A beautiful book about ugly things. I really liked a lot about it, but I found the treatment of a particular issue near the ending (discussed under sp...moreA beautiful book about ugly things. I really liked a lot about it, but I found the treatment of a particular issue near the ending (discussed under spoiler tags below) to be too brief and too superficial, and it took away from the book's strengths.
Boy Novak is a girl with a smart mouth, a crazy-making beauty, and a motherless, grim childhood that sends her fleeing from her New York City home. She winds up in tiny Flax Hill, Massachusetts, an idyllic town known for its legions of artisans, a place that values beauty and that trades in beautiful things. Its most idyllic and beautiful resident (y'know, the fairest of them all) is Snow Whitman, a dreamy princess of a little girl who eventually becomes Boy's stepdaughter. Boy never assumed that marrying into the Whitmans--flinty, upright, hard-nosed, and still haunted by the loss of Snow's gorgeous mother--would be easy, but she finds her family relationships growing more complicated with the birth of her dark-skinned daughter, Bird. It's 1953, and while race relations are treacherous even in a fairy tale town, the most central pain here is centered on, and passed down by, the same source that often centers and passes down the color of own's skin: family.
I really like how Helen Oyeyemi uses fairy tales in her work. There are no straight re-tellings or tedious modern day "updates"; instead, she breaks a tale apart and uses some of the shiniest pieces in a mosaic that draws attention to the narrative patterns that become literal forces in our lives. In Mr. Fox, she kept rearranging elements of the Bluebeard story to examine the consequences of how we tell stories about violence against women, and here in Boy, Snow, Bird, she's looking at how race and identity and selfhood are invented and interpreted, all by fracturing the familiar Snow White mythos of beauty and purity and, quite interestingly, motherhood.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a story about passing, and overlaying a magical-realist fairy tale of deceitful mirrors and doubles makes perfect sense. W. E. B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness ("this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity") gets to the heart of what kind of work and what kind of pain is involved in passing, and the mirrors--literal and metaphorical--at work within the world of BSB are not neutral, passive objects. This story is set in the 1950s and 1960s, but the work being done here about identity is still severely relevant, even if contemporary racism doesn't always take the same form as it did then. While the principal character in this story is white Boy, this isn't a white person's white-savior story in which racism is the backdrop for the story of a white person's coming of age. There is not enough vomit in the world to express my reaction to seeing The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird and similar books being recommended as better stories about racism than this one; Ron Charles's Washington Post review expresses more elegantly how I feel about this: "This isn't one more earnest novel to reward white liberals for their enlightenment. (Insert your favorite bookclub title here.) Boy, Snow, Bird wants to draw us into the dark woods of America's racial consciousness, where fantasies of purity and contamination still lurk." Yep. Oyeyemi brings into multiple points of view as to what is gained and what is lost by those who choose to pass and those who don't, and even if Boy and whiteness are at the heart of the story, Oyeyemi continually complicates Boy's role there.
The writing is magnetic--I'd point to the book's opening sentence and the opening paragraph as good representatives of Oyeyemi's style--and I was engaged by both Boy's and Bird's sections. I also loved the letters exchanged by Bird and Snow, and while I wished for a section narrated by Snow, I think her voice still came through, and the fact that it was filtered by other character's experiences of her was part of the POINT.
However, there was an aspect to this book that I found problematic, and that I don't know how to digest, primarily because it occurs in the final pages of the book. (view spoiler)[Boy's journalist friend Mia goes searching for the truth about Boy's long absent mother and in doing so uncovers evidence for a story that she wants to write: the story of Boy's abusive father, Frank Novak "the rat catcher," a figure who looms menacingly throughout the book. Frank Novak had been born Frances Novak; an assertive academic and a radical lesbian, Frances was raped by an acquaintance, and as a result, Boy was born and Frances's identity was overtaken by the villainous Frank, her new, cruel self-image in the mirror. Mia gave Frank an opportunity to tell Boy this information herself, but now Mia outs him to Boy herself--and plans to publish this story. As Mia puts it, "I want to describe what someone goes through when they refuse to be a mother, or when they realize they just can't do it." Mia has her own story in relation to this theme, as does Boy and as do other characters, but Mia plans to write about Frank and Frances.
There were three things about this that made me uncomfortable.
2) Frank's gender identity is described by Boy as a spell that needs to be broken. I was uncomfortable with this, because even if passing is the focus of the book, racial and gender passing are two different concepts with different implications, and jumping to the conclusion that Frances needed to be rescued from Frank, without considering that Frank could be who Frances wanted to be, kind of alarmed me. In pretty generalized terms, my understanding of racial passing is that it focuses on a person's means of assuming social mobility and social power, whereas gender passing involves aligning one's public identity and one's gender identity. I'd interpret the book as suggesting that Frank's gender passing IS about how he related/relates to social structures (naming his child Boy and abusing her in situations where her womanhood is most evident also suggest this) and may not have to do with how he felt about his own gender, BUT Frank's voice throughout the story is filtered secondhand, and so it was difficult for me to interpret his personal identity.
3) I want to be careful not to conflate gender passing in the context of this book with the identities of trans people, but as the only explicit example of someone engaged in gender passing, it troubled me that Frank's character--violent, abusive, predatory, mentally ill, identifies as a man as a result of severe trauma--coheres with a lot of negative stereotypes & representations of trans people. When compared to the book's richness and depth in how various characters related to racial passing, the weakness and superficial treatment of one surprise! example of gender passing at the end of the book stood out as unfortunate.
The book ends with Boy, her daughters, and Mia leaving to go to NYC and confront Frank, so there is no resolution on this front, but as Boy's relationship to her daughters (and Snow and Bird's relationships to one another) drove the book for me, I didn't mind the lack of Frank-related resolution per se. I don't think it served the book very well, however. (hide spoiler)]
FTC Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I was reminded of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. No matter which way you turn, you encounter metaphor after metaphor that echoes the violence that has...moreI was reminded of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. No matter which way you turn, you encounter metaphor after metaphor that echoes the violence that has happened to you--only it's not just metaphors, and it's not just echoes. That continual violence is real. But you and your experiences? Not real, or just unimportant to the systems with the power to define reality. Same thing. And so, you choke. You don't speak, you don't eat.
The violence under the microscope in The Edible Woman is the squeeze of being a woman in a patriarchal consumerist society. The book isn't entirely angsty, even if the cutting metaphors are pretty close to the surface--something I don't mind, not when the characters are as interesting as these. The satire gets wildly funny at times--like, I should have been more empathetic about a certain character's situation (view spoiler)[(Len's unraveling after being seduced by Ainsley) (hide spoiler)], but omg, I was too entertained by the heights Atwood was aiming for in reality-flipped ridiculousness. The wandering tribes of "office virgins" and "graduate students" and "soap-men" were recognizable archetypes and successfully milked for their humor. I have to admit I kind of gawked a lot at the depiction of the 1960s setting and the state-of-women then, but I think the story as a whole held together well.["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The solar system that Catton puts into motion here felt complete, from the beginning of the book to the end. I was ridiculously delighted by the narra...moreThe solar system that Catton puts into motion here felt complete, from the beginning of the book to the end. I was ridiculously delighted by the narration; omniscient POV works so well when authors are explicit that destiny is a force at work in their novel's universe, and Catton didn't disappoint. The character descriptions were gorgeous and purposeful, and the plot was gleefully twisty and Victorian.
"Yes," the boy cried, "because I must! True feeling is always circular--either circular, or paradoxical--simply because its cause and its expression are two halves of the very same thing! Love cannot be reduced to a catalogue of reasons why, and a catalogue of reasons cannot be put together into love. Any man who disagrees with me has never been in love--not truly."
Grim and gripping; I stayed up late to finish it. What would cause a group of experienced mountaineers, in the midst of qualifying for the highest hik...moreGrim and gripping; I stayed up late to finish it. What would cause a group of experienced mountaineers, in the midst of qualifying for the highest hiking certification, to flee from their tent--with inexplicably sudden urgency, without even shoes for protection--into the frozen, hypothermia-inducing night?
There is still no answer, but Eichar's theory is based in science and well-presented, and I was also compelled by his explanation as to why this phenomenon wasn't well-known until recently. No aliens, no in-group murders. Eichar's reconstruction of their hikers' final hours was terrifying and sad enough without the addition of anything salacious: just destructible humans pitted against the natural world.
The human aspect of this tragedy was also developed with care. I've read about the Dyatlov Incident before (before this book, I assumed the hikers had crossed paths with some Cold War weaponry experiment gone wrong), but this account incorporated a lot of in-depth personal accounting, and the grief for the unexplained loss of these nine friends pervaded the pages.
I did think that Eichar's narrative of his own 2012 journey and investigation didn't always add to the story as a whole, and that I would have wanted more cultural context at times. Overall, however, the book was strong and well-documented.(less)
I mostly loved this, this saga of Alma Whittaker: 19th-century botanist, dutiful daughter, strong-willed scholar, born arguer, lifelong seeker of answ...moreI mostly loved this, this saga of Alma Whittaker: 19th-century botanist, dutiful daughter, strong-willed scholar, born arguer, lifelong seeker of answers. It's a sprawling story, curving back in on itself at times and leaving tendrils of mysteries untucked at other times, and the pace and tension meander but always seemed to suit the story well. It's a love song for science, but in a way that does--by the ending, at least--destabilize the common assumption that science and religion are doing incompatible work. I thought the book accomplished this without undermining the rigorousness of science & fact-finding and without infantilizing people drawn to religion.
Also, I finished the book with a new-found desire to go find some moss and, IDK, hug it or something.
I did have hang-ups with the narration style. First of all, it felt inconsistent, and that jarred me; based on the book's beginning with its asides and omniscience, I thought there'd be a more Trollope-y narrator hanging around with me throughout the book, and even though that sort of narration was limited primarily to the book's beginning, I kept bracing myself for a return of it at any moment, which didn't make for an optimal reading experience. At times, I was also frustrated by the reliance on characters delivering mountains of exposition and/or backstory in the form of dialogue.
Overall, however, I was impressed and engaged.(less)
Science! The best-friends-to-lovers trope! A prickly heroine who eventually resolves to tear up the rule-book, and a sweet hero with an undeserved bad...moreScience! The best-friends-to-lovers trope! A prickly heroine who eventually resolves to tear up the rule-book, and a sweet hero with an undeserved bad reputation! A focus on agency, on boundary-setting, and feminist issues! Conflict that was more about a woman coming into her own, rather than any manufactured relationship plots!
That stuff is all awesome. Also, the dedication to the book made me tear up.
However. The over-the-top happy endings to the books in this series have tended to undermine the sense of societal strife that sustained the conflicts; while I'm glad the heroines (and the heroes) get such happy endings, the epilogues have left me going, "But what about...?" and "Really? This is like the ending to a Taylor Swift video, everything is so happy and sparkly." I also never really understood Sebastian as a rake, but as I don't romanticize rakishness or enjoy fantasies about reforming rakes, I'm glad that wasn't the tropes involved here.(less)
Well, I, for one, am happy I was "the Nellie." No, not just happy, proud. And eternally grateful. All I can say is, thank you. It's like I tell people at my stand-up shows: by making me a bitch, you have given me my freedom, the freedom to say and do things I couldn't do if I was a "nice girl" with some sort of stupid, goody-two-shoes image to keep up. Things that require courage. Things that require balls. Things that need to be done. By making me a bitch, you have freed me from the trite, sexist, bourgeois prison of "likeability." Any idiot can be liked. It takes talent to scare the crap out of people.
A really awesome memoir: very funny, sometimes sad and angry-making, but always quite thoughtful. (less)
From personal experience, I can advise that this book isn't optimal bedtime reading, given how terrifying, sad, and gruesome some parts of this book c...moreFrom personal experience, I can advise that this book isn't optimal bedtime reading, given how terrifying, sad, and gruesome some parts of this book could be, not to mention how long my thoughts lingered on some of the existential terror. But aside from that (or perhaps because of that), I found it very gripping, even if the narrative style--intensely personal and sometimes overdramatized--sometimes grated.
While the different aspects of the novel (love story + coming-of-age + a complex understanding of identity) didn't mesh together as smoothly as I woul...moreWhile the different aspects of the novel (love story + coming-of-age + a complex understanding of identity) didn't mesh together as smoothly as I would have liked, I found this funny, biting, and sad. It's probably one of the most relentlessly intersectional books I've ever read, non-fiction included.(less)
Some really, really good writing, particularly when in Agnes's point of view, and the meditations on narratives and who-is-telling-my-story and my-sto...moreSome really, really good writing, particularly when in Agnes's point of view, and the meditations on narratives and who-is-telling-my-story and my-story-is-not-who-I-am and memories-shared-but-unremembered all appealed to me greatly, but the story built around the historical facts was sometimes too slender for me.
And, completely irrelevant to everyone else but I'm mentioning it anyway, as someone with a not-particularly-rare-but-rarely-encountered-in-fiction Scandinavian surname, I was astonishingly excited when someone with my surname was mentioned.(less)
So I finally like a New Adult romance. Okay, so Dear Rockstar features elements that I really dislike about this subgenre, namely instalust and broody...moreSo I finally like a New Adult romance. Okay, so Dear Rockstar features elements that I really dislike about this subgenre, namely instalust and broody new guy and relationship ~draaaama~ and "let's not talk about it" emotional trauma in the heroine's and hero's histories. But I kept reading because there was also:
- a strong voice! the heroine does not narrate to the reader about how she looks within the first couple of pages! this is so unusual for NA, I can't tell you! - a really interesting setting in the form of an semi-remodeled elementary school repurposed as an alternative high school for older students needing more time to get their diploma or GED - a relationship to pop culture that was used well to further the story and to flesh out characters - A BELIEVABLE, ACTUAL FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN THE PROTAGONIST AND HER BEST FRIEND OMG I WAS SO HAPPY WITH IT - a likeable heroine AND hero - a heroine and hero who are BOTH artistic and who are both shown working at their craft - the heroine is sexually experienced and she and the hero build up their sexual relationship as partners, not as object-subject - a sensitive portrayal of a character with an eating disorder (the character's BFF); the character is anorexic-bulimic and struggling with recovery, but none of this is appropriated, belittled, manipulated, or used as part of the heroine's storyline; it's just something that's going on in her life - the presence of queer girls--and who are not antiseptically unsexualized (it's only briefly mentioned and they seem to be closeted, but sparkly-gay-bff is such a gagworthy stereotypical trope in this subgenre, it was nice to see this instead, where two of the heroine's girlfriends are queer)
There was still a lot of the ~draaaama~ that I dislike in this subgenre, but goodness, I enjoyed this book.(less)