At several points during my reading of this novel -- because of its crisp, realistic dialogue; dangerous setting; and intriguing, imperfect characters...moreAt several points during my reading of this novel -- because of its crisp, realistic dialogue; dangerous setting; and intriguing, imperfect characters -- I imagined it as a movie. I just looked it up on imdb.com and, yes, there is a 1967 movie with, ugh, Burton and Taylor, not at all whom I envisioned for the roles.
Perhaps because of its title, I thought the novel would be of a sharp, exaggerated satire, but, no, I suppose the Haiti of Duvalier was surreal enough. At first meeting the three men described in the GR blurb connected to this edition, I thought Smith, the American, would come across as a buffoon and Jones might be a mere annoyance: once again my expectations were thwarted, there is real heart behind all the characters. I disagree with the blurb that the American is one of the comedians; I don't think Smith could make a chameleon of himself, as the others can, not even to literally save his life.
While maybe not as complex as Greene's longer masterpieces, this slim novel incorporates the best of Greene: apt metaphors (not always something I say of him), introspection and smooth prose, along with the elements mentioned above.
As someone who's read quite a bit of Shields, I've noticed in the past that she has an early nonfiction work called Susanna Moodie: Voice And Vision....moreAs someone who's read quite a bit of Shields, I've noticed in the past that she has an early nonfiction work called Susanna Moodie: Voice And Vision. I know nothing else of Moodie (except that she's also been an influence on Margaret Atwood) but when I started this, I had to wonder if any hoopla surrounding the recognition of Moodie in Canada informed this work. And in turn I also wondered if the writing of this led to Shields' The Stone Diaries a few years later. I would have to reread the latter to be sure, but I think it's safe to say Mary Swann and The Stone Diaries are certainly her two most ambitious novels.
I'm not sure why this novel isn't more well known. Perhaps because it is theme-driven: characters and plot are secondary, though the fourth section is luminous in its depiction of a long marriage. Each section has its own style and point-of-view, the third narrated by an unnamed omniscient entity that sometimes uses the second-person as if the reader is perhaps being given a guided tour.
The back of my edition states that the novel won an award for "crime writing" and yet the perpetrator of the obvious crime -- the disappearance of Mary Swann's artifacts -- is easily guessed at by the time the first object goes missing, that crime being the least of what this novel is. Other, perhaps unprosecutable, 'crimes' fuel this novel, a layered challenge to our perceptions about art and in what it has to say about art as a commodity, how it is made and shaped, and who owns it.
Its humor is sly and not always complimentary to the literary world. While the last section was my least favorite, its ending is perfect.(less)
Notice the absence of the The in the title: there are The Beatles and then there are Gunnar, Kim, Seb and Ola -- four go...moreWavering between 3.5 and 4 ...
Notice the absence of the The in the title: there are The Beatles and then there are Gunnar, Kim, Seb and Ola -- four good-hearted, The Beatles-loving teenagers growing up in Oslo in the mid-60s. But what might seem like a mischievous comic romp of a novel turns deadly serious as politics, police brutality and drugs become a part of the boys' lives into the very early 70s.
I loved the concept and greatly enjoyed the Oslo setting (as I'd recently been there); but what bothered me, along with a couple of pet peeves near the end, was the length. For what it is -- a coming-of-age story -- it's kind of long and somewhat repetitive. (Such wordiness being the only issue I remember having with LSC's The Half Brother.)
Remember in Middlesex (a novel I loved) when Cal flees to San Francisco and you think: What? Why have we left Detroit? Isn't it about time to wrap up this book? Well, that's what it feels like when three of the lads hitchhike to Paris to rescue George, excuse me, Seb. When Kim (Paul) uses his study loan to impulsively buy a flight to Iceland, I felt like I did watching the movie Titanic when Rose jumped out of the lifeboat and I screamed to myself: Wait. What? This movie's not almost over!?! ... Never mind, it isn't nearly as bad as that.
LSC is a good writer and, especially in the beginning, I loved the insights of his narrator, Kim. A parallel between Munch's The Scream (the one in Oslo's National Gallery) and a photograph from Vietnam that Kim recalls while viewing the painting is impressive, even more so as it continues as an extended metaphor. LSC plots well, drawing you into wondering why Kim is in the family summer house in autumn and what in the world happened to him to get him there. When you find out, it feels right.(less)
My dear friend Cathrine is the reason I first read Ali Smith about ten years ago and she is the reason I was able to read this book as quickly as I di...moreMy dear friend Cathrine is the reason I first read Ali Smith about ten years ago and she is the reason I was able to read this book as quickly as I did. She and Ali Smith will be forever linked in my mind. When she gave me this book, she told me copies of the novel have either one of the two sections first: you get what you get. (Unless of course you go to a bookstore and choose the one you want.) Not surprising to us, I received a copy different than hers: because, you see, we too (two) complement (and, yes, compliment) each other.
When I got home from my recent trip, which included my first face-to-face meeting with Cathrine in Norway, she emailed me that she'd heard from others who struggled with the section I had first that flipping to my second section first was 'easier.' Of course, I took that as a challenge, but I need not have worried: the reading of my first section wasn't a (negative) challenge (I wondered if maybe those readers hadn't gotten past the first two pages) and things began to be quickly, though gradually, revealed. In this beginning, I detected a whiff of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but really it was all Ali Smith. I loved its language and especially the voice for the artist that Smith conjured up with her magical skills: it was endearing and quite funny. (My colons are in homage to the 15th-century artist, who is both real and imagined.)
To be completely honest, I'm not sure if this is as perfect as Smith's Hotel World, though it's certainly more ambitious, maybe even more ambitious than The Accidental, which I also loved. I found my first section so wonderful that I felt the second could only pale in comparison, and it does a little bit, if only because there's maybe a bit too much talking here and there. But still I loved it -- it dovetails into the other section, like a hand in a glove, like one puzzle piece into another. Cathrine and I had the same experience reading my second section, though she read it first in her copy -- that is, much googling of images, though we googled nothing in the other section. In that section Smith's rendering of the artist's works is enough.
Many ways of "how to be both" are found in this novel (I won't list any as seeing those are part of its pleasure) and the structure of the book is not a gimmick, but another reflection of the theme.(less)
The ghost of reading haunted me as I traveled earlier this month: I'd started A Journal of the Plague Year with my destination being Amsterdam and that city is mentioned in Defoe's first paragraph; I switched to this book rather quickly and as I was flying into Copenhagen, I met the Danish character Caspar; I was in the city when the Irishwoman Mo mentions "Custard from Copenhagen."
The theme of the interconnectedness of the many inhabitants of our planet hit me hard when we kept running into the same people on our trip, from an Amsterdam museum to an Oslo hotel to a Copenhagen ferry to a city shuttle and onto the streets themselves. Sure, we were all tourists, but we were bescarved wives; a young family with a huge stroller; a sharp-nosed, iron-haired woman with a nondescript companion and a solitary distracted orange-haired woman from the States. As if it were Mitchell's human-blood-carrying mosquito, the ghost buzzed in my ear, mocking me for what I said in my review of Atwood's The Year of the Flood, showing me coincidences don't work just in Dickens' novels.
Mitchell has been accused of great writing that has no meaning, but I think the opposite is true of this, his first work. Much meaning can be found here, but the prose is perhaps overly ambitious, despite lucid, perceptive paragraphs scattered throughout.(less)
Another interesting concept by Audrey Niffenegger: A raven and a postman (named as such as if that's a subspecies of human) fall in love and produce a...moreAnother interesting concept by Audrey Niffenegger: A raven and a postman (named as such as if that's a subspecies of human) fall in love and produce a hybrid, the titular character. The child feels different from others (as you can imagine) and finally realizes it's because she yearns to fly but can't. As with The Night Bookmobile, I'm not sure what to make of the ending, though here at least the irony is more satisfying. (less)
I liked the idea behind this book -- I'd love to have a library of every single thing I've ever read -- but it completely lost me three-fourths of the...moreI liked the idea behind this book -- I'd love to have a library of every single thing I've ever read -- but it completely lost me three-fourths of the way through. I didn't care for the ending at all, nor was I sure what to make of it.(less)
If I (as my adult-self) were being honest, I'd rate this 4 stars; instead, I'm rating it as my very honest child-self. I owned this series, each book...moreIf I (as my adult-self) were being honest, I'd rate this 4 stars; instead, I'm rating it as my very honest child-self. I owned this series, each book arriving in the mail then read immediately, and this one was my favorite. It was read countless times and each time I imagined I too was visiting the statue of the little mermaid in Copenhagen.
9/21 addendum: I reread this book as a prelude to a trip I just returned from that included Copenhagen, so I too have now visited the little mermaid statue, not to mention Tivoli and the Kronborg castle in Helsingor, as did the Hollisters.(less)
With the solutions to its mysteries to be found at the back of the book (and because this is Snicket, 'misfiled' solutions with no corresponding suspicious incident are also included), this installment in the "All the Wrong Questions" series reminded me of the old series I read as a child, though with the Dashiell Hammett-tinge of its first two books still intact.
My favorite part was the musing upon communities that disappear: Snicket always has at least one pearl of wisdom for the reader within his silly, snarky oyster shell (or is it a virus?).(less)
If you've read Mantel's Wolf Hall, you know there's a bit of adjustment at first once you realize "he" almost always refers to Cromwell because you're...moreIf you've read Mantel's Wolf Hall, you know there's a bit of adjustment at first once you realize "he" almost always refers to Cromwell because you're inside his head. Such is the case here, though the reader is granted a reprieve now and then when an omniscient voice takes over in some chapters. I say reprieve because it's tough being in Mehring's head and I felt relief when he engaged in dialogue (not that often) with someone other than himself.
Inside his head, the reader also needs to determine who the "you" is that Mehring is remembering and having imaginary conversations with. Mostly it's with his polar-opposite, leftist married lover (Mehring himself is divorced and seems to have had various flings, many unseemly) whom he's helped to flee the country, but at other times it's with his long-haired, barefoot sixteen-year-old hippie son Terry (the book was published in 1972). When they're together, Mehring struggles for topics to converse with Terry; when they're apart, Mehring thinks of the many things he should've said, but we all know how that goes: in your thoughts you control the other's responses. Mehring sometimes switches from one "you" to the other within the same paragraph; once the "you" has been established and sentences reread, meaning becomes easier.
Mehring is a rich white powerful industrialist who owns a luxury flat in the city and four-hundred acres in the country. He's spending more and more time in the country, a place he previously visited only on the weekends and originally envisioned as a love nest. He's become possessive of the land, though "his" black farm workers' abodes could do with some upgrading, of course:
With a new roof, it would be a better house than any of them has at the compound, but that's out of the question because he has discovered, coming there in the evenings, it has the best view of any spot on the whole farm.
The harshness of nature reaps danger (especially for those without resources) but also beauty, and Mehring believes the latter will always win out. This conservationist not only wants to keep his life (and land) the way it is, he increasingly wants it all for himself.
From the opening pages, he and the novel are haunted by the corpse of a murdered black man discovered in Mehring's third pasture. Not caring who committed the murder of a black man, the police bury the man near where he has been found. Mehring's anxious, claustrophobic (for the reader) thoughts return to the burial site over and over, as do thoughts of a missing ring, lost by his lover as she visited the property with him before he'd bought it.
The results of a flood brought on by a cyclone are described thoroughly and as I read those passages yesterday -- on the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina -- the words rang true for my area too:
Hanks of grass, hanks of leaves and dead tree-limbs, hanks of slime, of sand, and always hanks of mud, have been currented this way and that by an extraordinary force that has rearranged a landscape as a petrified wake.
'1580s, from French bombe, from Italian bomba, probably from Latin bombus "a deep, hollow noise; a buzzing or booming sound," from Greek bombos "deep and hollow sound," echoic. Originally of mortar shells, etc.; modern sense of "explosive device placed by hand or dropped from airplane" is 1909.'
This novel is set in 17th-century Amsterdam and the above is indicative of some of my issues with it. If you think you might be interested in this book, don't let my rating sway you as it's not something that would've even drawn my attention if it hadn't been a gift.
A serviceable biography, it helped to fill in the gaps I wondered about after my reading of Zweig's The World of Yesterday. On a frivolous note, it al...moreA serviceable biography, it helped to fill in the gaps I wondered about after my reading of Zweig's The World of Yesterday. On a frivolous note, it also gave me another facet of how the main character in the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel could be based on Zweig.
Unlike with a biography written by Zweig (see Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman), there is no psychoanalyzing here and Matuschek's sources are clearly laid out. The research that went into this seems impeccable and I appreciated having the end-notes after each chapter, instead of the usual placement at the end of the full text. I especially liked reading of the time after Zweig's memoir ends: his English citizenship and his house in Bath; his time in the U.S. before moving to Brazil; and that of his last days and the preparations he and his second wife Lotte made before their deaths. I would've liked more about Lotte, but perhaps Matuschek has given us all that's available.
It may be a fault of the translation and not the author, but several times a placement of a personal pronoun did not always make it clear who was being referred to.(less)
This book should probably be listed as separate from the rest of Anne Frank's works (though it does contain all of them) as it contains so much more....moreThis book should probably be listed as separate from the rest of Anne Frank's works (though it does contain all of them) as it contains so much more. In 1986 the "critical edition" was published after the authenticity of the diary was confirmed (the procedure being deemed necessary as Holocaust-deniers were loud and vociferous with their assertion that the diary had been faked); in 2003 the editors published this "revised critical edition," one reason being that five pages originally held back at the request of the Frank family (Anne's father Otto and, after Otto's death, his widow) were released for publication. Three of these pages are perceptive reflections on Anne's parents' marriage; the other two are Anne's revised beginning for her diary.
The entries of the three versions of the diary (Anne's original entries; the diary as she herself edited it; and the version most popularly known, edited by Otto Frank and a Dutch publishing house) are laid out on one page so any differences can be readily seen. A version can be read straight across if one desires, though the reader will find this volume physically unwieldy as it also contains all of Anne's other writings (tales, sketches, fables, reminiscences and an unfinished novel); notes and explanations about the authentication process; and essays about the Frank family's background, Otto's business, the arrest of the occupants of the annex and who might have reported them to the police, what happened to the former occupants of the annex and their helpers after the arrest, the sometimes contentious life of the diary itself and the aftermath of its publication.
This book is for someone with a deep interest in Anne Frank and her writings. I admit to acquiring it because of those five 'new' pages. I didn't reread the whole diary at this time (I'd read The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition not too long ago, not to mention my uncounted readings when I was a young girl of the first published version), but did read anything that was noted as being 'different.' These differences are not of enough interest for anyone with just a passing (or 'normal') interest in the diary.
A few words in a few sentences are duly noted as being omitted at the request of the person Anne was writing about, though in one of these instances it is noted that the elision consists of twenty-four words. The editors refer twice to a "page xiii." No such page exists: I believe page ix is what is meant.(less)
If The Hours is Cunningham's Virginia Woolf book (and it is) and Specimen Days has Walt Whitman as its guiding star (and it does, though thanks to the...moreIf The Hours is Cunningham's Virginia Woolf book (and it is) and Specimen Days has Walt Whitman as its guiding star (and it does, though thanks to the perception shown in my friend James Murphy's review, I was also able to view Whitman as a Dantean Virgil figure and now that I've since read The Divine Comedy, I see that more clearly), this is arguably Cunningham's Henry James book -- stylistically that is, with there not being much of a plot (though perhaps a very faint echo of The Wings of the Dove?); certainly with its interiority; its parenthetical asides; its semicolons; its double negatives; its sentences that sometimes need to be traced back to its origin to get at its meaning; and its intelligent, literate imagery. Perhaps you've guessed, if you've made it through the previous sentence, that I appreciate this kind of writing when it is done well, and it is done so well here: Cunningham is a master of language; his prose is beautiful. Near the end (page 212), I came across a paragraph from inside the head of the character of Tyler that immediately reminded me of my favorite of James' short works, The Beast in the Jungle, and while skimming that work this morning, the phrase "The torment of this vision became then his occupation ..." jumped out at me: it describes Tyler's brother.
The novel's synopsis may sound bleak, but there is also wry humor, some of which I detected toward the writer himself in a musing-upon a scene that is reminiscent of a scene in The Hours, though that scene is, of course, informed by Mrs. Dalloway.
The Snow Queen of the title is not who I immediately thought she'd be; but once the identity hit me, it seemed obvious. The Han Christian Andersen tale is evoked almost immediately (page 12) and perhaps because I was looking for that type of reference (though after rereading the HC Andersen tale this morning, I see that the rest of Cunningham's allusions (only a few) are quite subtle), I was a bit disappointed to see the initial incident mentioned again (too much? too blatant?) on the penultimate page of the book. But that's a minor quibble; read this book for the gorgeous language and its insights into our fallible human natures -- how what we hope for is of course what we don't get, don't need, or probably ever really wanted.
If you're interested in the author's take on language, you can find a bit of that in my review of Specimen Days. To the question that may be asked of this novel, because I heard it asked of that novel: no, I don't believe (admittedly based on the only three novels of his I've read so far) Cunningham is copying himself here either.(less)
I've now read three different types of books by Zweig: a novella (Chess Story), a memoir (The World of Yesterday) and this biography. Though I'm more...moreI've now read three different types of books by Zweig: a novella (Chess Story), a memoir (The World of Yesterday) and this biography. Though I'm more likely to read another of his novellas instead of another of his biographies, against expectation, I found this the most entertaining of the three books, but also the most problematic.
It's written in a very engaging style (though with too many exclamation points for my taste) and I zipped through it as I neared the end. Unlike with his memoir, in which there is an unusual distance between the writer and the reader -- again contradicting expectation -- there is no distance here. Zweig is upfront in his opinions and self-assured in his psychological dissection of Marie Antoinette and her contemporaries. Phrases like "girlish trivialities," "the premonition of a true sexual awakening" and "the tender emotion" read as blanket statements. At the first mention of Marie Antoinette's letters to Count von Fersen, Zweig concludes with this extraordinary (for him in relation to his subject, that is) sentence: "These letters modify our whole outlook upon the character of a woman hitherto regarded as light-minded." and I laughed out loud.
Before the Revolution, Zweig portrays the Queen as unseeing and frivolous, never malicious, and the king as unseeing and ineffective, both focusing on their private lives and practically nothing on the issues of the day. Though Zweig seems to respect Marie Antoinette more as time goes on, if she is what he considers "an average woman" (as his subtitle and some of his comments state) I feel demeaned.
Zweig excels at synthesizing vast amounts of information and details. His storytelling skills shine, so much so that certain passages, such as the thoughts he puts in Marie Antoinette's head, especially near the end of her life, read as historical fiction. He writes of regrets in the "secret hearts" of most of the deputies who had voted to execute the king. He talks of the sentries hiding "the sympathy they felt for the prisoners" despite what "the royalist memoirs tell us," but says nothing of what leads him to his own conclusion of the "common folk"'s solicitude. Wondering several times where his information came from, I became frustrated. In his afterword he explains what sources he has not used, and why.
Occasionally he assumes knowledge from his readership that no longer commonly exists. Translation is not always provided, not much of an issue except in the cases of lyrics of scurrilous songs and the lengthier passages from letters. That is not a criticism but an observation on how writing and reading has changed from Zweig's time.
Alain Robbe-Grillet is famous for saying that psychology was the worst thing to happen to the novel (I recently read that paraphrase in An Unnecessary Woman), but I'm positive Zweig believed it to be the best thing that happened to any kind of writing.(less)
I am drawn to portraits of women on the so-called margins, Toibin's Brooklyn and other of his works come to mind, as well as Messud's The Woman Upstai...moreI am drawn to portraits of women on the so-called margins, Toibin's Brooklyn and other of his works come to mind, as well as Messud's The Woman Upstairs, whose main character thinks in literary references, as does Aaliya in this novel, not to show off, there is no one to show off to, but because literature is what she lives, breathes and even prays to, calling on writers, such as "O Coetzee" and "O Flaubert," to help her in her time of need.
Aaliya is as prickly as Strout's Olive Kitteridge. She walks the streets of Beirut, reminiscent of James Joyce's famed wanderer, and disparages the fallout of his epiphanies in Dubliners on modern-day fiction. But, epiphany or not, O William Maxwell, I loved the ending of this book and as I've said of other novels, an ending such as this one can make a novel for me.
Even if you don't take on translations, as Aaliya does for herself, you are a reader, so you understand her anticipation each time she weighs the merits of opening one book over another.(less)
This book is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale in a poetry sequence, with each section titled either Mother, Woodsman or Red, no direct v...moreThis book is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale in a poetry sequence, with each section titled either Mother, Woodsman or Red, no direct voice for Wolf or Grandmother, though they're certainly spoken of. It's perhaps inevitable that I related mostly to the voice of the Mother, my days as Red being long gone.
As Mother worries about Red from the relative safety and comfort of the home she has made for herself and her daughter, Mother's horrific past experiences emerge. (As I typed that, I was reminded of the mother in Tender Morsels, another retelling of an archetypal tale.)
My favorite of the poems is told by Mother as she remembers her own mother -- Grandmother of course, but in this one poem called the Queen -- telling Mother when she was a child that she's "in charge of cheerfulness" before going down the hall to "her own wilderness" to fill "notebook after notebook." Mother then muses on a granddaughter's ability to "rouse a Queen from her writing."
Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders what the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of
-- from Where Your Eyes Don't Go by They Might Be Giants
Only because it was already unshelved did I play (and replay) the CD with the above song on it on Sunday while I was cleaning the house. As the line went through my head, I was struck by how it relates to this book of essays I was still reading at the time. (I am infamous in my family for my love of dark, serious books, but my taste in music is not the same: while on a road trip with my daughter a few months ago she live-tweeted my saying that I like upbeat music with goofy lyrics.)
Hustvedt writes of much of our living, thinking and looking as being on a subconscious or unconscious level, of our memories being remembered because of the emotion we've attached to them and of the space where play (transference, imagination, creativity) takes place between me and you, even if the "you" is an imagined one. I was particularly interested in the idea of memories needing to be rooted in a place, even if that place is later discovered not to be where the actual event happened, and of the memory we are currently remembering being the latest, inevitably revised, version of the so-called original memory.
In the "Looking" section, Hustvedt expounds on earlier (and amazing) essays on Goya from her Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting. She writes of art so clearly that I don't always feel the need to google the images she's referring to, though of course I do, especially that of lesser-known artists such as Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois, the latter a woman whose works and persona remind me of those of the fictional and not-as-successful protagonist of Hustvedt's latest novel, The Blazing World. These essays were published before that novel and the concepts Hustvedt explores here deeply inform the fictional work.
Some of the ideas and thoughts inherent in the essays become repetitive but that's because they were written over a span of six years, and for a wide range of publications and audiences. Any Hustvedt fan or anyone interested in memory, mind-brain issues and perception, including that of art and of culture, would be grateful for this collecting of articles, lectures and catalogue essays, all written in ordinary language, in one volume.
My own pondering on the space between me and you reminds me of a Harold Pinter poem I became obsessed with a few months ago. It may not seem like much to you, but my perception of it was most definitely colored by hearing Julian Sands speak it:
I know the place. It is true. Everything we do Corrects the space Between death and me And you.
Why is that a book I've read twice and would happily read again doesn't get that fifth star from me? After reading it the first time (pre-GR), I sent...moreWhy is that a book I've read twice and would happily read again doesn't get that fifth star from me? After reading it the first time (pre-GR), I sent a copy to a friend, knowing it was the type of book we both loved -- and yes, she loved it too. But when it subsequently popped up on GR, I rated it 4 stars based on a gut feeling. Much later I started seeing simpatico GR friends rate it 5 stars and I thought perhaps I was "wrong."
Forget my above musings about the vagaries of GR stars, during my reread I was mostly amazed by how much is forgotten in about seven or eight years, or as my husband said consolingly, "Eight hundred books later ..." Out of the many books I've read, though, this is one of the those that is real and true, like that first star rising above the dark rim of the hills that Tom Birkin sees in his one restorative month in Oxgodby.(less)
I'm struggling with this review, just as I struggled with these stories -- not because they're difficult, despite the instances of jargon that aren't...moreI'm struggling with this review, just as I struggled with these stories -- not because they're difficult, despite the instances of jargon that aren't always clear from the context and that I came to feel were too inclusive -- but because most of the stories left me lukewarm. The descriptive language and some observations shine, but right now the only character I can bring to mind (even though I finished the book last night) is the first-person unreliable narrator of "Time and Again," which I read twice. It's the the only one I wanted to read again, even though it's probably the simplest, most straightforward of the bunch.
I almost started off this review by apologizing to the book because it arrived from the library at an unusually busy time for me. I read most of the stories late at night when I might've been too tired, but I read that way quite a bit and if a story fires my imagination or captures my attention, when and how I read it is not usually an issue.
Perhaps I needed to read this with my short-story friend, Mikki, who recommended this book to me and gave it five stars. I'm sure she would've pointed out things I've missed -- though the symbolism in "The Mark" seems almost too obvious and "The Salvation of Me" seems autobiographical, adding interest to a story I might've otherwise found boring. Perhaps the overall style and content is not for me. Pancake has been compared to Hemingway and I struggle with him too.
The most interesting fact I read about the author after I finished this book is that he converted to Catholicism not long before his death, which was either suicide or accidental, at age 26. (He took the name "John" after his conversion, thus the initial J.) That left me wondering if any of his Catholicism might've crept into his later stories, though I can't recall anything that would lead me to that conclusion. (less)
There's so much I could say about this book, but I haven't strayed into spoiler territory in a review before and I don't want to start now. More than...moreThere's so much I could say about this book, but I haven't strayed into spoiler territory in a review before and I don't want to start now. More than with any novel I can think of that I've read, this is more than a sum of each part. For example, the fictional case history 'written' by the novel's Freud would mean nothing without the previous two sections 'written' by his patient; the same is true of the following sections relating her later life and that of the world at large, each with a Freudian trope of train journeys.
A traumatic incident from the patient's youth is glossed over by the patient herself and then by the fictional Freud, who thinks an earlier event is the key. Nothing is heard of it again and to the reader this seems, glaringly and obviously, wrong. As later events spool out, we realize Freud does not know all about this woman (that would be impossible, especially in this rendering). Her case is compared to that of the real-life Freud's Wolf-Man, which the author of this novel has to know was ultimately not the success Freud thought it to be.
Of course, I knew much about the novel's time period before reading it, yet this literary experience of it has left me helplessly angry, knowing the world was capable of and is still full of this kind of senseless violence. But, even with this residual anger, there is a catharsis to be had due to the author's mystical ending of (Jungian?) individuation.
When we encounter war or crime statistics, we remind ourselves, or I think we should, there was a living, dreaming, thinking, complicated individual behind each and every one of those numbers, but do we really comprehend that fact? This novel helps us to do that in all its horror and glory.(less)
Antopol's characters are on the move. They were born in Kiev, Belarus, Prague, the Bronx, Tel Aviv, Moscow and Boston, though they live in New York, C...moreAntopol's characters are on the move. They were born in Kiev, Belarus, Prague, the Bronx, Tel Aviv, Moscow and Boston, though they live in New York, California, Maine, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with no guarantee they'll stay put. Each story has a political element, as fitting for its time and place; yet, with one notable exception, these stories could be set anywhere: a newly divorced man and a widow quickly falling for each other; a playwright-daughter yearning for her father's approval; a father reconnecting with his young son after a stint in prison.
The collection had to grow on me. I wasn't too impressed with the first story and one sentence in particular had me extremely frustrated. (I made my peace with the sentence after I finished the book.) The next two were better, though in each there was at least one phrase that jarred. I started hoping that all the stories wouldn't be written in the first person, wondering if that was my issue. And perhaps it was, because I fell in love with the third-to-last story (there are nine) and then even deeper into the final story, both third-person accounts. Those two are also the longest of the collection and their sentences, full of clauses (which I loved tracking), are as exuberant as the characters they describe.
Antopol's stories are full of happenings, but it is the characters that drive them. Her characters are contradictory, finding themselves doing things and saying things they thought they weren't capable of. After horrible experiences, they've changed or they haven't, most change being temporary. They overshare; they don't share enough. They analyze; they're stuck in a rut they don't see until it's too late. They're restless; they're listless. They live.(less)
This book is the result of a talk Hustvedt was asked to give as part of a series on Narrative Medicine. It's not a memoir, though its touchpoint is a...moreThis book is the result of a talk Hustvedt was asked to give as part of a series on Narrative Medicine. It's not a memoir, though its touchpoint is a personal experience of the author, but reads as an extended essay. As with the best of essays, its interest originates from the particular of the personal, then opens up into the general, the universal. Its focus is on the mind-brain conundrum, reaching back into its history and changing cultural meanings, as far back as Wittgenstein and even further back for examples, then leads back to a present that doesn't seem all that different as to how much is known. Fittingly for a novelist, her sympathies are with the individual and individual stories.
Fifteen years ago, I, like many others, experienced lower back pain. The pain shot down into my leg and kept me awake at night. After trying 'everything', I read Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection and recognized that my stress had gone to my back: the pain disappeared. Some time later, I started having headaches that I thought were migraines and they were treated as such, though 'nothing' seemed to work on them. During internet research, I read a description of tension headaches and realized those were what I was experiencing, not migraines: I haven't had one since. Labels-- diagnoses -- are powerful.
Because her approach is interdisciplinary, this is not the only topic she touches. She speaks of memory, dreams, imagination, synesthesia, hallucinations, subjectivity and the nature of the self. This might seem too much for such a short book, but each subject flows naturally into the next.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go do my yoga stretches and weights for my neck pain, which at least has a story behind it ...(less)
Lightman -- interesting that his surname evokes Einstein -- has written a seemingly innocuous but profound little book. As I went through my daily cho...moreLightman -- interesting that his surname evokes Einstein -- has written a seemingly innocuous but profound little book. As I went through my daily chores today, any words rising to the surface of my consciousness as I thought of the review I would be writing later (which is now; though that 'now' exists no longer) sounded like cliches, easy to speak of Time in that way, as everything we say, think and do is full of references to Time and can be done only in Time.
Lightman's dream about the world (every 'world' is a version of Einstein's Berne) in which everyone is immortal immediately reminded me of the movie Zardoz. I saw it when I was in college in the early 80s and it made an immediate impact on the way I've thought about death since I was 10 years old.
I had trouble sleeping last night, my jaw tensing, and didn't feel like trying to put myself to sleep by writing this review in my head, so I turned the light back on for the third (or was it the fourth?) time to again pick up my next read; and the very next sentence was about Time:
In History Beyond Trauma ... two psychoanalysts who have done extensive work in the field, address this curious alteration of time among those who have been traumatized. "'Once upon a time,'" they write, "becomes Once upon not time.'" Trauma memory has no narration. Stories always take place in time. They have a sequence, and they are always behind us. ...
As I was gathering up the household garbage a little while ago (as I revise this, not such "a little while ago") for tomorrow's pick-up and thinking of this book and how Time is essential to any writing, I remembered once hearing that there can be no such thing as a true Zen Buddhist novel, which brought to mind Lightman's story of a world in which Time is composed only of images. The 'story' becomes a mere list and, though it's a pretty list, it would've quickly turned boring if it had gone on much longer. And though it may no longer have been a story, the list couldn't have been written without Time.(less)
In Pinter's The Caretaker, there is the Pinter-room, here both a haven and a hell for the character of the old man. There are the Pinter-pauses and th...moreIn Pinter's The Caretaker, there is the Pinter-room, here both a haven and a hell for the character of the old man. There are the Pinter-pauses and the Pinter-humor, both used to great effect, though the Pinter-pitch-perfect dialogue does become a bit repetitive. The play could've been shorter and still achieved the same effect, even with each of the three characters getting his own lengthy monologue, one per act.
There is also the Pinter-ambiguity. Is the older brother who has had electroshock therapy actually saner than his younger brother? Is there a method to the younger brother's madness, or is he just mad? If the former, what would be the point of his messing with the old man's mind? And how is it that the old man -- an ingratiating, conniving bigoted individual -- uses up the older brother's sympathy but gains ours? And who is the "caretaker"? I thought I knew, but now I think I don't.
The Dumb Waiter is a comedy act of "Abbott & Costello meets Pulp Fiction's Travolta & Samuel L. Jackson," with a chilling, if a tad predictable, ending. Suspecting this one-act to be of lesser quality than "The Caretaker," I found myself surprised by how entertaining, and even thought-provoking, it is.(less)
Cather's beloved work is an nostalgic paean to her past, the prose even more assured than in her previous two novels. But whether it's because this on...moreCather's beloved work is an nostalgic paean to her past, the prose even more assured than in her previous two novels. But whether it's because this one lacks the straightforwardness of O Pioneers! or the character arc in The Song of the Lark, its episodic structure failed to pull me in.
The most important element for me is the historical one that Cather has left us, the focus on the hard-working immigrant women who made a life for their families on the prairie despite extreme hardships, including the danger of sexual predators who preyed on those who went to "work out" in the towns.
In the fifth and final section, Cather achieves (finally?) an immediacy that gets to her point, though in many ways this section is the most idealized and romanticized of them all.(less)
In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Claire Messud said of her novel The Woman Upstairs and its narrator:
"As a reader, I have a favorite canon of ranters that runs from Dostoevsky to Thomas Bernhard to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater ... I love a ranter ... And the girls have not been ranting."
Well, Hustvedt's Harriet, aka Harry, is, like Messud's Nora, a ranter and for similar reasons that boil down -- and Harry does boil -- to her wanting to be heard. She is an exuberant, energetic 'older' woman, "blazing" with ideas, who desperately wants full engagement with others and struggles with the idea that she was complicit with those, especially her now-deceased beloved father and husband, who sought to keep her in her place.
This novel is more complex than the Messud and only one reason for that is that it's not told from just one viewpoint. Though I don't think the overall conceit of these various writings and interviews by different voices is convincing as the "book" edited by Professor I.V. Hess that it purports to be, the different voices are absolutely convincing.
Gender-swapping via cross-dressing, and the freedom it may provide, has been a theme of Hustvedt's since her first novel, The Blindfold and I couldn't help wondering if Prof. I.V. Hess is also its main character, Iris Vegan (note the anagram of Iris and Siri; Vegan is Hustvedt's mother's maiden name). Fittingly, we don't know the gender of Hess, or much about her/him at all except that she/he seems sympathetic to Harriet, the subject of her/his book.
One of Hustvedt's main themes throughout her body of work is the idea of perception and that along with The Blindfold's putting on a man's clothes to change personality are taken further here. Harry uses the 'masks' of three young men (they use her too) not just to front her art but to influence it, though I didn't find the latter idea presented as well as the former was. The dangerous mask-play between the third young man and Harriet, done privately though filmed, further complicates the roles of gender and power.
The ending, which brought tears to my eyes, reminded me of the end of my last read, The Song of the Lark, in that the writers surprisingly veer away from the artist's viewpoint to another character's, who in this novel has an intuitive -- literally -- understanding of Harriet's art, a touching and telling counterpoint to all the philosophy that's go on before.
After writing this review, I googled "I.V. Hess" and found this in an interview with Hustvedt:
Jill: I have to interject — I feel like there has to be an anagram or something in the name I. V. Hess that I'm not figuring out. It might be totally obvious.
Hustvedt: No, it's not obvious at all. It's very oblique. But I'll tell you, since you asked. The heroine of my first novel is Iris Vegan. I used those two letters for the initials and all the other letters, H-E-S-S, appear in my last name.
It's a little bit of a Kierkegaardian trick. Kierkegaard had Eremita as his editor for the book that, of course, he wrote, but inside the book, there are A and B. Kierkegaard is referred to throughout The Blazing World. I thought, these are not stolen strategies but strategies that are a kind of homage.
This book is divided into four sections and each has its own quality, or lack thereof. It starts off strong with "Prose," which is nonfiction about...more3.5
This book is divided into four sections and each has its own quality, or lack thereof. It starts off strong with "Prose," which is nonfiction about theatre and its personalities. This was enjoyable, an insight into the mind of a playwright and screenwriter. (4 stars)
The second section, "Prose Fiction," is the big drop-off. Wordplay and interchangeability of characters appear, much in the same way as they do is in his plays, but they don't work for me as short stories. It also didn't help that any woman in any of the stories seems to be there only as an object of lust, or a body part. (2 stars)
The "Poetry" section, presented chronologically, is uninspiring at first but picks up considerably about halfway through. Of course, it helped that I still had Julian Sands' voice in my head as I read some of these. (See here for that account.) A reworking of his own The Birthday Party in poetic form is interesting. (3 stars)
The book ends on a high note with "Politics," essays to various newspapers, most dealing with the hypocrisy of the U.S. and its relations with other countries, as well as the inclusion of two articles (not written by Pinter) about the banning of a production of his plays in an English prison and the arrests at a rehearsal of Mountain Language at a Kurdish community center in London. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the first, but the latter was too scary and sad for even a chuckle. (4 stars)(less)
At some point in this novel, I imagined a subtitle for it: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman," especially as I'm convinced (without any facts...moreAt some point in this novel, I imagined a subtitle for it: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman," especially as I'm convinced (without any facts to back it up) that it contains many autobiographical elements. I imagined that Thea's being different from the rest of her family, and from the others in the area she grew up in and loved, to be similar to Cather's experience as a burgeoning writer, also feeling the creative urge when she was a young child in her heart, was it, or under her cheek?... that sturdy little companion with whom she shared a secret.
Cather does a phenomenal job embodying how it might feel for any true artist: growing, despairing, caring deeply and passionately about her craft, succeeding by the world's standards but still reaching for an unachievable ideal. Though Thea's growth as an artist takes her to two major cities, Cather's depiction of the West is what stays with one. Gorgeous prose describes the cliff-dwellings of Arizona where time slows down and heals Thea. It later becomes an ironic contrast to the high-rise apartments of New York City.
I was surprised by the ending that takes us back to Thea's hometown and to one of her relatives. It was so lyrical, especially those last two beautiful sentences, that I forgot my initial reaction of pity for this relative, as that is not at all what Cather wants us to feel.(less)
As with many of the books I read with a group, I'm having a hard time writing a review for this. My GR friends' reviews of this work are so good that...moreAs with many of the books I read with a group, I'm having a hard time writing a review for this. My GR friends' reviews of this work are so good that anything more feels superfluous. So, because this is a memoir, I've decided to use that as inspiration to review my own impressions.
My first conscious memory of Zweig is very recent, from when I read Kris' review of this same work. My brain made a connection of the name Zweig with the Woody Allen movie Zelig (not that I've seen it). Knowing the premise of the movie, I thought there couldn't possibly be any real connection between the two. Yet, the more I read of Zweig's encounters with the famous -- artists of all kind and those involved in politics as well -- I rethought myself again, especially after reading of Zweig's car ride with his friend Rathenau before that friend, the Foreign Minister of Germany, was shot in the same car traveling in the same streets on another day.
Speaking of movies ... as with many of us 'bandwagon' Zweig readers, I was reminded I wanted to read him after seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel. I read Chess Story first and found nothing in it to account for his being Wes Anderson's inspiration. I thought the same of TWoY initially but, as I read on, ah, yes, there were the echoes: a train journey that is tense but papers are happily recognized; a secretive chain reaction of sub-agents; crude brutal Nazi occupiers; official papers that end up meaning nothing; a note slipped into a pocket that must be destroyed.
Translations are understandably looked upon as inferior to the work in its original language, but without those translations, Zweig's works may have been completely lost to the world, as they were proscribed (a word used quite often in this book and one I imagine Zweig hating) in Hitler's Europe. While some passages read at a perfect breathless pace, I wasn't always thrilled with the prose: a bit too many passive-voice sentences with numerous subordinate clauses that I needed to reread to get at the meaning. The final paragraph I reread for its poignancy.
Since I recently finished The Divine Comedy, I couldn't help thinking of Dante's forced exile from his beloved Florence. For both writers, exile was a form of death, stripping them of their heritage and their identity. Zweig was ultimately cut off, not just from Vienna, not just from Austria, but from the whole of Europe -- particularly hard on him as, above all, he considered himself a European.(less)