i was reading Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, except i wasn't really reading it because i was listening to it in audiobook before going to sleep. and then the book got disturbing, so i decided to take a break and listen to Dept. of Speculation instead.
you understand, i listen to audiobooks with the light off, while (hopefully) going to sleep. since (if i'm lucky, or unlucky, depending on the book) i get into sleeping mode within half an hour, my taking in of the book is largely hypnagogic. which is not necessarily bad. because, in some cases, it works.
this case. this book. perfect for the hypnagogic state of someone who loves language -- who, in fact, finds language a balm for the chapped soul. going to sleep to jenny offill's reading her own book (yes!) is like going to sleep to the singing of sirens.
but then, see, because that is a mental state that doesn't lead to solid remembering, i typically listen to the same chapters two, three, four, ten times. so the book enters me in a way that is pretty spectacular, subliminal, and whole in a peculiar kind of way. a peculiar kind of wholeness.
i loved this book tremendously. it is the first addition to my "twee" bookshelf, which i have been thinking of creating for a while but i'm creating only now. i resisted creating it because i would have put in it only books whose twee-ness i disliked. but twee can be beautiful, i have found, and this book is twee in all the right, spectacular, wonderful ways.
this is what i love. i love mixed media in literature. i love poetry in fiction. i love prose poems that go into the three-digit pages. i particularly love mixtures of little-known facts stated in factoidal form, narrative prose, and poetry. think of the last page of Harper's. at the end, all of it becomes poetry -- found poetry plus poetry plus poetry.
now go read poingu's review. i don't agree with the first two paragraphs -- at all -- and i think what poingu hypothesizes at the beginning of their third paragraph is right on (notice e.g. the various ways in which the word "girl" is used in the book, and the ways in which this use changes, changes again, folds in upon itself).
but then poingu zaps us with this:
Well, it is just thematically boring to me to hear about another white cis woman struggling with the limitations that come from being a wife and mother. The narrator never steps out of a white/upper class/Manhattan/young/privileged/female mindset to see what possible future she might create for herself other than whining about not being an "Art Monster." There is a lack of empathy in this narrative voice, a selfishness, a limitation of imagination. Also I could do without the extremely lengthy challenge the narrator has with bedbugs in her apartment which also gave the novel all the more a feeling of being written by someone who never steps outside of NYC.
this is a theme that is close to my heart, something i worry about a lot, the main reason why i prefer at any given time to read literature by women of color. i could get into my various thoughts on the matter and i'll do so if there is a public outcry among my thousands of readers from all over the world for me to do so, but for now let me offer a counter-argument.
as an inescapably "white cis woman" with a "white/upper class/Manhattan/young/privileged/female mindset" (but then our heroine is not upper class either is she; she's a creative writing university professor in nyc whose husband is also a university professor -- or is he? getting foggy here --, so let me tell you without hesitation and with first-hand knowledge that there is not a ton of money to spare in that particular household; in other words, middle class, as it has come to signify in america in the last few decades, will do) i want my pain acknowledged. i want my pain acknowledged alongside the class- and race-marked pain of my poorer sisters of color. and my richer sisters of color. and my poorer and richer white sisters. and my trans* sisters, poor rich white and/or brown. and all women of all intersectional layers of race, class, gender and sexuality. because you can have your son blown in the head by a perfectly ordinary cop (something that is very unlikely to happen to me, among other reasons because i don't have a son) and still suffer terribly because your husband stepped out on you. because you can be discriminated at the airport/in the workplace/in shops/in the street in ways i cannot even imagine but i constantly try to make myself aware of and still feel depression and despair and malaise and a keening need to die.
hypostasizing the class- and race-colored pain of non-white working-class women does a disservice to these woman and to privileged (because) white women (though not all white women are equally privileged). any woman -- any person who suffers is a person who is experiencing pain (see what i'm doing here? tautology; unassailable). i don't want to have a conversation over the validity of that pain. let's talk about social conditions and structural injustice; let's talk about privilege; let's by all means talk about all that because it's just so crucial and important that not talking about it would be like putting chunks of lobster over one's eyes and bits of truffle into one's ear (only some of us can). but let's never belittle anyone's pain. ever. we are, all of us, fighting a great battle. some of us are losing and are therefore dying all sorts of deaths, including the death of the traditional kind. some of us write in order to survive. is jenny offill writing to survive? i don't know. do you?
yeah, me too. cuz, really, how easy does the world make it for us to disbelieve women's words? believing women's words is my epistemic stance of choice. as a woman. as a feminist. as a woman who loves women. as a woman in this world.
now please don't maul me in comments. i am fighting a great battle too. thank you.
i 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
this is about the entire trilogy, not just this book.
this trilogy is unwaveringly fantastic. there is no point in any of the three books when i thougthis is about the entire trilogy, not just this book.
this trilogy is unwaveringly fantastic. there is no point in any of the three books when i thought, eh, that could have been done better. so if you know the story you know the story and if you don't you can go find it somewhere (it's easy!), but here are the things i loved about this endeavor:
1. language means a lot. when jimmy is alone, language comes to him unbidden. words. strange words. beautiful words. words that sound the same as each other and thus allow for nice alliterative strings. erudite words. the world has ended (as far as he knows) and he hangs on to the past through memories and lost words.
2. this is another dystopian fantasy in which people are kind. the people who are not kind are severely brain damaged.
3. the trilogy tackles head on what it means to be human. are the crakers human? are the pigs human?
4. i think it's a powerful touch at the end when(view spoiler)[ it turns out that crake had designed a world in which various combinations of humanity -- mainly through interbreeding, but also through cooperation, as in the case of the pigs -- could repopulated the earth. intentionally, apparently. (hide spoiler)]
5. storytelling is central. the craker civilization, which we see at its incipience, is built on storytelling and, pace crake, mythopoesis -- which, arguably but not that much, go hand in hand. this whole aspect is developed carefully and lovingly, until (view spoiler)[ the crakers themselves take it over from the more traditional humans (hide spoiler)]. there is no history without storytelling and benevolent, invisible caretakers.
6. the crakers are a fabulous creation, worthy of Octavia Butler, really, except
7. i have never read anything that so completely bypasses all chances to upset the gender binary, when chances present themselves at every turn. whoah. there are men and there are women. men love women and women love men. the end. butler would have not missed this opportunity for the world.
8. i loved the parts when zeb is the first person narrator. the language (language again, see?) becomes markedly different, a skillful reproduction of what in literature passes as male language. well done ms. atwood.
9. some authors reach a point in which sentences leave you gasping for the way in which they are written. many sentences in these books spoke to me of someone for whom putting words together has become a matter of such expertise, she doesn't need to worry about getting it right. the language in these books sizzles. fantastic.
i admire the heck out of this series. it's a genre i don't read much at all -- basically never, really -- so i lack terms of comparison and, perhaps mi admire the heck out of this series. it's a genre i don't read much at all -- basically never, really -- so i lack terms of comparison and, perhaps more importantly, the language to talk about it. the way i see it, the way it talks to me, it's as a saga in which good and evil confront each other on the bodies and the minds of humans, pretty much like it happens in the real world, except, because this is literature and because it is the particular genre of these books, all taken up a vast number of notches through metaphor.
the metaphor is the blood, which may or may not be the blood of christ. when there is blood there are vampires, but there are not vampires proper here, though there are people who want the blood of other people.
the religious aspect, which is not heavy, could have bothered me, the way it bothers me in all the dreck connected to vatican conspiracy theories and possibly even umberto eco, though i read him a long time ago. but tananarive due uses it only tangentially and above all she uses it more intelligently than i can say. this is not about christianity, really, but about making choices. good choices. impossible choices. choices so important that whichever way you choose someone is going to get hurt and someone is going to get saved.
and yet the difficult, imperfect choices must be made, because even the highest characters of this book are not perfect, because what is good is not always clear, because even when it's clear there is no straight road to it.
i've said this before about other writers who write in this genre -- i think Octavia Butler and definitely Nnedi Okorafor -- whatever this genre is: i perceive in tananarive due the compulsion of the story. i imagine her writing in a sort of writerly trance. i feel as if the story told itself through her. it's just too complex, and the details occasionally leave me breathless. why this detail? what that detail? and yet they seem so necessary, so appropriate, so essential to the fullness of the story.
so i find butler, okorafor, and due not to be awesome stylists, but i find all of them to be incredibly compelling, inspired, deep, and super smart tellers of essential stories.
now: i tried to push this series onto a fellow reader who likes the genre and is a deeply discerning reader, and he couldn't get past book one. i don't understand it when that happens. i don't understand when masterpieces talk to someone but don't talk to someone else who is just as subtle and discerning as the people who are in love with them. my buddy found the books clunky. clunky???? he also finds octavia butler clunky. when he says it i cover my ears with my hands and say la la la. ...more
i enjoy the heck out of deon meyer and i really think of him as a really, really good mystery writer, but i like him better nowadays, when he has dropi enjoy the heck out of deon meyer and i really think of him as a really, really good mystery writer, but i like him better nowadays, when he has dropped most of the sexism. all this commenting on women's physical attractiveness is a major pain in the neck. (view spoiler)[the denouement, also, is fucking brutal. (hide spoiler)] still, i wish his novels were inexhaustible. ...more
this is a truly excellent noir, but i get VERY ANNOYED when there is all that mafia involved, with their mispronounced (audiobook) last names and thethis is a truly excellent noir, but i get VERY ANNOYED when there is all that mafia involved, with their mispronounced (audiobook) last names and the various mispronounced italian all over the place. but heck, super cool hard boiled mystery. ...more
one day i'll re-read this as an allegory for the capitalistic appropriation of the caribbean islands by the us of a. this time around i read it just fone day i'll re-read this as an allegory for the capitalistic appropriation of the caribbean islands by the us of a. this time around i read it just for the story and the story wasn't my cup of tea. ...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.
not my cup of tea. i need heart in my books. love. i need love. if you are witty and biting and cool and write with corners and edges, you are not fornot my cup of tea. i need heart in my books. love. i need love. if you are witty and biting and cool and write with corners and edges, you are not for me. you may be a really good writer, but you are not for me. cuz me, i need love.
and now suddenly i'm unsure about whether tom rachman wrote this with wit, bitingness, corners, and edges. maybe he didn't. maybe i suck at short stories. i don't know. i just didn't feel the warmth of love -- the milk of human kindness. compassion. the author's love for his characters. so i got bored. so i stopped reading. ...more
i loved this book super much and wish i could have lived with these people a lot longer (not right there, just in my head). what a fantastically deep,i loved this book super much and wish i could have lived with these people a lot longer (not right there, just in my head). what a fantastically deep, intricate, seamless, warm and human piece of literature. i'm going to read all of this woman's books.
it's a dystopian novel, but it's really not, primarily, about What Happens After The Collapse, though there is that element too. it's about what binds us, what makes us human, and what allows us to tolerate love and tolerate loss. and emily st. john mandel does it so beautifully, you wonder all the time, how is she doing this? and then, strangely, it's also very much a book about acting (acting?! yup) and about making art, and, again, you wonder: how is she doing it all so well, without the book's being contrived? but she does. i have never once in my life thought i would like to be a stage actor (or an actor of any kind) and i don't go to plays (i find it hard to follow them because i'm not a auditory learner), but this book... well, i think i should go to plays, or at least read shakespeare very very slowly and imagine his plays being acted in front of me.
i am reminded very much of Janette Turner Hospital's extraordinary Due Preparations for the Plague. there are writers who, when describing Colossal Human Crises, go for the dog-eat-dog scenario. not these two women. and it's so damn nice to read a book in which, yes, there are people being nasty to each other, but there are so many more people doing what needs to be done, tending to each other, caring, just being so fucking decent. so this alleged collapse of civilization is really a testament to the endurance of civilization. the center holds. the periphery holds too. the human heart -- it holds. ...more
i have no idea what i just read it and why i read it. i kept waiting for an event, a pivot, something that would give the narrative a center. i didn'ti have no idea what i just read it and why i read it. i kept waiting for an event, a pivot, something that would give the narrative a center. i didn't realize smiley was engaged in an exercise of postmodernist meaninglessness.
but then, this book is not ruled by meaninglessness. meaning is provided to these people's lives by: children. so: best apologia of the traditional family ever written. or worst. or middling. i don't know. i feel so cheated. this is a long fucking book. and i stuck it out till the end. waiting. and waiting. and all to learn that the be all and end all of one's life is to get married and have kids. fuck that noise. ...more
i'm so sorry Eifelheim. you are awesome in all sorts of ways and you kept me company for a few good weeks. but we need to part. because i'm just not ii'm so sorry Eifelheim. you are awesome in all sorts of ways and you kept me company for a few good weeks. but we need to part. because i'm just not into you. you are a good companion and you make the time pass, but also, and please don't take it too hard, i often find my mind drifting when you talk to me and my smiles and nods are just mechanical. our dates were okay, even good, but we are just not traveling the same roads, listening to the same music. i'm dumping you, honey. keep company with those -- and they are certainly legion -- who love you and get you. i wish you well. ...more