This book is presented as a novel, but it's hard, in reading it, not to think of it as a memoir. I have given some thought to what makes a novel readThis book is presented as a novel, but it's hard, in reading it, not to think of it as a memoir. I have given some thought to what makes a novel read as a memoir and I can't quite pinpoint it -- but maybe we expect a novel to have a certain dymanic form, and to be shaped by certain dramatic occurrences and by a certain progressive development. This book is driven by the urgency of telling a story that hasn't been told, that of the Slovenian minority in Austria during WWII. This, too, felt memoiristic rather than novelistic to me, in this particular book, though of course this needn't be the case for every book driven by a historical urgency.
In any case, I was captured by the writing for most of the book -- the protagonist's childhood, the increasingly haunting memories that fell her family and many of her fellow villagers, and that eventually fill up her mind. Her collapse under the cumulative weight of all this silenced, unprocessed past. The unrecognition of Austro-Slovenian partisans both by the Austrian and the (then) Yugoslavian governments, the former because the partisans are perceived as affiliated a bit too much with communism, the latter because they are not communist enough. There are some incredibly moving passages in which the narrator explains (see?) how the partisans simply did what needed to be done for their and their community's survival -- how it wasn't even a choice really. They were Slavs, therefore prime targets in Hitler's path of racial "purification." And many of them, the majority of those who didn’t join the partisans in the mountains, ended up, in fact, in concentration camps, and only a few returned, and those who returned were never the same.
The child and then young woman who narrates the story conveys powerfully, first the mystery in which her family and the entire village is steeped; then her own sense of responsibility for the survival of her family, in which trauma is ravaging minds and physical health; then her need to leave but also, at a distance, to understand, because if she understands the terrible trauma and the terrible belittlement and disgracing that followed maybe, just maybe, things will get better, for someone, maybe.
As a document of a poorly-known corner of WWII this is terrific. As a document of what makes some people last and some people fold, this is terrific too, But at the end, 1/5 to the end, I felt that the "novel" had told me whatever story it had to tell and there was no need to continue.
I wish a careful editor had gotten in here and cut the bits that needed to be cut and blended a bit more rationally the bits that needed to be connected. There is too much repetition. There is, also, some clumsy meshing of styles. Still, if you are interested in the particular story this book tells, then you should read it. And if you are a WWII buff, then you should read it. And if you feel compelled to remember the people who died for justice and freedom but history forgot, then you should read it too.
**spoiler alert** at first i thought this was a rendition of the psychoanalytic relation. the absolute dedication of the examiner. her efforts in easi**spoiler alert** at first i thought this was a rendition of the psychoanalytic relation. the absolute dedication of the examiner. her efforts in easing the claimant's (patient's) psychic pain. the exploration of painful dreams and memories and the re-elaboration of same. bewitching.
i have not abandoned this hypothesis; some of it still holds. but there's a lot more at play here. the drug that wipes out the patient's consciousness, memory, and cognitive functions when the patient doesn't respond to the loving "cure" of the examiner. to the point that, eventually, the patient may be turned into a barely-functioning individual. the sinister spreading of the villages, so that, at this point, most of this strange "republic" is covered with them. the author's suggestion here may be that an ever increasing number of people are afflicted by pain so severe that only this extreme measure will do, but the specter of isolation, manipulation, and the construction of an alternate reality remains. it is not comforting. it's scary as all get out.
is it loving that so many people should be devoted to the well-being of one? sure. but.... freedom?
and yes. the claimant chooses not to die but to entrust his life to this network of helper, only partly cognizant of what will happen to him. meaning: there is conscious choice involved.***
the long conversation between the claimant (clement!) and the man in the office (don't remember his title) is a lovely thing. the man listens endlessly, tenderly. at the end of the story, the man administers the cure without further ado.
so no, not a psychoanalytic relation, but a system aimed at sweeping away pain through chemicals and yes, loving mental reconstruction.
it's an interesting book. this is where it displeased me:
* the story of clement and rana is long and i found it took away momentum from the extraordinary first part. i read the first part in one go, willing to stay up all night to finish the book. the story of clement and rana took me a few days to finish. it's a love story, a tragic love story, like so many others. this book is not about tragic love, i don't think. i don't want it to be. i want this book to be about healing (good healing, bad healing).
* i found myself having no patience for the "quotable" lines. there are many of those. they might be amazing if your mind is of a certain kind, but my mind has read one quotable line too many and is very very ready to move on. in fact, it has moved on. some time ago.
i'm not entirely sure i understand the play at the end. if someone here gets the play and wants to discuss it in comments, i'd love to hear what you have to say. thank you.
*** i am a bit shocked by the news coming out of belgium, where physician assisted suicide is legal and extends to people in intolerable psychic pain. how can someone in the grips of terrible, terrible despair choose freely whether to live or die? and, of course, suicide is always an option. but the moment someone else enters the scene, then i cannot think of that someone else's role as anything other than comforting and soothing. people have the power of giving each other happier lives. only people can do that for each other. helping others to die because their psychic pain is so harsh is abdicating the fundamental human duty to help. ...more
i approached this book the way i was told to approach it (no one in particular said anything, but i got the general idea) and, well, i don't like booki approached this book the way i was told to approach it (no one in particular said anything, but i got the general idea) and, well, i don't like books about nastiness. you know, books about psychopaths, serial killers, and the like. not my cup of tea. the sociopath here would be zenia. but slowly it dawned on me, thanks in part to having read Dept. of Speculation (as i type this i don't know why, but maybe it will be clearer to me by the end of this review), that this book is not about zenia. not even close. this book is about tony, charis, and roz. you start getting this when atwood unravels slowly (something she never does for zenia) their stories, starting from their childhoods. and these childhoods are invariably horrible. so much abuse, so much loneliness, so much abandonment. later, they tie themselves to men who are much more valuable to them in retrospect, after zenia has worked her black magic on them. when atwood gives them -- these men -- to us unvarnished, un-zenia-ed, un-mourned, well there is pretty much nothing redeemable about them, and no reason at all why these women should stay with them.
except they (the women) are so hurt. they are so mauled by their terrible childhoods. so they stick to what they think they deserve. because bad, cruel companionship is better than no companionship at all.
zenia is a cypher. she is the empty form into which these three deeply injured women pour their demons. and zenia delivers. she delivers in spades. she takes the demons out of the box and smacks them powerfully into each woman's face.
and in the process, she does them a favor. except they don't know it, do they? they hate zenia, which is awesome because this possibly saves them from hating themselves (as victims do: they don't hate the perpetrator, they hate themselves) too much. and she brings them closer to each other.
the magic, the true white magic of the book is the care, the unjudgmental care (and yes, they may be snippy occasionally in their thoughts, but oh do they come through for each other!), the love tony, charis and roz have for each other. their demons bring them together, and, because deflected on another, manage not to tear them apart.
but here's another piece of magic atwood performs (because, really, com'on, who can write like this? who? no one, that's who). atwood takes these three women and gives as complete a picture of the complexities of three women's lives (not femininity, not womanhood, but many of us will still find ourselves there) as is humanly possible. in doing this, she covers with astounding meticulousness: fashion (for lack of a better word), natural eating, comfort eating, fancy-restaurant eating, farming, gardening, sexual abuse, religion (please check the fantastic chapter in which roz gives us a pretty formidable account of the christian faith), romantic love, parental love, childhood, loss, boating, corporation running, history, war, weaponry, battles, battlefields, language, etymology, escaping the US draft, desire, motherhood, loneliness, internal decoration, running a woman's magazine, toronto, canada, etc. etc. etc.*
so for this alone, for atwood's astounding power to observe and describe, for her capacity to capture lives in such an infinite multitude of aspects and reflections and refractions, i proclaim her the best writer ever. (not really). (but). (kinda).
*spectacularly missing, as always in atwood: race and, to a significant extent, same-sex desire. ...more
i wanted to create a shelf for this one. i would have called "how-the-young'uns-write." but then i faltered. it seemed dismissive. maybe there is somei wanted to create a shelf for this one. i would have called "how-the-young'uns-write." but then i faltered. it seemed dismissive. maybe there is something slightly MFA-ish and a bit "trendy" about the way this book is written, but, really, this is beautiful, brave, and virtuoso writing, and it should be judged as its own writerly thing.
elyria, the protagonist, is a very young 28 year old. she speaks (writes) in lulling run-ons that are often startling and beautiful, and sometimes so poetic and original they make your heart sing. sometimes they are hilarious and then you laugh. she writes of all the things young'uns with broken hearts, a truncated view of their future, and a disembodied desperation write: time, relationships, parents, siblings, love, not love, the big wide world with its big wide being-lost-in-ness, and death.
(MINOR SPOILER THAT GETS REVEALED SOON ENOUGH) elyria's particular relationship to time, death, and disembodiment is connected to the death of her sister ruby. (END OF SPOILER) since elyria talks mostly from a place of disconnection and inner sense-making rather than story-telling, we don't learn much about her life prior to the present of the narration, but we learn enough to understand that it wasn't pretty. she doesn't tell us a lot about what she was like as a child, but you get a sense she was one of those kids who thought all the time about dying. you know those kids. they are the heroes of the literature you love best. my favorite are mick kelley, frankie addams, holden caulfield, and nomi nickel.* if you can imagine mick, frankie, and holden at 28, you get elyria.
it takes a really good writer to pull off a mick, a frankie, a holden, a nomi. the despair of children is not for the faint of heart.
fact is, some of us carry those children inside us all of our lives. we manage to survive by learning to love them. cuz those children are too formidable, too unbelievably cool to go away. what loss that would be! so we make peace with them and their deathlust the best we can. we become the mommies and daddies who weren't there or weren't enough, and, as snotchcheez says (i'll paraphrase), we take 'em home and give them a warm blanket and a bowl of chowder. for life.
i was reading Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, except i wasn't really reading it because i was listening to it in audiobook before going to sleep. and then the book got disturbing, so i decided to take a break and listen to Dept. of Speculation instead.
you understand, i listen to audiobooks with the light off, while (hopefully) going to sleep. since (if i'm lucky, or unlucky, depending on the book) i get into sleeping mode within half an hour, my taking in of the book is largely hypnagogic. which is not necessarily bad. because, in some cases, it works.
this case. this book. perfect for the hypnagogic state of someone who loves language -- who, in fact, finds language a balm for the chapped soul. going to sleep to jenny offill's reading her own book (yes!) is like going to sleep to the singing of sirens.
but then, see, because that is a mental state that doesn't lead to solid remembering, i typically listen to the same chapters two, three, four, ten times. so the book enters me in a way that is pretty spectacular, subliminal, and whole in a peculiar kind of way. a peculiar kind of wholeness.
i loved this book tremendously. it is the first addition to my "twee" bookshelf, which i have been thinking of creating for a while but i'm creating only now. i resisted creating it because i would have put in it only books whose twee-ness i disliked. but twee can be beautiful, i have found, and this book is twee in all the right, spectacular, wonderful ways.
this is what i love. i love mixed media in literature. i love poetry in fiction. i love prose poems that go into the three-digit pages. i particularly love mixtures of little-known facts stated in factoidal form, narrative prose, and poetry. think of the last page of Harper's. at the end, all of it becomes poetry -- found poetry plus poetry plus poetry.
now go read poingu's review. i don't agree with the first two paragraphs -- at all -- and i think what poingu hypothesizes at the beginning of their third paragraph is right on (notice e.g. the various ways in which the word "girl" is used in the book, and the ways in which this use changes, changes again, folds in upon itself).
but then poingu zaps us with this:
Well, it is just thematically boring to me to hear about another white cis woman struggling with the limitations that come from being a wife and mother. The narrator never steps out of a white/upper class/Manhattan/young/privileged/female mindset to see what possible future she might create for herself other than whining about not being an "Art Monster." There is a lack of empathy in this narrative voice, a selfishness, a limitation of imagination. Also I could do without the extremely lengthy challenge the narrator has with bedbugs in her apartment which also gave the novel all the more a feeling of being written by someone who never steps outside of NYC.
this is a theme that is close to my heart, something i worry about a lot, the main reason why i prefer at any given time to read literature by women of color. i could get into my various thoughts on the matter and i'll do so if there is a public outcry among my thousands of readers from all over the world for me to do so, but for now let me offer a counter-argument.
as an inescapably "white cis woman" with a "white/upper class/Manhattan/young/privileged/female mindset" (but then our heroine is not upper class either is she; she's a creative writing university professor in nyc whose husband is also a university professor -- or is he? getting foggy here --, so let me tell you without hesitation and with first-hand knowledge that there is not a ton of money to spare in that particular household; in other words, middle class, as it has come to signify in america in the last few decades, will do) i want my pain acknowledged. i want my pain acknowledged alongside the class- and race-marked pain of my poorer sisters of color. and my richer sisters of color. and my poorer and richer white sisters. and my trans* sisters, poor rich white and/or brown. and all women of all intersectional layers of race, class, gender and sexuality. because you can have your son blown in the head by a perfectly ordinary cop (something that is very unlikely to happen to me, among other reasons because i don't have a son) and still suffer terribly because your husband stepped out on you. because you can be discriminated at the airport/in the workplace/in shops/in the street in ways i cannot even imagine but i constantly try to make myself aware of and still feel depression and despair and malaise and a keening need to die.
hypostasizing the class- and race-colored pain of non-white working-class women does a disservice to these woman and to privileged (because) white women (though not all white women are equally privileged). any woman -- any person who suffers is a person who is experiencing pain (see what i'm doing here? tautology; unassailable). i don't want to have a conversation over the validity of that pain. let's talk about social conditions and structural injustice; let's talk about privilege; let's by all means talk about all that because it's just so crucial and important that not talking about it would be like putting chunks of lobster over one's eyes and bits of truffle into one's ear (only some of us can). but let's never belittle anyone's pain. ever. we are, all of us, fighting a great battle. some of us are losing and are therefore dying all sorts of deaths, including the death of the traditional kind. some of us write in order to survive. is jenny offill writing to survive? i don't know. do you?
yeah, me too. cuz, really, how easy does the world make it for us to disbelieve women's words? believing women's words is my epistemic stance of choice. as a woman. as a feminist. as a woman who loves women. as a woman in this world.
now please don't maul me in comments. i am fighting a great battle too. thank you.
well i finished it. this is who i think should read this book: peter and emilie. i'll recommend it to them with the GR recommendation tool. also juliewell i finished it. this is who i think should read this book: peter and emilie. i'll recommend it to them with the GR recommendation tool. also julie, because reading miriam toews helps you write.
yesterday i wrote this book had tremendous levity and it does! it really does! but fuck man fuck fuck fuck it's all the sads and all the heartbreaks packed into one little book made out of levity.
i can relate exactly none at all to the main themes of the book, i.e. 1. sisterhood and 2. worrying about someone's killing themselves on you and not knowing whether to let them go or keep them alive when their life is unadulterated misery, for all sorts of personal reasons that are too personal even for me to disclose here. but i can relate to the heartlessness and preachiness and horribleness of psychiatric wards and THANK YOU ms. toews for telling the world that psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses are for the most part asshats.
and i can relate to losing someone and missing the fuck out of them, especially today, for some strange alignment of stars and planets, because the family of a dear friend who recently died is visiting the states and it's so sad to think of them, father and two teenage kids, driving their little hearts out from state to state and beautiful place to beautiful place and having to keep themselves from bawling their eyes out because mom is not here and she won't be home when they go back either. i miss their mom too, in fact i'm pretty incredulous that she's gone, and i want her back kind of badly, so, yeah, all the sads.
but i didn't shed a single tear in the reading of this book and i laughed out loud so, so much. so this is what this book may do for you, let you grieve and laugh, both at the same time. and then when you put it down you might not be able to do much of anything at all, which is exactly like the narrator, yoli, who can do so little she can only read books and drink booze and fuck strangers, only one of which i recommend.
----- i am still reading so this is not a review, but:
because of my history and psychological makeup, and because i have a cold cold heart, i cannot connect to the plight of someone trying to keep someone they love alive, but:
this book is carrying me on the sole strength of its amazing writing, which:
you won't probably appreciate unless (as jakaem said somewhere in her review) you have read a couple of books by this author. the voice of the narrator is brain scattered, fucked up, pained, and hilarious, and you will miss a lot of it if you don't know that toews can do other, much different voices. it is the perfect tone for this book, in order for it not to be devastating, for it to be what it is, that is:
a masterpiece of levity.
and maybe you won't find levity in it, because a) you haven't read other books by toews b) you care about keeping alive people you love and c) you have a warm warm heart. and maybe, on occasion, you will find the language a bit throwaway-ish. so, at least, believe me when i say that:
toews writes with the language of the angels. if the words are on the book, they belong there. fully. they are the only words that should be there. but no:
because the language of the angels is so perfect that it transcends uniqueness. it is generous. so yeah, substitute any word and it won't matter. it's a book written by angels. it stands alone, cloudy, towering, eventually raining soft winnipeg rain. ...more
i read this book as an audiobook, the version read by kate lock. she does voices and various other sounds (she coughs, she laughs, she cries, she speai read this book as an audiobook, the version read by kate lock. she does voices and various other sounds (she coughs, she laughs, she cries, she speak as if she had her mouth full, she hesitates, she pleads, she whispers), and the voices are often weird. she also does accents, english regional accents. at first it all seemed strange to me but soon i grew to love the sound of her voice telling me this fantastic story. i loved how she did anna and levin and kitty.
there is a scene in the book in which levin, who could very well be the book’s protagonist if only the book had been named after him, goes with the peasants at his employ to mow the grass fields with a scythe. the laborers are organized in rows and at first levin is a bit awkward; soon though he gets the hang of it and the handling of the scythe becomes a ballet. i am juxtaposing this visual interpretation of a written text to the image i have in my head of an old dude i saw mow the lawn with a scythe some ten years ago in austria, on the mountains. he was mowing a really steep part of his lawn that went from a small holding wall to the end of his property. the operation was miraculously silent except for the swish of the scythe on the grass, and the man and the scythe moved as one, guided by the swinging of the man's hips. i think we should ditch lawn mowers immediately and go back to scythes. i'm not kidding. they are beautiful things and the procedure is probably faster and more effective than that executed with a lawn mower. above all, though, it's a beautiful dance the person does with the grass and the land. the scene in which levin mows the grass with the peasants is the palpable, fragrant, engrossing description of a beautiful group dance, but i concede that it might help to have seen it done in real life, on a sunny but brisk summer day in the austrian alps by an old-timer who'd done it all his life.
when (view spoiler)[levin and kitty marry (hide spoiler)] tolstoy pulls the comic stop full out. i had the lights off, it was late, and i was half asleep, but i woke myself up laughing. there are other scenes like this, but this is the first entirely comic scene you encounter in the course of the novel. tolstoy can do comic, man.
tolstoy can do tenderness and love like you have no idea. the scene in which kitty and levin write to each other entire sentences by using only the first letter of each word and understand each other perfectly is so intense it makes every nerve in your body tingle.
he also can do pain. i think many 19th century authors have done female pain magisterially, but male pain is a bit harder to do. there are so many codices and constraints when it comes to masculinity. vronsky is in pain, karenin is in pain, but these characters' representation follows the prescribed modalities for expression of masculine pain -- restlessness, bitterness, rebelliousness, stubbornness, excess, fickleness, etc. levin's depression, on the other hand, is a lovely masterpiece of representation of fully-felt male inner suffering (levin is an all around wonderful character and the moral, spiritual, and intellectual center of this enormous novel; levin is a man you want to meet and be friends with).
the pain of women is, as i said, a little easier to write about, because women are expected to express pain full throatedly and they are expected to get physically sick from it. anna is different, though, because her pain leads her straight to madness. she doesn't get that typical 19th century female sickness that leads women to languish in sadness to the point of risking their lives (she wishes!). she marches steadily on, doing what she needs to do, bearing up as strongly and composedly as she can, and going crazy. (if you don't know what happens to anna at the end don't click on the spoiler link.) (view spoiler)[this craziness is represented by jealousy but i think jealousy is just a manifestation of an obsession so profound with the evil of the world, it eventually kills her. anna doesn't take to her bed and dies of the mysterious malaise of which 19th century women die. she boldly, madly, desperately takes her own life because the pain is too big and she cannot bear it any longer. (hide spoiler)] anna's madness can be a bit offputting to readers living in the age of therapy, psych meds, positive thinking, and not imposing your pain on others thankyouverymuch. blessed be those who fall into vortexes of pain they understand even less than those who surround them and find their minds simply unhinged by the force of that despair. blessed be they in life and in death.
for the character that gives her name to the novel, i think anna is given too little space. i am not even sure she gets as much space as levin. and while levin's pain is described and detailed in loving depth, i feel we never quite get to the bottom of anna's pain. yes, she loves vronsky and she loves her son. but both those loves felt unconvincing to me. she seemed to me broken from the get go. and what about her preternatural beauty? why is her beauty so central to the novel? is her beauty her curse? i don't know, i don't know.
i must say that i thought this novel would be a downer, but it absolutely isn't. it's joyous and rich and so merciful. tolstoy loves all of his characters and he forgives them, too, so that, for a long while, you can't see a thing wrong with any of them -- till eventually you do, you see their faults and the ways they fail. but you are introduced to their shortcomings gently, slowly, so that you are allowed to see them (the shortcomings) in the full complexity of the characters' negative and positive traits, and you love them a little too, and forgive them. there isn't one badly written character in the whole book. they are all rich and deep and human. listening to this novel for more than a month made me happy and for this i'm so, so grateful. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more