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 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.
this book has left me speechless. wow. what. a. book. not for the faint of heart (i'm thinking of you, wilhemina, and you, qiana), but, to me, an undithis book has left me speechless. wow. what. a. book. not for the faint of heart (i'm thinking of you, wilhemina, and you, qiana), but, to me, an undisputed masterpiece. ...more
nadeem aslam is a treasure to the world and everyone should read him. his writing is simply fantastic -- i think i liked the writing in The Wasted Vignadeem aslam is a treasure to the world and everyone should read him. his writing is simply fantastic -- i think i liked the writing in The Wasted Vigil better, but probably one would like best the one one reads first. the writing's fullness and ornatedness -- the riches of adjectives, similes, metaphors, imagery, and occasionally magic -- has reminded better readers than i of urdu and of the ancient poetic tradition of islam. here's an eloquent passage from manjul bajaj's lovely review in Outlook India (the review is excerpted on goodreads, where i found it):
Seeping out from beneath the grammar and syntax of his perfectly polished adopted tongue is the melancholy and ache of Urdu’s vivid images and startling metaphors... Moonlight, fireflies, flowering plants and trees, singing birds, the movement of the stars and the colour of the sky texture the narrative and act as subliminal triggers which create an emotional subtext connecting the reader to the beauty of Islam’s poetic and artistic traditions.
light is a dominant theme. the light of stars, of kerosene lamps; the light of the dappled sun and of sun- and moonlight reflected in water; the light of fireflies; often the lack of light, like when power is cut and generators don't work, or when someone goes blind and the light his eyes can still see is more a tease that an aid. this is present in Wasted Vigil too.
also: representation, especially the sly representation of pentimento painting, a tool of survival in a world where extremist islamism makes images forbidden.
then books, books everywhere, and nature: flowers, plants, smells, tastes; animals.
animals have a particular place in his extraordinary book, and here i'll say what makes it so extraordinary: as manjul bajaj so beautifully and accurately says, "the book is Aslam’s prayer for the whole world, his attempt to bathe it in light." but i think that aslam goes even farther than this. i think that in his book he makes peace. he creates it. he imagines it and makes it happen.
all of his characters (in this book, unlike in Wasted Vigil they are muslim except for one, the priest of the school where two of our protagonists teach) are peace-loving people who put humanity, decency, and compassion way ahead of their own safety, comfort, and lives.
the tremendous injury of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks -- a whole country attacked for no reason at all, its people decimated, its cities and villages reduced to rubble, fundamentalism and rage stoked with the most powerful bellow of all -- is mourned deeply and shown clearly in the book, but there is no anger: only a huge sorrow. and the protagonists of the book, this motley host of sometimes weird and always beautiful characters put their bodies in the wound and heal it.
it's aslam's novel and he can do what he wants with it. so he heals this unhealable wound. he does it mainly through the unbelievably lovely character of mikal, whose love for animals and for peace, whose utter inability to be angry, whose putting peace ahead of desire and self, are poetry unto themselves.
to say more is to give away the book, but if you read this extraordinary work of art, pay attention to mikal all through the book and in particular in the second half. pay attention to his carefulness with life -- all life. to his tenderness. to his earnestness. to his incredible love.
aslam uses a quote from simone weil at a crucial point in the book: "Love is not consolation, it is light." i am not sure what weil meant when she wrote it; i'm not even sure what it means, in general. but in this book this quote could not be more appropriately placed.
and let me say, it is difficult to set a book in immediately-post-9/11 afghanistan and not make it drip with rage. i did occasionally feel rage. you will too. but aslam is SO NOT AFTER rage. he bathes the world with light. ...more
this is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which mthis is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which may or may not go hand in hand with economic disparity).
a young haitian lawyer, black, married to a handsome nebraskan man (white), with an übercute little kid, is kidnapped during her visit to haiti to see her family. kidnapping apparently is the order of the day in haiti at the time (pre-earthquake) and wealthy people expect it and do all they can to prevent it. mireille's family's security measures are not enough and soon the kidnappers are asking for one million american dollars as ransom for mireille. sort of inexplicably, near the beginning of the novel mireille, who narrates the vast majority of the chapters, tells us that her kidnappers were scared young men. this sense of forgiveness, acceptance, or empathy never returns in the novel; nor, frankly, do they seem that scared when we meet them. but there you have it.
in all likelihood that kidnapping would have gone off without a hitch and no-one would have gotten hurt if mireille's father had paid straight away. but mireille's father has opinions about how to handle situations like this (it's his first time, but of course he has been preparing for it forever), and decides not to negotiate with the kidnappers. this unleashes in the latter a barrage of sexual violence that goes on, relentlessly, for the entirety of the 13 days of the kidnapping. we are given a really precise sense of what this violence consists of and of what it feels like, and it isn't pretty. in fact, it's barely tolerable. one night, after reading, i found myself shaking and unable to sleep. let's just say that i've never read sexual brutality described with such truthfulness. the only other book that made me equally horrified is Primo Levi's incredible narration of his life in auschwitz in Survival in Auschwitz, aka If This Is a Man. what these two books have in common is their masterful rendition of what it feels like to stop being human.
mireille alternates the narrative of what happens to her during her capture with stories of her life with her husband michael and of her pregnancies, only one of which goes to term. the narrative organization is pretty flawless, and while mireille's life before her capture emerges as nice (a lot of emphasis on desire between mireille and michael), there is always, looming, and by necessity, a sense of unease about men and their strange culture. in short, men are brutes who hurt women, michael notwithstanding. and michael is not a sweetie pie. he's a man of few words and he's as hungry for mireille as mireille is for him. given the narrative set up, though, this hunger is uncomfortable to the reader. you'd rather have them make french toast together than fuck intensely, overwhelmed by their love/desire for each other.
there is also the fact that michael's nebraskan family, made of farm-owning mom and dad, is none too pleased with michael's marrying someone of a different color, and makes absolutely no mystery of it. this is as painful and uncomfortable to mireille as you'd expect it to be, but michael seems kind of clueless about it.
the most powerful parts of the book are about the brutality and the cluelessness of men. the torture scenes are really, really good. roxane gay, who was born in nebraska but is of haitian origin, gives you a clear sense of how easily women turn from human beings to playthings in the hands of men. she gives, it seems to me, no rhyme or reason for this. the playing they are subjected to is fully sexual and fully sadistic, so that if we weren't used to this, if the object of such treatment were, say, animals rather than human beings, we would unquestioningly consider these men psychopaths. as it is, we consider them rapists, a category that is so over-present in all sorts of representational forms, we consider it pretty much natural. so one thing that roxane gay does well here is denaturalize all that, show it for the absolute pathological deadly derangement it is.
and we are extremely thankful for the fact that, after having given us a chillingly accurate idea of what these men are doing -- after making sure we get it -- she lets up and simply hints. not that it gets any easier for the reader, but the novel doesn't turn into torture porn one. tiny. bit. which it could easily have done.
men's cluelessness is portrayed in all its glory in the aftermath, when mireille is released. the major culprit, of course, is michael -- but then he was clueless from day one.
the second part of the book is about post traumatic agony, and there are some pretty brutal scenes (not quite as brutal as the torture scenes, but close) in which michael thinks that the best way to help his wife is to force her to do things she doesn't want to do. as anyone who understand trauma even just a bit knows, forcing someone who's been deprived of her autonomy in the most radical way to do things, even things that are supposedly good for her, is a sure recipe for intolerable retraumatization.
eventually respite comes to mirelle (thank god) from some unexpected and lovely place, and we can breathe a little (just a little).
two things that left me unhappy at the end: although reformed, michael seems to me to continue being a jerk, understanding his role as mireille's partner only in terms of "masculine" protectiveness and bluster. if the book means for that to be the case, and therefore critiques michael, this critique is not made clear at all. the other thing is small but it bugged me all the way through: mireille has two siblings but the second one, a male, is mentioned only at the beginning and never mentioned again. this is strange in a book in which the family and its dynamics are so closely analyzed. if i've missed something, please feel free to let me know in comment.
i think roxane gay puts material about nationhood, race, belonging and capitalism in the book, too -- especially about the mayhem that is bound to happen when very rich people live in close proximity to people who are absolutely destitute -- but, frankly, her analysis of gender relations is so bright and stark and powerful, the rest kind of falls by the wayside. ...more
this book is about suicide. it says so in the first couple of pages so i'm not giving anything away. i know a lot about suicide. i am not an anti-suicthis book is about suicide. it says so in the first couple of pages so i'm not giving anything away. i know a lot about suicide. i am not an anti-suicide person. if someone feels it's their time to go; if they feel the pain is too much; if they have suffered long and terribly and see no end in sight, i say, goodbye my friend. in my modest personal experience, these people, the people with so much damage in them they find life a terrible ordeal day after fucking day tend to die early-ish anyway. so many prolonged suicides. you all know what i'm talking about. amy winehouse, michael jackson.
ruth ozeki is not only a remarkable and brave writer, but also a buddhist priest. when writers manage to take buddhism and transform it into great story-telling, the result is breathtaking. i'm thinking about maxine hong kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace.
this book is also about time. it's about Time in the big sense of time and quantum theory and all the stuff that lies at the intersection of physics and new age, insofar as new age is a corruption of both physics and buddhism. this plays a small part in the book. but it's also about time in the sense of what we do with it, how we experience it, and how we tolerate it. in this sense, it's a great, great book to read during the holidays (which is when i read it) because the holidays are all about tolerating time.
also, and crucially for this reader, this is a kick ass story, told in alternating chapters by a japanese teenager who spent the first 15 years of her life in sunnyvale, california, and a japanese american writer (who goes by the name of ruth and resembles the author in just about every respect we are able to detect) who found the girl's diary and notes in a message-in-a-bottle set of hermetically sealed ziplock bags which may or may not have drifted all the way from fukushima as a consequence of the tsunami.
the voice of the teenager is fantastic and brave and occasionally hilarious. the third person narrative about the writer and her semi-happy semi-frustrating life on an island in british columbia is also delightful because so naked and authentic. zen priests (which, in truth, ruth-the-character isn't) are not immune to frustrations, bad moods, marital arguments, petty moments and, you'll be glad to hear, internet addiction.
ozeki interweaves a number of threads: the suicidal teenager and her ordeals, and the impatient writer and her ordeals (which trials weigh more? which are more legitimate?); naoko's great-grandmother the buddhist nun jiko, who's 104 and cleary knows how to live, and that other buddhist, ruth-the-character but also, always, ruth-the-author, who struggles with power outages, writer's block, a stubborn kitty cat, a loving but complex couple relation, and the hardships of living on an island in the pacific northwest while missing the vitality and mess of new york. who is more successful at living the buddhist life? the nun who left everything and lives in serene, accepting contentment or the struggling writer who is trying to change things with her work?
that way i read this book, there is no right, no simple way. old jiko, the role model, the saint, honors everyone's difficulties equally, and does not forget her own. this is, after all, a book about suicide, and time, which also means that it's a book about inevitable failing. you pick up the piece and carry on. if you can. for now. for the time being.
this review does so little justice to the impact this book had on me. i was moved to tears. i laughed with my entire body. i read as slowly as i could. i thought to myself, i want to meet ruth ozeki: will she want another friend? please god let her want me as a friend. i was immensely grateful that ruth's husband, oliver, suffers from a flu-like illness that disables him greatly and from which he gets better only after he and ruth move to the vastly under-civilized island in the pacific northwest. i also suffer from a flu-like illness. should i move to an under-civilized island where it rains 10 months of the year and one has to cut one's own wood, power one's own generator (regular storms fell power lines all the time, and the hydro can fly in only when the storm has passed), and walk to the post office to get one's mail? i don't want to. i wouldn't know how to survive. but: how will i get better? how are we all going to get better?
ruth deals with bills, sneaks in a nasty comment which she immediately regrets about her husband's poor contributions to the household finances (the word she uses is "loser:" ouch!). naoko is vindictive to her classmates and she and her mom are quite uncharitable towards naoko's dad, a hikikomori who longs for suicide. there is nastiness and short-temperedness. how will we all get better? how will we save the planet from self-destruction, from war, from terribly devastating tsunamis and even more devastating, because man-made, defective nuclear power plants? how can we reverse time to before 9/11 and the birth of the global war on terror? what are we to do about the gigantic garbage patches, the largest of which may be as big as the entire united states?
this book tackles all of this, which makes it a miracle of narrative restraint, condensation, and easy fluency. it reminded me a little of Maxine Hong Kingston, of course, but also of Milan Kundera, whom it explicitly names, and David Mitchell, whom it doesn't. how do these writers do it? how do they manage to put the grand entirety of the personal and collective misery of the world in a book about a japanese haulden caulfield who is bullied at school and a japanese american writer with writer's block?
so this is what i leave you with. thank whomever you thank when the world goes the right way for old jiko (fictional), ruth ozeki (nonfictional) and pope francis (also nonfictional), the latter of whom, like jiko, sees and knows the most abject misery (personal and collective) yet keeps reminding us to be joyful and hopeful, and models this joy and hope every day. you can, maybe, be joyful and hopeful even when things go terribly wrong, when you get hit in the teeth, when life bites into your heart like an animal trap with sharp, rusty teeth. you don't need to do anything. just live, for now, for the time being. ...more
this book is so good. so so good. it is one of those books of which i ask myself, how did she do it? how did she come up with a story like this? what this book is so good. so so good. it is one of those books of which i ask myself, how did she do it? how did she come up with a story like this? what tremendous formal control does it take to write such a seemingly simple story and pack it with so much stuff?
the beginning is a bit Middlemarchian, in that a rather naive girl marries an older man who is passionate about his scholarship (we never learn whether his scholarship is any good) and also tremendously narcissistic, manipulative, and abusive.
maybe this is self-conscious because the young woman is called dora (Middlemarch, dorothea) -- but then again dora is such a fraught name in 20th century literature.
murdoch wrote this in 1958 but it could well have been written yesterday. scared of her husband, dora leaves. this is the first line of the novel: "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him." i think it should be among those great beginnings that get listed occasionally in some venue or other.
while away from her husband, dora frolics sexually with another guy, a hippy-ish kind of guy who is both a lover and a buddy and asks nothing of dora. which leads dora right back into paul's arm.
so here's the first theme of this novel – the grip that narcissistic, manipulative, abusive men have on women. i know a couple of those personally. i testify that it is true. but, and i'm jumping ahead, these narcissistic manipulative abusive men also have the entire world on their side: their wives who don't understand them; they abandon them and hurt them; because they are so nice; so sweet; so defenseless. narcissistic manipulative abusive men have the world wrapped around their fingers, because the world is a constellation of countless planets that rotate around the suns of narcissistic manipulative abusive men.
the tentative, delicate, ambivalent evolution of paul and dora's relationship is one of the delights of this novel.
the story takes place in a lay religious community attached to a nuns' monastery (anglican benedictine) where paul goes to do research on ancient manuscripts. the nuns are cloistered but one can ask for audiences and mass is said every day at the monastery that outsiders can attend, though the design of the chapel is such that the nuns are invisible to the outsiders. dora, imprisoned in her own dreadful marriage, is horrified by the nuns' self-imposed exile and fails to see, at least at first, that they are in fact quite free and fulfilled.
the lay community is a thing of beauty. it is led by a most captivating character, a gay man with a mixed past in which sexual trouble and a strong vocation to the priesthood battle each other. the community is situated in a large country mansion, run down but still beautiful, architecturally connected to the monastery, and edged by a lake. there are bridges and boats and one cannot really get out of there without using one or the other. there is also a small town one can reach on foot.
the small lay community is only one year old and populated by a motley crew of idiosyncratic folks, about 10 in all. there are two leaders: michael, the real leader – a reluctant one – and james, his second in command, a man less sympathetic than our friend michael. james is a man of certainties. michael is anything but. but james means well and they all mean well and they are trying hard and deeply believe in what they are doing. they work the earth, grow their own food, have meetings, pray, share meals in silence, and enjoy the quiet and comtemplativity of their lives.
the crux of the novel, it seems to me, is that religious afflatus is inevitably erotic, and this eroticism needs to go somewhere. people who are celibate by religious choice work on it all of their lives and when they work on it well (the nuns in the novel are a really good example here) they get to be lovely human beings with a purity, simplicity, youthfulness and joy that is quite beguiling. i do not actually believe that all of this comes from chastity itself. lots of married folks with the same qualities. i believe it comes to the giving of one’s life, freely, to the spirit, radically, in a way that isn’t driven by neurosis or bitterness or repression but true calling) the negotiation of the cravings of the body and the cravings of the soul in the name of love can mold people into a sort of perennial youthfulness.
i love the way in which murdoch delves deeply inside the members of the lay community’s fumblings with their exalted religiosity and their inevitably exalted eroticism (don't take my word for it; read the writings of the saints). male homosexuality is front and center here, and murdoch deals with it in a way that i found very modern. there is some inner torture in the characters, but none of it is endorsed by the author and the most balanced among them are really quite fine. in other words, this is not Giovanni's Room, which was published only two years earlier (this may have something to do with the fact that murdoch was not a gay man, though she certainly was a woman-loving woman).
towards the end things move fast and there is also a great deal of set-piece comedy, until the comedy goes away and things go back to being serious. but the book never stops being warm, and affirming, and hopeful, and if you are a religious person, or a person interested in religion, and maybe also a queer person, you will find murdoch's dealing with all this simply mind-blowing. ...more
this book is simply fantastic. i consider it nothing short of a masterpiece. as i was reading it i kept thinking, how did she do it?
but she did it.
tthis book is simply fantastic. i consider it nothing short of a masterpiece. as i was reading it i kept thinking, how did she do it?
but she did it.
the story is nothing one can summarize and make the book sound as enticing as it is. what makes this book worth reading in spades is the absolute genius, the delightful brilliance of its composition. which composition reveals itself slowly. after the first few chapters the only thing that kept me reading was the loveliness of the language. about half way through (it took me that long) i realized that truong was writing with magic boxes. in one box you find a little bit of story, and it's nothing really special but that's okay. you notice that it is only a fragment of story but don't really mind. often stories are bits of stories. writers leave a full explanation -- a full narrative -- out. you're used to it.
and then the bits of stories become a bit too many, like say one or two too many, and you think, ugh. but you are reading a beautifully written novel and figure, well, it's that kind of novel, the author is into the slightly frustrating practice of dropping little threads, not seeing them through: maybe it's good this way: maybe it's a technique.
and just at this point, just when you are happy to live with all the question marks in your head, truong hits you straight at the center of your heart with a revelation. but you weren't expecting it! you weren't expecting anything! you barely noticed that there were all these unexplained things! because they weren't REALLY unexplained! it was mostly like life, little things here and there you don't get, like when someone writes on facebook "i'm going to spend the weekend with my brother" and you wonder, "do i know she has a brother? has she ever talked about a brother?" but don't ask, cuz you figure maybe it's you. or none of your business.
or maybe you ask, and a riches of narratives is poured into your lap.
so, in this book, once you are explained the first thing, once the first revelation hits you straight at the center of your heart, you need to go back in your head and revisit the entire narrative in the light of this awesome explanation, then you know to expect more.
in truth, i really didn't. i thought some of the things had just passed me by. even having been SHOWN that eventually all the mysteries (little life mysteries, not big whodunnits) would be explained, i STILL thought, maybe we'll never be told about this one.
well, we are told about all of them. even the ones we didn't really notice we didn't understand until truong explained them to us.
and this is how the book ends, with the explanation you spent the entire book thinking to yourself you were never going to get. not expecting it. at all.
this is how magic this book is. it keeps you wondering, uncertain, off balance, all the way through. like life.
i wish i could write more but i've noticed that i am reluctant to read long reviews and i imagine other people are too, so i'll just add this thing:
truong could have written this story straight, beginning to end, and it would have been another story of growing up in the south. but she chose to tell it like this, with magic boxes that spring open at the least expected moments, and the story is magnificent, amazing. it will stay with me forever. and the talent of this writer, the talent of this writer is etched in my heart. ...more
i would like to review this book here for you all but i can't, because GR is bullying everyone, taking away our right to be, and showing itself to bei would like to review this book here for you all but i can't, because GR is bullying everyone, taking away our right to be, and showing itself to be profoundly ungrateful to people who have provided content here for years for free, and my buddy octavia, may her lovely soul rest in peace, would most definitely be against bullying and ungraciousness. so i'll tell you a story instead.
the author of Donald Davidson, philosopher Simon Evnine, used to live in west l.a. and when he lived there he had this absolutely unreliably mustang. i knew nothing from nothing so i was duly impressed when he told me that a mustang was a really cool car to have, that mustangs were fast and powerful cars, that mustangs were prestigious cars. i was so impressed that i really didn't care that the car wouldn't go more than one block without stalling, bucking, sneezing, coughing, and being stubborn, which, on hindsight, and with a better knowledge of the english language, i see was an entirely appropriate behavior. the mustang also released really bad fumes, which, even in hindsight, i can't find any appropriateness for (unless you want to equate fumes=poop, and i'm not willing to go there). (reader beware: this is a gun that won't discharge.)
one day Donald Davidson's author and i took a trip to san francisco, in the mustang. it was thanksgiving and the california hills and valleys could not have been more beautiful.
unlike the california valley of The Grapes of Wrath, however, this valley was as dry as a bone. in fact, when i say that it could not have been more beautiful, it is my readjusted memory that's talking. at the time, i was so utterly confused by the mere existence of such a landscape, and so utterly bereft by the lack of proximity of real mountains (where real mountains=the alps), or, in other words, so fucking homesick, that my reaction to the landscape was one of incredulity and dismay. what was i doing here? what were these burnt hills with no vegetation except stubbly yellow grass and the occasional isolated tree? where were the lush green, the vineyards, the old curvy roads, the ancient dry rock farmhouses that in my mind designated life on the planet earth?
so, you see, i wasn't in the best of moods. one could even say that i was pretty despondent.
and then i saw that this earth, this yellow dry-as-a-bone moonlike earth had cracks. largish genuine cracks, like the heat and dryness were too much and, like unmosturized skin, the earth has simply cracked open. the cracks were big enough for maybe three people to stand comfortably inside them. at least that's what it looked like from the car. i had to stop the merry chat Donald Davidson's author and i were merrily conducting to ask, "simon, do you think there are snakes in the cracks?"
being a man who doesn't pronounce even tentatively on things he has no way of knowing, Donald Davidson's author responded, not unreasonably you might think, "i have no idea."
i, being a person whose belief system and speech is made up entirely of untested hypotheses and flights of fancy, asked again, "but what do you think?"
Donald Davidson's author couldn't understand the question. please do realize that he didn't know me well at all, and he had never in his entire life been pushed to give an opinion about something he knew nothing about.
an exchange ensued. i would call it an argument, even a very heated argument, but that would be airing dirty laundry in public so i'll just leave it at conversation. the gist of it was:
but you can guess!
but i don't have any basis on which to guess!
there was born the "are there snakes in the cracks?" trope of our micro-civilization. when Donald Davidson's author doesn't have any opinion at all about something but is pushed, by me, to pronounce, he remembers, "are there snakes in the cracks?" and assuredly says "yes" or "no," depending on his mood, on butterflies batting their wings in asia, the vicissitudes of el ninõ or some such (non) random phenomenon. me, i'm entirely satisfied.
a proper review of this book will be provided when i finish reading the third volume of the trilogy and it will be posted on Booklikes. i will provide a link, so come back!
THIS REVIEW IS CLEARLY IN VIOLATION OF ALL THAT IS SACRED IN THE WORLD, NOT TO MENTION THE GOODREADS' TOS. PLEASE FLAG IT FOR BEING ENTIRELY IRRELEVANT TO THE BOOK IN QUESTION, FOR ATTACKING A GR AUTHOR AND FOR ITS GENERAL CUSSEDNESS AND INAPPROPRIATENESS. THANK YOU.
for jakaem: this is the second installment. ...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
i'm going to review this classic without reading anyone else's review (i'll read them later), because the experience of reading it was so powerful fori'm going to review this classic without reading anyone else's review (i'll read them later), because the experience of reading it was so powerful for me, i want to try to convey it here intact. this is my fourth octavia butler, after Parable of the Sower, Fledgling and Wild Seed. butler is pretty consistent in her themes, but not until this time was i able to see precisely what she's doing.
this "precisely" indicates the level of power this book had for me, not the truth of what octavia butler is in fact doing. what i mean is, while reading this book i had a precise sense of what she was talking about. this precise sense is a merging of butler as a writer and me as a reader. it is unique. it doesn't speak of anyone else's experience, or at least of the experience of those readers who didn't come to this book with the same general set of issues and apprehensions and emotions with which i did.
it seems to me that all of butler's book are about love. in Sower the protagonist is an empath. she cannot helps feeling what others within a certain spatial range feel -- not their feelings, but their pain. feeling others' pain is love. wanting to alleviate this pain -- because it becomes our pain -- is love. in Fledgling the vampires love the humans they bond with absolutely. their love is so powerful that losing one of these humans devastates them. again, love brings enormous vulnerability. loving involves the possibility, maybe even the certainty, that sooner or later you will feel terrible pain. in both books, there is a salvific element. i'm using the christian word, maybe wrongly, but i can't think of another one. in Sower humanity truly positively needs to be saved from destruction.
in this book humanity has already managed to self-destruct though war and nuclear annihilation. the planet has been rendered uninhabitable. enter the oankali, an extraterrestrial species that plucks from earth the few survivors, puts them in hibernation to be able to study them, and in the meantime restores the earth to salubriousness. it also destroys all ruins, with the precise intention of giving humans a blank slate.
250 years later our protagonist, lillith, is awakened from her suspended animation and restored to normality. she's on the oankali's ship, prisoner. she is at first treated like a prisoner, too, and subject to interrogation by invisible and patiently stubborn interrogators. eventually she is told that she, along some of the humans who have also been saved (the ones most fit for such enterprise, and also the ones willing) will be sent back to earth to start from scratch, or almost (they won't have to redo stone age, obviously, and they will have some modern tools). but there is a catch. in order to survive as a species, the oankali need regularly (we are talking in terms of thousands of years, i imagine) to find another species with which to merge. the humans are incredibly attractive and stunning for them, a real find. they find them to be full of untapped potential, and really amazing from a number of points of view.
here starts the delicate and brutal love dance between lillith, presumably chosen for her specialness to be the first to do this, and the oankali who are specifically designated to deal with her as her family.
lillith resents the oankali because there are many aspects of her future (and her present) the oankali have decided for her and about which she doesn't have a choice. for one, she can't leave the ship and go to earth on her own, refusing the oankali's help and, above all, their intention to merge with her and the other humans. she is a prisoner. but it's also true that the oankali give her all sorts of freedoms and choices, including to refuse them (in which case she won't get to go to earth). also, and this is the other part of the equation, the oankali have saved her, continue to save her, and are incredibly kind to her. what i am saying is, if someone were that kind to me, spoke to me like that, used that kind of respect and treated me like i am the most precious things ever, i'd find it pretty damn seductive. who doesn't want to be loved like that? but there is a price, of course, and the price is a certain kind of freedom. she does have the freedom to say no, but she doesn't have the freedom to shape her life as if she were alone.
this is where the story and my own thoughts/emotions/beliefs converge. 'cause, do we ever have the freedom to shape our life as if we were alone? and if we do, which we don't, but if we manage to do it as much as possible, isn't there a price to pay? i am not saying that those who choose to live like this are doing something wrong. god no. i am saying that those who abandon the world and go live in a cabin in the mountains with dogs and pets but no other humans (which is the extreme case of going it alone) do pay a price, a price they may be very happy to pay but which most of us simply cannot pay. and then it goes without saying that they, too, rely on others in some respects, just because of the way societies and the world have evolved.
so, the way i read this book, when lillith struggles against the amazingly seductive, warm, loving, and respectful captivity of the oankali, she is fighting against giving in to love, salvation, maybe even a superior form of freedom. because the oankali to whom she's bound give her moments that are so special, it's hard for her to walk away from them, and to acknowledge that she's walking toward them of her own free will.
this is the gist of what i wanted to say. there are other things here, trademark butler themes: the leader is always a woman, a black woman, and she is formidable at the same time as she is also vulnerable. she does get hurt, but she is strong as all get out. she has vision. she understands others. she gets it.
sex is a fluid thing, a merging of bodies and minds and hearts that is sublime and special. the gender of the other person doesn't matter. the species of the other (humanoid -- no bestiality in butler) person doesn't matter. the appearance doesn't matter. the number doesn't matter. what matters is intense, unbelievable erotics mixed with something so deep and alluring, it makes you willing to give your life for it. i call it love. it is love.
this is what i mostly got from this book. lillith is being taught how to love in a way that makes her rebel but also give in. the struggle, as i see it, is a struggle that comes from the very same traits that have made humanity destroy itself, and that would make humanity destroy itself again if it weren't for the loving (and pained: the oankali love too, and therefore suffer) teachings of the oankali.
at some point, the oankali tell lillith that humans have one exceptionally good feature and one feature that dooms them. i don't remember the exceptionally good feature but i remember the dooming one -- a pernicious tendency to arrange themselves hierarchically. i had the duration of the book to mull this over and i think butler gets it exactly right.
ETA and now that i browsed the reviews i see that people think poorly of the oankali, who to me are adorable. what do you know. ...more
this phenomenal, mind-blowing book starts quietly with a little boy who worships money -- coins, notes, the touchable stuff. jump forward a few yearsthis phenomenal, mind-blowing book starts quietly with a little boy who worships money -- coins, notes, the touchable stuff. jump forward a few years and he's an über-successful early-20-years-old living in manhattan and devoting his life to the accumulation of capital via real estate speculation and land developing.
except this is not the story. the story is about love, in particular about t.'s (the protagonist's name is thomas but the book calls him t.) love for women (his girlfriend, his best friend, his mother) and, then, his love for "last animals" (last animals are animals who are so close to extinction, each exemplar may well be the last of its kind).
in a delicate, perfectly balanced mixture of traditional and surrealist narrativity, this beautifully-told story covers immense swaths of ground: how we love and lose; how the planet is rapidly being transformed into a vast expanse of gray; how obscene wealth and abject poverty live next to each other without mixing (because there is simply no mixing between them, however much we try); how animals enrich us in truly ineffable ways; what makes life worth living; the link that connects us all to our mothers -- biological, metaphorical, existential, religious, etc.
like Americanah, another masterful book, How the Dead Dream deals with Great Themes without seeming to do so. like Americanah, with which i compare it only because it's the book i read immediately before, it's a page turner. but while Americanah is comic and biting, How the Dead Dream is elegiac, always treading the line of ultimate loss, playing with the irreparable, the gone-forever, the too-late.
i loved the language. so beautiful, so lyrical, so incredibly erudite, so rich, so precise. how can you convey so much love and so much loss with such precision? but you can.
this book will make you love animals like you never thought possible. it will also make you want to get out there and touch them, and be with them. ...more
i read this fast the first time around. maybe i was cranky. in fact, i was definitely cranky. it was summer and i was reading books quickly in order ti read this fast the first time around. maybe i was cranky. in fact, i was definitely cranky. it was summer and i was reading books quickly in order to select two or three for class. when i read this the first time i thought, nice, but it could use a strong editorial hand. that's what i thought, "a strong editorial hand." can you think of a more hackneyed, a more patronizing way to think about a book? gah.
apart from two or three typos, this book is perfect. and beautiful. and happy. and also sad. but mostly, it's a happy book about being alive with the entirety of one's mind and one's body engaged in and with the world -- loving, tasting, feeling, seeing, embracing, touching it.
so in many ways it's a lot about compassion, because how do you go about embracing the world, really taking in the world, if you can't forgive the world for all you want and are not getting? you need to forgive the world in order to be happy with what you get. not just happy: super happy, ecstatic, alive.
from which follows that this is a book about sex. omnipervasive sex. life-giving sex. sex that may or may not lead to bodies penetrating other bodies, but is still, and always, craving of intimacy and touch, the touch that makes humans open up and let another come in. sex, you see?
there's a whole lot in this book about race, especially the terrible burden of black masculinity -- the violence, the repression, the defeat and defeat and defeat.
but i had too much fun, drew too much joy from the life this book exudes to worry much about the bad stuff. i felt like acting on desire. i felt like putting my tongue into someone's mouth and breathing them in, the entirety of them, the whole succulent fulness of them. ...more
people will tell you this is like pelecanos and people will tell you this is like lahane. but this is like neither. this is unique and so its own workpeople will tell you this is like pelecanos and people will tell you this is like lahane. but this is like neither. this is unique and so its own work of art, you want to beg everyone everywhere to read it.
as i said in my updates, this book feels canonical to me, in the way in which Toni Morrison's Beloved is canonical, and Percival Everett's Erasure is canonical. also Edward P. Jones's The Known World. you can add your own books to this list. there are some works of literature that recast a frame, throw a collective imaginary experience into a new light. maybe Walter Mosley, too. in any case, this book seems to me to be tinkering with the representation of african americanness in a way that is utterly original and frankly mind-blowing.
the premise is a plantation that has survived, at least architecturally, since antebellum times. the owners, descendants of the plantation's overseer (the owners either were killed in the civil war or left), still own the fabulous mansion and have put quite a bit of effort into preserving the original buildings, including the slave quarter. since the mansion is such a gorgeous place, it is now used for tours and various functions, like weddings and receptions. it is fully staffed to this end and (and here things get interesting) part of the staff is a full-time cast of actors who put on several times a day a play written in the 1950s (or thereabout) by one of the owners' wife. the play, which means to represent plantation life, is not even remotely politically (or historically) correct, but the current owners seem to see some value in its historicality (it was after all written in the 1950s) and lineage, so this is the play everyone sees. the cast is of course split into white people (owners) and black people (slaves), the latter speaking in the drawling ridiculous caricature of slave speech we are all so familiar with.
you see the reflections and refractions and mirrorings, even as the cast maybe doesn't, or maybe does, unconsciously or consciously. because this is after all a vignette of the uneasy game of "working" (vs. tense) race relations that take place daily in this country, in which we all play our part with our eyes squinted as tight as we can make them without shutting them entirely.
caren gray, the novel's protagonist, is the daughter of the mansion's now defunct cook, who was a descendant of one of the slaves when the war set everyone free. this slave clearly did not go anywhere, and here is caren, who tried to leave but life misadventures and then katrina (nice interweaving here of a very racialized event) left her homeless, so what else could she do but go back to the place where she grew up? notice that at the time of caren's childhood the clancy family still lived in the mansion, so caren's mom, descendant of the slaves the clancies' ancestor oversaw, was their cook. caren of course grew up playing happily with the clancy kids, especially bobby, who was closer to her in age, until, well, until it was no longer possible. because those were "other times."
locke's novel is all about how there are not, and never there will be, "other times." caren is now manager of the location, whose name is belle vie, or good life. her job is not easy. the current cook, a black woman, used to work under caren's mother and saw caren grow up. caren is close to the clancies in the sense that they all grew up in the same house, but now she's both their employee and the boss of a bunch of black and white people whose job is to reproduce end-of-the-19th-century plantation life for tourists and school kids. imagine daily re-enactments of the holocaust in auschwitz. imagine that the actors who play the guards are german and the actors who play the inmates are jews from all over europe, slimmed out to the edge of excessive skinniness for maximum realism. imagine that the whole show is run by a child of a holocaust survivor on behalf of the child of a nazi leader.
since this is a mystery, it all starts with the murder of a young woman who worked in the sugar cane plantation, which is still in operation and, while owned by the clancies, is operated by a subcontractor. its workers are mostly undocumented seasonal immigrants.
it could be hokey but it isn't. locke lets the parallelisms sink in while she keeps well out of the way, sticking to mostly sparse prose and caren's daily activities and preoccupations. the novel is full of gestures: coffee preparation, a kid to pick up from school, walking the grounds, supervising the plays, dealing with the police.
the first half is breath-taking. we don't yet know what exactly happened to caren from the moment she left the mansion never -- in her mind -- to come back. there is clearly a lot of failure in her last few years, but we don't know what it is. from the moment she discovers the body and calls the police, she's a reticent witness, causing the cops' suspicion and frustration. you may get frustrated too. why isn't caren more forthright? why doesn't she cooperate more? what does she have to hide?
locke, wisely, skillfully, keeps out of the way, not offering explanations, but you soon realize that this is louisiana; that we are on plantation land; that caren is a black woman, a slave descendant; and that a murder was committed on the land owned by the super wealthy descendants of what was probably a not-wealthy-at-all overseer. from where has all this money come to the clancies?
there's no mystery here, only history. but this history weighs heavily on caren's mind and body and psyche, making her squirrely, reticent. the detectives, of course, are white men.
so the first half is steeped in a dread that is difficult to bear, or at least it was to me. it’s the dread of centuries of terrible relations between african americans and white people in power, relations that are steeped in blood, violence, humiliation, subjugation, and an unshakeable belief that some of us are better, from just about every point of view except maybe brutal strength, than some other of us.
the second half is where all the knots get untangled and maybe is not as magical, not as mind-blowing. it's not that it couldn't have been, but locke gets into mystery-writer mode and gives us what the conventions require. it's still beautifully written and super smart, but it's not the unbelievable novel of the first half.
but who cares? the connection between modern-day slavery and old-times slavery needs to be made over and over and over, because we are all complicit and barely aware of the wage wars being fought by immigrant activists over tomatoes and other produce. at the time of this writing, publix, the supermarket where i buy my groceries, is still not down with the basic principles of fair wage as stated by the redoubtable Coalition of Immokalee Workers. the fair food program involves startling demands like "a code of conduct outlawing debt bondage and requiring humane conditions of labor and a more livable wage." also "shade stations, toilets and drinking water." why won't publix agree to such basic demands? why do i keep shopping there? would i have been an abolitionist during slave times? i wonder.
but this is not on the surface of The Cutting Season. this is where The Cutting Season leads you. the book is written with great effectiveness and attentiveness and tries very hard to, and mostly succeeds at, not hitting you over the head with anything. at the end of the day, it’s still the story of a woman with a terrible past and very, very difficult present. ...more
general piece of advice to anyone who approaches the blank box with the intention of writing a pleasing-to-the-eye review: do not read one of mike reygeneral piece of advice to anyone who approaches the blank box with the intention of writing a pleasing-to-the-eye review: do not read one of mike reynolds' reviews first. it will make you walk away from the computer in utter discouragement.
arn chorn-pond was a young child when the khmer rouge decided to unleash on cambodia a mayhem that resulted in the extermination of one quarter of the population. notice that the khmer rouge were themselves cambodian. since the book is told from arn's point of view, in the first person, and arn is a young child, you don't get an explanation for why this madness happened, so for that i remand you to wikipedia, where i will go myself after i finish writing this review.
as a grown up and a survivor, arn has been and continues to be an activist on behalf of his country and his people, which, i understand, are quite some way from healing (the internecine genocide happened in the mid-70s). patricia mccormick found him, interviewed him for two years, did a ton of supplemental research, then wrote this book in arn's own voice. arn never mastered english so the book is in broken english.
i tend to have little patience for westerners who tell other peoples' stories. i figure those other peoples can tell their own stories and the orientalizing and ogling comes across as invariably pornographic to me. not this time. although she put her own name as the sole author, mccormick acknowledges implicit co-authorship with arn chorn-pond in the back flap. mostly, though, the book is so sparse, so short, so perfectly distilled, you feel there is no pleasure in mccormick's writing except insofar as she can reproduce arn's voice. and this voice, gosh, this voice is amazing. truly genuinely amazing.
i have always been lousy at learning history, but i figure that one can learn history from stories people tell you and from stories you read in novels. i know something, now, about the cambodian genocide. i know something about the unspeakable trauma of child soldiers. i know something about what it means for a kid who has killed killed killed to be brought to america and asked to be an american kid. i know something about the terrible violence that comes not only from forcing children to kill but also from forcing them to go back to being children and behaving as such. these children have wielded unconscionable power. these children have led platoons. these children have made terrible, open-eyed, clear-minded choices. these children have survived unimaginable conditions through smarts, cunning, and a great capacity for reading people and circumstances. there children are geniuses and experts. you can't take a child like that and stick him in an american high school.
this book has made me think about our desperate compulsion to infantilize children, so that children have to find ways to be the much more mature beings they are in ways that are hidden from us. children, it seems, are asked from very early on to be multiple creatures: creatures that please their parents' understanding of childhood, their teachers' understanding of childhood, the commercial world's understanding of childhood, and, finally, and hopefully, their own understanding of themselves. i got all this from reading Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century and then reflecting back on my own bedraggled childhood. in the light of stockton's book and of my own thinking back, this book was immensely poignant to me. also, it's gorgeous. i am now a patricia mccormick fan. ...more
everyone on goodreads, stymied by the impossible task of saying anything about what happens in this book without giving away the entirety othis book.
everyone on goodreads, stymied by the impossible task of saying anything about what happens in this book without giving away the entirety of it, sputters and stutters and eventually says, READ IT. read it read it read it readit readit readitreaditreadit PLEASE READ IT
there's moira's lovely review but most of it is blacked out. read it for the enthusiasm and sense of wonderment. come back to it after you've read the book and click the spoiler link so you can have the book explained to you in case you missed something (you won't have missed anything).
ten things about this book
1. it's like nothing i've ever read.
2. it's about war, torture, weapons, airplanes, piloting, motorcycles, and lots of mechanical things and it's entirely staffed by women.
3. you won't understand how on earth elizabeth wein could possibly have come up with something like this and you will worship her with abandon until you read the author's note at the end (don't read it until you finish!), at which point you will still worship her but at least you will have a sense of how she came up with this.
4. you won't know this is the reason, but the fact that this is a story of women that's also a story of war, torture, weapons, airplanes, piloting, motorcycles, and lots of mechanical things will keep you off balance the whole time. this is not what books with women characters look like. it doesn't compute.
5. it's genius plotting and genius writing and genius heart.
6. it's about women loving each other fiercely with a love you wish you had or had had or could have right now because you need it.
7. it's about pain and hardship but it's incredibly tender.
8. it sings.
9. it's a slow read. read it slowly. as maggie stiefvater says, "give the characters some time to infest your heart."
10. it's not ya, or i don't understand the ya category at all. here's my theory: someone decided it was ya because it's about young (not teen: young) women (instead of, you know, men). or because EW writes ya. or because there are no profanities, no sex, and no drugs. or all of the above.
11. if historical fiction bores you, get over it, this one time (i'm not crazy about it either, in fact i avoid it like the plague).
miriam toews is one of the best writers writing in english today. miriam toews is one of the best writers writing in english today. miriam toews is onmiriam toews is one of the best writers writing in english today. miriam toews is one of the best writers writing in english today. miriam toews is one of the best writing writing in english today. miriam toews is one of the best writers writing in english today. miriam toews is one of th ebest writerswritnnng in english today. miriam toews is one oft he best bwitnerwr writing in english today. miriam woetys is one of the bst writers wirting in english today. miriam toews is onweof the best bwringwer writing in english today. miriam toews is one of the bst writers witing in english today. miriam toewws is on the best wrignnerrs wintng in english todya.
miriam toews is one of the best writers writing in english today.
Miriam Toews is one of the best writers writing in English today.
miriam toews is one of the best writers writing in English today.
Miriam Toews is one of the best writers writing in English today.
i'm not going to read the three-star two-star one-star reviews. it's okay for people not to like this book. maybe they got bogged down at the beginning, when all that happens is a nothingness of happening in which a movie is being shot in a godforsaken mennonite community of canadian expats in mexico and there's a lot of hanging out waiting for the right light and the rain and sometimes the equipment breaks down and people watch tv or cook or eat or fuck and the woman who plays the main character is a german mennonite who feels so freaked out by loneliness and the desert she is always on the verge of losing her mind. this section is very paratactic and very small-sentencey and there's a terrible drama underneath but irma voth is a 19 year old kid who is all alone in the world and she's not the best person to give you a sense of the terrible drama she's the driving force of maybe because drama has been her life from day one and maybe because she thinks that’s how life is and she has nothing to compare it with.
she has to milk the cows. she has to be home at a decent time. she has to get things right. she has to save her family. she has a husband she greatly loves but may or may not love her.
some moments are hilarious. miriam toews is one of the best writers writing in english today. some passages are side-splitting hilarious. irma, who narrates in the first person, has this way with language that all of toews' characters have: it's as if she saw the world in a slightly different way from the way you and i see it. she juxtaposes things you and i wouldn't juxtapose. she messes with things but just a little. she tries not to ruffle things too much. she tries to keep still but thoughts pour out of her with irrepressible life-force and that’s just the way she is.
the second part is about trying to make a new life but i won't tell you anything about it because i'd spoil the book for you. this part is hilarious too. it's also tender, generous, uplifting (oh people are good), encouraging (yes, you can make it), heartbreaking (didn't i just say you can make it?), strong, and original in that miriam toews-is-one-of-the-best-writers-writing-in-english-today way that makes you want to underline a sentence in every page.
it's all very simple and very miraculous and not nearly as painful as A Complicated Kindness, an emotional whopper of a book that left me reeling for days. and then things happen and other things happen and for some reason, somehow, everyone ends up okay.
(a small note for miriam toews, in case you read this review. dear miriam toews, i think you are one of the best writers writing in english today and i'm so very thankful for you. this is not what this note is about. A Complicated Kindness, the most difficult and unyielding of your last three books, is also the book that made the bigger splash. my explanation is that it has a really good title. i loved The Flying Troutmans but wasn’t going to pick it up just for the title. same with Irma Voth. at this point i’m sold. You can call a book anything at all and i’ll read it. but do you have to go for all these un-catchy titles? with great love and admiration, jo) ...more
ETA i'm reading around in GR, checking other reviews of this book, and there are SO MANY that are SO GOOD and make points that are different from mineETA i'm reading around in GR, checking other reviews of this book, and there are SO MANY that are SO GOOD and make points that are different from mine, or points that are similar to mine but say it better. great literature produces great responses!
this is the best memoir i have read. in fact, it is one of the best books i've ever read period. i tried to think of other books that would compare to it in beauty, creativity, intelligence, complexity, and depth, and i think i'm going to have to place Are You My Mother? among my top ten. if i spent the next 5 years re-reading it, over and over, daily, continuously, it would be satisfaction enough for my intellect and my soul. i am an awe of alison bechdel for having written and drawn this book. i can't imagine what it must have taken. but then i think i know what it took: a genius only some of us possess. genius in conception, preparation, working through, execution, and getting it done (so many of us out here with fabulous ideas, deep thoughts, complex plans, and not enough persistence or courage or solidity of self to bring it all to completion).
and this is such a unique book. in order to painstakingly write it, page after bloody page, and then put it out there for all to see, she must truly have believed -- in it, in herself, in the world.
i read the entire thing so fast. i need to re-read. it's not an easy book but it was an incredibly compelling book to me. i think i drank it. i dreamed it. i thought about it nonstop and still am. it changed my life.
i haven’t read many reviews of it but in one of them bechdel says that she wasn’t thinking of her mother when she first conceived of the book. she wanted to write a book about relationships. this makes sense to me. if you are drawn to write a book about relationships and all their immense complications and you are alison bechdel you will necessarily be drawn to this most central, first, primordial, paradigmatic relationship: the relationship with your mother.
but let me try to bring some order to this brilliantly interwoven work of art. there are many genres and many stories that intersect in Are You My Mother? one strand is a pretty scholarly (but of course bechdel endeavors to make it fully accessible to everyone) exposition of the thought of british psychoanalyst donald winnicott. winnicott is the guy who invented the transitional object and the good enough mother. more significantly, he developed and added his original insight to the idea that what happened between a mom (or a primary caretaker) and her baby in very early stages of childhood shapes the baby in a fundamental and lasting way. also famously, winnicott said that there is not such a thing as a baby, meaning we cannot conceive of a baby in isolation: the rapport with the mother is essential to the baby's existence.
i love psychoanalysis and winnicott is a particularly lovely representative of it. his work is key to a lot of contemporary psychoanalysis and a serious and compelling argument in favor of not judging psychoanalysis only based on the work of freud, as many still do. winnicott's psychoanalysis is sweet and passionate. he was a child psychologist and worked all of his life with kids, often very disturbed ones. bechdel is clealy in love with him too. beside discussing his ideas (and, charmingly, telling us the story of her engagement with his work and the evolution of this engagement, sticky points and all) she also talks about him, the man. since she's a comics artist, she can do that. sometimes (not sure if in relation to winnicott or at other points, but still) the text in the square boxes and what happens in the panels seem to go their separate ways, as if they were talking about entirely different things. the effect is stunning, like hearing a voice over in a movie during a sequences that doesn't quite illustrate what the voice over is saying.
this should give you a sense of the complexity of this text. as she talks about psychoanalysis, bechdel gives us a dense psychoanalytic text, in which free associations appear in the flow of the narrative, in the juxtaposition of stories, in the juxtaposition of drawings and words, and in just about everything. this is why i could spend the next five years reading it.
anyway, winnicott. being so in love with his work, bechdel falls a bit in love with his story. i love the passages dedicated to his personal story. this simple man, with his issues and his troubles, sitting on the floor talking to kids, healing kids, or lying on the couch talking to his own analyst -- so brilliant, so revolutionary, so human. beautiful.
the book, inevitably, becomes a self-analysis. in fact, it is a self-analysis from the very first panel, as it starts with a dream bechdel goes on to interpret. so this is another strand. but this strand is aided by the fact that, before she wrote the book and while writing the book, bechdel is herself in analysis. a lot of panels are about her sessions with her analysts (she saw two). these panels are strangely and compellingly dynamic, in spite of the fact that they portray two people sitting in a room, because bechdel draws the analyst as sitting very still while she manages to give a sense of her own inquisitiveness and restless curiosity. she is always drawn sitting with her elbows on her knees, leaning forward. she scratches her head. she looks intensely absorbed in the difficult process to understand.
to summarize, so far: we have bechdel's study of winnicott; we have bechdel's analytic sessions; we have bechdel's self analysis. the last is aided by the first two. the whole book is an intense, incredibly artful, incredibly and beautifully compressed yet absolutely absorbing effort on the part of bechdel to understand what went on between herself her mother.
which brings me to strand number four, which is all the time and physical space (literally! this is a comic book! the space is bidimensional!) bechdel devotes to her conversations with her mother. busy as she is working, studying, analyzing, and having a life, bechdel talks on the phone to her mom every day. as we saw in Fun Home and as we see here too, bechdel's mom was not exactly a fountain of warmth and tenderness. she was probably a good enough mom when alison was very little, but later her (frustrated?) artistic interests turned her into a rather cold and detached figure. when alison was 7 mom told her she was too old to be kissed goodnight. her younger brothers continued to receive their goodnight kisses.
the profound disconnect between alison and her mother continues in adulthood. alison is always the one who initiates the calls. their "conversations" consist of mom talking and alison listening. on the occasions when alison needs to make herself heard (like, say, to ask if it's okay that she's writing this book!), she needs to insist. conversations about alison seem to last only two or three exchanges. mom is none too happy that alison is writing about her family but then alison does it anyway and mom seems to take it in stride. mom is also unhappy that alison writes a (successful) comic strip about lesbians ("what am i going to tell the family?").
this detachment is obviously and glaringly in contrast with the fact that they talk every day. why does alison keep calling this woman who doesn't truly accept her and is not overly proud in her? the discrepancy is complicated by the fact that at some point (maybe in order to write this book) alison starts typing up the conversations she has with her mom while they are happening. so imagine panel after panel of alison wearing earbuds and typing away while mom is off screen (so to speak: there must be a way to say this for comic books but i don't know what it is) talking about art, literature, the theater, and her life.
bechdel is a compulsive record keeper, but this seems deeply meaningful beyond that. it's as if typing up what her mother says a) gave alison something to do while mom goes on about herself b) gave alison agency in this interaction (she, not mom, captures and will be the custodian of mom's words) and c) upset the balance of power and powerlessness between them (these words will end up in a book in which mom doesn't look too good and over which she has no control*).
finally, there is the strand of alison's relationships with her girlfriends, presumably the point from which everything started. this part goes by quickly so i don't remember it too well; or maybe i was more interested in other parts. it seems anyway secondary, as if the true, the important relating were happening in the analysts's offices, in alison's office at home while she talks to her mom, in alison's mother's house (where she seems so very young), in alison's head, in alison's fabulous real-time reflections on the book she's writing.
i have left out so much. there's a lot of virginia woolf here, especially her journals, and there's a very astute reading of To the Lighthouse; woolf is another woman whose mom never quite loved her right, and bechdel shows the immense therapeutic value woolf got out of writing To the Lighthouse, where she puts her feelings towards her parents to rest. and there's a lot about alice miller's psychoanalytic book The Drama of the Gifted Child, which bechdel discusses gorgeously and in which she finds endless comfort.
but i have to stop. i'm using too many words. i have so much more to say but my words seem already to be more than all the words of Are You My Mother?
i cannot say that this book is for everyone. some people are bound to find it difficult.** but if you had a complex relation with your mom, give it a try. and if you love literature, and words, and ideas, and the magic that books can spin, definitely pick it up and read it. go slowly. savor the panels, savor the words, try to understand. and if you are interested in psychoanalysis, about how healing through a deep relationship with another who sits with you and listens to your story happens, this book is totally for you.
i don't want to make this book sound forbidding, but Fun Home was a breeze and this isn't a breeze. it's a book in which so much is packed. it's a deep book about someone who is trying to find her roots, not only through emotions but also through a lot of thinking and looking at others who did the same. this is deeply moving but the thinking can get a bit hard to grasp fully. still, it is so worth it, so so worth it. this is destined to become a key text of the american literary canon.
* this is also complicated. alison mails to her mom drafts of both her books and waits very anxiously for a response.
** i'm not some kind of genius or anything, but i know a bit about psychoanalysis. ...more
this book is perfect. i hadn't read a perfect book in quite some time and now i have. no, wait. Lord of Misrule is perfect too (though it's easier forthis book is perfect. i hadn't read a perfect book in quite some time and now i have. no, wait. Lord of Misrule is perfect too (though it's easier for shorter books to be perfect, isn't it?), so now i've read TWO PERFECT books back to back. this is life smiling at me with a big fat grin.
as with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, of which this book reminded me, and as with The History of Love, of which also i was reminded (i just read it), and maybe most of all like An Invisible Sign of My Own, this book depicts horrible pain -- the pain of kids and old people, no less -- with unbelievable charm. these kids are fighters of the first order and you can't but love the heck out of them. and the old man, well, maybe the fight has gone out of him a little, but it's okay, things turn out kinda well for him, and in fact, in a book in which people eat each other, go around with their heads under their arms, and are subjected to terrible losses, things turn out okay for just about everyone, not because they are really okay, but because this is fiction and the power of fiction to bring whimsy and joy and irrepressible awe to the reader is endless. so this morning, when i woke up, i grabbed this little book from near my bed and held it for some twenty minutes, because it's going back to the library and we had to say goodbye proper-like. ...more
this book is so ridiculously good, i had to check and check again that this author has in fact written only one novel, and no fiction at all (at leastthis book is so ridiculously good, i had to check and check again that this author has in fact written only one novel, and no fiction at all (at least in book form) since 1993. NINETEENNINETYTHREE???? what are you doing, randall kenan? can you pleasepleaseplease write us another novel?
what flows in the arteries of this magnificent mixture of narrative, hallucination/visitation, snippets of playwrightery, first-and-third-person chapters, old stories and present stories -- what keeps it alive and beautiful and luscious and irresistible -- is preternaturally beautiful language and a vision of african-americanness and religion and family and life's torments that only language this beautiful can convey properly. i found this book very painful. a friend of mine tells me it's about comics. to me it was about pain, weariness, endurance, exhaustion, sickness, and the consolation of death. maybe comics are about all of these things too (i'm sure my friend would say they are).
at the center of the novel is the predicament of horace, a high school gay boy who is tortured to the bone by his homosexuality. his grandfather is chief deacon and this means a lot in the small baptist community where he lives. religion and the sinfulness of his desire chase him everywhere he goes. because he has nothing else to turn to, he turns to magic; except it's home-made magic, list-ditch-effort magic. what results is a visitation of spirits or a visitation of inner demons, depending how you choose to read it.
intermingled with horace's hallucinatory/supernatural trip are various multi-vocal narratives, most notably a sunday trip by three of horace's family members (his grandfather, his cousin and his great-aunt -- if i have that right) to visit sick relatives. the trip's banality and pettiness acts as a counterpoint to horace's torments, but also speaks of family, of people's taking care of each other, of long-held secrets, or intergenerational miscommunication, of growing old, of loss, of aloneness, and, to some extent, of love.
and yet, painful as it is, this is not a bitter book. i at least didn't find it bitter. i found it gorgeous. there is an quasi-epic quasi-biblical passage toward the end that links all of horace's pain -- and by extension all the discomfort and defeat of the three in the car on their errand of mercy -- to slavery. the passage drips sadness and despair, but then it's also so incredibly beautiful, how can this beauty not contain seeds and seeds of hope? ...more
this book seems to cause strong reactions, so let me first say what i think it is not:
* it is not a book that predicts how a generic child will improthis book seems to cause strong reactions, so let me first say what i think it is not:
* it is not a book that predicts how a generic child will improve when treated the way virginia axline treats dibs (how does she treat dibs? she mostly describes dibs’ behavior, not hers).
* it is not a book about diagnostics (dibs is given exactly zero labels).
* it is not a book about technique; it is not a manual even in the broadest sense of the word.
* finally, it is not a book about etiology or the genesis of children's pain, not even this particular child's, even though the author does give some sense of what happened to dibs prior to their encounter.
what i think this book is, is the story of a very unique encounter between two unique individuals who found each other, clicked in a tremendously effective way, and led each other to change and growth. for all of axline's emphasis on the self (the finding of the self, the building up of the self, the solidifying of the self, etc.), DSS is about relationship and love -- the specific relationship axline built with this specific child and the love story they created.
what struck me most about the book, what i keep thinking about, is that healing love, in whatever context you find it, has one defining feature: it makes room for the other. axline's behavior toward dibs may seem at a superficial level pretty empty. she echoes his words and provides affirmation for pretty much all of his wishes, desires, and behaviors. since she doesn't describe herself, we don't know anything about her body language and her own behavior, but after a bit i got the impression that she was warm and smiling, that she didn't move much (except when dibs asked her to), and that she kept her attention riveted on dibs.
as dibs himself observes (he is such an fabulous patient; he notices everything and gives constant feedback and, i am pretty sure, gratification), there is nothing he cannot do in the playroom. this is fantastic for him and seems to be exactly what he needs. the only thing he cannot do is stay past his time, and this is something axline and dibs return to over and over. it's hard for dibs to leave, especially at first, when his situation at home is still extremely tense and hostile. but it's hard for him later, too. this specific therapeutic moment, the time when the session is over, is an extremely important one, crucial really, and i think that in a good therapeutic couple the loss is felt by both therapist and patient.
one thing dibs learns from axline is that losses are not permanent. he also learns that losses are harbingers of new gains and joys, often in pretty short order and in great abundance. it's a bit like waiting until dinner when you want a snack half an hour before the food is ready. by the end of the treatment, dibs adores the thought of thursday.
the way in which axline makes room for dibs is truly wonderful and the most shining lesson of this small book. i have thought about this and i believe the heart of this "making room" is total emptiness and total fullness, combined. the therapist empties herself of expectations, demands, or judgments (except for the very broad judgment that the patient is immensely interesting and lovable). in this process of self-emptying, though, the therapist becomes an extremely strong presence. it is (one of) the greatest miracles of humanness -- the more room we make for others, the more we empty ourselves of our own needs with respect to others, the more we grow in presence and impact. we become as insubstantial and irresistible as pure light.
now, this self-emptying can take place in all sorts of ways and contexts and with all sorts of gradations. the therapeutic setting is one in which this happens very intensely and to a very high degree (this is one of the reasons why therapeutic sessions typically last 50 minutes). there are other settings that are similar -- healing settings in which the "therapist" is not someone with a degree and a job. the idea is the same.
i think that what dibs feels, what blows him away, what makes him giddy with joy, is the loving space, the bright presence, the full emptiness he experiences with his miss A. he has never had that. experiencing it for the first time is dizzying to him. you can see the life being poured into him, and him drinking at it till he's sated. it's wonderful.
so, ultimately, this seems a book about how two people can meet and fall in love, and then, because one of these two people is a sad and hurt little boy, how one of them pours everything she ‘s got into healing him. there is, by the way, as far as i can see, no judgment from axline about the parents. the mother's visit with axline is wonderful. axline treats the mother the same way she treats dibs: she listens, takes her in, gives her space, passes no judgment at all, honors her pain and confusion, gives no advice.
in a really lovely passage little five-year-old dibs goes up to miss A and asks her: what are you? you are not a mom because i have my mom; you are not a teacher because i have my teachers. what are you?
axline echoes dibs' puzzlement rather than providing an answer (what would that answer be anyway?) and dibs happily moves on. i think this book is an answer to this question. what is a therapist? a therapist, a good therapist, is someone who delves into the dark with you, comes with you wherever you take her, sticks with you, and loves you madly. and she does this while being and staying herself, and human, and normal. ...more