i read this book as an audiobook, the version read by kate lock. she does voices and various other sounds (she coughs, she laughs, she cries, she spea...morei read this book as an audiobook, the version read by kate lock. she does voices and various other sounds (she coughs, she laughs, she cries, she speak as if she had her mouth full, she hesitates, she pleads, she whispers), and the voices are often weird. she also does accents, english regional accents. at first it all seemed strange to me but soon i grew to love the sound of her voice telling me this fantastic story. i loved how she did anna and levin and kitty.
there is a scene in the book in which levin, who could very well be the book’s protagonist if only the book had been named after him, goes with the peasants at his employ to mow the grass fields with a scythe. the laborers are organized in rows and at first levin is a bit awkward; soon though he gets the hang of it and the handling of the scythe becomes a ballet. i am juxtaposing this visual interpretation of a written text to the image i have in my head of an old dude i saw mow the lawn with a scythe some ten years ago in austria, on the mountains. he was mowing a really steep part of his lawn that went from a small holding wall to the end of his property. the operation was miraculously silent except for the swish of the scythe on the grass, and the man and the scythe moved as one, guided by the swinging of the man's hips. i think we should ditch lawn mowers immediately and go back to scythes. i'm not kidding. they are beautiful things and the procedure is probably faster and more effective than that executed with a lawn mower. above all, though, it's a beautiful dance the person does with the grass and the land. the scene in which levin mows the grass with the peasants is the palpable, fragrant, engrossing description of a beautiful group dance, but i concede that it might help to have seen it done in real life, on a sunny but brisk summer day in the austrian alps by an old-timer who'd done it all his life.
when (view spoiler)[levin and kitty marry (hide spoiler)] tolstoy pulls the comic stop full out. i had the lights off, it was late, and i was half asleep, but i woke myself up laughing. there are other scenes like this, but this is the first entirely comic scene you encounter in the course of the novel. tolstoy can do comic, man.
tolstoy can do tenderness and love like you have no idea. the scene in which kitty and levin write to each other entire sentences by using only the first letter of each word and understand each other perfectly is so intense it makes every nerve in your body tingle.
he also can do pain. i think many 19th century authors have done female pain magisterially, but male pain is a bit harder to do. there are so many codices and constraints when it comes to masculinity. vronsky is in pain, karenin is in pain, but these characters' representation follows the prescribed modalities for expression of masculine pain -- restlessness, bitterness, rebelliousness, stubbornness, excess, fickleness, etc. levin's depression, on the other hand, is a lovely masterpiece of representation of fully-felt male inner suffering (levin is an all around wonderful character and the moral, spiritual, and intellectual center of this enormous novel; levin is a man you want to meet and be friends with).
the pain of women is, as i said, a little easier to write about, because women are expected to express pain full throatedly and they are expected to get physically sick from it. anna is different, though, because her pain leads her straight to madness. she doesn't get that typical 19th century female sickness that leads women to languish in sadness to the point of risking their lives (she wishes!). she marches steadily on, doing what she needs to do, bearing up as strongly and composedly as she can, and going crazy. (if you don't know what happens to anna at the end don't click on the spoiler link.) (view spoiler)[this craziness is represented by jealousy but i think jealousy is just a manifestation of an obsession so profound with the evil of the world, it eventually kills her. anna doesn't take to her bed and dies of the mysterious malaise of which 19th century women die. she boldly, madly, desperately takes her own life because the pain is too big and she cannot bear it any longer. (hide spoiler)] anna's madness can be a bit offputting to readers living in the age of therapy, psych meds, positive thinking, and not imposing your pain on others thankyouverymuch. blessed be those who fall into vortexes of pain they understand even less than those who surround them and find their minds simply unhinged by the force of that despair. blessed be they in life and in death.
for the character that gives her name to the novel, i think anna is given too little space. i am not even sure she gets as much space as levin. and while levin's pain is described and detailed in loving depth, i feel we never quite get to the bottom of anna's pain. yes, she loves vronsky and she loves her son. but both those loves felt unconvincing to me. she seemed to me broken from the get go. and what about her preternatural beauty? why is her beauty so central to the novel? is her beauty her curse? i don't know, i don't know.
i must say that i thought this novel would be a downer, but it absolutely isn't. it's joyous and rich and so merciful. tolstoy loves all of his characters and he forgives them, too, so that, for a long while, you can't see a thing wrong with any of them -- till eventually you do, you see their faults and the ways they fail. but you are introduced to their shortcomings gently, slowly, so that you are allowed to see them (the shortcomings) in the full complexity of the characters' negative and positive traits, and you love them a little too, and forgive them. there isn't one badly written character in the whole book. they are all rich and deep and human. listening to this novel for more than a month made me happy and for this i'm so, so grateful. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
i am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but i...morei am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but i have a prejudice against alice walker. she seems to me, for an accumulation of reasons none of which sits discreetly in my mind, identifiable, a sloppy writer. say this book. the story is powerful and powerfully told. but then there's a whole lot of anthropology thrown in, and some etymology, and some sort of grand historical theory of patriarchy and the submission of women, and when you scratch the surface a tiny little bit you realize that it's made up. i didn't scratch the whole surface, so it's entirely possible that some of it -- the core of it? -- may not be made up. but when i scratched i found sloppiness or unabashed invention (some invention is openly acknowledged in the postscript) and, well, i am not sure i liked it.
i could be persuaded, but, right now, i don't see why alice walker needs to come up with an invented nomenclature (say) for stuff that truly exists. she doesn't offer any reason and i don't see a reason myself.
so this is what took the book south for me. the first part is beautiful, but then, well, i stopped being engaged, because i felt i was being taken for a ride, and i become unconvinced with everything. what is the relationship between adam and lisette all about? what is its narrative purpose? how do people (reviewers, etc.) know that tashi is treated by carl jung? are the clay figurines for real? do women really leave refugee camps because otherwise they'd be asked to work? what?
nice treatment of post-traumatic mental pain, and powerful, powerful indictment of genital mutilation. i thought i knew about it but i didn't know a thing. genital mutilation must stop. (less)
this is so good. so so so good. i'm going to say, first of all, that the quality of the artwork is amazing. great drawing, sometimes really simple, so...morethis is so good. so so so good. i'm going to say, first of all, that the quality of the artwork is amazing. great drawing, sometimes really simple, sometimes really complex, with great utilization of über cool graphic devices (notably, a spiral notebook that seems like the real thing, ellen's real notebook, photographed, and may or may not be).
when i first got the book i quickly scanned it and saw that it dealt with bipolar disorder solely in medical terms, i.e. as something the only effective treatment of which would be the right medication cocktail. now, i don't like that. at all. i really believe that mood disorders are a very complex mixture of genes and environment -- i believe that in everything human you can never take the environment out of the equation -- so i was sorry to see that the book kind of sold medication as the only approach to ellen's terrible pain.
the book sat on my shelf for a while and then it sat in a friend's house for another while and now i read it, and it's really not like that. i mean, it is like that, but, also, it isn't. yes, ellen only sees a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist's only overt contribution to her well-being is finding the right meds (which she eventually does). but the book is also very complex about the relation between ellen and karen, the psychiatrist, in that they have regular sessions for 13 years (and counting, i suppose), and in these sessions ellen really finds an anchor, a warmth, a haven of acceptance, love, and help.
also, the whole role of medication is problematized, analyzed, discussed, investigated, studied. this is cool.
ellen definitely comes out in this extraordinary memoir as well-rounded, interesting, and intriguing. this is the perfect companion to Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?: bechdel approaches her pain through psychoanalysis, fornay through medication, but there is the same level of complexity, engagement with one's life, and intelligence. seriously, this is brilliant and captivating and it was hard to put it down.
it seems to me increasingly important, as i think about these issues, to understand that there are things that work for someone and things that work for someone else. there's a strong strain in the "survivor" community that is virulently anti-drugs. i think it hinges on some people's disastrous experience with drugs. drugs can have terrible consequences on some bodies, and positive consequences on some other bodies. when you are someone whose life has been ruined by psych drugs, you tend to totalize your experience and proclaim them the devil. but they are not the devil for everyone. there are people whose life has been saved by psych drugs.
the other thing is that ellen's experience of psychiatry is incredibly gentle. her psychiatrist seems absolutely fabulous. this is not a common experience. many psychiatrists (all too many) are dismissive, arrogant, and belittling of their patients. this happens all the time. so if you work on getting better with a psychiatrist who actually listens to what you say, takes in what you want, and honors your experience with respect to what does and does not work for you, medication might be a much better experience than if you deal with a psychiatrist who simple decides what you should take/do/feel/etc.
i had a student once whose psychiatrist regularly mocked her. whenever she had something to say for herself, he'd say that she was being manic and to calm down. this was a kid. a college kid. i told her, why don't you change psychiatrist? but when someone gets into your head and makes you feel that he is god and you are an ant, you keep going back.
anyway, great book. thank you ellen for writing it. i don't know how you guys (you, alison, etc.) do it. this stuff must be harder than hell to put down on paper. so, again, thank you. (less)
this is extraordinary and beautiful. i can see how it may not be everyone's cup of tea -- kind of the same reason why, say, virginia woolf is not ever...morethis is extraordinary and beautiful. i can see how it may not be everyone's cup of tea -- kind of the same reason why, say, virginia woolf is not everyone's cup of tea. there are writers who are utterly and unflinchingly original. this is nothing if not unflinching. it doesn't hold anything back. it says what it has to say and it doesn't mince words.
i hope to be able to write a longer review soon. my one suggestion, if you read it, is to read freud's Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. your reading of this book will be all the richer and fuller.
P.S. don't listen to chuck palahniuk. you cannot possibly compare this book to a boybook. there is a quantum leap in operation that prevents comparison. this is a girlbook (NOT a girlybook) through and through. also, honestly, i wouldn't know what book to compare it to. it's its own very lovely, very shocking book.
so let me try to say more. lidia yuknavitch has clearly studied the heck out of freud's most famous case study. two of freud's major faults in his treatment of dora are a. silly interpretative moves and b. not believing dora. yuknavitch tackles those faults head on. she leaves all the interpretations intact (all freud's quotes are from the Analysis) and puts them in front of a very sad but extremely spunky, ballsy, and angry 16 year old (am i getting the age right?). the circumstances of ida/dora's life are pretty much the same in the two works, with full update to the 21st century in Y's rendition: super sad mother who's given up on life and daughter, super self-involved father engaged in an unsavory affair, shocking turn of events in which the father basically sells the daughter to his lover's husband in order to keep things quietly humming along.
this whole drama, in freud's analysis and in yuknavitch's rendition, is reproduced on dora's body. dora has problems with her voice, which comes and goes at will. in one great line (in Y's book) dora says, "My silence? It's what kept the house in order." and here let me say that i love the way Y deals with the silencing of girls who know and feel "too much." yes, dora loses her voice (then gets it again, then loses it again, etc.), but she doesn't go down. she fights back by incessantly recording other people's voices with a super duper digital recorder, and by creating films in which the voices of others (stupid voices, ordinary voices, regular city noise, etc.) form the soundtrack. when she does have her voice, dora is the most mouthy, offensive, obscene teenager you've ever met. this has shocked some readers, especially given the fact that the book is written in dora's voice so the offensiveness is not only between quotes but also in the narrative.
but that's how dora speaks. that's how dora gets mad. that's how dora fights the manipulation of adults and freud's relentless attempts at subjugating her sexuality in the name of a sexist view of things in which penises are very powerful and attractive objects and vaginas are very meek and passive objects. dora is not politically correct. not even close. dora is sixteen and hurt and angry.
dora also cuts herself. her cuts are not just injury: they are writing. she writes a new body on her own body. she writes her voice on her body. she doesn't have much to make herself heard, at least to herself, and she uses it to the max.
dora has a wonderful girlfriend whom she adores but with whom she can't make love, or ever make out, because the terrible "transgression" of expressing a woman-on-woman, or simply a female sexuality causes her to pass out.
in the meantime, freud is not a complete asshole. after all, he's the only adult in authority who pays any attention at all (though dora has a little posse of great, queer, alledgedly marginalized friends who are family and salvation and home). so there are some nice moments between dora and sig, alongside some entirely cringe-making moments which you might or might not be able to endure.
as someone who loves psychoanalysis i was happy to see that it wasn't entirely thrown under the bus. freud (the real-life guy) really screwed up with dora, but psychoanalysts (some of them at least) have learned a thing or two between then and now, and they are some of the few mental health professionals who still listen, and pay attention, and hear you.
underneath all of dora's spunk, or alongside it, there's a ton of pain: the pain of abandonment by her parents, the pain of denial of her sexuality, the pain of the utter silencing of her self. i have the impression one or two or a thousand girls and boys might find themselves in dora and say, with her, fuck yeah. cuz kids nowadays, and perhaps always, need all the help they can get.
here's a really excellent word of advice, straight out of dora's mouth, for every adult who finds him or herself in a position of helping kids, especially girl kids, and maybe girl non-kids too: "Um, brainbuster? Next time you work with a female? Ask her which city her body is. Or ocean. Give her poetry books written by women. Like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and H.D. and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. Let her draw or pain or sign a self before. You. Say. A. Word."
finally, i want to say that this book's language will bring tear of joy to your eyes. also: it's really hilarious. like, LOL hilarious. and heartbreaking. and still hilarious. (less)
ETA i'm reading around in GR, checking other reviews of this book, and there are SO MANY that are SO GOOD and make points that are different from mine...moreETA i'm reading around in GR, checking other reviews of this book, and there are SO MANY that are SO GOOD and make points that are different from mine, or points that are similar to mine but say it better. great literature produces great responses!
this is the best memoir i have read. in fact, it is one of the best books i've ever read period. i tried to think of other books that would compare to it in beauty, creativity, intelligence, complexity, and depth, and i think i'm going to have to place Are You My Mother? among my top ten. if i spent the next 5 years re-reading it, over and over, daily, continuously, it would be satisfaction enough for my intellect and my soul. i am an awe of alison bechdel for having written and drawn this book. i can't imagine what it must have taken. but then i think i know what it took: a genius only some of us possess. genius in conception, preparation, working through, execution, and getting it done (so many of us out here with fabulous ideas, deep thoughts, complex plans, and not enough persistence or courage or solidity of self to bring it all to completion).
and this is such a unique book. in order to painstakingly write it, page after bloody page, and then put it out there for all to see, she must truly have believed -- in it, in herself, in the world.
i read the entire thing so fast. i need to re-read. it's not an easy book but it was an incredibly compelling book to me. i think i drank it. i dreamed it. i thought about it nonstop and still am. it changed my life.
i haven’t read many reviews of it but in one of them bechdel says that she wasn’t thinking of her mother when she first conceived of the book. she wanted to write a book about relationships. this makes sense to me. if you are drawn to write a book about relationships and all their immense complications and you are alison bechdel you will necessarily be drawn to this most central, first, primordial, paradigmatic relationship: the relationship with your mother.
but let me try to bring some order to this brilliantly interwoven work of art. there are many genres and many stories that intersect in Are You My Mother? one strand is a pretty scholarly (but of course bechdel endeavors to make it fully accessible to everyone) exposition of the thought of british psychoanalyst donald winnicott. winnicott is the guy who invented the transitional object and the good enough mother. more significantly, he developed and added his original insight to the idea that what happened between a mom (or a primary caretaker) and her baby in very early stages of childhood shapes the baby in a fundamental and lasting way. also famously, winnicott said that there is not such a thing as a baby, meaning we cannot conceive of a baby in isolation: the rapport with the mother is essential to the baby's existence.
i love psychoanalysis and winnicott is a particularly lovely representative of it. his work is key to a lot of contemporary psychoanalysis and a serious and compelling argument in favor of not judging psychoanalysis only based on the work of freud, as many still do. winnicott's psychoanalysis is sweet and passionate. he was a child psychologist and worked all of his life with kids, often very disturbed ones. bechdel is clealy in love with him too. beside discussing his ideas (and, charmingly, telling us the story of her engagement with his work and the evolution of this engagement, sticky points and all) she also talks about him, the man. since she's a comics artist, she can do that. sometimes (not sure if in relation to winnicott or at other points, but still) the text in the square boxes and what happens in the panels seem to go their separate ways, as if they were talking about entirely different things. the effect is stunning, like hearing a voice over in a movie during a sequences that doesn't quite illustrate what the voice over is saying.
this should give you a sense of the complexity of this text. as she talks about psychoanalysis, bechdel gives us a dense psychoanalytic text, in which free associations appear in the flow of the narrative, in the juxtaposition of stories, in the juxtaposition of drawings and words, and in just about everything. this is why i could spend the next five years reading it.
anyway, winnicott. being so in love with his work, bechdel falls a bit in love with his story. i love the passages dedicated to his personal story. this simple man, with his issues and his troubles, sitting on the floor talking to kids, healing kids, or lying on the couch talking to his own analyst -- so brilliant, so revolutionary, so human. beautiful.
the book, inevitably, becomes a self-analysis. in fact, it is a self-analysis from the very first panel, as it starts with a dream bechdel goes on to interpret. so this is another strand. but this strand is aided by the fact that, before she wrote the book and while writing the book, bechdel is herself in analysis. a lot of panels are about her sessions with her analysts (she saw two). these panels are strangely and compellingly dynamic, in spite of the fact that they portray two people sitting in a room, because bechdel draws the analyst as sitting very still while she manages to give a sense of her own inquisitiveness and restless curiosity. she is always drawn sitting with her elbows on her knees, leaning forward. she scratches her head. she looks intensely absorbed in the difficult process to understand.
to summarize, so far: we have bechdel's study of winnicott; we have bechdel's analytic sessions; we have bechdel's self analysis. the last is aided by the first two. the whole book is an intense, incredibly artful, incredibly and beautifully compressed yet absolutely absorbing effort on the part of bechdel to understand what went on between herself her mother.
which brings me to strand number four, which is all the time and physical space (literally! this is a comic book! the space is bidimensional!) bechdel devotes to her conversations with her mother. busy as she is working, studying, analyzing, and having a life, bechdel talks on the phone to her mom every day. as we saw in Fun Home and as we see here too, bechdel's mom was not exactly a fountain of warmth and tenderness. she was probably a good enough mom when alison was very little, but later her (frustrated?) artistic interests turned her into a rather cold and detached figure. when alison was 7 mom told her she was too old to be kissed goodnight. her younger brothers continued to receive their goodnight kisses.
the profound disconnect between alison and her mother continues in adulthood. alison is always the one who initiates the calls. their "conversations" consist of mom talking and alison listening. on the occasions when alison needs to make herself heard (like, say, to ask if it's okay that she's writing this book!), she needs to insist. conversations about alison seem to last only two or three exchanges. mom is none too happy that alison is writing about her family but then alison does it anyway and mom seems to take it in stride. mom is also unhappy that alison writes a (successful) comic strip about lesbians ("what am i going to tell the family?").
this detachment is obviously and glaringly in contrast with the fact that they talk every day. why does alison keep calling this woman who doesn't truly accept her and is not overly proud in her? the discrepancy is complicated by the fact that at some point (maybe in order to write this book) alison starts typing up the conversations she has with her mom while they are happening. so imagine panel after panel of alison wearing earbuds and typing away while mom is off screen (so to speak: there must be a way to say this for comic books but i don't know what it is) talking about art, literature, the theater, and her life.
bechdel is a compulsive record keeper, but this seems deeply meaningful beyond that. it's as if typing up what her mother says a) gave alison something to do while mom goes on about herself b) gave alison agency in this interaction (she, not mom, captures and will be the custodian of mom's words) and c) upset the balance of power and powerlessness between them (these words will end up in a book in which mom doesn't look too good and over which she has no control*).
finally, there is the strand of alison's relationships with her girlfriends, presumably the point from which everything started. this part goes by quickly so i don't remember it too well; or maybe i was more interested in other parts. it seems anyway secondary, as if the true, the important relating were happening in the analysts's offices, in alison's office at home while she talks to her mom, in alison's mother's house (where she seems so very young), in alison's head, in alison's fabulous real-time reflections on the book she's writing.
i have left out so much. there's a lot of virginia woolf here, especially her journals, and there's a very astute reading of To the Lighthouse; woolf is another woman whose mom never quite loved her right, and bechdel shows the immense therapeutic value woolf got out of writing To the Lighthouse, where she puts her feelings towards her parents to rest. and there's a lot about alice miller's psychoanalytic book The Drama of the Gifted Child, which bechdel discusses gorgeously and in which she finds endless comfort.
but i have to stop. i'm using too many words. i have so much more to say but my words seem already to be more than all the words of Are You My Mother?
i cannot say that this book is for everyone. some people are bound to find it difficult.** but if you had a complex relation with your mom, give it a try. and if you love literature, and words, and ideas, and the magic that books can spin, definitely pick it up and read it. go slowly. savor the panels, savor the words, try to understand. and if you are interested in psychoanalysis, about how healing through a deep relationship with another who sits with you and listens to your story happens, this book is totally for you.
i don't want to make this book sound forbidding, but Fun Home was a breeze and this isn't a breeze. it's a book in which so much is packed. it's a deep book about someone who is trying to find her roots, not only through emotions but also through a lot of thinking and looking at others who did the same. this is deeply moving but the thinking can get a bit hard to grasp fully. still, it is so worth it, so so worth it. this is destined to become a key text of the american literary canon.
* this is also complicated. alison mails to her mom drafts of both her books and waits very anxiously for a response.
** i'm not some kind of genius or anything, but i know a bit about psychoanalysis. (less)
this is just about as good a novel about being a sad kid in australia as i have read, and if you think i'm being facetious i'll tell you that i've rea...morethis is just about as good a novel about being a sad kid in australia as i have read, and if you think i'm being facetious i'll tell you that i've read another australian novel about a sad kid and it didn't even compare to this one, quality-wise (i didn't finish that one either). problem is, i don't like YA novels. i just don't. i want my writers to talk to me as an adult. i want difficult words that express difficult ideas in difficult turns of phrases. i want hard and edgy. i want complex in that adult way of being complex that involves jobs, getting older, and losses different from the (terrible) losses of kids.
also, the whole love thing, i don't know, maybe it didn't work that way for me, but i just can't feel it. boys looking at you sideways; boys walking you to class; boys giving you rides home... i didn't do any of that. i didn't even do it with girls, if you see what i mean. that whole game happened while i was thinking about other things. what other things was i thinking about? i studied like a dog, i fought with my sisters, i fought with my parents, i fought with my relatives, i fought with my teachers, i fought with just about everyone. i rode my bicycle fast through one of the most beautiful cities in the world. i worried about grades. sometimes i met with my classmates and studied. sometimes i went to parties with my classmates but i found them boring and felt like i didn't belong so i left. i hung out with the kids in the parish. i fought with the priests and the counselors and every adult in sight. i wish there were a book about me, but not a YA book. when you think about these things from the future of adulthood, they feel different, you know? the sense of loss is both magnified and diminished. kids are capable of tremendous despair, but adults, well, we're a bit more jaded, and we're afraid of death, and we are really afraid of injuries we didn't even know existed when we were kids, and all of this tinges our memories in a special and unique way. there's all this history that took place, and even though in some ways our adolescence feels to us as intact as it was then, it isn't. it's different, and i wish i could think of a writer who captures its misery through the eyes of adulthood. maybe sylvia plath in The Bell Jar?
but then the true crazy thing is that YA writers are adults, and this messes me up entirely. in fact, most YA readers are adults. what gives? what gives? if you have made it this far, please explain it to me.
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 for...morethis 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. (less)
this book is a broken elegy to the north of england and a world of small shops, small communities, and simple habits that no longer exists. it's also...morethis book is a broken elegy to the north of england and a world of small shops, small communities, and simple habits that no longer exists. it's also a tribute to a hardy working class people who knows resilience, pluckiness, no-nonsensicality, and making a life out of what you are given. surprisingly, it's a vindication of the values of faith, which keep people under the direst circumstances out of the clutches of despair and of the feeling of being trapped. these are winterson's words. this truly abused kid never felt despair or a sense of being trapped while she grew up. there was faith for that. no one else felt it either.
have i read too little winterson to know that she writes like this? i remember her prose as lyrical and full of surprises. this is simple, direct, often hysterical in spite of all the horrors (i laughed out loud a lot), and wry. maybe all of her books are written like this and i don't remember. maybe this is written like this because there are only so many ways in which you can describe mayhem.
jeanette winterson was given up for adoption six weeks after she was born. in those six weeks she was breastfed and loved. the family who adopted her consisted of a factory worker and a homesteader. mrs. winterson was a true force of nature, not necessarily in a good way. she was definitely a withering and wintering force of nature for poor jeanette, who disappointed her mom (the book shows it could not have been otherwise) by being a girl (turns out the wintersons had settled on a little boy), by being herself a little concentrated force of nature, and by being the devil's spawn. it is not entirely clear what terrible things jeanette did, but she was often punished in unbelievably cruel ways, and she was never loved.
this book is in many ways mrs. winterson's story. she deserves a story and she is lucky her daughter is a fabulous writer. this terrible woman who loved all that is death-like in christianity and lived under the sign of the apocalypse, renunciation of all worldly pleasure, and doom, is described with great compassion. jeanette must have loved her very much. she must have wanted her very much. she must also have been furiously angry at her, but this book is about forgiveness, not anger.
when young willful jeanette falls in love with a girl mrs. winterson basically say it's either the girl or you and jeanette spends the following couple of years sleeping in a borrowed car while going to school full time and having a part-time job. she is sixteen.
then, because she is jeanette winterson and nothing but nothing will ever stop her from getting what she wants, she gets herself into oxford. if you read the first part of the book without knowing who jeanette winterson is, the fact that she got herself into oxford will make your jaw drop. how on earth could this working class girl who had lived in a place stuck several decades behind real time get into one of the most exclusive universities in the world?
well, she did.
in the second part of the book jeanette moves to the very near present and talks about a terrible breakdown she suffered when she was in her late 40s. i won't say what brought it on but it doesn't really matter. in passing she also tells us that she had two more breakdowns and one psychotic crisis. also, she seems to be one of those people who hear voices without having other psychotic symptoms. apparently she heard voices all through her life. in Agnes's Jacket psychology professor gail hornstein debunks the myth that people who hear voices are invariably schizophrenic or bipolar and need to be medicated to kingdom come (i'm sure she's not the first to say so, but her book is the first where i read it). there are indeed people who hear voices but lead an otherwise normal life.
why JW had breakdowns; why she always had a terrible time sustaining loving relationships; why she was troubled all her life is not something that is very difficult to understand. she spent the first 16 years of her life not getting any love. this tends not to do wonders for one's psychological health.
this book is also an ode to books and words. books and words saved young jeanette, plain and simple. books and words have saved many unloved kids and will continue to do so as long as humankind exists, because there will always be unloved kids and works of literature. her love for and gratitude to literature could not be bigger. it's time for me to read all of her books. (less)