it seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language oit seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language of children is a good way to go.
i deduce from other things i've read by herta mūller (okay, basically only her nobel lecture, which i can't recommend highly enough), that this novel is autobiographical, and i find profoundly inspirational that she helped herself through the process of writing about her trauma by using great inventiveness of imagery and language, and fantastic turns of events. in spite of being dark, this book is suffused with the special sweetness that comes from narrating events through the lens of child-play. trauma is so, so difficult to tell, and if lovely simple imagery helps us through the telling, well, dang, we should totally use it.
so look, this is not a super easy book to read, because you need to don your childlike glasses and let yourself be taken by plums and wooden objects and tin objects and sacks of canvas and pillowcases and barbers and nailclippings, and at first, since you are so thoroughly weaned from the magic of childhood, you will be confused. you will want to understand; you will expect the narrator to explain. eventually, though, the language will train you back into looking at things with the eyes and forbearance of a child, and you will understand pretty much everything.
which is -- the everything that needs to be understood -- that petty quotidian abuse and the systematic reminder that your freedom is taken away from you without rhyme or reason or any possibility for appeal cause a distress so deep that surviving it is well nigh impossible. there are, maybe, hints of true blue torture in here, but mostly what grinds down the soul of the young and older people who populate this beautiful, beautiful novel is their daily subjection to indignity, oppression, humiliation, suspicion, and fear.
i don't want to give the impression that this is all high fantasy, because it isn't. under the language of childish words there is a clear, realist story, and you can reconstruct it pretty well. but the language, well the language made the book more tolerable for me to read, and maybe (this is my starting theory) more tolerable for the writer to write, too.
because children have this tremendous tolerance for horror, and what is horrific to us -- the wolf eating red riding hood's grandmother -- is story to them, and stories make you stronger. stories allow you to experience pain without too much bite. stories give you the demons and the saviors, too.
the present-time of the narration is alternated with flashbacks of the narrator's childhood, and i found these little vignettes, inserted seamlessly in the text, very powerful. they felt to me reminders that this is a book written in some ways by a child (in some ways, because the narrator is in fact a university student), but since the stories contained in them are pretty straightforwardly bitter, they also brought home to me that it is easier for the childlike narrator to play a little when telling the story of her present trauma if she tells the pain of her childhood straight up. in other words, the childlike narrator has to establish herself as a lucid and direct narrator of her own childhood, so that the childlike quality of her narrative of her adulthood be grounded and rooted in the honesty and truthfulness of the story of her childhood pain.
i don't quite know why things were not better for our narrator when she was a child. i don't know whether she looks back at her childhood and tinges it with the horrors of the present. i don't know if her childhood is meant to represent the childhood of all children and all adults under ceausescu. It is quite possible that this was her childhood -- that it wasn't a good childhood. those were the parts that hit me the most: the unadorned pain of a little girl.
even though this, for the reasons i have explained, was not the easiest read, i couldn't put it down, and always looked forward to going back to it. it's beautiful writing, and an important story, and in my opinion quite a masterpiece.
there is no doubt that sandra newman in a genius. i haven't read her other books, but this one is just mind-blowing. the first mind-blowing thing is tthere is no doubt that sandra newman in a genius. i haven't read her other books, but this one is just mind-blowing. the first mind-blowing thing is the language, that will or will not be challenging to you depending on the kind of mind you have, and on how easily you adapt to different sounds and grammatical constructions (i am not particularly good at either of th0se, so the language remained a bit challenging for me, though only to the extent that it slowed me down a little). regardless of its ease, the language of this book is absolutely mesmerizing: it is intensely lyrical (at some point i wondered whether i was willing to go so far as to declare the whole thing a long prose poem), it is incredibly inventive, it seems to me to present a respectable linguistic coherence and perhaps some pidginization (french seems to be an influence), and is very, very funny.
this is one of those books that tell of harrowing stories in the voice of a young narrator who is, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, pretty darn hilarious. as such, it would qualify in my book as twee, not something i mean in a good sense. other examples of twee would be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (harrowing, funny, cute), All the Light We Cannot See (harrowing, cute), and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (harrowing, occasionally precious, magical). of these book, i love Extremely Loud and i think the twee works to great effect there, and, now, The Country of Ice Cream Star, where the twee seems to make this a YA book. i have nothing against YA books, except i don't read them.
since sandra newman is a genius, though, i am oh-so-happy to disregard the twee and focus instead on all the other genius aspect of this great novel.
the story is the story of an impossible dream. ice cream star, the protagonist, narrator, and hero, is a young female survivor of an apocalyptic plague that left people on at least the north-east of the united states afflicted by a disease that kills them before they reach age 20 or 21. at 15, ice cream star is already quite grown up, and soon (this happens quite near the beginning so i hope no one will consider it a spoiler) the leader of her people. her people is made out of few dozen souls, many of whom quite young (obviously); still, given the necessity of survival in all sorts of rough situations, being the leader is a position of high responsibility. ice cream star is fully equal to this responsibility, and then some. the impossible dream is to chase down the cure that will allow the young'uns to live to a ripe old age.
the story evolves in the most adventurous, bizarre, creative and breathtaking way possible, and i won't say anything about it. this is a book that keeps on giving and, once you get the hang of the language, it will be hard to put down.
i'm just going to mention something that struck me. everyone in the book is so damn young. it made me re-evaluate youth and non-youth in terms of relative duration. in a society where everyone dies by age 20, 13 year olds are quite mature and ready, say, to procreate (something it's imperative they do, if they want to spend at least some time with their own children). in a society in which people last well into their 80s, adulthood is feared and aimed to be delayed (see the pervasive anxiety of "adulting"), youth is semi-worshipped (youngsters consider themselves over the hill at 24), and old age is despised and (therefore) terrifying. there seem to be no chronological phases of life, in our real (western) world, that are unequivocally good. aging becomes a tremendous cause of anxiety the moment you are able to formulate the thought of its existence.
this is true in Country too, to some extent, but only because of the premature death of healthy bodies. the "children," though, seem to take this in stride. it's what happens, and there appears to be general equanimity about it.
i don't know if this is a failure of exploration on the part of the author. maybe so. but i enjoyed, as i read, reminding myself that the characters were all kids. apparently it is quite possibly to live without adults. sad, this.
i read this while being sick because relapsing from chronic illness, and the courage of ice cream star kept me going. she goes through soul-crushing loss, lots of injury, lots of fear, and lots of despair with the heart of a lion and the humor of a rock star. through tragedies half of whose magnitude would fell me, she stays optimistic, lucid, and hilariously focused on the next step. the solutions she comes up with are not always the most brilliant, but she tries, and tries, and never gives up.
this is what i mean when i say that this is the story of a dream. the odds, all told, are pretty shabby, yet ice cream star simply doesn't care. if saving her people required going to the moon, she would try till her very last breath.
so, you see, this is quite optimistic and encouraging. and this is what made me overlook some of the book's less perfect aspects (its possible twee quality, the underexploration of a foreshortened life, in spite of the fact that this is literally the engine of the book's plot!), and give it five stars.
as is de rigoeur in YA literature, there are all sorts of moments in which various characters have to choose between good and evil, selfishness and generosity, the love of one and the love of many, obedience and their own conscience. these are all well done -- convincing, engaging, gripping, and fun.
look, the world is going to shit, but do like ice cream star: keep your heart vally, full, and clear, and you'll see your way right through everything life throws at you. ...more
this novel is marvel and genius and i liked it tremendously. it is also difficult, partly at a superficial, easy-to-overcome level, partly at a deeperthis novel is marvel and genius and i liked it tremendously. it is also difficult, partly at a superficial, easy-to-overcome level, partly at a deeper level. at the superficial level, zadie smith pulls in all sorts of stuff (snippets of dialogue, local idioms, local references, pop culture, local and national events of the time, etc.) which she doesn't explain. at first this is disorienting, then you get the hang of it. the deeper level is that she draws a human map of a narrow and specific part of the world (NW london) and the billion of us who know nothing about it are condemned to experience unease and alienation in the reading of the book. i believe this is reflected in the lowish scores here on gr. it's not nice to feel excluded.
this latter feature is in fact one of the elements that make the book so fabulous. there has been a lot of discussion, at least since Gloria Anzaldúa (we are talking a long time! Borderlands/La Frontera came out in 1987; and most likely this discussion started before then), about (some) writers of color's refusal to accommodate mainstream (white, american) readership by translating [idioms/cultural mainstays/language] into easily digestible (to above-mentioned mainstream folks) version of themselves. in the writing of latino writers of colors, this has meant using spanish sentences without translating them, even when the book is predominantly written in english. increasingly, writers of color just write their stories without worrying about making them easily accessible to white audiences. it's not that they are inaccessible. it's that you (the white person or the person who is not of the same cultural background as the author) don't get everything. the idea is to reproduce the person of color's position as the permanent outsider, herself the person who is condemned never to be able to understand everything.
in my very limited experience, unlike american writers of color, international writers still tend to do a ton of cultural and linguistic translation. sometimes this pains me. it's as if they were writing for me rather than their own people, who must certainly roll their eyes at explanations of concepts and objects that are entirely familiar to them. and maybe they are doing so for excellent reasons which we can all guess (market reasons, but also the desire to make themselves known to the rest of the world -- this may be particularly true for african writers, who are enjoying a larger and larger readership in the west).
so when zadie smith writes about NW london as a place with its own very particular language and culture, and she doesn't bother translating them for us, she is inserting herself in this revolutionary tradition, a tradition that says, i'm the outsider all the time; if you want to get into my world, it's your turn to experience outsiderness and alienation.
so this is what i have to say about this book's "difficulty:" that unless you are from NW london or other parts of the world that understand NW london's culture, there are things you just won't understand, and that's perfectly fine. it's okay not to understand. this is a very complex and rich world and you are not entitled to global understanding. you are not entitled to have everyone translate everything for you, so that you can consume it in ease and comfort. entering different cultures takes a toll. be prepared to pay it.
this is not to say that this book is impenetrable. it isn't, at all. it's just occasionally uncomfortable and disconcerting, especially for the reader who is used to be catered to. this discomfort is crucial. it is crucial to experience it. it is the discomfort of the outsider.
all of NW's characters are outsiders. leah because she is a white woman who grew in a predominantly non-white neighborhood and whose best friend, husband, and other friends are non-white; keisha because she is forced by her profession and, later, her rising social status to play white in ways she finds painful and awful; felix, shar and nathan -- the doomed characters who act as foil to leah's and keisha's middle-class, apparently successful stories/lives -- because they get chewed up and spat out by the train wheels.
smith waves the book in such a way that the two privileged women, leah and keisha, find themselves having to deal again and again with the friends and acquaintances they left behind, often through violence.
leah seems to me a good portrait of white guilt. when she was growing up she didn't mingle with the bad, mostly non-white crowd; now, as an adult, she has a do-gooder life, with a north african husband whom she however doesn't seem to respect much, and a job in an organization that helps women. the uneasy relationship between leah and husband michel seems to be the product of their playing out of pre-assigned roles: -- michel as at the moderate fuck up with a chip on his shoulder who tries to succeed fast and easy, who takes umbrage at leah's patronizing of him, who cannot quite manage to be her equal; leah as the only white woman in her office, playing maybe at being black (everyone in her life is), rescuing her unbalanced, cracked rapport with michel with mad sex (this is one of the cases in the novel in which sex functions as a bridge over muddy and polluted waters, a la let's forget out differences and fuck. it happens with keisha and with felix too).
keisha tries to resist bourgeois-ation, being co-opted by an upper class, wealthy world of large houses and beautiful children until she no longer can (her husband frank is super rich). her rapport with her husband is also a non-rapport (they don't even have the sex to smooth things over), and they spend more time apart than together. the section devoted to keisha, which is written in short chapters that are on average half a page long but can be as long as a line, is beautiful -- keisha so unhappy, so out of place; tokenized at work; unable to make a life for herself that feels hers; separated from her family by accidents of life but also her increasing giving in to her husband's wealth (interestingly, both leah and keisha have foreign husband, though frank is not technically an immigrant). she is so lost that she turns to unexpected avenues to reconnect with her story, her history, her class. it's lovely and heartbreaking and poetic because of the lovely way in which it's written.
the various sections are moored in time by the jamaican carnival and in space by the very specific and fastidious boundaries of NW.
i have read most of what zadie smith has written and not quite loved it (though now i feel i should re-read White Teeth because it was a long time ago and i was a different person, having changed the entirety of my body's cells, including my brain's cells, a couple of times since then. she is supposed to be a comic writer but i for one didn't find much comedy in this book. then again, i'm not someone who is really good at detecting anglo-american humor. i did find, however, a massive capacity to produce unbelievable language, and an equally massive capacity for grasping the complex depths of people and/in their cultural situations. i would give anything to have zadie smith write about italians living in large american metropolises. i'm sure she would tell me much about myself that i can't articulate on my own. ...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.
i really enjoyed all of this book, then it lost me at the end.* nothing special happens at the end that should lose me, but i felt suddenly disconnecti really enjoyed all of this book, then it lost me at the end.* nothing special happens at the end that should lose me, but i felt suddenly disconnected from the book, i don't know why. maybe my mood or the weather or the phases of the moon. i don't know. but here's the thing about time: that now, as i'm writing this review, what is most present to me are not the pages and pages i enjoyed but the end i didn't.
this book is centrally about time. these observation are ironically pertinent to the marrow of this book.
but this i can say: i don't want horses in my books, but i really liked that there was a horse here called Mattone, and the name Mattone was so funny to me (it means "brick" in italian).
franscescho's story is beautiful and franschescho him/herself is beautiful.
all of the italian is pretty much perfect except for the accents, which are treated as if they were irrelevant, which they are not (they change the pronunciation). this is not a small feat.
all the characters fall in love. this is a very good thing. this book is about loving and touching.
i am not sure i cared a whole lot for anyone, but reading was fun, except at the end, as i said. i wish george's mother hadn't died. i am furious that george's mother died. this is not a spoiler.
i can't imagine anyone not liking this book, because it's so alive and fun and crazy. it's also deep in some deep way that eluded me a bit because i'm deep in a different way. i hope that won't count against me.
* (ETA) not having read any reviews, i had no idea that each individual book can have george's or franchescho's story first, randomly!
david mitchell is a genius who should get the nobel prize for literature right about now, off season. this particular book is genius and beauty and lodavid mitchell is a genius who should get the nobel prize for literature right about now, off season. this particular book is genius and beauty and loveliness and smarts, and it should get all the prizes it didn't get, now, a year or two later, it doesn't matter. all sorts of exceptions should be made for this book. maybe it should get two pulitzer prizes or three at the same time.
this is how much i loved it. i was in a godawful book slump that had lasted months (pity me!) and it pulled me right out of it. so, you see, it's personal.
but it's also such a fantastic book. i think i love it as much as Cloud Atlas, which means that i put it at the top of my david mitchell book list. but then i think i love it more than Cloud Atlas, and even though i know it's probably because i read Cloud Atlas years ago and Bone Clocks just now, i don't care.
first, the writing is absolutely explosive, more than captivating. it is enthralling and fabulous and rich and inventive and the richest, most original, most brilliant writing happening today. i am not saying there aren't writers who write as gorgeously as david mitchell, or more. i am saying that no one i know or have read writes as pyrotechnically. it's not eye candy. it's a complete unbelievable meal for the eye, first second third courses dessert french cheeses wine liqueur, eaten on a tropical beach on a perfect summer night, your favorite band playing live a few meters away, the person you love most in the world across the table from you. it is this kind of meal for the eye. more than candy, way more than candy.
second, the story kept me reading ravenously. david mitchell can work at so many levels simultaneously. even as he crafts language that is the equivalent of a majestic meal for the eye, he also gives you story. great story. passionate story. kind story. suspenseful story. super smart story. lots of twists and turns. it's more than story. it's über story.
and it does all this -- super language and über story -- while also going crazy and gently po-mo on genre. if you've read Cloud Atlas, which this book, among mitchell's books, most resembles, you know that david mitchell likes to play with genre. so here, just like in Cloud Atlas, you have loosely connected sections all written in different genres.
and the genres are nailed. they are not just nailed. every section is a super example of its genre. if each section were published on its own, it would win the pulitzer prize. well, in my world. and it would win all the awards specific to that genre.
i won't spoil the particular genres for you. discovering what particular genre a section is is a delight unto itself.
so masterful. masterful control of technique. seamless. effortless. effulgent.
but then, what david mitchell does, he deconstructs the genre. because genre is so limited isn't it? you can do it perfectly and it's still just genre. so he goes and makes gentle fun of the genre he deploys so magisterially, pushes it to its kitschy absurd, makes it all a big fun game. at the same time, though, the story and the writing never stop being convincing (well, with some genre-appropriate suspension of disbelief). it's the most amazing sleight of hand.
i think part of the job of undermining genre is performed here by the proliferation of genres. this proliferation draws attention to technique. it's the opposite of immersive. it's jarring. and yet, it's done seamlessly and you slide from section to section the same way as you slide from course to course, with sorbet in between to cleanse the palate and make you ravenous for what's coming next.
so if you find something trite, which you will, know that it's david mitchell doing genre with his tongue stuck in his cheek. but, also, be aware that this is Big Heart writing, compassionate, in love with its characters, respectful of them, committed, dead serious. except, you know, not. not entirely. because it's all a big fun game of a book.
this is a crazy, rollicking, fantastic, wild ride of a book into the life of young ursie koderer, a totally sane, if a little zany " * Unbeknownst Tothis is a crazy, rollicking, fantastic, wild ride of a book into the life of young ursie koderer, a totally sane, if a little zany " * Unbeknownst To Everyone" (where * stands for, in Ursie's own words, "lesbo") who, upon discovering that she is indeed attracted to girls rather than boys, goes a little crazy and is therefore carted off from summer camp directly into the loony-bin.
except, truly, she doesn't go crazy at all. the reasons why ursie ends up in the bughouse are, as is often the case, completely serendipitous and due to a mixture whose main ingredients are: a) she draws maps and other hieroglyphics on her arms with razor blades; b) she likes girls, which c) leads her to commit various acts of minor meshugas; d) her mother is dead and her father is a famous someone who doesn't have time to devote to her daughter while having instead e) lots of dough to spend on a fancy psych hospital so that said daughter can be kept out of the way and out of trouble for two years.
in spite of its fabulistic and surreal texture this novel reads for all the world like autobiography -- also, truly, who writes a story about teenagers in the loony-bin except someone who has been there? -- and, in fact, in this startlingly honest interview jaimy gordon discloses that this is the story of her own sister (hmm, sister?), swaddled in inventive language and over-the-top picaresque-ness for disguising purposes and also because that's how jaimy gordon writes.
now this style of narrative isn't my favorite -- in fact, it's rather distant from my taste, as i really truly like my fiction to be as narrowly realistic as possible. also, i confess to having had my fill of stories about kids capering in the asylum. hence the entirely subjective docked star. this book deserves five stars for its language alone, which is truly unique and, if you like this kind of stuff, really funny.
the beauty of the story is that ursie comes into her own thanks to the unorthodox ministrations of a visiting psychiatrist from a central-asian soviet republic. this is easily the best part and i won't spoil it for you. let me just say that, under the guise of fun and story, this book contains a cutting critique of traditional freudianism and traditional psychiatry. while sending up their strictures and prohibitions, it celebrates freedom, lust, life, passion, love, sex and the miraculously healing relationships patients and therapists create with each other in spite of structures often designed to keep them apart. ...more
this book is really, really, really good and you must read it. it may not be for everyone (what book is) but, man, this woman can write, and the storythis book is really, really, really good and you must read it. it may not be for everyone (what book is) but, man, this woman can write, and the story is fantastic. i love these characters. i love the horses. i love the low fog that keeps you from seeing your feet at 4 in the morning. i like how madness slowly creeps into a character and makes him both repellant and awesome. i like the tough women. i LOVE medicine ed. it's a small world but so, so rich. kind of like a family-run freak show, but with greedy men who end up dead in ditches. ...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
i am blown away by this fantastic book. i tried to read it a few years ago but i wasn't in the right space and i found it too difficult. some of it isi am blown away by this fantastic book. i tried to read it a few years ago but i wasn't in the right space and i found it too difficult. some of it is prose poetry. many passages are stunning. i am tempted to copy the whole rosary gloss here but it's long. read it. find it and read it. amazing stuff.
black is a grown man who's spiraling downward while gripped by conflicting powerful forces, among them an uncontrollable creative drive (he paints murals), torturous childhood memories, apparitions of supernatural creatures in the catholic tradition (mostly the archangel gabriel, but also the virgin), an obsession with a female transexual stripper, truckloads of self-loathing, and desperate suicidality.
it's a lot to handle in one slim novel but abani does it so gorgeously, so compellingly, the book is almost tactile. abani and black love los angeles as much as i do and the depictions of the city, which dominate the book, are stunning. quite apart from the obvious connection between the city of the angels and black's apparitions, black and los angeles are metaphors for each other, faces of the same phenomenon, which is: rootlessness, exploitation, trauma. they are both a gash on the human/civilization continuum. there is a passage toward the end in which iggy, black's friend and a veritable human guardian angel, a saving grace, waxes prophetic about los angeles. whatever. if you have lived in the city, you know that los angeles is a cry of pain and a cry of beauty.
in a heart-rending scene black sits by the river (always by the river, this man-made creation that is also the hidden gold thread of this strange city) with a group of dying dogs. owners use a particular bridge to throw over their no-longer-wanted dogs. black spends the night with the dying and dead dogs. he strokes them and ministers to them. one of the dog dies with its bloodied head in black's lap.
but black is not as good with humans. humans terrify him. the narrative of his childhood trauma is powerful. memories keep intruding. horrendous abuse emerges. black is the product of an nigerian father dead in vietnam and a latina mother crazed by loss and poverty.
iggy, who represents the voice of sanity, is not all that compassionate toward black's childhood trauma. i don't think i like that. you can't just get over trauma like that. and god knows, black tries. he tries through his impermanent art, he tries by going to very dark places in hope of discovery. he keeps not understanding, not knowing. and when he eventually does understand, well, he can't take it.
i think i know the los angeles described in this book because i had a wonderful guide into it, a friend who, fittingly and tragically, died when she was 39 (this book is for you, f.), and because i sought it out. it's dangerous but it's also beautiful. it's ruthless. when i lived there, simon and i kept saying, this is the end of the frontier, you go any farther you're in the ocean. whatever those who pursued the frontier were seeking, they didn't find it in los angeles. los angeles is a mess. in a way, it's a tremendous failure. in another, it wears the sores of humanity on its sleeve. if you want to love humanity at its most abject, los angeles is as good a place as any.
gender and sexuality are dealt with beautifully in this strange poetic novel. black's desire, by which he is repelled to the point of madness, is presented as possibly connected with childhood abuse. of course there is no evidence at all that sexuality in the sense of sexual orientation is connected with childhood trauma, but it's also difficult to deny that desire is formed through all sorts of strange channels, and that one is left to live with it, however distorted and aberrant one may perceive it to be, for the duration.* so in a way this is also an investigation into the origins of desire -- as sexual desire, as fantasies, as artistic inspiration, as life-giving force.
i cannot say i don't understand people who wrote such negative reviews of this book. it's not an easy book to read. the language in itself is a bit challenging, but what's most challenging is the raw collision of so many forces -- the evil we do each other, the pain that ensues, the desire in which this pain gets transformed. tough stuff. gorgeous stuff.
* no desire is distorted, aberrant, bad, evil, yucky, or icky. learn to love your desires. if you can't, find someone who'll help you. ...more
the first half of this book is prose poetry written in what i can best describe as trinidadian english, because that is the island-english i've heardthe first half of this book is prose poetry written in what i can best describe as trinidadian english, because that is the island-english i've heard that most closely approximates the language of this book. maybe it's another island. certainly it's another island. many of the localities have french names. i don't think localities in trinidad have french names.
still, it's the caribbean and life is hell and two women love each other but life is hell and something happens to one of them and the other goes to canada to look for her.
life is hell because it's brutalized by 500 years of slavery and 500 years of exploitation and the island is a prison but also home and life is lived in the dark shadow of trauma.
brand's description of elizete's life in canada is amazing and if you have left your land (any land at all) to move to a north american city you will know exactly what she is talking about. (this is true even if you are coming from another "first world" country, though your life will probably have been infinitely better as far as material conditions are concerned).
the second part is also prose poetry but it's in standard canadian english and the poetry is less surrealistic. this part belongs to elizete's lover, and it too describes hell and Verlia's efforts at making it better by joining a black power movement and trying to organize black people in canada and the caribbean, only to be quashed mercilessly by the US-propped local dictatorships.
you can read this book for the story and you'll be happy you did. you can read this book for the language and you'll be happy you did. you can read this book for the hell and you'll be happy you did.
but you have to be into all three. if you are not, this book will be hard. i found it amazing and now i want to read everything this woman has written. ...more
the writing of this book is fantastic. its cumulative effect is really stunning. by the end, you wish the book never ended. much love, soul, and beautthe writing of this book is fantastic. its cumulative effect is really stunning. by the end, you wish the book never ended. much love, soul, and beauty in this exploration of the ways our american identity -- collective and personal -- has been brutalized and become, in the process, itself brutal....more
i'm returning this to the library unfinished. the writing is breathtaking, but i don't have the head for the rigors of experimental fiction right now.i'm returning this to the library unfinished. the writing is breathtaking, but i don't have the head for the rigors of experimental fiction right now. entirely my fault.
i am half-way through and there is way too little fanon. i was hoping for tons of fanon. some scenes are priceless, though. god, ALL scenes are priceless, but the scene in which the writer-persona visits his brother in jail with their ailing mother is excellent, and, also, hilarious. i promise i'll finish this book. hear, mr. wideman? there are people who read your books!!!...more
this book seems to me miraculous. i am blown away. the language is extraordinary -- simple and fluid and always surprising, all sharp angles and painfthis book seems to me miraculous. i am blown away. the language is extraordinary -- simple and fluid and always surprising, all sharp angles and painful enchantments -- and what it says, the depth of pain the book carries on its slender breezy back, wow, it left me breathless. strange how much psychic pain such a little funny book can carry, how many deep terrors it can plumb: death, illness, the loss of those we need/love, the body and its redundancies, the unspeakable violence we do to ourselves in order to stay whole, the inevitable breaking of that wholeness, how we doom connection, how we find connection, how connection surprises us with its resilience, its resistance to attack.
twenty-year-old mona gray exorcises her terrors by knocking on wood, counting, and making love to a hatchet. she holds a few certainties, all having to do with the clean hard pain she can inflict to her body. aimee bender, who seems very young and is certainly very brave (check out her beautiful website), explores fear, pain, and love through the blows life deals to the body, and does a very good job at inflicting quite a few messy wounds in the process. if you have spent more than a day or two worrying about the unbearable semantic pregnancy of the body, this book is for you. when i finished it i felt i had been broken apart and put back together six or seven times.
there are some heartbreakingly beautiful scenes, and they are all about people finding each other in spite of self-defeating efforts to make themselves all but unfindable....more