I find that it is quite difficult to talk about tragedies through the eyes of children without becoming twee. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We CannotI find that it is quite difficult to talk about tragedies through the eyes of children without becoming twee. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are paramount examples of this twee. Foer pulls it off, Doerr not so much. So I was a bit nervous in picking up this book, which deals with the particular part of Auschwitz called "The Zoo;" in this area internees that were identical twins or had other genetic anomalies would be gathered under the "loving" but in fact completely sadistic and psychopathic attention of Josef Mengele. If this book is to be believed -- and it is very thoroughly researched -- Mengele was a mediocre physician with a great capacity to ascend to the highest ranks of the Nazi kingdom, and the book gives the distinct impression that his "experiments" were vastly more exercises in sadism than advances in science.
The protagonists of this book are 12 and then 13-year-old twins, Pearl and Stasha, and alongside them in The Zoo there's a motley crew of truly fabulous characters, kid survivors who bank entirely on their own oddities to stay alive.
The first point I want to remark on is that the author, Konar, bends over backwards to avoid brutality porn. She gives us just enough that we know that the unspeakable happens, but she also gives us plenty of ways to put it in a nice box of denial.
The second point I want to remark on is that there is all sorts of magic that happens between twins -- not Harry Potter magic, just plain human magic -- and all this magic is rendered through inventiveness, quirk, and lovely vocabulary. The result is an utterly original, mesmerizing, and joyful book where a joyful book should have been impossible.
The third point I want to highlight is the key point of the book, the soul and the heart and the air and the oxygen and the sunshine and the warm milk of this book, and it is that if you are deeply loved you will survive. Clearly, Pearl and Stasha love each other inexpressibly, but since it is precisely Mengele's mission to tear twins apart, the love that manages to keep them alive when they should have died ten times over, is the memory of the love of their mom, their dad, their grandfather and of each other. A child who has been absolutely treasured has survival tools you cannot even imagine. Patricia McCormick's Never Fall Down is a luminous example of this theory.
Fourth: children have tools for survival we can only dream of. We live in the constant fantasy that we need to look after children. This is a fantasy. Like angels, children are constantly looking out for us. All of them.
Fifth: quite surprisingly, the book dropped the ball at the end, and the last ten pages are disappointing. I do not know if this is the author's fault, the editor's fault, or God's fault. Since God can take it, I'm gonna blame him for it....more
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
when i moved to the united states after having been born, raised, and educated in italy, i resolved not to read books in italian. i was so preoccupiedwhen i moved to the united states after having been born, raised, and educated in italy, i resolved not to read books in italian. i was so preoccupied with making my english as good as possible that i thought even a tiny incursion into italian-land (literature-wise; i kept speaking italian to my mom on the phone!) would detract from my efforts. for this reason, i missed a ton of good italian books -- i couldn't make myself read them in italian but i couldn't make myself read them in translation either! and of course there are all those classics i didn't get around to reading while i was there, like Italo Svevo, Primo Levi (i did manage to sneak in two or three novels by him before i left), Calvino, Pasolini etc. (i cheated and made an exception for the inspector montalbano novels of Andrea Camilleri, cuz they really didn't count as italian since they are written in sicilian dialect).
then ferrante took the world by storm and i broke down: reader, i read this book in the language in which it was written, my mother tongue.
a lot could be said at this point about reading in translation -- a lot has been said, in fact, and i could certainly add my own two cents, but i want to focus on other points.
according to this article, italy, a country known for its resistance to reading (58% of italians do not read even one book a year), embraced elena ferrante. 6 years after its publication, My Brilliant Friend (L'amica geniale) is still no. 16 on the bestseller list of amazon italia, having sold, as of 10 months ago, more than 200k copies (by way of comparison, MBF has sold 800k copies in the united states, a country with a gazillion % of italy's population, and in which everyone is reading it). the article mentioned above, alongside this other article (the first two articles i found under a search about why ferrante was more popular abroad than in her own country) explains that, while the poorly-read italian public welcomed ferrante with open arms, the intelligentsia found her too popular, too low-brow, too this-or-that, and while she's getting awards right, left and center abroad, she is getting nothing in her homeland.
which surprises me entirely not. at. all. cuz this (my) country is a country that values women's work and women's literature less than zero, so, whereas the international community marvels at the quality and masterfulness of this novel and the novels that follow in the tetralogy, the italian literary community considers them poolside material.
i confess i was reluctant to read this book. italians revel in misery and destitution, and i wasn't really looking forward to another dosing of mafia, camorra, corruption, abuse, injustice, and powerlessness. at first, in fact, this is exactly what you get. this may be attractive to the american reader, because the stark, bare, and simultaneously enchanting (more of this later) realism with which this very italian community is portrayed is nectar to the american palate. ferrante, the quality of whose style is apparently (if the two articles mentioned above and the many GR reviews are anything to go by) the subject of much polarization, writes in a way that is simple yet erudite. she uses mostly italian, eschewing the dialect italian literati value so much, even as she says "[person] said in dialect," but this italian has the ease, fluidity, and yet complexity of first-rate literature. in other words, yes, she writes simply, but this simplicity belies a whole world of depth and nuances, which, always endeavoring to express herself with the simplicity of her characters, she nonetheless addresses explicitly. this is not a novel in which you have to read between the lines. the entire content of it, all the messy interpersonal sorting out that takes place in it, is recounted in great detail.
i am going to come clean and say that this is not my cup of tea. the daily dealings of italian kids in a "rione" or neighborhood don't particularly interest me. they are the fabric of my childhood, adolescence, and young years, and they are too familiar and too quotidian to grab me with the passion with which this book seems to have grabbed other readers. add to this the games of heterosexual adolescence (ugh) and you have pretty much lost me.
so i struggled at first. i marveled at the writing but didn't quite enjoy the plot.
then the dynamic between elena/lenù, the narrator, and lila, the fascinating co-protagonist, started clutching me by the throat. cuz, half-way through (it took that long; i'm slow) it became apparent to me that this simple writing was exactly what was at stake. i realized that, in all probability, lenù grows up to be a writer (don't spoil the series for me, please), and recounts her relationship with complicated, fantastic lila as a tribute to the girl then woman who brought her there -- to be a writer, and to be a writer who writes like words are droplets in a clear glass of water.
i am not giving anything away when i say that, whereas lenù is allowed to continue her education, lila, an unquestioned genius, is forbidden from doing so by her family, which struggles financially and cannot afford it (the whole neighborhood is working class in the throes of post-war economic hardship; for the reader who is not familiar with the sociology of italian neighborhoods -- quartieri or rioni in italian-- they are, in spite of being parts of big metropolises, like small villages, and everyone knows everyone else, to the great blossoming of gossip, nastiness, and entrapment, but also with the tremendous advantage of a cohesive and, ultimately, mutually caring community afflatus). lila educates herself, doing much better in her solitary efforts than the rigorously schooled and academically excellent lenù, trying to keep up with her friend with a seesawing attitude of bitterness and pride, until eventually she simply decides to support lenù and let go of self-acculturation herself.
for her part, lenù worships lila. she seeks her, pines after her, and delights in the moments they spend together in teenage conspiracy with the stratospheric intensity of (female?) (adolescent?) friendship.
in the end, though, it's (almost!) all about the writing. at the beginning these two fine minds, still children, take tremendous pleasure in lila's novel (i think written in a notebook), which lenù finds better than any of the books at her disposal. later on, when she goes on a working holiday to ischia (an island near naples), lenù writes assiduously to her friend, letter after long letter, only to get no answer. after she stops writing, though, lila replies, and lenù is astonished, and ashamed, to find in lila's words a style that is easy, unforced, and yet tremendously alive -- just like ferrante's book! all through the book lenù comments on the fact that lila can, with a few simple words, render the quotidian and dusty life of the "rione" full of narrative, meaning, sensoriality. lila is a natural-born writer, capable of seeing stories, fantasies, and adventures (not trivially, but deeply) in things and occurrences. her life is dense and intense. lenù spends the entirety of the book emulating her and trying to impress her. at first lila is slightly dismissive, later she becomes lenù's biggest champion.
that this book, narrated in the first person by lenù, exists at all, is proof positive that lenù does learn lila's capacity for wonder.
the heartbreak of the novel is lila's tremendous solitude. unmatched by everyone, head and shoulders about the community she is and is not a part of, she finds solace only with lenù. ultimately, though, her tragedy is that she is and always will be (i imagine) alone. ...more
there are things about this book that are wondrous and amazing, and things that are unsatisfying.
the wondrous and amazing things are an early teen'sthere are things about this book that are wondrous and amazing, and things that are unsatisfying.
the wondrous and amazing things are an early teen's love for the delicate world of fish in glass water, where it is beautiful but captive. does the fish long for the expanse of the wild? what if there were no aquariums? where would caitlin get her wondrousness?
also the early teen's, caitlin's, love for another girl, a classmate, the tenderness and devastating body melting of whose kisses she's just encountered and can't get enough of. this is a particularly lovely part of the book -- the girls' unproblematic decision that they get together solely and specifically to kiss and caress each other's skin, because kissing and touching are such sweet, sweet things, and why should they not get their fill of them? when i was a kid and was beginning to discover the absolute marvel of other girls' bodies, there was front and center in my mind, always, the belief that giving in to desire, or giving in too much, would dissolve me. not such fear for these girls.
also caitlin's and her mother's exhausted love, the woman a single mother and dock worker with long hours, the kid a lonely kid waiting for mom to pick her up after school, rising early before school and waiting around for school to start in order to accommodate mom's schedule, cold seattle winter, darkness on either side of their being together, mother and daughter, and yet, when this togetherness happens, even if mom is exhausted, there is the pure joy of bodies meeting and loving each other, just like with the young girlfriend, caitlin preparing to leave the warmth and comfort of mom's body for the warmth and comfort of her girlfriend's body in an uncomplicated, safe, held way, taking all the time she needs, getting love here and there, never alone in spite of the brutal hours and the cold and the damp.
also the mother's breakdown, the sheer brutality of it, the breaking of a sacred compact, and caitlin's mildness in the face of it, her compliance, cuz mom is wonderful, mom means well, nothing can be wrong even though this is so hard and scary, nothing can be wrong.
also, the intergenerational trauma, the passing down of scars like genetic material, the inevitability of it, and a young woman who's been playing at being the adult for so long finally reversing to her lost childhood.
the most unsatisfying thing in the book, for me, is the restorative power of money. i wondered, what if the old man had been poor? what would he have had to offer then? would his money-less offerings have been as alluring, as compelling? and why the dissolution of this terrific working class mother-daughter, daughter-girlfriend romance? doesn't the sudden infusion of cash take away an essential dimension of this book, leaving us lost, leaving us missing it?
and the conclusion, which i won't spoil -- some elements of it (sheri-the-mom dealing a death blow to her bond with caitlin, leaving her finally unsafe and alone in this key moment of her development) and their power notwithstanding -- so wrapped up, so perfect, so meaningless.
(view spoiler)[one of the tragedies of this tremendous narrative of trauma is that the only perpetrator we see is the traumatized mother. her father, the original perpetrator, is present only in his absence, and when he comes back, all contrite and hell bent on making amends, we admire him and root for him, all the while noticing, and being traumatized by, the mother's brutality. but this is hardly fair isn't it? and i wonder if all of this is a male fantasy, and an unintentional (i cannot imagine it would be intentional) woman bashing, cuz by the end of the book we are really, really angry at the mother and truly impressed with the lovely grandfather. (hide spoiler)] ...more
i love this book so much. thank you thank you thank you.
this may well be the most beautiful coming-of-age novel i've ever read. it's so non-clichéi love this book so much. thank you thank you thank you.
this may well be the most beautiful coming-of-age novel i've ever read. it's so non-clichéd and, you know, the author, just like the protagonist, is a poet, so basically every page is a poem.
the most astounding feature of this slender book is the treatment of sex. adolescent queer desire; straight puppy sex that is not exactly puppy-esque; the secret sex of not-very-sexual middle-aged same-sex lovers; the sex that inevitably passes between a mother and a child, a father and a(n older) child; rape (yah); and then some more mature same-sex attraction. it's all done so intelligently and so daringly, and even when it feels transgressive and icky it's still intelligent, delicate and smart.
love is sex is desire is love is tenderness is dedication is freedom is sex is desire is love. love can be entrapping or it can be safe. you have to pick your love carefully. if you can. (heartbreak.)
this is a book written by a feminist author who has no desire to traumatize her reader, but means to enrich her at every turn with the power of beauty, feeling, strength, and language.
if you are feeling like the world is a heavy place, this may be the book for you. ...more
so look, this is kind of genius, the genius book that you really want to read again from the beginning so that you can get the million things you missso look, this is kind of genius, the genius book that you really want to read again from the beginning so that you can get the million things you missed. cuz laymon covers a whole lot of black culture and history in this book, and the richness of it, starting from the extremely cool and deft language, deserves a ton of accolades alone. so consider me blown away k?
1. i am not a fan of twainesque, fast-talking, smart-mouthed, boy-narrated literature. just not a fan. it doesn't rock my boat. heck, i didn't even finish The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so you see, i'm really bad at this kind of literature.
2. the masculine stuff really puts me off. not a thing i can do about it. i realize that if you have a teenage boy narrating a book you will probably want to stick in some masturbation and quite a bit of talk about genitals, but me, it puts me off. (it's really not primary, as it probably is in Oscar Wao -- remember that i didn't finish it; didn't get past chapter one, if you want to know the truth -- so don't let this dissuade you from reading the book if you are not really, really put off by it)
3. most of all, i don't buy and don't understand all the mystical stuff. this comes near the end so i'll put it under spoiler tags. (view spoiler)[the whole back-and-forth between time periods, with consequent personal meaning for the arc of the narrator's life, is good ol' time-travel mind-fuckery, which is always quite fun. but at the end it gets folded into a whole new narrative of racial redemption or salvation, and, first, i find this very obscure, second, i find it over-reaching in a boring and annoying way. maybe it would be less annoying if it were clearer, but shrouded in mysticism as it is, well, it didn't work for me. (hide spoiler)]
so these are the reasons for my low rating, even though i stayed up until 4 fekkin AM to finish it!...more
this book is beautiful. the kids are gorgeous. cleo is deeply compelling and her friends are deeply real even though the whole thing also has a surreathis book is beautiful. the kids are gorgeous. cleo is deeply compelling and her friends are deeply real even though the whole thing also has a surreal, fantastic, haunting quality.
i love the way in which RC draws and details the girls' bodies. they are all in some state of disarray, with gothicky torn clothes and gothicky street-kids haircuts; most of them are on the chunky side; their bodiness is palpable and luscious and lovely. there's a lot of attention paid to butts straining into tight jeans, hips overflowing shirts, breasts compressed into bodices. gestures are also given great attention: cigarettes held in left hands, feet trying to find solid place on the ground, toilets, vomiting, hands clutching stomachs, manifestations of exhilaration, manifestations of distance, crying.
i like that some characters are fully drawn while others are more sketchy. boys are almost all sketchy, while girls are full and deep and intense.
there is no real story except for the anguish of being newly alone at college in run-down and filthy facilities (the janitors are apparently on strike), and the daily dealings of kids trying out adulthood while being still unbearably young.
cleo is so alone. youth is so full of pain. do we ever outgrow it? we just learn to hide it better. ...more
from the john green approach to YA lit: all emotional pull and no depth. also, a certain amount of offensiveness, but that may be a by-product of thefrom the john green approach to YA lit: all emotional pull and no depth. also, a certain amount of offensiveness, but that may be a by-product of the all-emotional-pull-and-no-depth approach. anyway. 2 stars for keeping me engaged. i may dock one though if i feel less charitable. ...more
Knife is lovely on a number of accounts, but none more than todd's voice and his relation with his little dog manchee, which goes from indifferent/hosKnife is lovely on a number of accounts, but none more than todd's voice and his relation with his little dog manchee, which goes from indifferent/hostile (todd --> manchee, not viceversa of course, dogs being dogs all worlds over) to deep and devoted. and patrick ness is a heck of a writer, so everything happens smoothly and sweetly and the story is wonderfully developed and it's both charming and terrifying.
my entirely subjective complaint is that this was a bit too YAish for me, i.e. too much adventure and maybe a wee bit of oversimplification of what are really complex issues. still, i couldn't wait to go back to it and today i'm picking up book two. so, you see, no consistency from me.