whatever your opinion of Sai King is, the guy paints some uncomfortably visceral, lingering images) as my own longstanding zombie fascination has invariably led me to books like "World War Z" and (somewhat regrettably) "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and I suppose "Night of the Assholes" counts, too, since bizarro zombies are still zombies and dozens of undead-themed flicks and marathons of "The Walking Dead," which ALWAYS end in a few nights of zombie-related nightmares (just once, there were kitties to make the whole nocturnal shebang less horrifying).
The thing about the apocalyptic scenario in "The Stand" (and other media that take the disease route to decimating humanity) is that there's no cure, no battle plan, no hope of survival beyond sheer, dumb luck. And that's too fucking terrifying for our control-freak culture. Just like a natural disaster, a weapon of mass destruction, a meteor strike or whatever other cataclysmic event that could be the end of life as we know it, widespread, airborne pestilence fucks up everyone's game with no hope of fighting back. But we still like to pretend that we have some control over both our environment and the course of our lives. Enter: the ravenous dead, or the strangest occurrence of entertainment zeitgeist I've ever watched gain momentum.
Zombies are the enemy you actually have a fighting chance against AND come with the bonus of an annihilated societal infrastructure. Hate your job? Hate your neighbors? Hate your family? Hate your first-world problems in general? Want to kill some folks without any real repercussion (you know, other than waving goodbye to the simple hassles of life before the dead claimed the apex-predator role)? ZOMBIES ARE THE ANSWER. Man gets to fall back to his more primitive nature (as society becomes increasingly bizarre and stifling, the sweet release of all-out chaos is a welcome fantasy, is it not?). And I think, with our actual times being as strange and stressful as they are, it's cathartic to imagine oneself in a world where all those mundane problems are obliterated by tending to the daily survival we've come to take for granted in our coddled state. It's a weird return to less civilized ways without losing the safety that our civilized facades allow.
So. "The Walking Dead." I am so happy that a friend hoisted this 1,000-plus-page monster on me during the show's third season because reading this and then coming to the show would have me so terribly disappointed in the necessary changes made while translating this gorefest into less blatantly offensive fare for a television-watching audience. (view spoiler)[I mean, sure, I can live without seeing Herschel's very young daughters' murdered, headless corpses coming back to life on my needlessly giant TV screen. And, in the general book-to-show scheme, I didn't really mind that Daryl and his stink-palmed brother weren't in the book, so long as I wasn't watching the show and being all "OMFG DARYL IS THE TITS." Because he is and I will cry my face off if anything happens to him post-mid-season hiatus. But, unsurprisingly, I digress. (hide spoiler)] I don't necessarily condone excessive violence but, c'mon. When shit gets cray-cray, it's ridiculous to expect that people will behave as anything other than the humanimals they are once all of society's safety nets are effectively obliterated and that taking the nonviolent high road will result in anything other than becoming a victim with no law or legal counsel to help reclaim your once-idle existence.
Overall, the characters in the graphic novel seem less like caricatures than they do in the show. I know it's easier to get into a character's head to understand their thought processes and motivations in a book but they actually seems less interchangeable and predictably dramatic in these pages. (view spoiler)[The stuff with Shane coming undone happened so much earlier and faster, which was like ripping off the Band-Aid to make the whole ordeal less painful (it actually sucked more in the book because I wanted more time with Shane's cracked self but that's what I get for predictably claiming the most damaged characters as my favorites). Rick's frustration with the way his fellow survivors cling to their naive humanity in the face of some shitty odds is more overtly driven/explained by how deeply responsible he feels for everyone's safety. He's grappling with a black-and-white perspective while realizing that even a world of Living vs. Dead has plenty of room for grey areas. Micchone is a fucking animal in both worlds and I love both versions of her, though I wish her AMC counterpart got as much back story as she did in the book because she is a complex little warrior. Graphic Novel Lori was infinitely less irksome than TV Lori, so watching her (and Baby Judith) eat it once the Woodbury folk opened fire on 'em was really, really fucked up. Oh, hey, while we're on the topic of fucked up: Carol. She's the one character whose television incarnation is so much more stable than her GN counterpart. She freely admits to being damaged well before the era of the undead... and then introduces herself to a chained-up zombie before offering her neck to it ("You DO like me" are her dying words to the undead beast that snacked on her neck like it was a pack of movie-theater Twizzlers). (hide spoiler)]
I originally said that the Woodbury residents are so much more glaringly psychotic here but it's really just Philip who's got his wires in knots. The Governor (who looks like a more intimidating Danny Trejo, which I didn't think was possible even in an artist's rendering) is... (view spoiler)[look, we all know that he stares at a wall of fishtanks filled with severed heads like it's reality television and he's keeping his Zombie!Daughter in secrecy like one keeps mum about an illegal mail-order bride but if you're only watching the show, you're missing a scene wherein he pulls out his daughter's teeth -- presumably to make her more docile for the secret-keeping BUT REALLY SO SHE CAN GIVE DADDY A FULL-PAGE, OPEN-MOUTH KISS AND IT SKEEVED ME OUT LIKE SOMETHING MAJORLY SKEEVY. (hide spoiler)] Ew. Just.... ew. It reinforced the notion that when the dead roam the earth, the living are the real enemy. And then it made me want to start digging a moat around my house. Just in case.
The art wasn't really earth-shattering in originally or anything but it was still pretty damn good. I did like the black and white inking, which was totally a metaphor for something. The starkness of such an approach certainly meshed well with the tone of the story. What struck me hardest was how the kids, especially Sophia and Carl, frequently look like miniature adults. Whether it was intentional or something I imagined entirely on my own or whatever, it was definitely a nice, subtly rendered touch.
All told, I'm not really sure how I feel about this eight-book collection, honesty. I think, like a lot of things that straddle multiple representations across different media, it's hard not to compare one to the other, which took away something from both the show and the book for me. I mean, it was fun and disturbing and I couldn't tear through it quickly enough but it was missing something. It's certainly the first thing I've read that really dealt with the survival aspect of the zombiepocalypse as it's happening and how people's reactions would obviously run the gamut of emotions in the aftermath of such an event but I would have loved more post-zombie psychology and less hanging around waiting for the shit to happen. I guess, obviously, in a real-world situation, there WOULD be more inaction once a haven (like a reclaimed prison) was secured, and I can't really fault it for attempting to make such an unbelievable scenario more credible and less outrageous but... meh, better pacing would've been nice. Not like that'll stop me from reading more, though. I actually do like the characters and the way this one ended was just fucking brutally awful. I have a very real need to know what happens to these fictional people because I am more emotionally invested in them than a mentally healthy person ought to be.
Good, viscera-strewn fun, this. But I really wouldn't recommend reading it in tandem with the show -- not because of the potential for spoilers (they're certainly different enough animals for that to not be a real problem) but because it is bloody confusing when things are just similar enough to create confusion in keeping the specifics of each "Walking Dead" straight.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)