i was reading Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, except i wasn't really reading it because i was listening to it in audiobook before going to sleep. and then the book got disturbing, so i decided to take a break and listen to Dept. of Speculation instead.
you understand, i listen to audiobooks with the light off, while (hopefully) going to sleep. since (if i'm lucky, or unlucky, depending on the book) i get into sleeping mode within half an hour, my taking in of the book is largely hypnagogic. which is not necessarily bad. because, in some cases, it works.
this case. this book. perfect for the hypnagogic state of someone who loves language -- who, in fact, finds language a balm for the chapped soul. going to sleep to jenny offill's reading her own book (yes!) is like going to sleep to the singing of sirens.
but then, see, because that is a mental state that doesn't lead to solid remembering, i typically listen to the same chapters two, three, four, ten times. so the book enters me in a way that is pretty spectacular, subliminal, and whole in a peculiar kind of way. a peculiar kind of wholeness.
i loved this book tremendously. it is the first addition to my "twee" bookshelf, which i have been thinking of creating for a while but i'm creating only now. i resisted creating it because i would have put in it only books whose twee-ness i disliked. but twee can be beautiful, i have found, and this book is twee in all the right, spectacular, wonderful ways.
this is what i love. i love mixed media in literature. i love poetry in fiction. i love prose poems that go into the three-digit pages. i particularly love mixtures of little-known facts stated in factoidal form, narrative prose, and poetry. think of the last page of Harper's. at the end, all of it becomes poetry -- found poetry plus poetry plus poetry.
now go read poingu's review. i don't agree with the first two paragraphs -- at all -- and i think what poingu hypothesizes at the beginning of their third paragraph is right on (notice e.g. the various ways in which the word "girl" is used in the book, and the ways in which this use changes, changes again, folds in upon itself).
but then poingu zaps us with this:
Well, it is just thematically boring to me to hear about another white cis woman struggling with the limitations that come from being a wife and mother. The narrator never steps out of a white/upper class/Manhattan/young/privileged/female mindset to see what possible future she might create for herself other than whining about not being an "Art Monster." There is a lack of empathy in this narrative voice, a selfishness, a limitation of imagination. Also I could do without the extremely lengthy challenge the narrator has with bedbugs in her apartment which also gave the novel all the more a feeling of being written by someone who never steps outside of NYC.
this is a theme that is close to my heart, something i worry about a lot, the main reason why i prefer at any given time to read literature by women of color. i could get into my various thoughts on the matter and i'll do so if there is a public outcry among my thousands of readers from all over the world for me to do so, but for now let me offer a counter-argument.
as an inescapably "white cis woman" with a "white/upper class/Manhattan/young/privileged/female mindset" (but then our heroine is not upper class either is she; she's a creative writing university professor in nyc whose husband is also a university professor -- or is he? getting foggy here --, so let me tell you without hesitation and with first-hand knowledge that there is not a ton of money to spare in that particular household; in other words, middle class, as it has come to signify in america in the last few decades, will do) i want my pain acknowledged. i want my pain acknowledged alongside the class- and race-marked pain of my poorer sisters of color. and my richer sisters of color. and my poorer and richer white sisters. and my trans* sisters, poor rich white and/or brown. and all women of all intersectional layers of race, class, gender and sexuality. because you can have your son blown in the head by a perfectly ordinary cop (something that is very unlikely to happen to me, among other reasons because i don't have a son) and still suffer terribly because your husband stepped out on you. because you can be discriminated at the airport/in the workplace/in shops/in the street in ways i cannot even imagine but i constantly try to make myself aware of and still feel depression and despair and malaise and a keening need to die.
hypostasizing the class- and race-colored pain of non-white working-class women does a disservice to these woman and to privileged (because) white women (though not all white women are equally privileged). any woman -- any person who suffers is a person who is experiencing pain (see what i'm doing here? tautology; unassailable). i don't want to have a conversation over the validity of that pain. let's talk about social conditions and structural injustice; let's talk about privilege; let's by all means talk about all that because it's just so crucial and important that not talking about it would be like putting chunks of lobster over one's eyes and bits of truffle into one's ear (only some of us can). but let's never belittle anyone's pain. ever. we are, all of us, fighting a great battle. some of us are losing and are therefore dying all sorts of deaths, including the death of the traditional kind. some of us write in order to survive. is jenny offill writing to survive? i don't know. do you?
yeah, me too. cuz, really, how easy does the world make it for us to disbelieve women's words? believing women's words is my epistemic stance of choice. as a woman. as a feminist. as a woman who loves women. as a woman in this world.
now please don't maul me in comments. i am fighting a great battle too. thank you.
this 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