The title poem is spectacular. Worth the price of admission and I'm glad to have bought the book based on the tumblr-hype just to support a young poetThe title poem is spectacular. Worth the price of admission and I'm glad to have bought the book based on the tumblr-hype just to support a young poet. I hope Clementine von Radics continues to develop and I will look forward to reading her in about 10-15 years (god willin' and the creeks don't rise)....more
I'm going to four-star this even though it's landing for me somewhere between a three and four, primarily because what I enjoyed does not quite make uI'm going to four-star this even though it's landing for me somewhere between a three and four, primarily because what I enjoyed does not quite make up for what I didn't enjoy or understand.
I realize this is a flimsy premise upon which to base a rating, but the end times are here and I'm not much inclined to worry about the little things, y'know?
So here's a quasi-review filled with unsupported statements that will sound more definitive than I intend, and questions that I throw out there for others to do with as they will.
'Coz end times.
What I Liked
The impressionistic writing, full of snatches of conversation and thoughts, disconnected, referential to pop culture or previous parts of the novel which one may or may not get. The brunch section was particularly kaleidoscopic, and I thought a marvel of structure and language and characterization.
The sense of place and its influence and constraints - physical, cultural, socio-political.
Related, the trajectory of the characters, each of of them, in terms of where they came from and where they are going. The sense that there are escapees and others, those who don't or can't or won't escape. And that the grass is not necessarily greener on either side (see Keisha/Natalie and her sister, as one example).
The broader theme of identity and how it's shaped (by place, race, class, culture, socio-economics, education, etc.) but also chosen but also arbitrary and also fluid. This tension - between self-identity and the struggle to define or transcend a definition imposed on one - seems central to every character, although it plays out differently for each. It especially shows up for characters vis-a-vis their parents - Natalie, Leah, Felix - and their spouses/girl-boyfriends.
Without too much more thought on this, I wonder if self exists in this novel in no way except in relation to others, and the common milieu they share?
Related to this, I thought the character of Natalie - whose central goal is self-definition (she actually changes her name, that's how much she wants to be someone else - but who?), and who seems a hollow shell of a person in so many ways, someone who lacks a self of any real substance - was fascinating and compelling, however also ...
What I Didn't Like (&/or Didn't Understand)
disappointing. Natalie's arc is confounding to me in terms of what Smith is trying to say about and with this character. Given that her section is the longest, and her character the most intimately shown and known, this is kind of a fatal flaw for me in the novel.
The last couple of chapters, stylistically and linguistically rich, are ultimately empty of meaning for me. (view spoiler)[Natalie's breakdown (is that what it is?) seems abrupt, though not unexpected. Her foray into the threesomes seems out of character in so many ways that it *must* be meaningful, but then - how? I suspect some kind of literary trick going on here, her peripatetic final disposition existing to convey some symbolic, deeper meaning that I just don't get. (hide spoiler)]
Similarly, I wish there had been stronger links between each section. Leah seems to exist as counter-point to Natalie, but her story - which started the novel and was engaging in and of itself - peters out, and is never revisited. Leah's husband Michel - a shadowy background figure - seems important in the beginning, but doesn't end up so. And Felix's section is sandwiched in the middle of the two central female characters, with references to him before and after, but ultimately these references didn't add up to anything coherent (although his story is so dramatic and poignant). Again - he is point and/or counterpoint to what, exactly?
As much as I loved the impressionistic writing throughout, which early on gave the writing such energy, I started to disengage from it as the novel went on. I guess Smith gives her readers a lot of respect, and trusts that they will be able to follow along with her bouncing ball - even if it skips every second or third bounce - to put the clues together into a sensible whole.
For me, though, it required too much faith. It was impossible to keep up with the unvarying, staccato rhythm with so many obscure details and dangling threads, so chunks of the novel just passed into background noise for me like the snatches of song lyrics heard on a car radio as it drives by (which happens frequently in NW). It ended up isolating me, instead of drawing me in; the experimentation - especially pronounced in the third section with its chapter snippets - changed the rhythm yet again, but also grew wearying.
By the end - the very end - the novel fizzled out entirely. I was hoping for some kind of coming together of theme, character, plot. Maybe it was there and I missed it. Maybe it wasn't there at all. Maybe whether it was there or not is beside the point. You tell me.
My first immersive experience in a complete book of poetry in a loooooooong time. Very powerful with many moments of amazingly beautiful language andMy first immersive experience in a complete book of poetry in a loooooooong time. Very powerful with many moments of amazingly beautiful language and images (all the more so because describing sometimes very ugly scenes of racism and violence); some (deceptively) simple, and others much more complex and layered, elusive and impenetrable - but no less enjoyable for it. Recurring themes and images that made the journey from poem to poem, and from section to section, tell a larger story. ...more
I felt like I was reading this slowly - although clearly not, as I finished in two-three days or so. And even tho' I was processing throughout and aftI felt like I was reading this slowly - although clearly not, as I finished in two-three days or so. And even tho' I was processing throughout and after each section, I still feel that I need another five reads to get all of what Bechdel is saying here.
Still. It's a tour de force which I'm sure I just read in one of the excellent reviews; either jo's; simon's; or moira's (and I'm sure there are many more).
It's rich, complex, brave, stunning in its scope and depth. Multi-layered, dense and difficult - especially if you are new, as I am, to the psychoanalytic constructs explored and used as entry points and illustrations of Bechdel's experiences and relationships to her self, her mother, her work, her lovers, her analysis. etc etc.
And so, I got maybe 20% of it. But even that is enough to recognize how brilliant it is - and I am still amazed not least by the way this form (graphic novel) can say SO MUCH, as much as my beloved novels, as much as To The Lighthouse which is another layer of the story; another theme, and which I can now re-read and maybe, hopefully understand better and embrace.
Despite my own somewhat fraught experience with Woolf, that should be read as pretty high praise: Bechdel and Woolf. Working at the same level to explore uncover share expand people's understanding of [women's] lived emotional, psychic experiences. Laying themselves bare to do so.
And you [I] just need to be a little bit courageous to accept the gift they are offering. ...more
Shatteringly and heart-wrenchingly good. Three things I don't generally read (or don't read enough of maybe?): graphic novels, memoirs, lesbian fictioShatteringly and heart-wrenchingly good. Three things I don't generally read (or don't read enough of maybe?): graphic novels, memoirs, lesbian fiction. All three of these walls come tumbling down in this. The depth of feeling and thought, the honesty, is extraordinary, and to have it conveyed in graphic novel form is a little--no, a lot--mind-blowing. (In addition to the clarity and beauty of her writing, Bechdel is a *fantastic* graphic artist). (Perhaps) more thoughts to come after Are You My Mother....more
Excellent. I'm in the minority on this one vis-à-vis Waters' Fingersmith, because I like The Paying Guests so much better for reasons that have to doExcellent. I'm in the minority on this one vis-à-vis Waters' Fingersmith, because I like The Paying Guests so much better for reasons that have to do with how well the lesbian theme was integrated with the other themes in the novel - class and gender relationships, the great cultural shift that led to women's emancipation in post-WWI England (and elsewhere) and the main plot twist of Part 2.
I thought Frances exquisitely rendered. I thought her relationship with her mother (a hold-out Victorian) absolutely brilliant - so subtle, so fraught, so nuanced. I thought the graphic scenes of a) sex and b) violence also, equally, exquisite not just for the surface detail, but also for the psychological underpinnings.
It's kind of amazing what Waters has done here: she's created this fast-moving plot while imbuing every scene with rich detail; despite weighing in at a hefty 576 pages, it never bogs down. And the broad strokes with which she plots are matched by the greatest level of subtlety in the human relationships, with characters whose inner workings and complex thought processes, shifting loyalties, fickle attractions, retractions, hesitations and vacillations, feel so very human. At the same time, Waters never veers too far away from her big themes and the cultural milieu, she just chooses to explore them through the individuals who are living, loving, dying; working or unable to work; coping with their downfalls, disappointments and grief as best they can.
The twists and turns (view spoiler)[in the inquest and courtroom drama (hide spoiler)]at the end *could* have felt repetitive and even clichéd, but Waters has absolute control over what she foreshadows and the suspense she is building - while juggling, again, the big themes of class and integrity; loyalty and morality(view spoiler)[, balancing them with similar twists and turns in Frances' and Lilian's feelings toward one another (hide spoiler)].
If I have one beef, it's with the ending. A little too open for me, especially after what felt like a rolling series of conclusions. I don't know where these characters go from here - maybe the fact that I truly want to find out is enough.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I can't (and couldn't, while reading) get the movie out of my head to evaluate the book entirely separately from it. If you've not seen it, Judi DenchI can't (and couldn't, while reading) get the movie out of my head to evaluate the book entirely separately from it. If you've not seen it, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are both absolutely astounding in it. The book - more open-ended, more morally ambiguous - is very good, but lacks a little something.
That said, I love what Heller does creating a first-person narrator who should be, for all intents and purposes, entirely unreliable, but who with every chapter reveals another layer of the truth of her own sociopathological personality. She - main character Barbara, an aging, spinster history teacher - is not entirely unsympathetic. Despite all the dysfunction here - and we are talking a galactic amount in a mere 258 pages - we feel Barbara's pain keenly, and Sheba's, too. This is an amazing feat of voice and POV; really deftly done. The greater grey in the characters' motivations and ethics, in the book, make for less drama but a more satisfying psychological complexity and realism.
Lydia Millet has a remarkable way of taking you into her characters' heads; a way that probably shouldn't work given normal novelistic conventions. ItLydia Millet has a remarkable way of taking you into her characters' heads; a way that probably shouldn't work given normal novelistic conventions. It's almost all internal dialogue, nudged along by a very loose plot. In fact, if you don't read How The Dead Dream first, I'm not sure this plot would make any sense at all.
I enjoyed this second in the trilogy possibly even more than HtDD: a) it was wayyyyyy funnier; Millet's sardonic, absurd tone really worked with this particular character (although I still don't get the Vonnegut comparisons on the GL and HtDD jacket blurbs); and b) this character - a father, a husband, struggling to come to terms with his life and in particular his relationship with his paraplegic daughter - is more poignant, more human, more relatable. His obsessive, obtuse self-reflections as he comes to terms with who he is, why he is, are more touching and less annoying than those of T., the protagonist in the first, although they are in the service of less grand, less esoteric philosophical musings.
Taken together, both of these characters are creating a bigger commentary on meaning, purpose, love, connection, and here - "companionship" - a motif that points to something simpler, more elemental for us humans. It is the thing, the only thing, that wards off the angst of that bigger, existential aloneness that is almost too much to face. That is, too much to face alone.
And the final bonus: lots of lovely digressions on dogs - the ultimate companions. :-) ...more
This book is a gorgeous character study of an aging misanthrope who loves, loves, loves literature. All forms of artA beautiful book for bibliophiles.
This book is a gorgeous character study of an aging misanthrope who loves, loves, loves literature. All forms of art, really, but literature in particular. And like all misanthropes, inside she is a quivery, sad, anxious mess of longing and need for human contact. She may sublimate all she wants by translating, but the ending shows how much of a cover-up this sublimation is and - within the context of the lives lived in Beirut over the past 72 years - how much trauma, loss and also - of course! - how much strength and resilience she has.
It's a fabulous trip for the voracious reader who will find oneself enjoying her enjoyment of the books she's read and what they have meant to her, her 'personal' relationships with the authors, and also questioning one's own relationship with the books and authors we love. With reading in general and the place it fills in our lives.
The ending is absolutely amazing for showing the reader - this reader, who feels in many ways akin to Aaliya - that books are a gateway not just to humanity but to human relationships. Not a replacement for them, but a necessary, indeed essential, complement.
4.5 stars. Rounded down because it's early in the year!...more
Historical fiction (but is it?) about a lonely, violent, spookily-intuitive, pagan (tho’ converted), lesbian (Griffith says she’s actually bi) saint-tHistorical fiction (but is it?) about a lonely, violent, spookily-intuitive, pagan (tho’ converted), lesbian (Griffith says she’s actually bi) saint-to-be and her manipulative, astonishing mother, written as though it was speculative fiction.
If you think there’s a lot to unpack in that first sentence, you ain’t read Hild yet.
Politics, war, and the very early Christian conversion attempts by Roman priests in 7th Century Britain.
Women. Spinning, weaving, plotting, planning, making the world go 'round.
A plucky, promiscuous slave-maid. A kind, prescient slave-priest. A brother by another mother.
Avaricious bishops. Cruel kings who condemn with a smile and kill with the flick of a ring.
More plot threads, family trees, shifting alliances, and linking symbolism (most based on the natural world or women’s never-ending work of weaving) than you can stab a sword at. Patterns, patterns everywhere. And Hild the primary pattern seer, oracle and omen reader – reader and writer, she’s literate (taught by the aforementioned slave-priest) – and pattern weaver for her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria.
Hild looks for the patterns, deciphers them, feeds them back to those who can act on them – and predicts the future to save her own life, to save (view spoiler)[her half-brother (hide spoiler)]Cian, to save her household, her gemaecceBegu (think pagan BFFs! with benefits!) and her maid Gwyladus (does the laundry! does Hild!).
Mostly, to make a place for herself in the weave of this world.
A book about power and greed and the feuding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that would eventually shape-shift into the Plantagenets and Tudors and the royal lines that remain today – so there is that connection with the modern world, the common strand that links their past with our present. Mud and blood, oaths and omens, wool and mead … and ways of thinking and being that are at once foreign and familiar.
Griffith provides a geneology and a map at the front, a glossary at the back – only the glossary is truly helpful; the rest I totally gave up trying to figure out. Who ruled who and where and why. Whew.
It matters – the colour of your hair and eyes, revealing your bloodline; the scop’s songs lauding your ancestry back to Woden. As soon as you’re conquered, though, you immediately convert to a new allegiance. Ding dong the king is dead, long live the king. For the peasants, living in their wattled huts with their pigs, it doesn’t matter at all.
Don’t think for a second that in this cold, wet, cruel, harsh world Griffith is going to be staking a social justice claim. N’uh unh.
The natural world, the political world, the spiritual world and how an early, pagan/pre-Christian culture understood it and survived within it – that’s the world of Hild.
Utterly convincing landscapes in every sense, psychological and physical, other and ourselves in equal measure.
Also: this book is all about women - these particular women and how they think, how they organize themselves, what their true power is in a society that values them only for whom they can be married off to (peaceweaving), or for the [boy] babies they can produce.
Hild, the character, is both of the woman's world and also of the men's – she goes into battle, she’s a fierce and fearless fighter, who takes a certain amount of delight in killing, it seems – but really, she’s of neither. She is the ultimate political strategist, and does what she has to do to maintain her credibility with Edwin and fulfill the ‘wyrd’ – fate – she’s been born into.
She listens, watches, waits – and freaks everyone out as she does so, gathering power around her like a blanket, wrapping those she can in its comfort, but never feeling safe herself.
Trouble meant they had to listen, not fight.
Yet, though her isolation and impact as "the light of the world", the king's seer, is the central focus, she is also in many ways one of the less interesting things about this Celtic knot of a novel. Which says more about how many other things are interesting, than it does about Hild, the character.
The easiest comparison is to Mantel's Cromwell/Tudor England. There is the same rich detail and world-creating, and the same sense that each plucked a figure out of the din of history and reverse-engineered them to try to figure out how and who they were. But where Mantel's focus is on the character, Griffith's is on the setting. All that she – or any of us – know about Hild is that she began life as the second daughter of widowed Queen Breguswith and became a key member of King Edwin’s court and later, Saint Hilda of Whitby.
All the stuff in between, Griffith is delighted to tell us, she ‘made up.’ As Mantel did, too – but Mantel stayed mostly in Cromwell’s head, developing his psychology and creating him from the inside out with a lot more detail known of his setting and context; whereas Griffith creates Hild from the outside in with very little known about her historical context.
The world she builds, and the men who rule it, are jaw-droppingly cruel and capricious – ”we’ll eat the horse”, says Edwin as instruction to lop off a bad-tidings-bearing messenger’s head; the phrase crops up repeatedly as short-hand for Edwin’s murderous omnipotence, the moment-to-moment variability of the king’s favour, and the need to constantly be on guard to curry it.
In the meantime, the women glide in and out and around stroking that ego, influencing, manipulating, managing. It’s completely convincing – and if not quite ‘real’, in the historically accurate sense, real enough. A really good story – as real as it needs to be.
Hild the character is an enormous achievement, but it's the world that Griffith has created that steals the show.
Things I loved: - Hild’s focus on the natural world and how Griffith describes it. The novel is extremely sensual: sights, sounds, smells are vital not only to bring the world to life, but because these are what Hild relies on to ‘see the pattern.’ - The gorgeous writing. - The importance of communicating: not only reading and writing, but listening and understanding, in multiple languages. It marks Hild as different, and gives her a survival skill. It’s another clue, another strand in this story, that bridges the middle ages with the modern. - Hild’s mother: what a portrait! Part mama bear; part viper. She’s worth a novel of her own. I wanted to see more of her; she disappeared in the middle, and then re-entered. Breguswith lit up every scene she was in. - The baptism scenes and the way Griffith reveals the underlying greed and lust for power that motivated the early conversions to Christianity. How religious conversion and the goals of Rome played into the Anglo-Saxon power dynamics that led to the rise of some and downfall of other kings. How transient, superficial, artificial these conversions were - yet obviously, they 'took'. Merry Christmas.
Things I still can’t wrap my mind around, quite:
The fluid sexuality throughout the novel was one of the key elements that moves this from historical into speculative fiction for me – and I’m not quite sure what Griffith was getting at here beyond just wanting to give her characters fully-dimensional lives. It’s a major part of the book and sits as counterpoint to the heterosexual sex-and-marriage that is political, versus the sex that people do for fun (and therapy, in Gwyladus’s and Hild’s case).
For me, it’s a decorative detail not a central story element that I need to disentangle.
But, it stands in stark contrast to (view spoiler)[Cian and Hild and the incest. I think I’ve sorted through why Edwin married them off to each other, which I’ve concluded was both consolidating and limiting threats to his power, as well as meting out punishment to Hild and Cian for, in the former case, failing to predict Cadwallon’s aggression and in the latter, failing to successfully defend Edwin’s interests against it.
The sexual tension between Cian and Hild – although seeded from the very beginning, beautifully plotted and described – is purposeful in a way that Hild’s bisexual relationships are not. Maybe I’m just struggling because incest, ewwww.
I’m also not entirely clear about what motivated Hild’s killing sprees, especially the one in the last third where she and her gesith hounds (hehe) became the Butcher Birds. I know that was important to set up what turned out to be her downfall in Edwin’s eyes. But I don’t know what that kind of violence was intended to add to Hild’s psychology, or mean as a part of character. (hide spoiler)]
I’m hoping the sequel will make it all a little bit clearer.
Extraordinary. (view spoiler)[Yanagihara gives the reader every clue she needs, implicit and explicit, to draw the inevitable conclusion from the outsExtraordinary. (view spoiler)[Yanagihara gives the reader every clue she needs, implicit and explicit, to draw the inevitable conclusion from the outset - yet the ending will, I bet, still hit you with a wallop. (hide spoiler)] This novel is remarkable in any number of ways - but in particular in the way it plays with the reader (at least, this reader) who can intellectually embrace the notion of moral relativism; yet for whom moral absolutism on some issues prevails.
The People in the Trees is a triumph of narrative voice and structure. The development and writing of the central character, Norton Perina, is positively masterful. The imagery--visceral, grotesque--perfectly chosen. A novel about even one of the huge, thorny themes raised (scientific method, human subjects research, colonialism, racism, sociopathy, sexual taboos, parenting, pedophilia, destruction of the environment, aging and death, and more) can be powerful; when these themes are wound together, dense as a jungle and as tightly as DNA, and laced within a story and with writing this precise and compelling, the result is transcendent.
So powerful and provocative; the questions it's raised and discomfort it's provoked will, I feel sure, linger.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is a complex book, filled with complex emotions. "Nuanced" doesn't come close to describing its portrayal of fundamentalist Islamist fervour andThis is a complex book, filled with complex emotions. "Nuanced" doesn't come close to describing its portrayal of fundamentalist Islamist fervour and the various forces and interpretations within Islam that in many ways define it, and also attempt to balance it [ultimately ineffectually? not sure], but in the end, must simply survive it.
The same nuance and complexity emerge with respect to the use of torture, the oppression of women, or just about any other issue raised in this novel of post-9/11 Pakistan / Afghanistan, seen through the eyes of a constellation of characters who must navigate, often blindly, (and both literally and figuratively), through the inherent conflicts of their own beliefs, relationships, and realities in the world around them.
A central conundrum - the prevailing dynamic - is the clash of religions and, more broadly, cultures which both cause the conflicts, and ultimately also provide the only tools to endure, if not resolve, them.
This book forced me to confront a lot of my own assumptions, emotions and attitudes - and I'm left holding these thoughts in each of my hands and different parts of my brain, irreconcilable. At the same time, as jo points out in her exceptional review, although there is much that is disquieting and even rage-inducing, there is also the intense beauty of the writing and imagery, and especially, the Mikal character's unswerving goodness and sense of justice.
This book is sometimes overwhelming, always challenging, and probably not for everyone. It is a test of tolerance and empathy, in many ways. The beauty of the writing, the power of the imagery, the essential force of goodness that drives (again, literally and figuratively) the action in the character of Mikal, is the reason I've given it five stars. ...more