*** SPOILERS, OF WHICH I HIDE ONLY THE MAJOR ONE ***
this book has great promise, mostly in the beautiful language, but i felt it (the book, not the pr*** SPOILERS, OF WHICH I HIDE ONLY THE MAJOR ONE ***
this book has great promise, mostly in the beautiful language, but i felt it (the book, not the promise), from halfway through to the end, get lost in the writer's fantastic meanderings. this is what i mean: it feels as if kathleen winter, the author, made a conscious decision not to follow narrative conventions of closure and preferred to follow her soul. her soul dictated to her a free form in which threads are left dangling and non-existent threads are picked up as if they had been there all along.
this didn't work for me. i wanted to know what happened to wayne's mother and why wayne's father turned into such a stellar parent. i want to know why thomasina never goes where she is invited and refuses so consistently to stay in the lives she so profoundly affects. she is such a lovely character. why keep her abroad and distant, only to be heard of from postcards?
winter makes of this book the story of the relationship between a son/daughter and his/her father, but we get this only as the story matures and grows towards its (non)conclusion. it is strange, in a book by a woman author, to see women so badly done by. some of them, like wayne's mother, simply wane and disappear; some of them are exiled from the narrative; and wayne is more comfortable confiding in an unreliable and barely-known 15-year-old than in his obviously caring ex-principal.
there are other missed boats, unblossomed buds. mostly, as i said, there seems to be a determination on the part of the author to write differently. this is fine, but you must be able to pull it through. you can't leave your reader dangling, and dangling.
some of the light-handed magical realism is reminiscent of louise erdrich, which is a great accomplishment indeed. some of the writing is breathtaking.
i can't bring myself to say anything about wayne's hermaphroditism. i haven't read enough literature by intersex people (jeffrey eugenides, author of middlesex is not intersex and i have no idea about kathleen winter), or even about intersex people, to know whether this feels true to them. i find that winter captures something here and there, but ultimately fails to bring home to us the exhilaration, the loss, the potential, the richness, the difference, the specialness of the intersex person. in her closure-phobia, she sort of drops the ball at the end. does it really all come down to the fact (view spoiler)[that wayne needed to find himself surrounded by college kids? (hide spoiler)].
what is wally doing in this story?
i wish this were a draft, and that i could now read the finished book. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
ETA 2: this is what i want to say about this book and my review after all. it reminded me of john green's The Fault in Our Stars: cute and simple, meaETA 2: this is what i want to say about this book and my review after all. it reminded me of john green's The Fault in Our Stars: cute and simple, meant to exploit feelings and tragedy (cancer there, AIDS here) rather than to explore them, which is what books should do. there is so much wealth of material just in the relation between mom and dad and the two girls, and of june and greta with each other. but there is no serious exploration going on. nor is there much exploration of the love of finn and toby, or even finn and june, even though that is the heart and soul of the book. why do all these people love each other? why is greta so angry? (glimpses of that). what's the matter with june's and greta's parents' just not noticing that their kids are going to the wolves? i also want to delete all that i said originally and that appears below, but i'll be respectful of history and leave it, highlights and all.
ETA: i finished this after all. well, almost. i stopped some 30 pages to the end. i have more to say. i hope i get to say it. ***
i read about 100 pages of this book, which everyone justly loves, and i regret to say that we need to part ways. the book has done nothing but good to me, but i have discovered a fact in myself that is so new, so startling, it's just about knocking my socks off: if i read books about kids, those kids have to be boys. i can't think of a single book with a girl protagonist that worked magic for me the way so many boy-protagonist books did and do.
last night, as i was reading, i pretended that the protagonist was a boy and my response to the book changed. yikes.
i should have known this. i don't seek out books with girl protagonists unless they are queer books, and then i don't really like them anyway and leave them half-way unread.
but i learned this only after i realized that i wasn't liking this book as much as i would have if the protagonist had been a boy. (how many entirely obvious things do we do that we don't know we do?)
this is startling to me because i mostly read book by and about women, and don't much like books about men. but childhood -- well, i've written before here on GR how my childhood was that of a boy-girl, and i suppose that identification has stuck, and is operating deeply, and probably will forever.
this also sheds some light for me on what's at work when we like or dislike books. people on GR remark on the beautiful writing of this book and i'm puzzled, because i can't see it.
i'm fascinated by the libidinal response each of us has to books and works of art in general, and by what shapes and overdetermines taste. even educated people, voracious, discerning readers -- we are led by our noses, by our guts, by our history. which brings me to the crucial point of "the canon." how different would the canon be if the cultural group that determines it were different? it would be unrecognizable. because, of course, beyond subjective libidinal responses there are the libidinal responses of groups, influenced by what members of that group have been told since they joined the group (willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly) they should like. and it's fascinating indeed to see how the switching of group identity can dramatically alter libidinal responses. i am thinking of someone who comes to identify as gay, of class changes, etc.
so, take care june. you are a great kid. i wish you well. ...more
you know, i'm on a tear. after reading A Land More Kind Than Home: A Novel i decided i'd spend the rest of my life reading books set in appalachia. i'you know, i'm on a tear. after reading A Land More Kind Than Home: A Novel i decided i'd spend the rest of my life reading books set in appalachia. i've taken many life decisions before and i haven't kept a single one, so draw your conclusion. still, this is heady stuff. both the Wiley Cash book and this, ron rash's first novel, have a way with language that is simply intoxicating. partly it's the dialect. there are sentences in this books, complete paragraphs really, that are pure gold. mostly when billy holcombe speaks. there is a sense of a simple morality that is half superstition half plain good old righteousness. strangely enough, religions seems to play a much lesser role than those two, but for the good characters, the wise ones, the loving ones, superstition enhances rather than diminishes the drive to be good, be honest and live with integrity. and the language is part and parcel of all this. some things you've got to say with the language of your ancestors, a language that comes from the land and is rooted in pain, the weather, back-breaking work, the cycles of luck and misfortune, acceptance, poverty.
the background of all this is both a luscious, lovely and sometimes forbidding land, and the construction of a dam that will drown it all into a lake. the thought of rich, beautiful land being drowned at the bottom of a man-made lake has always brought tears to my eyes. rosh rash depicts it as a tragedy the import of which need not be discussed, because we can see it in the grief of the people who live on the land, which reflects it.
so, on the one hand we have more misfortune piled on folks who are intimately familiar with misfortune and know how to face up to it or not, depending on what's wise or expedient. on the other, we have the juggernaut of civilization, whose respect for the fragility and wealth of human experience runs in the negative numbers. grief shows in the guise of lost love, lost chances, broken family ties, death, and ruined crops. destruction shows in the guise of Carolina Power. people can survive grief that would fell a horse but they can't survive a government contract.
this is not a cheerful book but it's a beautiful, beautiful book. at the end, as the lake starts creeping up on the only place they've ever known, light and life go out of the eyes of this book's characters. might as well be dead.
the writing is competent and the issues seem intriguing, but the lesbian interaction is dealt with quite clumsily, in my opinion. a shame, because intthe writing is competent and the issues seem intriguing, but the lesbian interaction is dealt with quite clumsily, in my opinion. a shame, because intersections of race and sexuality are always fascinating.
UPDATE. mistinguettes made me pick this up again. almost done!
okay. so, i learned a bit about homosexuality in black communities by reading this book, reading e. lynn harrisInvisible Life and watching Pariah. of course i realize these are three texts, but i've got to start somewhere. next, i'm going to read this book and MAYBE by the end of it all i'll be a tiny little bit smarter.
problem with this book is, you are never given a way to understand why protagonist angela should a) fall in love and b) stay with entirely unlikable white gf cait, who is given to impulsive sex with no foreplay (which, by the way, would be nice for the reader too) from day one, and, once the two move in together, becomes a very self-absorbed companion. also, angela seems really sensitive and sophisticated, while cait is quite simply a tank.
so either author villarosa doesn't know how to portray white characters (all the black character, i.e. all the other characters, are more tri-dimensional than cait), or she is hell-bent on stretching our willingness to believe in this romance. ...more
this is extraordinary and beautiful. i can see how it may not be everyone's cup of tea -- kind of the same reason why, say, virginia woolf is not everthis is extraordinary and beautiful. i can see how it may not be everyone's cup of tea -- kind of the same reason why, say, virginia woolf is not everyone's cup of tea. there are writers who are utterly and unflinchingly original. this is nothing if not unflinching. it doesn't hold anything back. it says what it has to say and it doesn't mince words.
i hope to be able to write a longer review soon. my one suggestion, if you read it, is to read freud's Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. your reading of this book will be all the richer and fuller.
P.S. don't listen to chuck palahniuk. you cannot possibly compare this book to a boybook. there is a quantum leap in operation that prevents comparison. this is a girlbook (NOT a girlybook) through and through. also, honestly, i wouldn't know what book to compare it to. it's its own very lovely, very shocking book.
so let me try to say more. lidia yuknavitch has clearly studied the heck out of freud's most famous case study. two of freud's major faults in his treatment of dora are a. silly interpretative moves and b. not believing dora. yuknavitch tackles those faults head on. she leaves all the interpretations intact (all freud's quotes are from the Analysis) and puts them in front of a very sad but extremely spunky, ballsy, and angry 16 year old (am i getting the age right?). the circumstances of ida/dora's life are pretty much the same in the two works, with full update to the 21st century in Y's rendition: super sad mother who's given up on life and daughter, super self-involved father engaged in an unsavory affair, shocking turn of events in which the father basically sells the daughter to his lover's husband in order to keep things quietly humming along.
this whole drama, in freud's analysis and in yuknavitch's rendition, is reproduced on dora's body. dora has problems with her voice, which comes and goes at will. in one great line (in Y's book) dora says, "My silence? It's what kept the house in order." and here let me say that i love the way Y deals with the silencing of girls who know and feel "too much." yes, dora loses her voice (then gets it again, then loses it again, etc.), but she doesn't go down. she fights back by incessantly recording other people's voices with a super duper digital recorder, and by creating films in which the voices of others (stupid voices, ordinary voices, regular city noise, etc.) form the soundtrack. when she does have her voice, dora is the most mouthy, offensive, obscene teenager you've ever met. this has shocked some readers, especially given the fact that the book is written in dora's voice so the offensiveness is not only between quotes but also in the narrative.
but that's how dora speaks. that's how dora gets mad. that's how dora fights the manipulation of adults and freud's relentless attempts at subjugating her sexuality in the name of a sexist view of things in which penises are very powerful and attractive objects and vaginas are very meek and passive objects. dora is not politically correct. not even close. dora is sixteen and hurt and angry.
dora also cuts herself. her cuts are not just injury: they are writing. she writes a new body on her own body. she writes her voice on her body. she doesn't have much to make herself heard, at least to herself, and she uses it to the max.
dora has a wonderful girlfriend whom she adores but with whom she can't make love, or ever make out, because the terrible "transgression" of expressing a woman-on-woman, or simply a female sexuality causes her to pass out.
in the meantime, freud is not a complete asshole. after all, he's the only adult in authority who pays any attention at all (though dora has a little posse of great, queer, alledgedly marginalized friends who are family and salvation and home). so there are some nice moments between dora and sig, alongside some entirely cringe-making moments which you might or might not be able to endure.
as someone who loves psychoanalysis i was happy to see that it wasn't entirely thrown under the bus. freud (the real-life guy) really screwed up with dora, but psychoanalysts (some of them at least) have learned a thing or two between then and now, and they are some of the few mental health professionals who still listen, and pay attention, and hear you.
underneath all of dora's spunk, or alongside it, there's a ton of pain: the pain of abandonment by her parents, the pain of denial of her sexuality, the pain of the utter silencing of her self. i have the impression one or two or a thousand girls and boys might find themselves in dora and say, with her, fuck yeah. cuz kids nowadays, and perhaps always, need all the help they can get.
here's a really excellent word of advice, straight out of dora's mouth, for every adult who finds him or herself in a position of helping kids, especially girl kids, and maybe girl non-kids too: "Um, brainbuster? Next time you work with a female? Ask her which city her body is. Or ocean. Give her poetry books written by women. Like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and H.D. and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. Let her draw or pain or sign a self before. You. Say. A. Word."
finally, i want to say that this book's language will bring tear of joy to your eyes. also: it's really hilarious. like, LOL hilarious. and heartbreaking. and still hilarious. ...more
taken one at a time, these stories are nicely constructed and even, on occasion, truly powerful. taken as a collection, this book is unfortunately reptaken one at a time, these stories are nicely constructed and even, on occasion, truly powerful. taken as a collection, this book is unfortunately repetitive. it seems that some of the same themes get repeated over and over. in most of the stories the protagonist is an indian-american gay man with a white boyfriend. while the white boyfriend is generally rather nice, the indian-american guy is dislocated, unhappy, frustrated, and in a funk. since this happens over and over, after a bit one gets the gist.
also, indian families in this book really, really don't like their elderly. some very painful stories about this. probably, in fact, the most compelling. not a happy read. ...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
i've been trying to get away from writing a review of this book. i've been coming up with scenarios in which such writing is impossible. i have to wali've been trying to get away from writing a review of this book. i've been coming up with scenarios in which such writing is impossible. i have to walk the dog. i have to go to bed. there is too much distraction right now.
this is the story of the aftermath of an execution in a small provincial town (more a community than a town, really) in communist china. the narrator tells us that the historical period is the period that followed the cultural revolution, but since my knowledge of chinese history is nil this means little to me. this post-revolutionary time seems extremely but also fumblingly repressive: lots of thought police everywhere, often in the form of family members or neighbors, often in the form of one's internalized terror; but also the usual by-product of dictatorships, a convoluted, self-righteous, scared, and highly corrupted bureaucracy.
while this is the background, the book is really about a group of connected characters: a little boy and his dog; a disabled girl and her sisters; the titular, elderly vagrants; a strange, much disliked young man; the parents of the executed woman; the town's news announcer (who does her announcing through a PA system, radios being forbidden) and her husband; and a youngish counterrevolutionary who is dying of tb (being counterrevolutionary here means being in favor of liberty and democracy).
yiyun li takes her story effortlessly from one character to the next, discussing their daily lives but also weaving a proper story with a dramatic finale. there is a striking simplicity to the book, even though the themes dealt with are anything but simple, and you are tempted to think that the simplicity is due to the fact that the author is not writing in her native language.
but of course that's not it at all. yiyun li is in perfect control of the language and of the structure of the narrative, and her simple stories plumb some pretty serious depths. these depths consist of a catalog of human sorrows and maybe of human joys too, though, as always, the sorrows strike us as much bigger and more momentous than the joys.
the seven deadly sorrows of the human condition according to the gospel of The Vagrants are:
cold and hunger the seizure of one's mind by others the seizure of one's life (literally, through execution or murder) by others the loss of those we love inconsolable and inescapable loneliness (even in the company of others) for children and for the elderly, the abandonment and rejection of parents/children the scorn and contempt of the society one lives in
in a tone that is partly like a fable and partly like a solzhenitsyn novel, yiyun li nails the reader to the fact that life is sometimes so awful, it is not just impossible to bear it, it's intolerable just to think about its awfulness.
some parts of this book will break your heart.
yet we know that people live like this. more piercingly, we know we do. this is when this book is at its most heartbreaking: when it allows the awareness that a pain just like this has visited, may be visiting, and certainly will again visit our lives to reach the tender flesh of consciousness.
and then, at the end, yiyun li gives us a little reprieve -- because, as i said, it is entirely possible that joys may be just as big as sorrows.
maybe this is the novel's biggest gift: its reminder that, however miserable life may get, individually and collectively, there will always be, mixed with the misery, often too fleeting to be properly noticed, a cooling, gentle, vital, life-giving kindness. ...more
this starts off quite simply. a 30-something african american woman is a marine scientist at woods hall, which is a pretty groovy place in which to bethis starts off quite simply. a 30-something african american woman is a marine scientist at woods hall, which is a pretty groovy place in which to be a marine scientist. at first the novel focuses on this über-unusual fact, an african american woman, still young, as a senior scientist at a prestigious institution. so blah blah about her always being the only black person in the room, and sometimes even the only woman and in the room, and blah blah about how much she loves water and her job and the fishies* and blah blah about how once she was mistaken for a cleaning person at a conference at which she was the presenter, yougetthepicture.
but then the scene changes entirely and she's back in cleveland, where she was born, to get her brother out of rehab and settled in their mother's basement. this brother, whom she loved terribly when they were kids, didn't grow up to be an educated man. he worked as a trainer for an NBA team (lebron's team!) till alcohol and drugs got the best of him and he had to drag his ass into rehab.
while working with his team (i don't remember the name, but everyone reading this is guaranteed to know the name of the cleveland basketball team, right?) tick (brother's nickname; josie doesn't have a nickname, only an abbreviation) has slid into "black" talk and now, as they drive home from rehab, this educated boy who didn't speak ghetto one day in his life growing up is all cool and groovy and vernacular.
so on the one hand you have the black girl that got away entirely, and on the other hand you have the family that stayed. and the gulf between the former and the latter is way deeper than ghetto talk or job choice or no longer living in declining cleveland. josie is profoundly distant from her family, and this distance seems pretty much insurmountable. something inside her has frozen and died and burned and withered and the way back seem irreparably compromised.
so josie discards her duty of seeing her brother settled and goes back to her academic life and her white husband.
this happens in the first third of the novel or less. the rest is a multi-voiced narrative that tries to give a history to the family disaster that pushed josie away and tick to addiction. and the beauty of this book is that it never, as far as i can see, pinpoints this disaster with clarity and precision. sure, josie's and tick's father turns out to have been an alcoholic for most of their lives at home. now, i must say that i don't know what it's like to live with an alcoholic, but the stereotypes -- violence, mostly -- are not there. ray comes home very late at night and when he's home he sits in front of the tv guzzling beer. on the day of his birthday, he disappoints everyone by getting drunk and not showing up for his party. so, above all, he is totally and irredeemably absent. and then his wife kicks him out, and his children cut off all ties with him, and it's over.
and to me, to this person who never had any experience with alcoholism, this doesn't sound too terrible, you know. so all through the book i experienced josie's profound distance (not only from her family but also from her husband and from herself), her refusal to talk about her childhood, her inability to relate to her family, as a bit of a mystery. and this mystery kept me entirely hooked, because it seems to me that families are made of feathers, and a little hit of breeze can easily upset delicate balances that remain upset for life. and this upset doesn't stay just like it was when the breeze broke, but it grows and grows and becomes its own thing and brings with it unforeseen miseries. and i was happy that martha southgate was able to represent this, the train wreck that sometimes results from breezes and feathers.
i want to add two things: one, that i haven't even begun to give away the plot. this is a dense and engaging story and i have said nothing of what happens. two, that i wish southgate had chosen to end the book differently. but it's okay. this book reminded me a lot of louise erdrich's superb Shadow Tag, a book that depicts a family that turns into a train wreck with breezes and feathers, too, and both books impress me greatly.
* dear martha southgate, scuba divers don't use oxygen tanks (those are for sick people), they use air tanks. you did that twice! tsk tsk. also, i don't think a marine biologist who studies marine mammals would talk so much of fish, but i'm going to leave that to the experts. ...more
lots of boy sex in this one, so if that's your thing you're in for a treat. what i like most, what i like a lot about joey comeau is that he's soooooolots of boy sex in this one, so if that's your thing you're in for a treat. what i like most, what i like a lot about joey comeau is that he's sooooooooo sweet, so so so sweet. his first person narrators here (it's two novellas in one slim book) are sweet and lovely and well-rendered and fun and excitable and good, even when they are bad. when they get really really angry they punch in the tv set then go get another one, or close themselves in a public bathroom and kick the trash can around. when they get sad they watch kiddie cartoons on tv and that makes them feel awesome and super-hero-like. they are action heroes in muppet masks and rent-a-cop uniforms, and they save the world from homophobes, gender binarists, and enforcers of patriarchal beauty standards. ...more
i'm kind of moved to see so many people review this now that cheryl strayed has finally told us she is sugar of the rumpus (she "came out" on valentini'm kind of moved to see so many people review this now that cheryl strayed has finally told us she is sugar of the rumpus (she "came out" on valentine's day, 2012). sugar is so much loved, so much justly loved, that her readers are flocking to her books and her articles to read more by her.
if you have followed sugar's advice columns (and they are NOT ordinary advice columns: they are masterpieces of wisdom, wit, beauty, and life) this book won't entirely surprise you. it belongs with the same philosophy of hard knocks sugar embraces (though she's also much more!). in her columns sugar is much warmer and more positive than she is here, but this was written some time ago, and this is her life, and she is entitled to as much bitterness as she wants to put on the page.
there is this 2002 article in The Sun Magazine that covers the same emotional and historical territory cheryl strayed covers here. i suggest you read it after reading the book, not only because it gives the book away, but because it's more powerful and more beautiful than the book (it's truly astounding) and it'll ruin the book for you.
so here's my fantasy, my pure uneducated speculation about cheryl strayed: when she was young her mom died really really fast, and the pain that hit her when her mom died was a pain she didn't even know could exist. it was a pain so ferocious, so corrosive, so annihilating, she felt she couldn't survive and probably her feeling was accurate. but she did survive it, somehow. she didn't survive it very well or very tidily, but she lived. on many occasions (my fantasy goes) she cursed the fact that she was alive. on many occasions she railed against the fact that she couldn't die. because she really, really, REALLY wanted to die. she wanted to die more badly than she wanted anything. yet she couldn't. she was stuck in this here life and that sucked so majorly, she tried to make a mess of this life that was entrapping her as rigorously as she could.
but her mom had made a terrific job of raising her and she was too good and too sane to fuck it all up.
so, at some point, reluctantly, painfully, heroically, she resumed living. and then, because the pain, though it had lessened its bite somewhat, was still not going away, she decided to exorcise it by putting it all into writing. this was, after all, who she was. she was a writer. so cheryl decided to write her way out of her massive, horrible, icy cold, hell-hot pain.
in the novel, the characters are a bit of a composite of various aspects of cheryl's pain as described in the Sun article. here are three aspects of this book i want to focus on:
1. cheryl strayed is a fantastic writer. she sees things very deeply and puts them on the page in such a way that you see them deeply too. she finds words for the most difficult, the most impossible, the most intangible things. also, she uses adjectives quite spectacularly. if i thought this denomination made any sense, i'd say she's a writer's writer. but here's something that does make sense: if you want to write, read cheryl strayed and learn how to compose sentences and paragraphs and narrative structures. study her. she has it down pat.
2. this book does not let up. it doesn't let up from page one. you'd figure CS would portray the mother who is soon to die as someone special and lovable. but: no. the kids are annoyed at her. the kids are embarrassed by her. the kids are kids who have outlived their enchantment with their mother and are totally ready to live a life of their own to which anger at their mom is at this time (they are respectively 17 and... 20?) essential. in the normal course of events they would eventually stop being mad at their mom and would bond with her. but mom dies and they are stuck in rageland.
3. now, you would expect the kids to feel guilty. i know i would. i would feel AWFUL for every single time i failed to show her love and kindness. i would worry over those moments like an obsessed and possessed person. not these kids. maybe because they are minnesotan kids and they are raised to keep their feelings as locked up as they possibly can, they spend the whole book failing to connect: to themselves, to each other. (view spoiler)[they write their father off entirely and their father, consequently, distances himself from them almost entirely too. it's one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the book and it does not get resolved. at some point claire, the daughter, shouts at her father: "you cannot even do the bare minimum!" to which the father answers, quietly, "i can." "you can what?" "do the bare minimum; that's what i can do; i can do the bare minimum." (hide spoiler)] grief leaves these people decimated and while they could help each other restore each other to wholeness, they don't. there are about two million moments in which someone is about to say something that you feel could change things, start a dialogue. invariably, he or she bites it back. this is the book of missed connections. connecting moments present themselves and are allowed to pass over and over and over. it can drive you mad.
these three characters, father, son, and daughter, so damn alone with their devastating pain. and since you never see them truly appreciate the woman they have lost (well, the father does; he loved her, though you don’t see exactly what they had), you don't even quite know why they are suffering so much. you want to scream: did you even like this woman???? THEN TELL US WHY!
maybe if they were able to name, to themselves and to each other, why mom is so fucking missable; if they were capable of tracing the contours of the hole she left behind, they could find some solace. but they seem to be able to do just about zero emotional work. you follow them through the book at their most bereft and lost and directionless.
i liked this book very much. i was sorry it ended. i could have read twice as much of it. the writing is magnificent and in literature this is 90% of the joy. what i want to say is that there is an intrinsic redemptive value in beauty and art, and, while the characters of this novel stumble through life in a fog, you don't. you can name all they cannot name. you process the pain through the beauty of the writing. you are given clear and deep vision. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
i'm 100 pages from the end but i won't finish this. i've been assaulted enough. oh why why why do we let books assault us so? because they show themsei'm 100 pages from the end but i won't finish this. i've been assaulted enough. oh why why why do we let books assault us so? because they show themselves to us in sheep's clothing, and we trust them. this fuzzy, sweet muzzled sheep cannot possibly brutalize me -- can it? can it?
this book is relentlessly brutal. the narrative is stretched to its stretchable maximum. there is no good reason for this. i suppose that, if you are a murakami fan and like to hear the sound of his voice, there will be some pleasure (even intense pleasure) for you in his enormous wordiness, but the rest of us wish he had exercised some restraint.
there are many long and wordy novels. i have read my share. but the words, even those contained in lengthy and boring passages, make sense. i have been waiting for the meaning of this book to show itself to me. i have been willing to read 800 pages of it. so take it from me: there is no meaning. there is no depth. this is an entirely undeveloped love story/religious cult story/crime story passing itself off as a deep book about time, reality, truth, good and evil. the truth of the matter is, murakami has nothing to say about any of these things. i think he has nothing to say about anything worth 5 mins of my time. it's taken me more than a week to figure it out. woe is me.
you should read this book only if you find pleasure in murakami's voice. there is nothing else in it. nothing goes anywhere. funny looking characters are funny looking for no reason and moons multiply in the sky for no reason either.
add to this the insult of the awfully bad sex that spreads itself all over this book like sticky semen (thanks m. for the image). most of the sex scenes are, you guessed it, meaningless. one or two are violently disturbing and gratuitously exploitative.
i disagree with the people who say murakami cannot write. oh he can write. he just doesn't have anything important to say. his only contribution to the reader's imagination is his own vision of things -- their slowness, their bizarreness, their extremely slow unraveling. unfortunately, this vision is pretty much valueless. you won't learn anything from this book. it will leave you depleted and empty, or at least as empty or full as you were when you started reading it -- that is, if this lengthy rumination about the pretend meaning of things doesn't yank your soul from you. my soul is just about all yanked. i'm abandoning this book to save my soul. ...more
when i finished the book, i realized that the hurricane's presence in it had been much stronger than i had realized at first. even though katrina occuwhen i finished the book, i realized that the hurricane's presence in it had been much stronger than i had realized at first. even though katrina occupies only two chapters, it seems as if the prose breathes hurricane weather in and out in every chapter -- through water, heat, stifling humidity, the stillness of the air and then the non-stillness of the air as the trees sway in a wind that gives no relief, hunger, dirt, restless sleep. you know it if you've been in a hurricane, but i think having followed one on tv may be enough. the tv, though, doesn't give much of a sense of the tremendous heat. the heat and the humidity are enormous.
so this book is pretty amazing -- brave, really, because it tells, it seems to me, a rather unconventional story using the weather as the thing the book is about, the atmosphere the book's events are wrapped in, and a metaphor for various elements of the narrative. this is a book that is rife with metaphors, but they didn't seem heavy to me; also, i don't mind heavy.
the story is unconventional because these are people who are truly at the margins of representation. poor, rural black people appear in movies and books only as color. if they play any role at all other than that, it is to be bit characters in genre fiction. there are just not a lot of places where you get to see rural black folks in their communities as fully developed characters with rich, interesting and complex lives. my personal experience proves nothing, of course, but i think i've encountered these people only in slave literature -- and then they were not these people at all (i'm mentioning them only because they were black, rural, and poor)!
so really this is interesting and beautiful because it opens up a space for other people to be met, seen, and known. it enlarges the scope of representation. it enriches the cultural village. there is a huge blank space in representation and this book helps fill it.
and these lives are interesting. they are fascinating. they are rich with love, desire, family, courage, survival, communication, growing up, trying to be good, trying to do good. they are not alien lives. they are intense and nuanced lives minus air conditioning, square meals, and working televisions. this should not need to be said and maybe my saying it is offensive, but i think many of us just don't realize it because we never see it. poor rural black people are just about as othered as people get in our society. i think i feel more connected to poor black folks in other countries than to poor black folks in the united states. if our culture does anything about poor rural (and urban) black communities, it teaches us to be afraid of them. this book kicks this fear in the teeth.
i think, by the way, that jesmyn ward did the exact right thing in not trying to represent accents and regionalisms in the writing, because that would have reproposed the othering.
there is so much more than can be said about this book -- in fact, i have spoken not at all about what happens in it. but we are discussing this in january 2012 over at Literary Fiction by People of Color so there will be plenty of time to get into the intricacies of the story when the discussion gets started (link to come). what i wanted to say here was mostly that this is a beautiful and brave novel, and that everyone should read it, and then maybe a movie should be made of it, and that people should start getting to know each other beyond the heinous stereotypes hammered into us by the stupid news.