(Original Review) I spent a long time trying to think of a way to write a clever review of this. But, I'm going to try to just be sincere and honest ab(Original Review) I spent a long time trying to think of a way to write a clever review of this. But, I'm going to try to just be sincere and honest about this book. That's becaues it's really, really great.
Nymeth, who writes sincere, honest reviews I could never DREAM of equalling in sincerity or honesty (and features an Arthur Rackham picture in her title bar - yay!), already reviewed this book. If I didn't feel supremely stupid just pasting in the text of her review, I would - because the central point I'm going to make is more or less identical: This book is beautiful, and I can't tell you anything about it, because that would take away part of it's beauty. I guess, what I can do is try to dance around the book and tell you without telling you why you should read this book. Do you remember reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier? Or seeing The Sixth Sense? How about the Snape chapter in Harry Potter 7? You know how in each of those books, you have that moment where you KNOW that something is going to surprise you, but you nonetheless are COMPLETELY surprised when you find out what it is (unless you're Amanda, who figured it all out in, like, book 4)? Alright. In this book, that happens several times. Now, if that was the only difference, honestly I wouldn't have much to say about this book. A story that throws you for a loop is fun, but nothing you need to write home.
The difference is this: you know how when you DID figure out the end of Harry Potter, you felt all excited, and like you wanted to go out and tell people that you figured it out? Or like, when the Sixth Sense scene happens (I'm trying not to ruin any of these comparisons for people either, sorry for the vagueness), you know how you think "Wow! I was totally fooled! I totally didn't see that coming!" Stories with a twist in them tend to keep the reader at a distance. The relationship that is manipulated, producing that little thrill, is the relationship between the author and the reader. And that's cool. I'm not saying anything against it.
But Fingersmith, is special, because the expose doesn't offer you any sort of cathartic escape. By the time you get there, you're so in love with the narrator, you identify so closely with, that you don't get the thrill of a surprise, you get the same sickening thud of a surprise that the character gets. You feel what it feels like to have everything you know suddenly not be true, in the real world, in the world where that is a very, very painful thing. I have never read a book, even in all the classics I've read, that teaches you so much of what it feels like to be betrayed, as this book, or what it feels like to feel suddenly, irrevocably unmoored. (I've already said too much!)
But, that's the other thing - the reason that the plot is so effective is that this book is so much more than a plot. Reading Fingersmith is like reading Great Expectations, except every single character is as intense and striking as Ms Havisham. The writing is gorgeous, the characterization is beautiful, and when you complete the book, you think and think and stew and think in ways that most books don't leave you doing.
But, for all that, that's not what I loved most about this book.
This week, we went up to Borders, and I decided that, for once, I was going to buy a book. I know, that sounds stupid, but it's actually a big deal for me. I have a lot of trouble buying new, off the shelf books (this is why I can still remember the first book I ever bought new - Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, softcover, the Johnson edition). There's somethign about the broad shelves of a book store that terrifies me (it's even harder now that I'm married for some reason. Before I was married, it took me hours, but I could, in the end, pick a book to buy or checkout from the library). But, I wanted a book, I wanted somethign new, something, as I told Amanda, Slooshy (romantic, something that makes you feel warm and happy and sublime at the end, and ready to accept that the world can be beautiful again). I didn't buy Fingersmith (we already had it on our shelf), I bought a different book (which I'll be reading at some point), but the mood remained. I really needed a book that could make me feel like it is possible to live beautiful things, this week.
This. Book. Was. It. The central love story of the book, was one of the most beautiful, invigorating, sensuously pure love stories I have read in a book, in a very long time. It is the kind of love stories that gently peels back your callouses and reminds you of the holes you make in the hearts of those you love, the kind that lets you feel the invigorating pain of what it is to live. It is the sort of book that I will reread if I ever think that I would want to die.
Between this book and William Blake, it's been a beautiful, beautiful year to be alive. Thanks, Sarah Waters....more
Patience and Sarah is the story of two women in New England, around 1816, who fall in love. One is a semi-independent woman, a watercolOriginal Review
Patience and Sarah is the story of two women in New England, around 1816, who fall in love. One is a semi-independent woman, a watercolor painter from a well-to-do family, and the other is a farm-girl raised to be 'the boy' in a family where no boys had been born. Given this synopsis, you'd think "Ah... this is going to be a very sad book." Right?
Well, it isn't. Strangely enough, the book seems to be... kind of... actually pretty gentle on the main characters. The brother of the richer girl has to take a few days to think about it before he decides the two are sinning, and when he does decide it, he's very fair and polite about giving his sister enough to live on, and letting her go off and found her house with her girlfriend, for example. As I started the book, this seemed strange to me. And, if it was written today, the book would be pretty weak, honestly.
What was interesting in this book, however, was that it was written in 1969, when it was just barely accepted by many people that there even WAS such a thing as homosexuality. Except for a few sideways attempts (Orlando, for instance), and one or two very rough pioneering novels (The WEll of Loneliness), Ms Miller had almost no tradition to write from. Noone had written a romance between two women (discounting the semi-porn shocker pulps of the period, which were probably not terribly realistic), noone had really researched homosexuality in the past, noone had ever really talked about it. It was just so early, someone had to write somehting, just so people could start figuring out what it felt like to write about being in love.
As a result, the novel feels imperfect (very), but also very close to the bone of the author. Everything in it feels like her experience, or what she hoped for. It felt like a story about someone in the 60's, the earliest days of 'coming out', starting a relationship, only dressed up in period clothes from the early 19th century. Which was... I'm trying to find a word. Endearing sounds condescending. More like it induced an empathy with the author, rather than the character. You want to congratulate her for writing a book, without resorting to some sort of odd psycho-sexual acrobatics, without writing about how horrible the world is, without writing about how weird the main characters are. The whole novel felt like someone trying to write, say, Brokeback Mountain if they've only read L.M. Montgomery. Which was of course, kind of not so realistic feeling at times, but which always felt very sincere.
PS - The book is loosely based on two real women: Mary Ann Wilson, a watercolor artist, and a Miss Brundage, who shared a farm in New York for many years before Miss Brundage died. The image at the top is one of Wilson's paintings - she is one of the earliest American watercolor artists, and painted in a very unique way. More of her work, and a short bio, available here....more
(Original Review) This is the sort of book that strikes me cleverness dumb. So I will simply begin by telling you what the book is.
If Not, Winter is a(Original Review) This is the sort of book that strikes me cleverness dumb. So I will simply begin by telling you what the book is.
If Not, Winter is a collection of all of the known works of Sappho - almost entirely fragments. Sappho was, in ancient Greece, considered one of the two greatest lyric poets, alongside Pindar. However, probably in part because she was a woman and in part because she appears to have been bisexual (her home was Lesbos, and the words lesbian and sapphic come from her), only one complete poem of hers survives, and then a series of fragments. The book, then, is a collection of those fragments, some salvaged bits of papyrus, some quotes (sometimes just a quoted word) from her contemporaries.
Of all the books I've ever read, as a physical book, this is probably the number one most beautiful, in terms of words, I've ever seen. The concept and layout is beautiful, sparse, and extremely powerful - it is a book that proves that books themselves are still pertinent and meaningful. The beautiful thing is, without the layout, honestly, most of these fragments would feel meaningless and orphaned. The way the fragments are presented conveys the feeling of loss, the frustration of something we can never have in ways that description cannot. Fragment 107 is a good example. Each fragment is composed of facing pages, the left in Ancient Greek, the right an English translation. Fragment 107 is an empty, white page, with 107 on the top, and simply the fragmented sentence:
"do I still yearn for my virginity?"
Similarly 126 just reads:
"may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend"
Sometimes there is more, as in 104, where there is enough to get a fleeting echo of a voice in it:
Evening you gather back all that dazzling dawn has put asunder: you gather a lamb you gather a kid you gather a child to its mother
of all stars the most beautiful
Of course, in isolation like this, that seems silly. But it isn't! I saw a review that likened it to trying to hear a poorly tuned radio station. To me, it's more like sitting outside of a concert, slowly realizing that they're playing something beautiful, and then having the concert end before you can get in the door. Ther are lines, sometimes:
138: stand to face me beloved and open out the grace of your eyes
sometimes, there is even enough to catch the gist of a tune:
94: I simply want to be dead. Weeping she left me
with many tears and said this: Oh how badly things have turned out for us. Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her: Rejoice, go and remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want to remind you ] and beautiful times we had.
For many crowns of violets and roses ] at my side you put on
and many woven garlands made of flowers around your soft throat.
And the brackets! I ahve never had a relationship with a piece of punctuation like I've now developed with the square bracket, which signifies, in the text, a lost block of text, illegible or destroyed:
] heart ] absolutely ] I can ] ] would be for me ] to shine in answer ] face ] ] having been stained ]
And so it is, the entire book. Whenever you read a poem in translation, there is a certain feeling of loss - in this case, Carson takes that loss and uses it as a tool, instead of an impediment, uses it to show it what it actually means to be blind to beauty, or even worse, to destroy it or prevent it. Every frustrating break, every meaningless half sentence after a beautiful unfinished metaphor speaks in this powerful white space, whispering, "This beauty was and is no more. A man, like you, destroyed it. History is a damaged cloth, and we, we men, are moths..."
By the end of the book, the fragments have sheared themselves into single words, it's like listening to the broken soul of a mad person, these bursts of meaninglessness, meaningful only because we wish they were, empty, but pregnant with impossible loss:
of the Muses
gold anklebone cups
And that's the end. gold anklebone cups, and the book of history closes, a woman is put into a little book (it take about two hours to read), and tucked away into a mass of whitespace, and the shreds of what she was. If you love poetry, and you want to remember why you love it, and what life would be without it, read this book....more
Original Review The first part of the 20th century was the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the time of many of Russia's greatest poets both inside and ouOriginal Review The first part of the 20th century was the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the time of many of Russia's greatest poets both inside and outside the Soviet system: Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, and lots of other folks that we, as Americans have never heard of (except for Pasternak, and that's for his novel, after all). Marina Tsvetaeva was one of these poets. Born into a well-to-do but very unstable family, and coming of age just as the Russian revolution came to fruition, married to a man who was first a white Russian officer and later a Soviet spy, friends with Red and White Russians and distrusted by both sides because of it, Marina Tsvetaeva had a very tumultuous life.
This omnipresent feeling of pain in Tsvetaeva's life is inescapable in her poetry. BUT. So a sort 'I burn my candle on both ends' lust for living. It's this tension, between love and hopelessness, between life and death, that gives her best poems power:
A kiss on the head--wipes away misery I kiss your head.
A kiss on the eyes--takes away sleeplessness. I kiss your eyes.
A kiss on the lips--quenches the deepest thirst. I kiss your lips.
A kiss on the head--wipes away memory. I kiss your head.
It crawls, the underground snake, crawls, with its load of people. And each one has his newspaper, his skin disease; a twitch of chewing; newspaper caries. Masticators of gum, readers of newspapers.
And who are the readers? old men? athletes? soldiers? No face, no features, no age. Skeletons--there's no face, only the newspaper page.
All Paris is dressed this way from forehead to navel. Give it up, girl, or you'll give birth to a reader of newspapers.
Tsvetaeva's poetry (as you can see in the first one above, particularly) is inextricably tied up with the idea of love, which to her is always forbidden (partly this is because she was bisexual, partly because she never seemed to find someone willing to burn as bright and fast as she did). To her, the world is a great, grey place, dotted with the beautiful streaks of color, and life - the poet's life particularly - is a struggle to bathe in that color as long as possible.
Tsvetaeva despite her intensely political surroundings was not a politician - which, in a sense made her the best political writer possible. Her best friends were poets, and she loved them whatever their political stripe. Her politics, such as they were, were based in a love for beautiful things, for a world that makes beauty sacred. Thus, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, a nation that she had been happy in and loved deeply during her exile from Russia, her voice woke up to the world and spoke outside her deeply introspective daily life:
They took quickly, they took hugely, took the mountains and their entrails. They took our coal and took our stell from us, lead they took also and crystal... Bullets they took from us, they took our rifles minerals they took, and comrades too. But while our mouths have spittle in them the whole country is still armed.
This poem is from 1938. A year later, she and her family returned to Russia. Her daughter Alya was seduced by a man she did not know was an NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agent, who married her in order to spy on the family. Alya and Tsvetaeva's husband were executed for espionage shortly thereafter. Tsvetaeva was forced to leave her home during the German invasion and subsequent migration in World War II. Two years later, deprived of a living by the government who suspected her poetry of being disloyal, forced into an unfamiliar town in the middle of nowhere, completely alone, living in a broken down hovel (which one can still visit, apparently), Tsvetaeva hung herself from the rafters of her house. ...more