Oh man. Given to me in a box of books from my dad's colleague, offloading some of her teenage daughter's old books. I was way too young for them, 8 or...moreOh man. Given to me in a box of books from my dad's colleague, offloading some of her teenage daughter's old books. I was way too young for them, 8 or 9 I think. They were mostly Sweet Valley Highs, and bits of vintage YA from the late 70's and early 80's. (I definitely had a MTI copy of Ice Castles in there.)
This was one of those (with this super creepy cover) and constantly drew me down to the basement to sneak-read it. This seemed necessary because it held me in thrall of its slightly graphic sex scenes (both Nazis and nice American boys!) The story is full-on crazy, but I was at such an impressionable age I will sure never forget about it.(less)
I'm very glad I read this, even though I doubt I'll be interested in rereading it again. I definitely liked the book, but whether a person will love i...moreI'm very glad I read this, even though I doubt I'll be interested in rereading it again. I definitely liked the book, but whether a person will love it or not depends a lot upon their taste, and how important certain aspects of novels are to them. The book has a powerful story and a walloping message, but is often heavy-handed in its writing style. Indeed, this was the author's first book, and it turns 20 years old this year, so its place in the world of popular reading and writing has shifted. You can tell, reading it, that this is a writer who will grow more, because it is so well-conceived but misses some beauty in the writing, and some subtlety in the themes, and those are important characteristics to me as a reader.
It did pleasantly surprise me. It wasn't about what I expected it to be about, but I ended up getting something out of the direction it went in anyway. At first I wasn't certain I liked it much at all, and then I started to understand what the focus would be and it worked a bit better for me. While I was expecting this to be a mother-daughter story and an immigration/culture-shock story, this is not really the novel's atmosphere at all. It's a looking-in book rather than a looking-out book. Trauma, really, is the atmosphere, to the extent that it almost is a "therapy book": both mother and daughter experience sexual traumas, and these, themselves, are our subject. It is the "reverberation through the generations" story. It is straightforward and tough. There is a coming-to-terms, without a clean ending. (There's a big ending, but not a clean one.)
Our protagonist Sophie grows up in Haiti without her mother and then, suddenly, is summoned to live with her in New York. She experiences almost the opposite of culture shock: her New York school is Haitian, they teach in French, and her mother does what — according to her — Haitian mothers do. Sophie left the political dangers of the country of Haiti behind, but the cultural issues are still with them in the United States. The sexual oppression of girls becomes very real in Sophie's life, and it becomes the focal point of everything, including her mother's past, and her own future.
While I was reading this, I attended an event with the author where she mentioned meeting a group of psychiatry students who had read this book and were using it as a case study for clinical analysis, and I can completely see how you could do this. I often think about the connections between literary analysis and counseling. And here, everything floats right up on the surface, the same way it does in clinical case studies. Having lived her teenage years with her mother's PTSD, as an adult Sophie is in therapy, Sophie attends a support group for victims of sexual phobia, and eventually, Sophie goes right back to Haiti. She needs to ask it questions. She looks her beloved grandmother in the eye and asks why their family does what it does. These scenes are quite blunt and simple, in terms of literary artfulness, but as an "issue book" it is almost as good as a survivor's handbook. A script, even.
This book also surprised me in some personal ways on the more general thematic level, the connections-between-people level. It directly addresses (and works out) some things that happen to have come up in my own life in the past week. Isn't it strange when this happens for you in a book? I didn't even know it would, here. But I listened.(less)
This is a family memoir, and links several story pieces together more cohesively than almost any novel I've re...moreThis book is so wonderful. I loved this!
This is a family memoir, and links several story pieces together more cohesively than almost any novel I've read in ages. It's beautifully done. Partly it is about the author's growing up in Haiti at her uncle's house, before moving to the U.S. at twelve to be with her parents (c. 1980). And partly it is a chronicle of the year that her father and uncle died, and in which she gave birth to her first child (c. 2004). Each of these pieces is a worthwhile story in itself, but there is a darker pull that drew her to write about it all together, which is explained outright in the book's description: the circumstances of her uncle's death in the custody of U.S. Homeland Security.
It's impossible to discuss the book without eventually addressing what happened to Joseph Dantica. But first I feel the need to point out that the content of this book is just about 10% injustice, 5% history lesson, and 85% love, love, love. Edwidge Danticat loves her family so much, and she tells us so many things about the comfort and fun and happiness of belonging to them, it makes us care a lot and understand a lot about them personally. After reading this book, I love her family, and I'm, you know, a stranger to them.
The structural outline of this book is crazy and fun. She jumps back and forth through loops in the timeline every which way, and sometimes branches off into folktales or someone else's memory from decades back. It's a total ramble that she's totally in control of. Her childhood recollections are vivid, even when the circumstances are stark. Haiti at that time was, of course, a poor and often dangerous country, but Edwidge seems to have missed the "worst" of the violence and poverty that would affect her neighbors. Her uncle remembered the U.S. occupation of his childhood, and in his final days he was driven away by rebels from his neighborhood. But in between he and his wife ran a church and school, and helped to raise several young people (only one of them their own child) in what I keep wanting to say appeared to be a happy childhood, although there are plenty of tough stories here. But it isn't evoked in a way that is bleak. It's life. The author seemed to enjoy and be awed by her family as a little girl, with a warm care that the reader begins to share.
However, there is an edge, an imbalance that it seems she can barely glance at. Though waiting comfortably, the author and her brother still waited for eight years — until she was twelve — to be able to join her parents after they moved to New York City. That's a long time. That's a whole childhood. Her parents had two more children in those years, and managed only one visit back home (their immigration story is an interesting time capsule) before Edwidge and her brother were finally allowed to go. And then, snap, they were gone. Exhilarating; wrenching.
For the record: this kind of thing blows my mind, and I would dearly love to read a whole book just about that, if the author would write one. (FWIW it appears she came nearest to it in Breath, Eyes, Memory and in a lesser-known YA novel, both of which I plan to read.) Edwidge's own transition to post-immigration life is not covered in depth in this book, which made me sad because I have a lot of feelings, and it's just something I care to hear about. Our New York City contains so many millions of immigrant tales, and not of the "Ellis Island" kind but the "people who got here yesterday" kind. I think everybody who lives here should care about them, and I find it really important, but I acknowledge it was not essential to the rest of this book right here, only me.
Instead, the timeline mostly advances to her adulthood in 2004, when she learns (on the same day, no less) that her father is dying of a pulmonary disease, and also that she's pregnant. And then, when her uncle comes to visit… In the beginning of the book, she says, "This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time." I loved this introduction, and I feel I understand her all the more for it and her own meaning for the book.
There are all kinds of ways to dwell on how horrible the way that her uncle Joseph died was. I don't really want to lay them all out in a review here, because it's sad, and for most the facts will speak for themselves. The main reason I won't go into it, though, is that the author herself refrains. She shows the restraint of an artist in cataloging the injustices he experienced after being detained by immigration at the airport in Miami, and she leaves many of the more emotional messages inferred, unsaid. While you could write a whole book about those few days, she doesn't. Because of how well she has permitted us to know these people in the book that she did choose to write, we are able to understand them deeply as this very fucked-up thing goes on, and worry for their fears and feelings ourselves.
Actually, I partly take back something I said in my last review — judging by this book, maybe it is possible to write a natural-sounding narrative based on the account of a formal government report. This author, of course, had benefit of interviewing personal contacts (her cousin and their lawyer) who were present during portions of the events, but overall the story sounds measured and real, including the parts that were clearly primarily based on details gleaned from the Freedom of Information Act. It's well done and hard to do.
I believe this is the first book by Edwidge Danticat that I've read, though I've certainly read something before, because I've known her name since she showed up in my curriculum in a memoir class my first semester of college. That was several years before the events of this one, so I do not know what we read. A short essay, I think? About her hair, maybe, and perhaps one of her brothers? But I clearly don't remember. I'm eager to know her better, and I love so much that she lets us.(less)
1) Quit my job 2) Bought this book 3) Went on vacation to the Jersey Shore with my friend 4) Read this book,...moreOver a couple weeks in the summer of 2005, I:
1) Quit my job 2) Bought this book 3) Went on vacation to the Jersey Shore with my friend 4) Read this book, on the beach 5) Came home and returned this book to Barnes & Noble because I was unemployed and needed the money back.
It was kind of a great time.
The B&N Lending Library, I called it. "It's okay because they're hardcover!"
This was not the only time that I did such a thing, and it's not that this is an ethically wonderful idea that I would recommend. But if what you really feel you've got to do is take that brand new book on vacation, and you've got bigger problems with no health insurance or credit card, I would say that, well, have a great time. It's hardcover.(less)
Aaaugh. Is this going to be the best book I read this year? In JANUARY??? That's it, 2014! Your bar is really high! This is gonna be hard on us both.
T...moreAaaugh. Is this going to be the best book I read this year? In JANUARY??? That's it, 2014! Your bar is really high! This is gonna be hard on us both.
This book is practically perfect, I think. (The last book I remember saying this about was Cutting For Stone, FWIW.) I almost fail to think of any way to improve it and make me love it more. IT IS SO GOOD.
This writing is good not just because the idea is good, every scene crisp and right, each of the dozen characters loved. The writing is good on that big, deep level of words and meanings, weaving itself until it's so perfect you kind of want to hit somebody. The details are so remarkably nice that I honestly don't feel like discussing them. It was so much more wonderful to fall for them myself. The work is so unbelievably subtle, I don't want to bruise anything by waving my finger at it.
I avoided this book for a while because I couldn't understand the premise exactly. What is going on here, with birth and death? Is it a supernatural thing? No, although yes: it's understood, and clear to the reader, that Ursula relives her life whenever her life ends. When she dies, the story resets itself, slightly differently, a sixth sense helping her bend her fate to keep her alive — and sometimes it takes several tries. (Things that it turns out are VERY DIFFICULT to avoid: Spanish flu; a German bomb falling right on your apartment. Also beware turn-of-the-century childhood, generally.) Ursula doesn't ever straightforwardly understand the actual cause and effect of what is going on when she dies and relives her life (view spoiler)[(until the very end) (hide spoiler)], but she is trapped by deja vu, and she knows the moments when action needs to be taken. She takes it, then, because she somehow understands that if she doesn't solve this problem now, the problem will not go away. It's as if she knows that there is a next time, even though she doesn't know.
So, in the reading, this means that the story basically centers around those small pivotal moments in life: the days when something momentous happens of some kind or another, and perhaps no matter how many ways you live it, dinner is always ruined, and you always find the dog.
This would be a great one for the internet to play with, to make charts and timelines. There's a pretty remarkable and spoiler-filled analysis on "narrative design" here and here, with a chart that I like though I want MOOORE. (What an amazing blog, though, regardless!) Also a little breakdown of all of Ursula's deaths, here.
It has been a while since a book raised so many beautiful and lasting things for me to think about. I needed that. What is raised, here, is the question of what gets set in motion when Ursula sort of begins to sense what happens to her. What about those moments that change everything? What about the things you can and can't rewrite? The most harrowing section of the book for me actually came long before any German bombs. (This is really spoilery for real) (view spoiler)[Ursula is raped and becomes pregnant. Not really knowing what is happening, she's brought by her aunt for an abortion. She ends up hospitalized from an infection, near death. (hide spoiler)]. I cried. It is the most devastating moment she has ever lived through, BUT SHE DOES NOT DIE. Somehow, it is not just the awfulness of Ursula's experience that makes this so harsh and tragic: up to this point, we have watched her instantly escape all of the terrible things that happen, rather than have to live with them. But this one goes on punishing her. (view spoiler)[Her mother rejects her, and she marries a terrible man. Eventually, it all does get rewritten — after some good long years of misery, her horrible husband finally beats her to death. She does not have to marry him again. (hide spoiler)]
How do we go on from the things that rip our lives apart? How do we help others go on? Though they apply to herself, these are also the questions that Ursula has charged herself with night after night of the Blitz, volunteering as part of a rescue patrol, identifying bomb victims and pulling them out of rubble. When it is that bad, so bad, what can you think? What can you say? Her inadvertent mentor, the warden on the squad, tells her: "We must remember these people when we are safely in the future." It is so strong and beautiful a gospel, but is it enough?
I suppose one important thing that I haven't addressed is, for all of this high-concept reincarnation of an ordinary English girl, why is it even happening? In a way, the things I mentioned in the previous paragraphs are actually a lot more important to me, because I'm always affected a lot by the thematic impact of a book, and I am so impressed with this novel for having such a strong one. But, indeed, there is a point. And even though it pretty much is revealed to us on page one, perhaps it is sensitive enough for spoiler space? (view spoiler)[It sounds too trite to sum it up this way, but once Ursula finally understands that she has coherent memories from her other lives, she galvanizes them all to come back once more to go and kill Hitler before he gets going, thus preventing WWII. (Consequently, this was an interesting one to read closely behind Alfred and Emily, which unwrote WWI.) We don't know what came next, after this assassination, because Ursula is immediately shot. And this only happens in one of the branches of the story. But it is, seemingly, the point. (hide spoiler)] One of the purposes of reincarnation that is discussed in the book is the need for us to "get it right," and for Ursula this act seems to be the apex. Interestingly, though, this very moment was not actually the end of the book. A couple of other short scenes follow, which have nothing to do with that event, and I think I would have chosen to remove them? Or simply move them? But it probably won't be so hard to convince me it's perfect.
You could read this book rather quickly, though I savored a bit longer than necessary. Structurally, the story must repeat itself a few times and I got a little muddled which "reality" we were in, whether such and such did or didn't happen. But this doesn't actually seem to matter very much, as it's the emotional reality that matters more, and we always know what the stakes are because all the situations become so familiar to us. It repeats without being repetitive, and just made me feel at home there. The scenery really has everything: the book's first half simply depicts a beautiful and idyllic English country childhood (except for the occasional dying, of course). A family of characters. Things get a little freaky during adolescence, and then adulthood starts to spin off every which way, with her studies, her couplings, work in the war ministry and so many bombs and, indeed, Germany. I cannot overstate how pleasant this was to read, and how glad I am.
I don't know how to say this without sounding mean? But I'll try. Because very nearly, this is almost not at all the same Kate Atkinson who writes the Jackson Brodie mystery novels. I do like those novels! Mostly. But this book is a literary work I didn't know she was capable of from reading those. I had no idea. Maybe her secret is out, maybe now we can tell the difference when she writes a novel over dinner and telly or not? Because now that we know she writes so beautifully, we're going to hold her to it. We have no choice!
Loved it. So epic and so personal, an instant favorite.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Jo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first o...moreJo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first of her two published books, as well. It is eating me up that there are only two!
This one is straightforward memoir, in short essay pieces. Her form really is creative nonfiction, memory-plumbing and storytelling. Although she published her more recent book In Zanesville as a novel, a large portion of that material is not-at-all veiled borrowings from her self. Which is fine. I think that's interesting. The writing's so good, call it whatever you want. Let it spring from wherever you get it from.
Anyway, what I mean is that it didn't surprise me to encounter the atmosphere of her life (especially her childhood) in this book; it felt familiar and I was glad to be closer to it with this writing, even though so much of the storytelling is so very uncomfortable. I definitely have a threshold for uncomfortable, and a few of these toed that line (mostly her bleak dating years) when there wasn't enough counterweight of something else, irony or affection.
But she is one of those writers with one hell of a gift for writing childhood, nailing the really mean and really funny details. She remembers (or at least extrapolates) enough to bring us back there to what children do and don't get about what goes on, and meanwhile keeps her adult eye always on her parents. Being able to contextualize your parents will always be one of the most fascinating things about adulthood to me. I think one's parents are a mystery you will never truly crack even though you have every clue. I collect so many clues. Does everyone feel that way, or is it just me? When a really good writer writes about their parents, I believe everyone does.
About half of the stories here are about being young (sometimes very, very young); feelings about big sisters, cousins, toys. The other half are about her adulthood, particularly her marriage and divorce, the story of which is sprinkled all throughout.
By the end, I was invested enough that I wished there was something more of a through-narrative to tell me all the missing details of her personal history. But that's impossible, in a collection of short pieces, and I'm a nosy person who likes details even if the teller doesn't want to show them to me. So that's not the author's fault. I never really consider it a criticism when I love something in a book so much that I just want a lot more than it has to give me.
About some particular pieces:
"The Fourth State of Matter" is such a good piece it would be worth buying a book for by itself, but as good luck has it you can already read that one for free. (I already wrote about it a couple of months ago.)
"The Family Hour" was the other jaw-drop standout for me, a stunner from her childhood that reads very close to the novelized family elements from In Zanesville, with the added horror-twinge of it being definitely from real memories. The sewer grate, the beer bottle, the back door. This story was amazing.
"Out There" was a brilliant and brief one about powering through a terrifying experience on a long trip. It reminded me of a segment out of Wild. The facts of it made a good story all on its own, but it's her way of showing the background that gives it weight. Us knowing where her head was reminds us that we never really know where anyone else's head is while they do anything. Which is cool, but isolating, and also sometimes people are terrifying.
The title piece is really long, bringing up the last fifty pages. It's about her friendship with her best friend, weaving stories from middle school up to their current relationship. Something about the way that their adult friendship is written made me laugh so, so hard a bunch of times. It's like the way she writes the blunt blindness of kids, only they're grownups so it's even funnier and sadder at the same time. I loved it. Also, for some reason lately there's nothing I like better than stories about sneaking around at night (I don't know) and this has a great one.
And definitely can't let this go without mentioning my other favorite character Hal, which was Jo's favorite doll when she was three, who figures significantly into a short Preface to the book as well as the longer story "Bulldozing the Baby." (Jo Ann Beard, I love you, but your titles.)
So what now? I don't know. These days, the author appears to have (what is hopefully) a nice teaching job at Sarah Lawrence, but her faculty page isn't up to date with publications, and she has no proper website. So she's just a person! What. That's fine. I would just be excited if there were more to go around. I'm so into this writer, you guys, and I can't quite handle the fact that she hasn't had a wide and prolific publishing career.
So I had Google do some homework and did my best to come up with a little Internet Bibliography for Jo Ann Beard.
Firstly, there are some pieces out there that are from this book:
* "Maybe It Happened." Memoir. (O Magazine, 2008.) You can read this for free! But it's very slight, almost like a teaser for another story. * "All the Many Beasts." Reporting. (Byliner, 1998.) Paywalled, with a free trial. Also with a little use of caching… * "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow." Reporting. (Tin House, 2002.) Only available by hard copy back issue. Looks unbearably depressing, anyway. * "Werner." Reporting. (Tin House, 2006.) Only available by hard copy back issue. I really want to read this one! It's also anthologized in The Best American Essays 2007, in case for some reason one ever runs into a copy of that.(less)
Unbelievably good. Flawless. A personal essay doing the work of a short story, and more, I think.
It seems like there will be a 50% chance, when you st...moreUnbelievably good. Flawless. A personal essay doing the work of a short story, and more, I think.
It seems like there will be a 50% chance, when you start reading this, that you already know what it is about. It's not hard to find out, but I think not knowing was… not better, but different. Halfway through, I realized that it was not so sad just because of the dog — I remembered what I'd read earlier on Wikipedia, really — and what I was in for. So I'm going to leave that unsaid and leave it up to you.
While there is of course absolutely nothing I can compare in my life, the way the story is told hit me in a soft place. I believe that the reason Beard needed to write this piece was not only because of what happened, but what was happening. The idea of "the last day of the first part of my life" is familiar to me — when you are watching your life live itself out, into a new one. Sometimes so many things will end at the same time, that time is marked forever, and this story is exactly as epic as that feels.
"She was never a puppy. She's always been older than me."
This was collected in Beard's book of essays The Boys of My Youth (which is basically at the very top of my to-buy list). But it was originally published in the New Yorker, and you can read it in full on the site.(less)
The completist in me is glad I read this, but if I wasn't still coasting on the interest built up from reading Every Day recently, this wouldn't hold...moreThe completist in me is glad I read this, but if I wasn't still coasting on the interest built up from reading Every Day recently, this wouldn't hold much interest. The stories are real short and simple, and although the purpose is meant to be to show another varied handful of days out of A's life, the ones here feel a lot like the ones in the book, and they even repeat each other a little.
I was curious what they would be like, before I read this, so I'll explain for the sake of those who feel that way. Just in case anyone cares, I'll put the premises behind spoilers.
(view spoiler)[1. A's best 10th birthday, with some good big-sister bonding. 2. A at 7, a neglected child with a sullen, strict parent. 3. A is about 15 (extrapolating from the "day" number) and spends the day chatting with the girl's best friend over the internet. It's unclear if there is something more to their relationship. 4. A is 16 and an athlete. 5. A is 16 and a boy who spends all day with his best friend, who asks for something more from their relationship. 6. A is 16 and a boy who spends all day with his best friend, who asks for something more from their relationship. (hide spoiler)]
Nope, that's right -- two of these stories sound exactly the same! And they're not, you know, the same, but no denying they are out of the same aisle of the grocery store. But both of them are good, and #6 especially brings a lot of depth to the collection and makes it worth reading.
The others are far less substantial: A pontificates on being an athlete and having a strong body; A pontificates on having long-distance friends (and disappoints me yet again by dismissing internet friends as an impossible option).
#2 was the most interesting premise by far, but it was short and not a lot happened in the story. In general I'd have welcomed reading a lot more about A's childhood. The questions and pathos of it interests me a lot. They stand out sort of oddly here -- they are written in A's current voice, almost like a journal entry about the memory, in retrospect for our benefit, rather than the voice or perspective of an actual child. It reads okay, but it makes me think that Levithan is not very interested in A's experience as a kid, which is too bad because I am.
I want to believe that Levithan is an author who knows more than he writes into the story, but I don't exactly believe that's true here. I suspect there's a lot he isn't sure of, and that it's one reason the scope of the stories is so narrow. Maybe in time he will explore a bit more.
Anyway, I'm really glad I could check this out from the library! Hurray.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
You know how you go on a long car trip with your friend you really like, and you make each other crazy after a while? THIS BOOK.
Gormenghast, we are de...moreYou know how you go on a long car trip with your friend you really like, and you make each other crazy after a while? THIS BOOK.
Gormenghast, we are definitely friends, but I need to get out of this car and take a dang walk.
So, this is book #2 in the big old series I am reading, and, in my opinion there is some sequel-itis. The end of the thread often gets lost in the spool, so epic is our author's plan. The truth is that quite a lot of this book is missing some things that are simply important to the enjoyment of a novel, e.g., a main character, or a main plot. Quite a lot of it is also missing some things that contribute to the enjoyment of a sequel, like characters we've met before, or resolving loose story ends. If a book does have these qualities, a reader like me may find it not a very big deal to be generous with any not-ideal diversions and skips and negligence the remainder may have. But without them, a reader like me is more likely to ask by page 200, "Why are you doing this to me?"
Of course, the first book was hardly what you would call tightly-woven narrative. But what it did have was the feeling of everyone in their element — their odd, disquieting element. I was a little lost, in that, but I didn't mind it because I enjoyed just about every spot I was put in. And ultimately, a thing happened that had been long built up to, and another thing happened that was a total f'ing shock, and it all made me so happy that my hair stood on end. That part of reading a novel is important! It is what you should ask of an author: 1) reap the seeds you sow, 2) blow my little mind.
But, see, I have a lot of complaints about this, but it isn't fair at all because I really liked it a lot, still. These books are remarkable. The writing, though at times overwhelmingly big, is also stunningly clever and glorious. The sentences are so beautiful, they made me keen. And the scenes of action are so strangely-built and so memorable. Instead of just tearing down the things that didn't work right, I'm going to make a list of the things that knocked my socks off, because those are the things I want to remember:
* Flay in the woods * Flay in the basement caverns * Prunesquallor's dream * The tenth birthday (view spoiler)[with the incredibly strange, giant-size panto play in the forest (hide spoiler)] * The sneaking chase through the castle at dawn (x 1000000) * Titus in the cave with The Thing even though objectively it's super weird * (view spoiler)[The unbelievable epic flood that changes everything in the castle, and brings the Countess into her own (hide spoiler)] * The final battle (view spoiler)[with Steerpike in the flooded room, floating in the little boat, (hide spoiler)] even though it lasted for about 35 pages of super small text and there was no reason for one fight scene to take so painstakingly long and I just wanted it to finish, but still it was memorable, and I want to be kind.
Anyway, each one of these things made it worth reading, I promise it.
It was promised to me (by another reader) that this book closes all the questions of the first, but I have to disagree. (view spoiler)[The question of Sepulchrave's death is still gaping open, probably forever, despite being incredibly important to them all. The author gives Fuschia an impassioned speech about it — e.g. what happened to my father, I have to ask Flay, this is my primary motivation — and then when she journeys to the mountain to find Flay, they don't talk about it whatsoever. No one ever talks about it again. (hide spoiler)] The author has just moved on to something else more interesting (to him), but that is incredibly frustrating. And it's only one of a dozen things that don't seem to fit into a logical timeline — if a character thinks something fishy was going on in book one, it's rather convenient for me that they waited seven years until this sequel took place to start thinking it over. Still, it does seem that the two books fit together in a way that the third is unlikely to, which makes it an odd sort of duology-in-a-trilogy thing.
Here, the primary through-line is supposed to be Titus, who grows from child to young man and is in deep conflict with his nature over his legacy as earl. But really, there is so little of him here, and we don't connect to him when we see him. He is plunked in and pointed at like a main character should be, but it's all wrong. What story there is is really about is the final takedown (view spoiler)[of Steerpike, who turns from quasi-villain to uber-villain here, (hide spoiler)] but it takes a good damn two hundred pages before anything seems to happen about it.
I did not care about the professors at all.
Thematically, the most important situation Titus really has is exploring his attachment to "The Thing," as Keda's daughter is called. They are "foster" siblings, as Keda was Titus's wet-nurse, and it is foreshadowed at the end of the first book that the two children will have an important connection. "The Thing" is an outcast and wild girl, possessing skills that are beyond human, seeming to float and fly even as she lunges and steals. She frightens and fascinates Titus, and to him she represents everything he wants — but does he want to be it, or possess it? I'm not sure the entire potential of all of this was fulfilled, but it is interesting and unusual for sure.
I can't let this review go without mentioning that it reveals a little bit of a women problem in Mervyn Peake's writing, and I am rightly disappointed by it, even though I feel forgiving. Peake's grasp on his characters is weak in many places (Titus in particular, as noted), but some of the false notes for the women sting a bit more strongly. It was enough that he almost lost my trust as an author, though ultimately I decided he could keep it, because I kinda love him. Compared to a hundred other fantasy books and a hundred other books from the same decade, his books may well have a much less harmful women problem than the rest — but it is there.
Peake has two very bad authorial habits regarding women: one, Fuschia's age gets reset constantly. (Titus's age does, too — and no kidding, I've started a chart that I'm gonna put up after I finish the last book.) But is she an adult, as the stated age difference between her and Titus would require, or is she perennially nineteen? There is an incredibly big problem with Fuschia being perennially nineteen, because it plays into every bad instinct of the genre that believes a girl is no longer interesting when she is a woman. It implies that an appropriately adult Fuschia would not be sympathetic, and would not make sense to her author enough to remain a protagonist. Thus, Fuschia is somehow both frequently present and oddly of no consequence in this book, which is just horrid compared to how truly alive and important she was in the first.
The second very bad habit is that women's intelligence is inconsistently characterized. Objectively, Fuschia and her mother the Countess are both dumb and wise, at different times. It's part of their story, and I don't mind that they're called dumb — they are, to start with: they are sheltered and overly-bored aristocrats, so bored that they have invented their own worlds to live in. A lot of the point of having them there is to watch what they do when they finally wake up. Both women do have awakenings, followed by really important work to do. The insult comes when Peake forgets that he's done this for them, that they aren't supposed to be "stupid" any more. It isn't something to be forgetful about. Fuschia can't have suddenly grown up at this moment, and the Countess's brain is not suddenly active for the first time in a decade, because you told us those things before. Don't you have any way of describing a woman doing something important other than arising from a stupor? That cannot be true. (Irma, dear Irma, is an outlier of this data — she is stupid through and through, but enough of an obvious satire to avoid insulting anyone. I think.)
A potential third argument for a bad women-writing habit might be (view spoiler)[the trap of not knowing what to do with your young female characters, and so killing them off for no particularly good reason. Both Fuschia and The Thing are killed in the incredible storm and flood that occurs, and neither death truly had to happen. (hide spoiler)]. But this has only happened twice, though it is incredibly unfair.
It is also unfair of myself to be so harsh a judge when such wonderful things happen in these books. I expect so much because there is really nothing like them, and there are so many pieces to care about so much. They convert you and change you. Reading these books feels like making a deep investment; there is too much to cope with all at once, but you will always have the dividends later, to remember in delicious slices. I will recommend them unhesitatingly, like an elderly relative who leaves out all the bad parts when she tells a story from the past. Life's full of wonderful things that you just have to put up with.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)