I was assigned Anna Karenina in a Russian Lit class I took second semester of my senior year of college. I was finishing my senior thesis and didn't mI was assigned Anna Karenina in a Russian Lit class I took second semester of my senior year of college. I was finishing my senior thesis and didn't make it twenty pages in, and in subsequent years I lugged that Constance Garnett edition around with me from apartment to apartment, never making it past more than those first few chapters before I finally gave up several moves ago and left it in a box on the curb. And when I finally read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, at age thirty-six, I felt I'd dodged a bullet by not getting to this any sooner, because I don't think it would've made such an impression on me.
This is one of the best books I've read, and I'd go so far as to say it's one of the best books that's been written. I'm going to make this the moment I stop a practice begun in my feckless youth and long regretted, of almost never giving five-star reviews no matter how good a book is, and going forward will have an expanded scale. This doesn't mean I think Anna Karenina is a better novel than, say, War and Peace; it only means that I've evolved, with age, in my awarding of these stupid yellow Internet book report stars that I hate.
Reading a great book feels like being in love. The night I started Anna Karenina I went to bed buzzing, almost too happy to sleep and excited to wake up in the morning so that I could continue to read. And it's a relief to have access to such a thrilling sensation, now that I'm a married woman and must avoid the temptations of falling in love with a dashing count, which, I now know, could only end terribly for me and pretty much everyone else.
As we all know, Tolstoy starts this off with his famous observation that "all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The other day I was talking with my sister, who complained that while it sounds good, this isn't actually true. I agree that it doesn't really seem to be the case even in this book, but for me the opening alludes to that magically paradoxical hybrid of specificity and universality that's just what great literature is made of. The characters in Anna Karenina are aristocrats in Tsarist Russia in the 1870s, and live in a world where their messages are sent and their food is cooked and their clothes are washed and their estates are farmed and their butts are wiped by servants and peasants who are considered something less than totally human even when their souls are celebrated and rhapsodized over by their romantic overlords. The characters and their world are exactly placed in one highly specific historical moment, and each person is so exquisitely described and developed that we'd know them immediately if we ever sat next to one of them on the train. The characters in this book are more real than real people, and that's what makes this book simultaneously so specific -- there is no one just like Anna, just like Levin, just like any of these characters -- and yet so general -- there are so many people who are almost like them that we recognize in these characters aspects of people in our own lives, of ourselves. I'm glad I waited to read this book because by the time I did I'd been married, I'd had a child, I'd suffered through romantic relationships that had turned toxic and unsalvageable, so I could admire just how accurately and beautifully all these things were described. Of course, I still hadn't yet harvested wheat or (spoiler alert!) thrown myself under a train, but after reading this I know just how those doing those things must be. The suicide in this book is one of the most incredible passages I've ever read, and will stick with me for the rest of my life. I wouldn't be surprised if I think of it at the moment of my own death, though I guess (well, hope) it's a little premature to say.
Of course, this being Tolstoy, the magnificent death scene can't be the end of it, and is followed by a lengthy and arguably tedious informercial for religious faith and family life. I remember a similar sort of thing at the end of his other long novel and it reminds me a bit of going to see some reconfiguration of a classic punk band a few years ago and being subject to the lead singer's plug for Ron Paul: Tolstoy's got a captive audience and he will hold forth on his tiresome pet ideas, throughout the book in little asides and then with great force at the end. In a normal writer I'd call this a flaw but I suppose in Tolstoy it's an eccentricity he's more than entitled to. It's his prerogative because by the end I felt whatever nutty crap he wanted to pull was well worth it.
I think part of getting old and crotchety and out of touch has been, for me, getting more conservative and lame and stupidly swoony about "the canon" and what constitutes Deathless Literature. Anna Karenina is better than almost anything else I can think of because it lives and breathes, and there's so much in it, and no matter what I do to it -- read it as a resolutely feminist text, as I do, and pretty much ignore the Christian faith stuff that was clearly so central for its author -- it isn't, and can't be, remotely diminished. I can read all the footnotes; I can ignore the footnotes. I can go to commentaries and articles and Nabokov and Bakhtin on the subject of Anna Karenina and what it all must truly mean; I can go back to school for my PhD and devote the rest of my life to its study. Or, I can remain willfully ignorant, as I am, and just enjoy the story, which is all that I've done and all I feel up to, and for me right now that's fine. It makes my own life so much larger, both by illuminating my own lived experience and by expanding and enhancing it to include all these events I haven't lived through, places I haven't been, and people I haven't known. I've had so much more and richer of a life than I could've had without having read this novel. My soul will always remain crushed by what happened to Anna, and even, in spite of myself, strengthened by Levin's religious conversion and the birth of his son. I think another thing I didn't get when I was younger, with my stingy four stars, was how hard that is to do, to write a book that will effect something like that in readers... Or maybe it isn't so hard really, because a lot of books do that for a lot of people. Certainly a lot have done it for me and they for sure weren't all highly respectable Russian Classics.
But there is something especially timeless in here, though, that I don't think I'm imagining. It's so simultaneously of its time but of of our time too, maybe every time, and it's shocking how these old words on the page can be so vital and alive. Some of that I do think comes from the translation, and I sometimes wonder if hip new translations are cheating a bit...? Well, even if they do come with an asterisk, I'd say avoid poor fusty Constance as I highly recommend Pevear and Volokhonsky. Highly recommend this book. Whew. What a read. Gosh....more
I really, really, really loved the first one of these, but I did not love this one. It was at times a... slog to get through. There were some great moI really, really, really loved the first one of these, but I did not love this one. It was at times a... slog to get through. There were some great moments and I'm glad I finished it, because it ended strong, but the majority fell into the risky trap of this project, and read to me like excerpts from a self-absorbed parenting blog detailing what life is like as a successful writer with a family in Sweden (spoiler alert: in the absence of any other worries -- medical bills, say, or the need to do unpleasant work for a living, Scandinavians have the leisure to spend days purchasing books and contemplating how miserable they are). Sweden does sound annoying in that too-good-to-be-tolerable way, sort of like Portland but with socialized medicine and an entire class of people gainfully employed in producing culture. Plus too dark and cold. Anyway. My current life is somewhat similar to the one described by Knausgård, minus the success and people dropping by regularly to tell me how brilliant and talented and good-looking I am. I too am stuck home with a baby, and while in one way this made the book more interesting than it would've been otherwise, in another it made me wonder why I should bother reading about his, when I have plenty of Struggles of my own (yes, I get that that's the point, but it didn't stop me from wondering it).
I kept trying to decide why I loved the first one but didn't really have the patience for this. Part of it is that bourgie creative-class life in present-day (or very recent) Stockholm just isn't nearly as interesting to me as life growing up in Norway in the seventies; there wasn't magic in this one, as there was in the first, except in a few rare moments and then at the end. The first book transcended the mundane casually, habitually, pretty much constantly, while the second was the opposite: we got stuck with much less fascinating characters, in an infinitely less compelling landscape, for hundreds and hundreds of pages. Clearly this was the point, but again, knowing that didn't make it any more interesting to read.
My other problem -- and I hate admitting this, because I secretly think people are stupid when they demand likable characters, so this is me saying that I'm stupid -- was that I couldn't stand Knausgård or his partner or his friend or really anyone else in the book. Much as I'd love to be too high-minded to let this trouble me, in the absence of captivating plot, atmosphere, language, theme, etc., I am not and it did. His partner seemed miserable, he seemed like a dick, and I just kept being like, "Will you unhappy whining people please stop having more children?" which, yes, again, I do get that that's the point but it didn't make this any more of a pleasure to read. I know this makes me sound like a moron, but there were all these times when he would say something gross about, say, a disabled person, or American Indians, or the time he smashed a poor furry bat with a brick (I love bats), and I'd just be like, "Why am I doing this dick the courtesy of inhabiting his head?" This dramatized a tension that's always made me uncomfortable: that as a reader, you're having an intimate experience with a person who is more than likely not someone you'd ever spend actual time with, being as a lot of writers are socially anxious weirdos, arrogant assholes, or just not people I'd ever want to know, or who'd ever want to know me. I learned pretty early on it was usually better to avoid meeting my favorite living writers, and even to avoid reading interviews with writers or other artists whose work had affected me, because their real-life personas were always disappointing in a way that disturbed my relationship with their work. Knausgård is aware of and interested in this, and he forces the issue by being the subject of his book, and by being obsessively self-reflexive about the question of what others (including us, his readers) think of him.
Writing this review is making me realize that many of the things that made this book interesting were the things that made it not much fun to read. However, I am a casual ditcher of books I don't enjoy but I stuck this one out, and on some level I did feel my struggle was worth it. The ending, when he returns to Norway and then starts writing the first book, is at points almost unspeakably beautiful. And, being me, I cried at the end. There are some things he's doing here that are great, and in themselves worthwhile. I haven't decided yet if I'll keep going to number three... probably I will, though after a long pause. This took me forever to get through but I wouldn't let myself start new novels until I finished it, so I've got a major backlog of books that aren't about Karl Ove Knausgård's struggle, and I'm looking forward to reading some of those....more
The female teacher who preys sexually on her young male students has become a trashy media standard. There is something fascinating about these storieThe female teacher who preys sexually on her young male students has become a trashy media standard. There is something fascinating about these stories that provokes a unique blend of prurience, disgust, and bafflement in readers, including this one. For whatever reason, once I start looking through these (http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/notor...) I get mesmerized, trying to imagine what on earth these women were thinking and wondering about all the issues this brings up (about double standards, child molestation, female sexuality, etc.), while sort of hating myself for my interest. It makes sense that a topic this charged and irresistibly disturbing would be good grounds for fiction, and this Alissa Nutting really lets down her hair and goes for it.
Make no mistake: this is a filthy, filthy book, and not for those averse to reading page after page of pornographic, blow-by-blow descriptions of adult sex with fourteen-year-old boys. But while this book is super gross, it's also enjoyable: very dark comedy and a fun, forward-moving sense of momentum. I didn't realize until I was finished that this was based loosely on one specific case (Debra Lefave), which I'm glad of, because that would've clued me in on how it would end and I had fun not knowing. It's one of those books that gets under your skin while you're reading it, which isn't a pleasant thing, but I guess it does recommend the writer.
In theory I like the idea of knowing what's going on in the world around me and of enjoying the things that other people do, and I always feelFINALLY!
In theory I like the idea of knowing what's going on in the world around me and of enjoying the things that other people do, and I always feel so lame and left out when I neglect to read the book everyone (EVERYONE -- I mean even people who don't read) has just read. So I do try but I made it maybe three pages into Harry Potter then bailed, and I didn't even last through the first page of The Hunger Games. This review'd be better if I pretended to have actually tried Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, but... I guess I must kind of be kind of a snob, because I talked about reading them but then I think saw excerpts of the writing online and so finally didn't. Anyway, who cares, because while Gone Girl might not be up to to the popularity level of those other books, everyone in America has read it and I see that they're making a movie with Doogie Howser! And Ben Affleck, who I hate, but who's perfect for this... And yesterday I saw a girl reading this by the side of a hotel pool and I almost said, "Hey! I'm reading that too!" before I realized that of course I am, we all are if we haven't already, and it's lame to point out. So FINALLY I'm participating in mass literary culture, and friends, I gotta say: I really enjoy it!
Okay, so the first half of this book I hate-loved, in the way that felt exactly like eating a 1.5-quart container of Friendly's Vienna Mocha Chunk ice cream (which I also might've done at the same time): that is, it was partly enjoyable but mostly disgusting and made me feel polluted and sick, even though for the life of me I just couldn't stop. The alternating chapters -- first-person narrative of a husband whose seemingly-perfect wife has disappeared from their Missouri McMansion and clearly imperfect marriage, interspersed with said missing perfect wife's diary entries -- introduce this wholly unappealing couple and a cast of wholly unappealing supporting characters. While reading this first half I felt queasy and manipulated: disliking everyone in the book, not trusting the author, and not finding any identifiable reason to keep reading at all.
Yet keep reading I did, until 2am last night when I climbed in bed -- not without misgivings -- with my sleeping husband. Somehow the icky, unpleasant menace of the book had rubbed off on me, and I went to bed with a creepy transferred feeling of not trusting the man I'd married, somehow getting life mixed up with this book, which I'm pretty sure I dreamed about once I did uneasily fall asleep.
At the second half of the book, there's a turn (I can't evaluate how surprising it is, since I already knew the book's plot before starting), and it became more enjoyable after that. The plot gets sillier and a bit harder to swallow, but the book itself gets more complex and interesting. I'm not sure how Gone Girl stacks up against other contemporary thrillers, but as an allegory of marriage and a commentary on gender roles these days, it was a whole lot of fun. This was a good The Way We Live Now popular novel, in that it had just enough background shading about the crumbling American economy and mass media to hit a few points quite nicely, but not enough to stop being fun or to feel like it was trying to Make an Important or Annoying Statement. Flynn is a very clever novelist and there are enough creative details in there that I'm sure every reader will have her favorites -- I loved the idea of Amazing Amy, the wife's perfect little girl alter-ego created by her parents for their nauseating series of kids' books. I also thought the entire conceit of Gone Girl -- the very familiar trajectory of relationships from first love to bitter hatred, as shown through an extreme revenge-fantasy type scenario -- worked great. As other reviewers have noted on here, you start out hating this couple, but then you (or at least I) come to realize that they are basically you. It reminded me of an updated Adam's Rib or something: a (very dark, in this instance) comedy about the battle between the sexes, and about how marriages are maintained.
And I bet the movie is gonna be good! Thank you Gillian Flynn, for allowing me to participate in contemporary culture. This totally makes up for all those TV shows I never watched and I feel well prepared now to intermingle with other American adults at a party, should anyone ever invite me to one....more
Ross MacDonald is, for me, the guy you keep on dating way too long because he's got lots of qualities that you value and you're convinced you should bRoss MacDonald is, for me, the guy you keep on dating way too long because he's got lots of qualities that you value and you're convinced you should be really into him, but no matter how hard you try, despite the odd fun night or great conversation, that certain something just isn't there.
I'm not sure what the problem is. I like his California settings and, for the most part, his plots, and he does have some strong, interesting characters. While I almost like his preoccupation with the mental health system and appreciate aspects of the way he represents it, I'm impatient with the Freudian-tinged psychological mumbo jumbo that he just has a bit too much enthusiasm for detailing.
The real problem though, I think, is that I find Archer bland. He's not really rough enough, or sensitive enough, or flawed or brilliant enough to hold my attention: he's sort of more of an Everyman than it turns out I want in a PI. I also am just not that impressed with MacDonald's prose. He gets off a few good lines now and then, but his writing is uneven and when he aspires to more literary heights the effort can read as a bit strained.
I do love the detailed glimpse into a lost mid-twentieth-century California, though, and I did read this book in one (debilitated-by-a-bad-back) day, so it's not like I thought it was bad.
I did really like The Galton Case, but this book, like the other MacDonalds I've read, just never really "did" it for me. Don't get me wrong, I liked it fine, and it did have its merits (and a pretty good ending, which is nice). But it's time I sat down with Ross and explained that he's a swell guy but we'd be better as friends....more
This starts out feeling like one of those Deborah Eisenberg stories set in a made-up Central American country, but pretty soon you orient yourself andThis starts out feeling like one of those Deborah Eisenberg stories set in a made-up Central American country, but pretty soon you orient yourself and realize you're in deliciously dated late-1970s Didionland. This entails being surrounded by characters who think, speak, and behave only like Joan Didion characters and not remotely like anyone in actual life, and reading gorgeously crafted and sometimes embarrassingly dramatic sentences. The novel is narrated by steely, Didionesque observer Grace, and tells the story of Charlotte Douglas, the wealthy, childlike, hypersensual, idiosyncratic mother of a Patty Hearst-type rich-girl-turned-revolutionary-terrorist. Charlotte is hanging around Boca Grande, a fake maybe-El Salvador where she has fled to escape her Joan Didion novel of a past and to submit the enigma of her existence to the former-anthropologist-cum-hobby-scientist-and-ruling-elite narrator's gaze.
I personally feel sentimental about the Bay Area in the 1970s, as it's the ground out of which I was grown, and this book fed my hunger for a glimpse of that time. This is actually just the second Didion novel I've read, but she has such a distinctive style that I keep wanting to make broad pronouncements about her fiction. There is almost no one I take more seriously than Joan Didion the nonfiction writer, but I find her fiction pretty absurd. I happen to love it, but it strikes me at many times as coming close to camp. Everyone is so rich and disoriented and the sex is all weird and women are these confused, fascinating creatures who are sort of hapless victims of often cruel, or at least detached men who have great success both in understanding and controlling the female characters and in navigating the world. I'm not sure what to make of it all, but I do like it. This book is fun and, as I said, very late-1970s. I read it on an airplane, in a hotel, and at my in-laws' house, and it's good for that kind of vacation. Definitely recommend this paperback edition with the lighter on the front and the lady's face and Cosmo blurb on the back....more
I've had this conviction for a long time that Jennifer Egan should be one of my favorite writers. She's a SHE who writes popular-but-smart contemporarI've had this conviction for a long time that Jennifer Egan should be one of my favorite writers. She's a SHE who writes popular-but-smart contemporary fiction with ideas and experimental stuff in it. My hero!
Ex-punks from the Bay Area! A woman teaching writing in prison...?!!! It's like Jennifer Egan produces books especially for ME! Oh yes, my swooning Egan fangirl plan makes so much sense on paper... The only problem with it is that for some reason I can't stand her books. First I tried A Visit from the Good Squad and felt like I was being tortured physically, and bailed, so then I tried Look at Me, but I really hated that. I mean, hated, all the more painful because I'd so badly wanted to love it. So last night I sat down to read The Keep and swore I'd finish it if it killed me, which I did, and it didn't.
There were definitely some awesome things about this book. The spooky stuff at the castle was great, and reading one of the best and most frightening scenes last night, up alone at 2am, I got those chills -- and the book's well-described "worm" -- on a level that became hard for me to achieve by reading around the time I reached puberty. So Egan does gain a lot of my respect for that.
But the thing is that aside from these portions, I just don't enjoy her writing. There are two problems: (1) it doesn't surprise me, and (2) I don't believe it. In terms of the first, I almost always have this dull sense of overfamiliarity, sort of like the difference between touching yourself and someone else touching you. I read because I want the thrill of thoughts I never could have, and while obviously I don't actually think I could think or write like Jennifer Egan, somehow that's the sensation I get when I'm reading. Not all the time, but in general, both at the level of language and sentences, and in terms of characters and plot, I never have that awed feeling that I get with -- just throwing out a random name to represent this -- say, Steven Millhauser, where I'm just like, "HOW does this lunatic's brain even MANUFACTURE this shit??!?" While the little experimental formal things she does do help wake a girl up, the actual prose is never that exciting to me and is often the opposite (as when a character's terror is expressed by ice in his chest, or when his guts twist every few pages in fear).
I also just don't buy it. I don't believe it. I don't believe in her characters and I never stop seeing her doing research on prison life and meth addiction and I can't ever suspend my disbelief accept that it's actually real. So I never care about the characters, because I don't buy them. This book held me with its suspense about the situation -- I wanted to understand what was happening at that creepy old castle! -- but I never gave a shit if anyone in it lived or died, and while I was engaged by the more fantastic, gothic storyline, the gritty realist-ish portions just got on my nerves.
Just to be clear, this isn't supposed to be in any way a criticism of Egan, just my own 100% subjective and inexplicable response to her work. Obviously she's a brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning author and I am a dunce. There's a lot that I appreciate about her writing, and she does all this stuff that in theory I should love. But even when I like it -- the castle portions of this book, the tweeted spy story "Black Box" -- her writing never affects me any more than decent TV. I just can't engage with it on a significant level. I don't really know why. It makes me sad, because on paper she should be my perfect match, but in that mysterious affairs-of-the-heart way, we lack chemistry. Sad! For me, not for Egan; she has plenty of suitors. Me, I'm back to pawing dismally through unread books on my shelves while I wait for Richard Powers's new book to come out, as it's scheduled to do in just eleven interminable and lonely days....more
This was really interesting, and at some point I'd like to read her other book Emma's War, which looks like a similar approach but with a more limitedThis was really interesting, and at some point I'd like to read her other book Emma's War, which looks like a similar approach but with a more limited scope that might work more neatly with Scroggins's method.
That's not to say that her method didn't work here, only that the results of this book are a bit messy and strange. I'd describe the Scroggins "thing," based on having read this book and on glancing at reviews of Emma's War, as a focus on the lives of individual women in order to illuminate complex issues that constitute the confounding geopolitical clusterfucks of our world today. The title claims this book's about "Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror," but it's really about what's been going on for the past decade or so with that "Islam v. the West" thing you might've heard of, and about women in Islam, women in the West, Islamist terrorism, anti-Muslim persecution, the West's ideas about Muslims, and a whole bunch of other stuff I wouldn't have had the patience to read 468 pages about if it weren't cleverly structured around these two women's parallel but unconnected lives.
I felt that while this book seemed to fail in superficial ways, in fact it was a success. Its seeming failure is that I still have no real understanding of what drives religious fundamentalists to kill people aside from their just being nuts, and I attained no special understanding of what it's like to be Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani-born, MIT-and-Brandeis educated mother of three who was the only woman on the United States' most-wanted terrorists list. I also don't understand Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch-MP-cum-American-neocon and professional Islam-hater. Scroggins really seems to loathe her and to believe that Hirsi Ali is motivated just by ruthless opportunism, but while all Scroggins's criticisms seemed justified, mustn't the truth be a bit more complex?
But no matter! Scroggins was never able to interview Siddiqui or Hirsi Ali (though she talks to a lot of people who knew them), and by the end of the book both women are still enigmas. But this winds up not being a problem at all, because Wanted Women isn't so much about either of these women as it is about what's going on around them and the intense response they provoke in others.
The beginning of this book was really fascinating to me, as a provincial American who hasn't traveled much outside this country and who certainly has never lived anywhere else. The world that Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui grew up in is much more complicated than my all-American bubble: they and others like them are born in one country, raised somewhere else for awhile... then they move to a new country, then wind up in another. They're constantly crossing borders, not just to visit, but to live, and these borders are significant: one of the main focuses of the book is culture shock; another is that old "clash of civilizations," which may just be the same thing as culture shock in more hyperbolic terms and on a grander scale.
What I felt was most useful to me in this book was its perspective on how the lunacy of individuals comes to matter because of how the wider culture responds. Hirsi Ali hating Islam has a massive impact because of the historical and cultural moment when she does it. Siddiqui's story is a bit opaque and hard to follow, but this opacity is itself a gut-wrenching indictment of my own country's outrageously dishonorable and often illegal "War on Terror," and her story concretely illustrates some of the repercussions of the way that this war has been fought.
In the end, I didn't care that much that neither woman made much sense to me, and it seemed that really their personal lives were a bit beside the point. Scroggins surprised me by not trying to make either figure sympathetic: I knew nothing about Hirsi Ali prior to reading this, beyond seeing Infidel on remainder tables in bookstores, but this feels like a brutal takedown job. And of course, it's probably not easy or even tempting to make a rabidly antisemitic radical Islamist jihadi sympathetic to an audience of readers like me, but Scroggins is (I thought) oddly sympathetic to Siddiqui's ex-husband, who was by all accounts a batterer and, in my view, suspiciously naive about his wife's bloodthirsty aspirations.
But the book worked, maybe because it wasn't so much a dual biography as it was a set of binoculars for looking at some of the hard to see stuff that's going on right now in the world. No one here comes out looking great: not Hirsi Ali, not Siddiqui, but also none of the countries they've lived in or the various political factions they've been aligned with or despised by. I'd venture to say, though, that I feel I understand the dynamics of these countries, cultures, and despisers a bit more than I did before, which is helpful because I felt really confused, and it's good to have some sense of what's going on around you even if it isn't so great....more
I bought this today at the Out of the Closet thrift store on Biscayne, and once I got home and opened it up to read, discovered that it's an autographI bought this today at the Out of the Closet thrift store on Biscayne, and once I got home and opened it up to read, discovered that it's an autographed copy! I'm irrationally thrilled by this. There's something so cool about finding out that even though I never managed to meet him, I now have a book with his signature in it. I actually don't know why that's cool and exciting to me, I guess because Leonard's one of those writers I would've liked to have met but obviously now I never will, and this seems like a decent consolation?
Also cool and exciting: reading an Elmore Leonard novel set in Miami now that I live here and know where everything is! AND, also awesome... one of this book's early scenes is set in a detox and features a hot, tough social servicey, substance abuse counselor-type chick... wow! So I guess I'll quit with this I-just-started-it non-review and get back to reading.
This is a really fun one with a portrait-of-the-artist twist: a photographer protagonist who, like the author, is enchanted by the colorful characters of super seedy early-eighties Miami Beach. It's impossible to read LaBrava lurking around South Beach's crumbling deco hotels in his pineapple-print shirt, documenting its ancient Jewish ladies and marielitos, without imagining Leonard doing the same thing with his notebook instead of a Leica.
Not perfectly polished, but never a dull moment and flawless in its inimitable atmosphere and style. An awesome Miami novel with Leonard's trademark cast of characters that should be too inventive and bizarre to come off as human as they do, and a plot so enjoyable you don't care if it makes any sense. One thing I love about Leonard is that his books aren't hard-boiled at all and his tough guys are anything but cynical: these novels are all love stories, so warm-blooded they'd be sappy if they weren't so damn cool.
Elmore Leonard is dead. Long live Elmore Leonard!...more
There are many different ways to interpret this book. One is to see a Twilight-Zone-type twist: is Dora the hysterical young girl, or is Freud?
I wondeThere are many different ways to interpret this book. One is to see a Twilight-Zone-type twist: is Dora the hysterical young girl, or is Freud?
I wonder if this is a more shocking read now than it was when it was written, and I sincerely have no idea. I don't love it the way I love Civilization and its Discontents, but it is fun. Thinking of teaching it this semester though I do feel a bit intimidated by the prospect......more
I'd strongly recommend Fun Home to pretty much everyone, but I wouldn't recommend Are You My Mother? to almost anyone, including my own mother, who II'd strongly recommend Fun Home to pretty much everyone, but I wouldn't recommend Are You My Mother? to almost anyone, including my own mother, who I see on here tried to read this after loving Fun Home (which I gave her) but then apparently gave up in disgust. And I can totally guess why, as there's a lot in here that it's perfectly reasonable not to like.
That said, I fiercely loved this book and it made me cry and cry. Alison Bechdel is such a genius that I kind of just can't even deal with it, and this book is incredible in so many ways. I'm not sure I would've felt this way if I hadn't read Fun Home first, though; there's an analogy to be made between initially unappealing sex acts and a plotless, ultra-meta comic memoir about object relations theory that is an extremely detailed and specific examination of a woman's relationship with her mother. If this had been my first date with Alison Bechdel I might've jumped up, grabbed my clothes, and run out of her room. As it was, though, we'd had such an amazing time together and I was already sort of in love with her, so I was willing to follow this book to places I otherwise wouldn't have been ready to go.
I'm not particularly interested in psychoanalytic theory, though I'm conversant with its basic ideas as I was forced to study them in social work school. Somehow this book actually made me want to go into analysis, though I think I might be better matched with a frightening Kleinian over a warm fuzzy Winnicott-type. Are You My Mother? represented therapy and Winnicott's ideas in a way that I can see not being interesting to all readers, but that I found compelling. In theory, there are few things I'd rather read than a therapy memoir, but somehow Alison Bechdel is so smart and great and I love her drawings and the way she processes and presents information so much that I got super into this and felt completely swept away by it at several points. It helps that I'm personally interested in some of the material about using her family as comic book fodder, having known at least one tell-all lesbian comic book memoirist myself in my day.
In sum, I loved this book but don't come crying to me if you don't like it. On the other hand, if you read Fun Home and don't like it and can somehow prove to me that you're not a complete fucking idiot and that's the reason why, I will refund any money you paid to buy it....more
Patrick Melrose's gothic New Age Mrs. Jellyby of a mother has finally died and in At Last we attend her funeral, presumably (and for this reader, hopePatrick Melrose's gothic New Age Mrs. Jellyby of a mother has finally died and in At Last we attend her funeral, presumably (and for this reader, hopefully) ending the cycle.
I have to say that while the first three Melrose novels are unquestionably among the best books I've read in years, I wasn't so crazy about the last two. The repetitive analytic musings just get to be a bit much, and the wise little moppets dispensing adorable yogi-like aphorisms just go way too far in sugaring up the acrid sourness I'd loved so much in the beginning.
Still, I wolfed this volume down with an enthusiasm I haven't felt for reading in awhile, because Edward St. Aubyn is a fabulous fucking writer. While I don't think this book or the one preceding it measured up to the ones that came before, they're still a million times better than most other books out there. And so St. Aubyn can commit whatever the authorial equivalent is to wrecking our marriage with his nihilistic substance abuse and cynical affairs, and I will continue to stand faithfully by him! If his next novel is a saccharine children's book about a precocious little boy philosophizing cutely about the nature of evil and man, I'll complain a bit but I'll still suck it up with the famished and unquenchable greed of an addict....more
First off, full disclosure: I went to college with Katherine Sharpe, I know Katherine Sharpe. Katherine Sharpe is a friend of mine. And you, honey, arFirst off, full disclosure: I went to college with Katherine Sharpe, I know Katherine Sharpe. Katherine Sharpe is a friend of mine. And you, honey, are no Katherine Sharpe.
Only... well to be honest, if you're under age thirty-five and on this website, there's a fair chance that you more or less are.
When I first heard Katherine was writing a memoir about growing up on antidepressants, I secretly felt a small twinge of dread. As you may know, I hold a perhaps unreasonable prejudice against memoir, and having worked for years with very poor people diagnosed with psychotic disorders, I have a certain bristly impatience with the problems of the more privileged, less-sick mentally ill. And so initially I was worried, like, "Oh how awkward if I don't like her book."
Fortunately, though, reading it made me realize what an ignorant asshole I was for ever thinking such things! Though to be honest, Coming of Age on Zoloft isn't exactly a memoir. Rather, Sharpe draws on her life experience in the lovely prose associated with that genre as she uses research (a massive wealth of cited psych literature and interviews she conducted) to describe what growing up in the age of antidepressants is like.
The result is a very good book that will help a lot of people. Basically, Growing Up on Zoloft is about two things: the rise and ubiquity of SSRIs, and the experience of growing up (middle-class and college educated yes, and yet still, you self-hating bourgie moron, subject to psychic pain on occasion) in America, and then of course how these two things have interacted. One surprising aspect of this book is its calm tone and balanced, unbiased commitment to nuance. This isn't a jeremiad or a polemic, and Sharpe isn't screaming about how everyone or no one should be taking these drugs. Instead, she's coolly taking a step back, observing that huge numbers of young people do and have been taking them -- by now, many since childhood -- and she's trying to answer the question of what this all means. As she observes, antidepressants are often said (and marketed as a means) to make depressed people "feel like themselves again." But for a young person who has grown up taking them, what does that mean? Does someone who reached adulthood on medication have a self to return to?
While most people accept that some of us suffer from depression so severe that needing medication is not a question, we also know there's a large grey area of folks for whom it is more open to debate. Katherine tells of a visit to the college health center her freshman year, while having a really tough time emotionally. After a twenty minute conversation, the provider she met with wrote her a prescription for Zoloft. The following year, hanging out on a porch with a group of six other girls, Katherine discovered that every single one of them was taking antidepressants. Coming of Age is her effort to explore what this all means.
Which she does, using her own ten-year antidepressant experience as a case study, interviewing dozens of people, and filling an eight-page bibliography chockablock with peer-reviewed science articles. I felt she did an especially good job of describing Big Pharma's role in all of this, in particular in the way that our culture has so wholeheartedly embraced the biomedical model. One real accomplishment of this book is its success in discussing such a charged topic in fair and moderate tones. Yes, diagnoses of depression and prescription of drugs just keep on climbing, and much of this is driven by commercial interests. But as one of Sharpe's interviewees' mother asks, "Why not just do the thing that makes you feel better?"
Why not indeed? Being depressed is terrible, and there are pills for it. Are we Christian Scientists? Is there some kind of masochism here, or perceived nobility in suffering? Sharpe doesn't prescribe a particular path to take -- meds or no meds -- which is a major strength of the book. Rather, she presents a level and informative discussion of the issues involved, filling a need for honest discourse about something that is still in many ways a very isolating and mysterious experience: being depressed, perhaps... or perhaps just being young. And of course, either way, taking these meds.
One of the important points this book makes is that being young just fucking sucks for a lot of people. Sharpe worries that our culture has come to pathologize the normal developmental pain of life. The director of mental health services at Swarthmore tells her that these days, "there's almost not a language for normal distress." As Sharpe puts it, "To live in America today is to be invited, again and again, to ask ourselves whether our problems are symptoms, to consider whether we need or would simply benefit from a psychiatric medication." Given such a context, I would definitely recommend this book to teenagers and people in their twenties who do take or might take or have taken antidepressants, as well as to their parents. I would also recommend it to older people who have taken or considered taking these drugs, and also to mental health providers.
One person I kept thinking of as I read was a former client of mine. She was a young women who had experienced a difficult childhood, and she had a severe psychotic disorder which had caused serious disruptions and delays in her life. She had finally become psychiatrically stable while I knew her, and was left to deal with the normal and often very painful problems of a woman in her twenties trying to establish a life. Towards the end of my working with her, most of our discussions consisted of me trying to convince her that her current experiences and pain were not pathological at all, but completely normal. She just didn't believe me, no matter how hard I tried, and she wouldn't consider longterm talk therapy because she associated it with sickness and stigma. If I were still working with her, I would definitely give her this book, because I think there is a huge benefit in seeing the way that others -- whether they take medication or not -- struggle with feelings that, even if they're not pathological, totally fucking suck. I recommend this book to people who have had them, which should be everyone... unless you've been taking handfuls of these meds since you were born, in which case boy, have I got a book for you....more
Man, I really loved this. Memoir might be another one of those things that I think I really hate, but in fact don't. I might just hate the idea of it,Man, I really loved this. Memoir might be another one of those things that I think I really hate, but in fact don't. I might just hate the idea of it, of how rampant it's become and how much memoir embodies this idea that's so pervasive right now about how everyone's individual story is so fascinating and important just because it's true, and how any level of event or emotional pain so significant and unique and worth moaning on about, only because it happened... A lot of the reviews on here took issue with the "emotional purge" quality of this book, which I get because it's the kind of thing that would normally bother me too, but for me it really worked here, not just in spite but because of its endlessly repetitive -- and arguably narcissistic -- exploration of psychic trauma and self.
The Sisters Antipodes passes the My Dark Places memoir test, i.e., it answers with an aggressive "yes" the question "Did anything unique or remarkable happen in your life that is worth exploring in a memoir?" The book is about Alison's family which, while probably not any less happy than your average family is unhappy in a more interesting way. In 1965, when Alison was four, her parents -- an Australian couple in the foreign service -- met another couple -- Americans, also in the foreign service, with two daughters around the same age as Jane and her sister. While the details of what happened next remain a bit unclear, both couples immediately divorced and reconfigured in only slightly altered mirror images of each other, and of what they had just recently been. Jane, her older sister, and their mother moved to the United States with Jane's stepfather, Paul, while her father stayed in Australia with his new wife and her two daughters. None of the four girls saw their biological fathers for the next seven years, acclimating to their new families and countries with the knowledge that on the other side of the globe, there was a shadow family for whom they'd been unceremoniously swapped. The book is about what this experience was like for Alison, and particularly focuses on her relationship with Jenny, her counterpart step-sister down-under, and both girls' serious issues both with each other and with their complex configuration of fathers.
As the child of an infinitely more prosaic divorce myself, I found a lot of this story seriously resonated with me. The concept of the book is successful because the premise -- which is, let's face it, far too schematic and contrived and unbelievable for a novel -- really works as a literary device through which to look at common experiences using an exceptionally poetic situation. In our culture, I'd say, the experience of father absence to some degree is far more common than not (see Chodorow, 1979). While this seems to be changing, a very large percentage of women my age and older can probably relate to a lot of Alison's obsessions with her father's attention and approval. A lot of the things she gets into about jealousy and competition in reconfigured families is also very common and is well-treated here. I mention this because I think part of my prejudice against memoir is that it's solipsistic and inherently navel-gazey, and I didn't find The Sisters Antipodes to be because, like good fiction, it was about a lot more than itself.
That said, there are some things in here that I can see not everyone could get into. For one thing, it must be said that Jane Alison is a good-looking blonde who went to Princeton. This fact isn't incidental to her story: it is a crucial point, and necessarily comes up a lot. Rightly or wrongly, some of us might have a very hard time relating to the problems of a good-looking blonde who has had an interesting, and in some ways privileged life, who's endowed with certain natural advantages and talents. Despite the difficulties she's faced at times, Alison is a winner, and the book is about how she wins, not at all in a celebratory inspirational way, but in a fairly ruthless and Darwinian sense that I found both profoundly honest and fascinating. I think there's a tendency in first-person accounts to play down one's winningness, because most readers can relate best to the aw-shucks underdog schmucky type who's more like us. But The Sisters Antipodes isn't about someone like that; it's about a girl who has a lot going for her, and knows it, who is competitive in ways that are difficult and damaging not just to people in her life, but to her. And that's a story that's maybe harder to relate to for a lot of readers than that of the hapless wallflower Jane-next-door, but it's also a lot more interesting, to me anyway.
Another thing about this book is that I really liked the language. It's very lush and descriptive, which is not always my thing, but it's cut with a certain dry cynicism that I think helped tether it to the ground. The environments and eras are so well evoked -- 1960s Australia, 1970s Washington D.C., a perplexingly unnamed South American country, etc. -- that I felt I'd been in them, in particular the author's childhood house. Due to my prejudice against memoir, I haven't read much of it, so I can't really compare this example against others of the genre. However, I was struck by the lucidity of her memories, and of how they triggered my own thoughts of times in my life I haven't remembered in years.
Finally, I sat down and read this book pretty much straight through, neglecting everything else in my life until I had finished. This hasn't happened to me in awhile, and I am really grateful for the experience. The writing was so vivid and immersive that I feel as if I'd inhabited the author's world and mind during the time I was reading. I do feel bad for Alison's family -- I am surprised that all these memoirs haven't inspired more murders of telling-all authors by their pissed-off siblings and parents -- but as a reader I benefited a lot from her candor, and I'd recommend this book to people (especially women, and men interested in specifically female experiences, who are, as noted here on previous occasions, unfortunately a minority) who might get into this kind of thing....more