i approached this book the way i was told to approach it (no one in particular said anything, but i got the general idea) and, well, i don't like booki approached this book the way i was told to approach it (no one in particular said anything, but i got the general idea) and, well, i don't like books about nastiness. you know, books about psychopaths, serial killers, and the like. not my cup of tea. the sociopath here would be zenia. but slowly it dawned on me, thanks in part to having read Dept. of Speculation (as i type this i don't know why, but maybe it will be clearer to me by the end of this review), that this book is not about zenia. not even close. this book is about tony, charis, and roz. you start getting this when atwood unravels slowly (something she never does for zenia) their stories, starting from their childhoods. and these childhoods are invariably horrible. so much abuse, so much loneliness, so much abandonment. later, they tie themselves to men who are much more valuable to them in retrospect, after zenia has worked her black magic on them. when atwood gives them -- these men -- to us unvarnished, un-zenia-ed, un-mourned, well there is pretty much nothing redeemable about them, and no reason at all why these women should stay with them.
except they (the women) are so hurt. they are so mauled by their terrible childhoods. so they stick to what they think they deserve. because bad, cruel companionship is better than no companionship at all.
zenia is a cypher. she is the empty form into which these three deeply injured women pour their demons. and zenia delivers. she delivers in spades. she takes the demons out of the box and smacks them powerfully into each woman's face.
and in the process, she does them a favor. except they don't know it, do they? they hate zenia, which is awesome because this possibly saves them from hating themselves (as victims do: they don't hate the perpetrator, they hate themselves) too much. and she brings them closer to each other.
the magic, the true white magic of the book is the care, the unjudgmental care (and yes, they may be snippy occasionally in their thoughts, but oh do they come through for each other!), the love tony, charis and roz have for each other. their demons bring them together, and, because deflected on another, manage not to tear them apart.
but here's another piece of magic atwood performs (because, really, com'on, who can write like this? who? no one, that's who). atwood takes these three women and gives as complete a picture of the complexities of three women's lives (not femininity, not womanhood, but many of us will still find ourselves there) as is humanly possible. in doing this, she covers with astounding meticulousness: fashion (for lack of a better word), natural eating, comfort eating, fancy-restaurant eating, farming, gardening, sexual abuse, religion (please check the fantastic chapter in which roz gives us a pretty formidable account of the christian faith), romantic love, parental love, childhood, loss, boating, corporation running, history, war, weaponry, battles, battlefields, language, etymology, escaping the US draft, desire, motherhood, loneliness, internal decoration, running a woman's magazine, toronto, canada, etc. etc. etc.*
so for this alone, for atwood's astounding power to observe and describe, for her capacity to capture lives in such an infinite multitude of aspects and reflections and refractions, i proclaim her the best writer ever. (not really). (but). (kinda).
*spectacularly missing, as always in atwood: race and, to a significant extent, same-sex desire. ...more
i wanted to create a shelf for this one. i would have called "how-the-young'uns-write." but then i faltered. it seemed dismissive. maybe there is somei wanted to create a shelf for this one. i would have called "how-the-young'uns-write." but then i faltered. it seemed dismissive. maybe there is something slightly MFA-ish and a bit "trendy" about the way this book is written, but, really, this is beautiful, brave, and virtuoso writing, and it should be judged as its own writerly thing.
elyria, the protagonist, is a very young 28 year old. she speaks (writes) in lulling run-ons that are often startling and beautiful, and sometimes so poetic and original they make your heart sing. sometimes they are hilarious and then you laugh. she writes of all the things young'uns with broken hearts, a truncated view of their future, and a disembodied desperation write: time, relationships, parents, siblings, love, not love, the big wide world with its big wide being-lost-in-ness, and death.
(MINOR SPOILER THAT GETS REVEALED SOON ENOUGH) elyria's particular relationship to time, death, and disembodiment is connected to the death of her sister ruby. (END OF SPOILER) since elyria talks mostly from a place of disconnection and inner sense-making rather than story-telling, we don't learn much about her life prior to the present of the narration, but we learn enough to understand that it wasn't pretty. she doesn't tell us a lot about what she was like as a child, but you get a sense she was one of those kids who thought all the time about dying. you know those kids. they are the heroes of the literature you love best. my favorite are mick kelley, frankie addams, holden caulfield, and nomi nickel.* if you can imagine mick, frankie, and holden at 28, you get elyria.
it takes a really good writer to pull off a mick, a frankie, a holden, a nomi. the despair of children is not for the faint of heart.
fact is, some of us carry those children inside us all of our lives. we manage to survive by learning to love them. cuz those children are too formidable, too unbelievably cool to go away. what loss that would be! so we make peace with them and their deathlust the best we can. we become the mommies and daddies who weren't there or weren't enough, and, as snotchcheez says (i'll paraphrase), we take 'em home and give them a warm blanket and a bowl of chowder. for life.
this is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which mthis is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which may or may not go hand in hand with economic disparity).
a young haitian lawyer, black, married to a handsome nebraskan man (white), with an übercute little kid, is kidnapped during her visit to haiti to see her family. kidnapping apparently is the order of the day in haiti at the time (pre-earthquake) and wealthy people expect it and do all they can to prevent it. mireille's family's security measures are not enough and soon the kidnappers are asking for one million american dollars as ransom for mireille. sort of inexplicably, near the beginning of the novel mireille, who narrates the vast majority of the chapters, tells us that her kidnappers were scared young men. this sense of forgiveness, acceptance, or empathy never returns in the novel; nor, frankly, do they seem that scared when we meet them. but there you have it.
in all likelihood that kidnapping would have gone off without a hitch and no-one would have gotten hurt if mireille's father had paid straight away. but mireille's father has opinions about how to handle situations like this (it's his first time, but of course he has been preparing for it forever), and decides not to negotiate with the kidnappers. this unleashes in the latter a barrage of sexual violence that goes on, relentlessly, for the entirety of the 13 days of the kidnapping. we are given a really precise sense of what this violence consists of and of what it feels like, and it isn't pretty. in fact, it's barely tolerable. one night, after reading, i found myself shaking and unable to sleep. let's just say that i've never read sexual brutality described with such truthfulness. the only other book that made me equally horrified is Primo Levi's incredible narration of his life in auschwitz in Survival in Auschwitz, aka If This Is a Man. what these two books have in common is their masterful rendition of what it feels like to stop being human.
mireille alternates the narrative of what happens to her during her capture with stories of her life with her husband michael and of her pregnancies, only one of which goes to term. the narrative organization is pretty flawless, and while mireille's life before her capture emerges as nice (a lot of emphasis on desire between mireille and michael), there is always, looming, and by necessity, a sense of unease about men and their strange culture. in short, men are brutes who hurt women, michael notwithstanding. and michael is not a sweetie pie. he's a man of few words and he's as hungry for mireille as mireille is for him. given the narrative set up, though, this hunger is uncomfortable to the reader. you'd rather have them make french toast together than fuck intensely, overwhelmed by their love/desire for each other.
there is also the fact that michael's nebraskan family, made of farm-owning mom and dad, is none too pleased with michael's marrying someone of a different color, and makes absolutely no mystery of it. this is as painful and uncomfortable to mireille as you'd expect it to be, but michael seems kind of clueless about it.
the most powerful parts of the book are about the brutality and the cluelessness of men. the torture scenes are really, really good. roxane gay, who was born in nebraska but is of haitian origin, gives you a clear sense of how easily women turn from human beings to playthings in the hands of men. she gives, it seems to me, no rhyme or reason for this. the playing they are subjected to is fully sexual and fully sadistic, so that if we weren't used to this, if the object of such treatment were, say, animals rather than human beings, we would unquestioningly consider these men psychopaths. as it is, we consider them rapists, a category that is so over-present in all sorts of representational forms, we consider it pretty much natural. so one thing that roxane gay does well here is denaturalize all that, show it for the absolute pathological deadly derangement it is.
and we are extremely thankful for the fact that, after having given us a chillingly accurate idea of what these men are doing -- after making sure we get it -- she lets up and simply hints. not that it gets any easier for the reader, but the novel doesn't turn into torture porn one. tiny. bit. which it could easily have done.
men's cluelessness is portrayed in all its glory in the aftermath, when mireille is released. the major culprit, of course, is michael -- but then he was clueless from day one.
the second part of the book is about post traumatic agony, and there are some pretty brutal scenes (not quite as brutal as the torture scenes, but close) in which michael thinks that the best way to help his wife is to force her to do things she doesn't want to do. as anyone who understand trauma even just a bit knows, forcing someone who's been deprived of her autonomy in the most radical way to do things, even things that are supposedly good for her, is a sure recipe for intolerable retraumatization.
eventually respite comes to mirelle (thank god) from some unexpected and lovely place, and we can breathe a little (just a little).
two things that left me unhappy at the end: although reformed, michael seems to me to continue being a jerk, understanding his role as mireille's partner only in terms of "masculine" protectiveness and bluster. if the book means for that to be the case, and therefore critiques michael, this critique is not made clear at all. the other thing is small but it bugged me all the way through: mireille has two siblings but the second one, a male, is mentioned only at the beginning and never mentioned again. this is strange in a book in which the family and its dynamics are so closely analyzed. if i've missed something, please feel free to let me know in comment.
i think roxane gay puts material about nationhood, race, belonging and capitalism in the book, too -- especially about the mayhem that is bound to happen when very rich people live in close proximity to people who are absolutely destitute -- but, frankly, her analysis of gender relations is so bright and stark and powerful, the rest kind of falls by the wayside. ...more
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 ii 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. ...more
benightedly i gave this 4 stars i'm sorry/you are/yes/why did you give it 4 stars/i wanted it to be like Aof R/ poetry is never the same/as i'm learninbenightedly i gave this 4 stars i'm sorry/you are/yes/why did you give it 4 stars/i wanted it to be like Aof R/ poetry is never the same/as i'm learning mostly from the reviews i am too inexperienced to learn from the book itself/some of these poems are surreal/they are/you don't like surreal/i like surreal but it doesn't quite talk to me the language seems gimmicky to me without/ i've heard this before/wisdom i guess/poetry's curse/insight quotability a light/we fumble in the dark/there's a glacier then there is a volcano polar opposites/which pole/i'd say the north pole/it's the easiest to assume/there is no life at the south pole except of course that which the explorers bring basically themselves/you mean native life but then how would we know/i mean currently/ah, temporality/i loved io/she's feathery and magic/thank you/you're welcome/i hate war/me too...more
at first i thought, shucks, i should have read Saving Francesca, i don't understand a thing. but the fact is that i had read Saving Francesca, well, aat first i thought, shucks, i should have read Saving Francesca, i don't understand a thing. but the fact is that i had read Saving Francesca, well, a third of it at least, and i had had to stop because the puppy love was really boring me to pieces. and then someone in the RA group suggested that i might like this, and i said, no no no, i had to stop reading Saving Francesca because of the puppy love, and they said, yes, that was a problem for me too, but this book is different. and maybe now i should backtrack and say that when i asked for advice in the Readers Advisory group i had just read, or was in the middle of reading, the masterful Code Name Verity, and that the suffering contained in that book, along with the author's conveyance that this suffering had meaning and was in fact redeemed by great love, had much lifted my spirits and filled my heart. and when i said this, someone in RA recommended this book, and that's why i was reading it, even though i kept thinking that, not having finished Saving Francesca, i couldn't possibly understand anything.
but i forged on. and then i realized that what marchetta does is give you the story a little bit at a time, so that you have all of its pieces only at the end. it's really great writing, simple unassuming writing with a genius organization underneath, so that you get to know all these people slowly and confusingly, the way you'd know people in real life if they showed up all at once, ten or so of them, barely remembering who's brother or nephew or uncle of whom, but slowly getting it, because marchetta knows what she's doing and how to bring you to the core of things. and the core of things, which slowly unfolds in all this confusion of kinship and inner pain, is that there is a family that was struck by a tragedy so profound that, two years later, everyone is still reeling -- reeling so badly that they are abandoning each other and betraying each other when they were each other's lifelines. and the worst thing of all is that they are abandoning tom, an unmoored teenager and arguably the book's protagonist (hence the YA designation, which, once again, seems to me entirely perplexing), who, as a consequence of the tragedy and the abandonments, got himself into a heap of trouble and is now hanging doubled up on the ropes of his life, totally out of juice, nothing left to him, a disaster in human shape.
the sydney of marchetta is a nice little city, with communities, local hang outs, and people who know about each other and care about each other beyond text messages and facebook status updates. they have been in each other's lives for generations (well, as many generations as being white in australia allows), have spent countless christmases together, have seen each other's children grow up, and don't understand not spending time together.
the book is a slow rebuilding of the community in the aftermath of trauma, which is also a slow building of the novel, the narrative, the threads that keep the story together. and while at first you wonder what the hell is wrong with these people, with their touchiness and immense capacity for taking things the wrong way, at the end you realize that marchetta has brought you through a journey in which people have hesitantly but tenderly started to heal each other, and in the process have healed you a bit too. ...more
this book seems to cause strong reactions, so let me first say what i think it is not:
* it is not a book that predicts how a generic child will improthis book seems to cause strong reactions, so let me first say what i think it is not:
* it is not a book that predicts how a generic child will improve when treated the way virginia axline treats dibs (how does she treat dibs? she mostly describes dibs’ behavior, not hers).
* it is not a book about diagnostics (dibs is given exactly zero labels).
* it is not a book about technique; it is not a manual even in the broadest sense of the word.
* finally, it is not a book about etiology or the genesis of children's pain, not even this particular child's, even though the author does give some sense of what happened to dibs prior to their encounter.
what i think this book is, is the story of a very unique encounter between two unique individuals who found each other, clicked in a tremendously effective way, and led each other to change and growth. for all of axline's emphasis on the self (the finding of the self, the building up of the self, the solidifying of the self, etc.), DSS is about relationship and love -- the specific relationship axline built with this specific child and the love story they created.
what struck me most about the book, what i keep thinking about, is that healing love, in whatever context you find it, has one defining feature: it makes room for the other. axline's behavior toward dibs may seem at a superficial level pretty empty. she echoes his words and provides affirmation for pretty much all of his wishes, desires, and behaviors. since she doesn't describe herself, we don't know anything about her body language and her own behavior, but after a bit i got the impression that she was warm and smiling, that she didn't move much (except when dibs asked her to), and that she kept her attention riveted on dibs.
as dibs himself observes (he is such an fabulous patient; he notices everything and gives constant feedback and, i am pretty sure, gratification), there is nothing he cannot do in the playroom. this is fantastic for him and seems to be exactly what he needs. the only thing he cannot do is stay past his time, and this is something axline and dibs return to over and over. it's hard for dibs to leave, especially at first, when his situation at home is still extremely tense and hostile. but it's hard for him later, too. this specific therapeutic moment, the time when the session is over, is an extremely important one, crucial really, and i think that in a good therapeutic couple the loss is felt by both therapist and patient.
one thing dibs learns from axline is that losses are not permanent. he also learns that losses are harbingers of new gains and joys, often in pretty short order and in great abundance. it's a bit like waiting until dinner when you want a snack half an hour before the food is ready. by the end of the treatment, dibs adores the thought of thursday.
the way in which axline makes room for dibs is truly wonderful and the most shining lesson of this small book. i have thought about this and i believe the heart of this "making room" is total emptiness and total fullness, combined. the therapist empties herself of expectations, demands, or judgments (except for the very broad judgment that the patient is immensely interesting and lovable). in this process of self-emptying, though, the therapist becomes an extremely strong presence. it is (one of) the greatest miracles of humanness -- the more room we make for others, the more we empty ourselves of our own needs with respect to others, the more we grow in presence and impact. we become as insubstantial and irresistible as pure light.
now, this self-emptying can take place in all sorts of ways and contexts and with all sorts of gradations. the therapeutic setting is one in which this happens very intensely and to a very high degree (this is one of the reasons why therapeutic sessions typically last 50 minutes). there are other settings that are similar -- healing settings in which the "therapist" is not someone with a degree and a job. the idea is the same.
i think that what dibs feels, what blows him away, what makes him giddy with joy, is the loving space, the bright presence, the full emptiness he experiences with his miss A. he has never had that. experiencing it for the first time is dizzying to him. you can see the life being poured into him, and him drinking at it till he's sated. it's wonderful.
so, ultimately, this seems a book about how two people can meet and fall in love, and then, because one of these two people is a sad and hurt little boy, how one of them pours everything she ‘s got into healing him. there is, by the way, as far as i can see, no judgment from axline about the parents. the mother's visit with axline is wonderful. axline treats the mother the same way she treats dibs: she listens, takes her in, gives her space, passes no judgment at all, honors her pain and confusion, gives no advice.
in a really lovely passage little five-year-old dibs goes up to miss A and asks her: what are you? you are not a mom because i have my mom; you are not a teacher because i have my teachers. what are you?
axline echoes dibs' puzzlement rather than providing an answer (what would that answer be anyway?) and dibs happily moves on. i think this book is an answer to this question. what is a therapist? a therapist, a good therapist, is someone who delves into the dark with you, comes with you wherever you take her, sticks with you, and loves you madly. and she does this while being and staying herself, and human, and normal. ...more
this memoir is larger than life. lidia yuknavitch is larger than life. she is smart, funny, talented in about a thousand ways (she thinks the only thithis memoir is larger than life. lidia yuknavitch is larger than life. she is smart, funny, talented in about a thousand ways (she thinks the only thing she does well is swim but of course that's ridiculous), and a barrelfull of life. she's got so much life in her, she had to use gargantuan amounts of booze, drugs, and sex to put it all to sleep. and still, she didn't manage.
as a writer, she might annoy you. some of the things she says here annoyed me. i got annoyed when she wholesale-dissed 'n ditched academia. i got annoyed when she told me how to heal. i got annoyed when she celebrated the written word, especially her relationship to the written word. she knows she knows how to write, if you see what i mean. and, in fact, she does know how to write. but it's annoying that she tells you, more than once.
but here's something else, something that's so important, it may be the most important thing about this book. people with deep trauma don't have anything. most of all, they don't have a self. they don't have a walking self, a biking self, a reading self, a writing self, a swimming self. for the longest time, all lidia yuknavitch had were 1. a swimming self and 2. a fucking-up self. the swimming may have saved her life. i mean, she puts it right in the title of her book, right? in fact, she puts it all over her book!
so take someone like this woman, so brutalized in infancy and childhood and adolescence that she was left only with these two barely serviceable selves. one of them built -- self-confidence, strength, life -- the other killed. you know which one won. yet, this woman managed at some point, in some way, miraculously, to pull herself out of the dark and the must and the not-life. if you think about that, if you spend even a minute thinking about that, you stop being annoyed at her book, because you know that this book is literally her life. it's like you hold this book, you hold her. this bragging woman, this larger-than-life woman, is also a very fragile woman.
i got my book through interlibrary loan. my university didn't have a copy and my public library didn't have a copy. WHAT! i'll return the book to the library and, on the same day, order it from my local bookstore. then, next semester or the one after that, i'll assign it to my class. i teach two kind of classes: classes about trauma and the construction of mental pain (aka "mental illness"), and queer studies class. this book works in both. if you are reading this, lidia yuknavitch (i hope you are not), 35 people will buy your book. 36 with me. some will buy it used from the big amazonian beast, so count on 20-25. not bad, huh?
but i'm sure i'm not the only one assigning this book in class. here are a few reasons:
* it's beautiful * it's as powerful as anything you've read * it doesn't pigeonhole/define/categorize anything: not sexuality, not child abuse, not incest, not addiction, not redemption, not marriage, not writing, not new lives (this is a major selling point for me, this freedom from pre-established narratives) * it's a fantastic read * it's beautifully, gorgeously queer * it's beautifully, gorgeously vulnerable and hurt and broken * it's beautifully, painfully honest * it's beautifully, achingly real (i wish i hadn't written achingly; so cliché)