I know a lot of avid-bordering-on-fanatical readers who adore books just a little way too much than most of us do: armed with handy, neon highlightersI know a lot of avid-bordering-on-fanatical readers who adore books just a little way too much than most of us do: armed with handy, neon highlighters or metallic gel pens, they’re furious to shade/underline/encircle phrases of gold that are worth remembering. Others, they keep a journal and jot down their favourite paragraphs to quote. Most days, I’m profoundly jealous of their uncanny patience to achieve that level of consistency. There are days however, that I’m grateful I’m too lazy for that habit. This is one of those latter moments, because if I do, then I might’ve ended up having all my fingers paralyzed by now, trying to shade/underline/encircle/copy Danzy Senna’s entire book, Caucasia, from the very first line down to the last. It’s magical and pensieve and so, so good.
Gracefully juggling themes such as societal discrimination, isolation, belongingness, racism and beauty, Caucasia is so good you could almost see yourself driven and pierced between the tug of war of skin versus kin.
The novel takes us all the way back to the 70’s, in the heart of a bizarre family riveting in its dysfunctionality: a black, intellectual father, a white politically-radical mother, and two sisters—caught amidst family fault lines and cross-fires of colors and races.
It’s great when a book transports you so seamlessly in another world and in another side of history, but it gets magical when your mind gets to inhabit the lives of the characters to a point where you can almost see, hear, feel, heck even taste, their stories and experiences. Caucasia does that, wonderfully.
The novel’s poignant and precocious voice belong to its heroine, Birdie Lee, the younger and the white half of the two sisters; Cole is the eldest, taking after their black father. And I guess it would be a giveaway to say that my favourite thing about this book is the sisterhood subplot. Or maybe it’s just a theme I’m totally, subjectively biased about. The book opens:
“Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence. Back then, I was content to see only Cole, three years older than me, and imagine that her face—cinnamon skinned, curly-haired, serious—was my own. It was her face above me always, waving toys at me, cooing at me, whispering to me, pinching at me when she was angry and I was the easiest target. That face was me and I was that face and that was how the story went.”
But sentimentality aside, this sisterhood is, more than anything else, the core of every event that happened here; as if all the years that slipped by were glued to the bond of these two girls, fighting the forces and gaps that proximity and philosophy imposed on them. It’s triumphant, but not quite—it’s almost there, just almost; and it’s all kind of bittersweet.
Sometime in her life, Birdie looks back:
“She had been twelve. She had slipped into bed with me, giggling. Her body beside me felt different, softer, more alive, as she said, ‘Birdie, Ant kissed me today.’ I had closed my eyes, feeling sad but not wanting her to notice. I had felt her drifting away from me, into another world. I would always be three years behind her. That difference was forever.”
And what makes this so much more than just a nostalgic family diary? The intelligent depiction of the story’s bigger backdrop—Society, as a bigger, more dysfunctional family, where you either feel so cramped and suffocated or cold and isolated. Birdie swings from one experience to another, carefully narrating transition after transition.
“I don’t know when, exactly, all that began to change. I guess it happened gradually, the way bad things usually do. The summer before I turned eight, the outside world seemed to bear in on us with a new force. It was 1975, and Boston was a battleground. My mother and her friends spent hours huddled around the kitchen table, talking about the trouble out there. Forced integration. Roxbury. South Boston. Separate but not quite equal. God made the Irish number one. A fight, a fight, a nigga and a white…”
And then years later, in a conversation with her aunt:
“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course, it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”
I remember having finished this book and just being silent for a moment, hopeless romantic that I am, and being grateful—not because I found this book, but because I believe otherwise; this book found me....more
I’ve known for so long that reading books are no different from going on trips–we pack our imaginary suitcases and fly elsewhere according to our whim I’ve known for so long that reading books are no different from going on trips–we pack our imaginary suitcases and fly elsewhere according to our whims. Reading historical fiction gives us the bonus perk of time-travel so apart from the freedom in choosing our dream itineraries, we’re also very much in control of calendar and clock. Pretty neat, methinks.
Stunning, dramatic and memorable—Life Mask is a Victorian trip on high definition grandeur. I feel every bit the tourist with the truckload of pictures and millions of stories to make all my friends jealous. And really now, just how gorgeous is a reading experience for a souvenir?
Life Mask, at nearly 700 pages, is perhaps one of the longest books I have ever read and I'm not gonna lie-- it’s 200% the reason why I was so scared to pick it up. Before I had the chance to chicken out, I started on a chapter right away so I know there’s no turning back. It’s like buying a plane ticket to wherever with my eyes closed—I just wanted to get over my nerves before my nerves get to me. I’d be lying if I said Emma Donoghue’s ‘Slammerkin’ didn’t raise the bar for my expectations; that book is incredibly good and even ended up on my top 12 best reads of 2013. There’s also this point of comparison since both books are set in medieval London, at almost intersecting periods in that century. Thankfully though, the books are set-apart from each other, distinct in their differences.
While in ‘Slammerkin’ we get an in-depth view of prostitution and the sufferings of the lower class, in Life Mask we get a first-hand account of the upper echelons of high society–nobles and lords and artists—and their own share of hardships. It’s a breath of fresh air to see problems of a different sort than the usual. Instead of poverty, starvation, homelessness and terrible working conditions, we have scandals and political feuds galore complete with Victorian tabloids, countesses with a ravenous appetite for gossips, extramarital affairs left and right and even a French Revolution to boot. Delicious. It’s like Donoghue is telling us that regardless of whether you are living in filth or living filthy rich, we’re all tragedies waiting to happen just the same anyway. And ain’t that just so oddly comforting?
*spoilers ahead; read at your own risk*
Life Mask is made up of Assorted Aristocrats—a cast of characters so extensive that I’ve been tempted more than once to grab a piece of paper and create a freaking graph just for me to remember all the names and their respective titles. (For the sake of example: if I come across ‘Duchess of Devonshire’ anywhere in the story, I had to keep in mind that it refers to Georgiana.) At the end of the day, we have three people at the heart of this novel: we have Lord Derby, founder of the pioneer horse racetrack and cockfights, who is head over heels for Eliza Farren, a widely celebrated actress regarded as Queen of Comedy, who has been a close friend to Mrs. Anne Damer, a widow of a noble and a very talented sculptress. This brings to mind one of the funniest parts of the book, wherein the lords from the opposing party of the parliament did this hilarious albeit sexist and offensive drinking game called ‘Connections’, where they take turns interlinking names of persons who’ve in one way or another has been sexually associated. In a nutshell, it’s basically a game of who-slept-with-whom. There’s the English tongue-in-cheek humor for ya. I thought it’s a brilliant way to capture the complexities and vulnerabilities of relationships during that era and how messed-up everything is.
Lord Derby is the character I liked the least because, well, he’s just not as charismatic or magnetic as most Victorian protagonists usually are, and frankly, not man enough, in my opinion to even be half as brave as the other two ladies. He’s got no real major conflict which might explain why I’m not as compelled to him as I would have liked to be. Eliza Farren, the actress, was my favorite for the first half of the book. She’s likeable alright and I understood and admire her every reaction and decision to circumstances. I love that she’s got spunk and is no pushover—this girl knows how to stand up for herself and places her virtue above anything else. Mrs. Anne Damer, on the other hand, stole the limelight for the second half of the story all the way until the very end.
Have you ever wondered how challenging it must be to be a woman struggling with your sexuality at a time in history when ladies are literally caged in corset-tight confines of decorum whereas men can frolic in decadence to their hearts’ content? How can you emerge a triumphant protagonist when your own villain is yourself? Is it really any different from the century we live in? Why are we always at the mercy of society and its perceptions of us and why can we never break free from its harsh scrutiny?
She heard it like a voice in her head: I am what they call me.It was strange how quickly these revelations could strike when they came at last after years, after decades, after a lifetime. Like the Greek philosopher in his bath, crying out Eureka, I have found it. Or no, more like Monsieur Marat in his bath of blood, stabbed to death by a girl. That was what Anne felt like now; one sudden blow and a helpless draining away…There were words for women like her, women who saw all the natural attractions of a man like Charles O’Hara and were left cold. Women who asked for more than had been allotted to them. Women who became fixated on shallow, glamorous actresses. Women who loved their female friends not generously but with a demanding, jealous ruthlessness; women who got in the way of good marriages and thwarted nature. There were words for such propensities–hidden inclinations–secret tastes–and she knew them all, had heard them all already.
…How little she’d known, thought Anne–and how little she’d known herself. It seemed she wasn’t naturally ascetic or born to solitude. She was no good at renunciation after all. It was as if her virgin heart had been fasting all her life, building up an endless appetite, and now she couldn’t have enough of pleasure. She was glutting herself on love. She was unshockable; there was nothing she didn’t like, nothing she could do without.
For all it’s worth, Life Mask is an incredibly well-researched and fine detailed novel in as much as it’s an intimate tale of friendships blown out of epic proportions. Donoghue’s storytelling is assured and lyrical and compelling. I agree though, that the editing of its length could have had made it a better story. The pacing would've been so much more fluid if things picked up within the first hundred pages but I guess it was necessary to linger in establishing the world and the parameters by which it exists—some things probably take time. Nevertheless, as a journey, it is one I am so happy I have been to, and one I wouldn't mind revisiting again someday....more
It’s two am and I just recently finished reading Adam Bagdasarian’s First French Kiss and other Traumas five minDamn, this book rendered me awestruck.
It’s two am and I just recently finished reading Adam Bagdasarian’s First French Kiss and other Traumas five minutes ago and it’s so good that I’m right away compelled to write my thoughts of the aftermath; it’s been awhile since I’ve last come across a book I couldn’t put down—I’m so busy raising my dead social life from the grave that I could only squeeze in reading during my left over time. But oh, this book just stole my attention and resisted to be put off for later.
For a sheer 134-pager, it’s so concise and brief that it’s almost deceiving. Of course I had the gut feel that this is going to be a nice read when I decided to buy it, but it has been a pleasant surprise to know that I’m wrong; the book is not nice at all—it’s heartbreakingly brilliant. Otherwise, I won’t be stifling laughter while I’m so engrossed reading it in between bites at a crowded Burger King just a few hours ago, or getting all misty-eyed at the end of some chapters towards the end.
And okay, I saw it: there’s painfully too much of me that I could see in this book that I literally pause between pages to ask myself, “Am I reading a book or looking at a mirror?”
The first few chapters were okay, and then came the part where Will, the main character, shares his first ever depression in life—his five-year old self, pondering the melancholy of gumball machines.
“And if there wasn’t the gumball machine, what was there? Days, that’s what. Years and years of days. Days like balls of gum. Days of trees and sky and faces and food. The same trees, the same sky, the same faces, the same food. And the sameness enraged me because there was no escape from it, no alternative to it, nothing to do but sleep and submit.”
Holy crap, he is speaking my language of hate for monotony! At age five!
The book is a faux autobiography of the odd, melancholic childhood recollections of Will. There’s no theme whatsoever but it didn’t matter; I fell in love with Will’s character so head-on and easy. I adored his line of thoughts, his profound way of looking at things, with a frighteningly striking semblance to that of my own. He imagines fictional people and their fictional lives and have fictional conversations with them. He gives every trivial thing in the world a meaning like it’s his life mantra to make metaphors mandatory. Say for instance, here are his ramblings on the injustices of middle school popularity:
I gazed at Sean and the rest of the popular boys in bewildered admiration. It seemed like only yesterday that we had all played kickball, dodgeball, and basketball together; and then one morning I awoke to find that this happy democracy had devolved into a monarchy of kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, lords and ladies. It did not take a genius to know that, upon the continent of this playground, the two Allans and I were stable boys.
I had been resigned to my rank for many months, but now, looking at the two Allans (still arguing over the same three leaf clover), then at the popular boys, I suddenly knew that I could not stand another day at the bottom—I wanted to be part of the noise and the laughter; I wanted, I needed to be popular.
Being ten years old, I did not question this ambition; bit I did wonder how on earth I was going to realize it. Though I only stood twenty yards away from the heart of the kingdom, I felt a thousand miles removed from the rank and prestige of its citizens. How could I bridge such a gap, knowing I might be stared at, or laughed at or belittled to a speck so small that I could no longer be seen by the naked eye?
Sure, he’s far from perfect, if anything, he’s so flawed sometimes. He fidgets, he has a lot of fears and insecurities and all of these he perfectly hides under the façade of his bloated ego. And oh, he knows it well. He’s so self-centered that one of his first thoughts upon coming close to the possibility of a brain tumour, was that he couldn’t die yet because he is destined to revolutionize American Contemporary Fiction before he turns 20. He’s one big dreamer, alright. And so hilarious at so many levels. There were portions in the book that he is so boyishly heartless that I couldn’t stop muttering asshole under my breath, like for example, his thoughts right after breaking up with a girl named Linda from the sixth grade, who sincerely loved him a lot:
I would like to say that I ran after her but I didn’t. I would like to say that I held her in my arms and comforted her until she stopped crying, but I didn’t do that either. I would like to say that we parted that night with a warm and enduring understanding of each other, and that we remain good friends to this day, but we didn’t and we aren’t.
What I did do was watch her run into the house. Then I smiled. I smiled because I had stood my ground because I had had the strength and character to look a girl in the eye and break up with her. So proud was I of my achievement, so sure was I of my irresistible attraction to women that ten minutes later I went back to the party found Ellen Weitzman, and asked her to go steady.
Asshole. Asshole. Asshole. And yet, there were moments when I just wanted to nudge him, give him a giant hug and tell him everything’s going to be okay. And you know what hit home? The fact that his glorious façade crumbles so easily whenever he talks about family. Sure, at one point in his short-lived popularity, he became the heartthrob hotshot and all that. But at home, he’s basically his family’s baby who prays for his brother not to leave for college because he’ll miss climbing trees with him, and the same kid who just wanted to please his dad so bad, it hurts sometimes.
“You know,” his father said, sitting down on his brother’s bed, “sometimes when I get angry at you, I’m really angry about other things. Sometimes something will happen in town or at the office, and instead of yelling about that, I yell about the carrots or the plates or something else. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he said, though he did not really understand anything except the feeling of his father’s presence and the tenderness of his voice. “And you know that I love you even when I yell at you?” “Yes.” “Good,” his father said, leaning close to him and kissing him on the cheek. “Now go to sleep.” “Good night, Pop,” he said, and his voice was small because his heart had swelled right up to his Adam’s apple. “Good night.” And the he was in the dark again, but not alone because his father had been there, would always be there.
And this juxtaposition ain’t the only thing that makes his character great; his flaws make him so real and so vulnerable, at least for us readers inside his head. He’s had epic moments of winning you can’t help but cheer and be proud of his little victories, no matter how shallow they are. And he’s also had unforgettable moments of defeat and loss which oddly evokes in you a sense of respect for him rather than pity.
“Pop’s dead,” she says, and a white flash goes off in your head, and then you are crying faster than you have ever cried or smiled or winked or laughed or blinked in your life. And all at once you see everything—you see what it all means. It only takes an instant, but it’s an eternal instant, an instant that would take years to write. And everything you feel is a forty-wave foot of water, and all at once you are in the wave, being tossed in the wave, and it’s frightening because it’s too strong. The wave can break you like a match stick, and there are waves after this wave, higher and stronger, to break you apart and banish you to a vast unknown. And it shuts off and you are alright again. As fast as it started, it stops. And your eyes are dry and you are smiling. You think everything is alright again.
And that, my friends, is the definition of a great fiction hero—I hated him, loved him, saw myself in him, desired to get to know him and wanted to be like him, too. I must say, I can’t ask for more. ...more