I find it incredibly difficult to discuss the works of authors that I adore. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews for this site over the years, yet on someI find it incredibly difficult to discuss the works of authors that I adore. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews for this site over the years, yet on some of my favorite writers I have said nary a word. Why is it always easier to describe why I don’t like something than it is to explain why a piece of writing resonates with me? I finished this book several weeks ago but have been torn as to how to review it. I didn’t want to just rate it and mark it read, but I don’t really know how to express how this short essay affected me. I’ve written three other drafts of this review so far and none have been able to get to the crux of how I feel about this seminal piece of first-wave feminist writing.
First published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own collects a series of lectures that Woolf delivered to two women’s colleges on the topic of women in fiction. A broad topic, to be sure, Woolf approaches it with all the cool logic intermixed with vivid imagery which made To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway such essential reads. Rather than focusing on how women in fiction have been portrayed throughout history, she turns her analytic eye on the lack of women writers asking the crucial question, “why is there no female Shakespeare? Why is it that it wasn’t until the advent of Austen and the Brontes that women began to tell their own stories?”
Her answer is so well known at this point that it could be canon. In order to be able to create, a woman needs a little bit of money and a room of one’s own. Basically, she needs to be freed from the daily demands of unpaid carework and domestic labor with which she has historically been saddled and a space where she can sit uninterrupted in order to coax the muse into cooperating with her. For a long time it was the latter half of this statement that really resonated with me. I’ve never had a room of my own, sharing with siblings while growing up, roommates while at university, and with my spouse until recently. Every piece of writing I’ve managed has been done while surrounded by people, words frantically inscribed during lulls in conversation or while trying to block out the sounds around me. I can only imagine how much more productive I could be were I to have a space I could seclude myself.
It wasn’t until the events of this year that I’ve realized just how important the first part of the statement is as well. Since coming out I have been lucky enough to meet a wide assortment of trans women, nearly all of whom are incredibly smart talented and absolutely brimming with creative passion. Yet almost without exception most of these women are forced to expend all of their energies on simply surviving. The endless struggle to find and retain employment, the constant threat of violence (physical, sexual, and emotional) that we are subject to whenever we are in public, the lifelong need to have access to the medical care that keeps the epic mindfuck that is dysphoria at bay- these are the struggles that the women I love spend their days consumed with. All the space in the world can not help you create if your every waking moment is filled just with the struggle to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head.
So if I want to read stories that are reflective of my own experiences, if I want to see films that feature trans characters that don’t rely entirely on the offensive stereotypes so often promulgated by cis people who have probably never met a trans woman, if I want to hear music made by girls like me, then economic security should be the primary place I should lend my efforts as both a trans woman and as an activist. Because I very much want to see more creative works made by trans women. I feel that we have a very unique perspective on not only gender and sexuality but human relations as a whole and that reading trans women’s stories is of benefit not just to me or to people with trans people in their lives, but to our entire culture.
So with all of that, with how much I very much relate to what Woolf is espousing in her typically beautiful way, why have I only rated this three stars? Because this slim volume suffers from the same problems that plagued feminist theory from its first incarnations until the early 1980s and which, though there is an increasing amount of criticism against it, continues to this day. That is the lack of awareness of how Woolf’s class status and skin color afforded her the privilege to be freed from care work and to have a room of her own in the first place. By not recognizing that her emancipation came at the expense of other women, Woolf’s emancipatory ideal ended up contributing to the silencing and marginalization of working women and women of color whose status in society did not afford them the luxury of either money or a room. That by not recognizing how the money that afforded her the opportunity to write came from a source that profited from the violence and exploitation of British colonialism, it reifies an inaccurate and damaging perspective. We should always strive to be aware of how the advantages we have come at the expense of others.
This is not meant as an indictment of Woolf, however. The concept of intersectionality is a relatively recent one and far be it for me to anachronistically apply it in my judgment of this thin volume. However, I do feel that it is necessary to read works like this with a critical eye and the knowledge that what Woolf is presenting is necessarily limited by her own experiences as a wealthy white woman in the early 20th Century. Even still, despite this glaring flaw, this is an exceptionally important book and absolutely belongs in the canon of feminist writings. ...more
I have to admit to a long-standing curiosity about Moby-Dick (not least of which is why the albino whale’s name is hyphenated in the title but just plI have to admit to a long-standing curiosity about Moby-Dick (not least of which is why the albino whale’s name is hyphenated in the title but just plain Moby Dick in the text itself). I read and loved a Reader’s Digest condensed version (gasps of dismay echo across the Metaverse at this news) of this book around second grade and have always wondered what the arbiters of taste at Reader’s Digest decided to leave on the cutting room floor. Could it have been an illicit love scene between Ishmael and his cannibal harpooner Queequeg? A scene in which the first mate, Starbuck, purchases some coffee beans from an Islamic trader, thus finally making sense of that brand’s name? Did Ahab put aside his vendetta with Moby in order to form a chorus line of ivory-appendaged amputees?
Sadly, none of those things came to pass. Instead I quickly learned that Moby-Dick is not one book, but two. The first is familiar to all of us: a sailor, let’s call him Ishmael, signs on to crew with the Pequod, a whaling ship from Nantucket (no word on whether the limerick is true) captained by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. Want to know how I knew he was monomaniacal? Because that’s the only adjective that Melville uses through the course of the book to describe Ahab’s obsession with hunting and killing the whale that bit off his leg. I’m unsure of the timeline here, but I’m pretty positive that Melville was writing before the advent of thesauruses (thesauri?). Regardless, this half of the book is exactly what you would expect from a yarn of its sort. The sailors are a mixed bag of old sea dogs, young cabin boys enchanted by the glittering romance of the sea, and pagan harpooners living solely for the hunt. This segment of the story flies by like an albatross over the azure sea (prolonged exposure to this book has left me unable to make any non-nautical metaphors)- brisk, refreshing and nigh effortless.
Mixed in among Melville’s ruminations of sea life and epic foreshadowing is another book, far more dense and infinitely more difficult of a road. The second is more in line with the Naturalist writings of the 19th Century and is nothing less than a complete history and biology of whales, whale hunting, gutting whales, refining their blubber into oil, and the unique structural adjustments made to ships to allow the processing to take place while at sea. I have to admit, I thrilled at reading the first few of these chapters. Melville writes them well with great description of the inner workings of the sperm whale and I laughed at his chapter on how the placement of their eyes meant that whales were effectively blind- he was obviously writing before the discovery of sonar. Little-old 21st Century me liked the idea of having a piece of knowledge that Melville, for all of his in-depth research (and trust me, it's in-depth), could not possess.
The struggle came when these chapters extended for first twenty, then fifty, then finally a hundred pages. The pacing of the story fell off as I was treated to descriptions of the oxygen:water ratio in a whale's spume, descriptions of all known types of whales hunted by man, the bell tool used for scooping the valuable sperm from it's brain cavity or how the sperm whale possesses a thick and hard battering ram of a head with which it can defend against predators. I understood what Melville was doing- if he's not going to introduce the actual nemesis in this tale until the very end of the book then he's going to make damn sure that the reader knows just what this whale is capable of. It just dragged so slowly that by the time we did finally catch a glimpse of Moby, I greeted it with a sigh of "finally" rather than much excitement.
I think that, in the end, I don't regret taking the time to read this tome. There are some absolutely rapturous descriptions of the ocean, a body I never tire of hearing about, and the hunger that the crew showed for the hunt (especially the antics of Stubb, the second mate, and the harpooners) made for some exciting reading. However, the endless treatises on whale physiology just went on too long for me to be able to rate this over two stars....more
I have to imagine that Oprah Winfrey lost a bit of her, still colossal, political capital when she attempted to get the bored housewives of Middle AmeI have to imagine that Oprah Winfrey lost a bit of her, still colossal, political capital when she attempted to get the bored housewives of Middle America to read the works of Faulkner several summers back. I remember when we first received the Oprah Box, as we called the Faulkner box set that was released for the occasion, at the bookstore where I worked. A hugely prominent end cap exhorting neophyte readers used to books that never grew more challenging than the woe-is-me fiction of Wally Lamb and Janet Finch to dive in headfirst to, what I consider, one of the most challenging and unforgiving authors of the 20th Century. Needless to say, we received a lot of returned copies of the box set, invariably with all of the books untouched save either Absolom, Absolom or Sound & The Fury. I always got a quiet thrill out of imagining these people first confronted with Faulkner’s stream of consciousness prose and balking within the first 50 pages.
Admittedly, much of this schadenfreude was due to a massive reluctance on my part to take the plunge. What can I say? The man is damned intimidating. It’s been nearly five years since then and I have only now, after much arm-twisting and haranguing from a friend, gotten over myself and cracked the seal on Mr. Faulkner. Granted, Light in August is often held up to be one of Faulkner’s most accessible books, so it wasn’t as though I were reading Finnegan’s Wake or anything. Still, this wasn’t exactly easy reading. Within the opening twenty pages we are given multiple perspectives on the same scene, two simultaneous yet diametrically opposite trains of thought within the mind of a single character, and enough conjoined words to fill up a Bangkok maternity ward. While at times these literary tricks of Faulkner would catch me up for a few minutes, they went a long way toward heightening my enjoyment of this tale.
Set in the small town of Jefferson, Mississippi, Light in August tells the tale of Joe Christmas, a mixed race man trying to pass in the age of Jim Crow, where just one drop of black blood is too much, Lena Grove, a woman walking across the state in search of Lucas Burch, the n’er-do-well who knocked her up in Alabama before disappearing, and the Reverend Hightower, a disgraced and defrocked priest stuck living in a past that may never have existed, aside from his imagination. While Faulkner weaves together the necessary racism, misogyny, loneliness, madness and lust that helps make a good piece of Southern fiction, what this book reminded me of the most was Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
While Steinbeck’s work was primarily occupied with the tale of Cain and Abel and Original Sin, Light in August serves to remind that the past is never past us, but continues to reverberate through generations. Christmas can never outrun his mixed blood, just as Lucas Burch can never outrun Lena, and whether the tragic results of Christmas’ quest for a unified identity are rooted in his culture’s racist roots or are the result of a curse placed upon his grandfather by his grandmother are left open to interpretation. Regardless, Faulkner paints a fascinating portrait of a land and people mired in their past as thoroughly as if ghosts walked the street in broad daylight.
I have to admit, though, that I am still quite unsure what I think of this book. While at times I flew through the story, anxious to know more and to see how it would connect with what I had read before, there were many sections where I just became bogged down and continuing on became more of a struggle with my vanity in not abandoning books and less about the actual joy derived in the read. I’m not ready to write off Faulkner yet, but I am definitely going to think long and hard before deciding which I want to read next. ...more
I find myself consistantly tongue-tied about this book. I've begun nearly four different reviews of this eminantly enjoyable read that have all petereI find myself consistantly tongue-tied about this book. I've begun nearly four different reviews of this eminantly enjoyable read that have all petered away into nothingness as I try to put into words just what it was that gripped me about McCullers' opus. The first word I can think of is shock. Shock that I had heard next to nothing about this book until pulling it from my shelf. Shock that I have gone so long without it being assigned to me in a class or forced into my hands by a friend. Shock that this book is not featured on more of those "must-read" or "best writing of the 20th century" lists that get bandied about with the regularity of summer monsoons here on Goodreads. Mostly, though, shock that McCullers turned out such an exquisite and world-weary look at the loneliness that engulfs people and swallows them down when she was only 23. Things like that just make me feel lazy and unaccomplished.
I am the first to admit that I have very little firsthand knowledge of the Southern United States. What I do know is informed through the media I consume and the history we were all taught in school (though, apparently, that history is subjective as well; see "The War of Northern Aggression"). In fact, I could honestly claim that I know more about other continents than I do about the South. As such, I don't feel too comfortable claiming that there is a darkness that seems to live in the land, seeping out to inspire random acts of cruelty or violence and spread waves of intangible dread among its inhabitants (notice that it didn't actually stop me from making said claim). Whether or not this darkness is inherent to the South or McCullers is just tapping into her own personal ennui, reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter often made me feel as though I were journeying upriver to listen to Kurtz exhort me to "exterminate all the brutes."
The book follows four different people and the dreams for a different/better life that they all hold close as a means of escaping the pervasive loneliness which always seems ready to swallow them whole. For Mick Kelly, a precocious young teen cut in the mold of To Kill A Mockingbird's Scout Finch, this dream is of being able to compose and play the music that infects her mind. For the wandering Jake Blount it is of inspiring the downtrodden workers to strike at the mills to improve their conditions. Cafe owner Biff Brannon is ashamed of his creative impulses and the maternal feelings he carries for the children of his patrons and Dr. Copeland is so consumed by his desire to inspire his fellow blacks to greatness that he refuses to take time off to treat the tuberculosis which is slowly killing him.
The lynchpin of all these dreamers is the enigmatic Mr. Singer. A deaf-mute in a city of speakers, Mr. Singer offers himself up as the perfect tabula rasa for the four dreamers. In the small room that he rents from Mick's parents, he sits as calm and quiet as the Buddha as each in their turn visit and pour out their dreams, desires and passions to him- the perfect opinionless tabula rasa. My heart ached for all of these characters as they struggled with realising their dreams and the compromises they all made as they ran into the hard wall of reality. Yet it was Mr. Singer that I cared for above all. Always receptive of others yet unable to share his own thoughts, his only confessor his former roommate who is now interred at an asylum. He is wrapped in a bubble of isolation and it is his loneliness that has stuck with me the hardest since finishing the book.
It's been five days since I finished this book yet I can't bring myself to put it back on my shelf, to really believe that my time with these achingly real people has come to an end. My copy is dog-eared now from me folding down the corners of pages to record a choice description or bit of dialogue and I keep referring back to it in order to make sure that I am not bastardizing McCullers' exquisite prose. It may not have been listed on the 1001 List (but 12 different Ian McEwan novels made the cut?!?) but this is absolutely a book that you must read before you die. Its beauty and its sorrow can't help but touch you....more
I was really torn about how to rate this book. On the one hand, it was a fun and thrilling adventure tale, the likes of which have been setting fire tI was really torn about how to rate this book. On the one hand, it was a fun and thrilling adventure tale, the likes of which have been setting fire to the minds of young children with visions of exotic and far-flung locales for centuries. I can well imagine the delight with which this ripping yarn was received by the readers of the 1880s. On the other hand, there is just so much omnipresent racism throughout the entire story that I found it endlessly distracting and offputting.
King Solomon's Mines is written as a personal recounting of a journey taken by three Englishmen into Deepest Darkest Africa. Narrated by Allan Quartermain (yes, the same Allan Quartermain from Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, evidently this was the source book for that character), a big game hunter who meets up with Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good who are searching for Curtis' brother, who went missing while looking for the fabled mines of the title. Quartermain just happens to have a map of the way to the mines so the trio decide to set off in search.
What follows is a rollicking good adventure. There are parched throats in the desert, freezing nights atop mountains, perilous encounters with the "dark savages" of the land, the toppling of a tyrannical king in a mythical African nation that reminded me of nothing so much as Wakanda, the homeland of the Marvel superhero Black Panther, witches, exquisite works of archeological wonder and enough diamonds to fund at least eight more genocides in modern Africa. Basically, this book had everything short of the kitchen sink (though the traveler's would likely have appreciated the immense convenience of one). Were it not for Haggard's persistant racism and harping on the dangers of miscegenation, I would have likely rated this higher. As is, it's still worth a reading as long as one takes it as a product of the times in which it was written....more
I don't know why, but I always find it difficult to properly review a Russian novel. I find myself unable to decide upon whether to focus on the novelI don't know why, but I always find it difficult to properly review a Russian novel. I find myself unable to decide upon whether to focus on the novel itself and the events therein or that novel's place within the bigger picture of Russian Literature. Normally I'd just take each book on a judge-as-you-go basis, but there's something intrinsic to Russian Lit that almost begs the reader to compare it to what has come before. It certainly doesn't help matters that most of these books refer to one another, critique the ideas therein and build upon them. Reading some Russian books is like diving into an ongoing, centuries-long, debate about Russian identity, history and culture.
Pasternak, more ably than some I've read lately, does a magnificent job of framing the events of Dr. Zhivago within the context of the larger historic picture laid out by Tolstoy. Charting not only the events leading up to the October Revolution of 1917 but the ideas that inspired these events, the reader gets a great idea of the turmoil engulfing the nation in the wake of the overthrow of the Tsars. While some readers are liable to be bored by the sections detailing the debates between the disparate political philosophies struggling to win out in the post-tsarist power vacuum, I was absolutely in love. Not only were people discussing the actual implimentation of some of my favorite philosopher's theories (theories normally discounted as utopian idealism by jaded contemporaries), but it was refreshing to see these ideas in a context outside of the dry scholarly texts in which they originally appeared. I also appreciated these aspects of the story because they helped show that the Soviet Union did not spring fully formed from the mind of any one person but, rather, was the result of a long and bloody civil war between not only the Reds (communists) and Whites (Cossacks) but the Greens (Anarchists) and Browns (???) as well. A war of ideas for the future of a nation.
Many potential readers may be scared off by the above paragraph, but rest assured, this book is not all pontificating and prevaricating. Pasternak, in true Tolstoyan form, introduces us to Yurii Zhivago- doctor, poet, pawn of history. We follow Zhivago as he grows up, becomes a doctor, gets married, joins the army to fight against Austria and Germany, gets swept up first in the Revolution and then in the civil war as doctor to a ragged band of partisans hiding in the forests. He never chooses these roads for himself but is instead buffeted about like debris in a gale, always striving to return to his wife and children but somehow always ending up in the arms of a compassionate nurse instead. We see him starve and freeze and cram like cattle into a box car and are given a glimpse of the very real consequences of uprooting the entire underlying structure of a nation.
While, overall, it's an enjoyable read, this would not be one that I would recommend to someone just beginning to dip into the huge well of Russian Lit. Better to start off with Uncle Fyodr or Leo, get your feet wet, so to speak, then try out Pasternak. ...more
I knew that this was going to be a book that I loved the moment I learned that Satan was the main character. This is not due to any particular affinitI knew that this was going to be a book that I loved the moment I learned that Satan was the main character. This is not due to any particular affinity for devil worship on my part, but because I love Tricksters in literature and in Western civilization you don't get a better trickster than the devil. Watching him turn Stalinist Moscow on its head proved to be one of the most amusing and engrossing things I've read all year.
From the moment he first materializes as the black magician Woland at a pond and predicts the impending death of the renowned writer he meets there (after listening to the writer's various proofs as to why there can not be an actual god), the devil inspires a plague of madness as increasingly odd and impossible events occur to shock the strictly rational, science-based, citizens. Whether hosting a seance that leaves the ladies of Moscow in the street wearing nothing but their undergarments, teleporting hapless theatre owners to Yalta or haunting telephone lines, Woland and his retinue of demonic cohorts know exactly how to play upon the foibles of human nature and prove rather easily that, regardless of what the Soviets may claim about their forced evolution of humanity, humans are just as greedy, gullible, and ridiculous as they ever were.
The heart of the book, however, belongs to the titular Master. An author hounded to the madhouse by the rabid criticisms leveled on his masterpiece by the Moscow literati, his book within the book about the Crucifixion from the point of view of Pontius Pilate is what I've found sticking with me in the days since finishing. It's no easy feat to make a sympathetic character of a bureaucrat who has been so forcefully demonized over the past two millennia but Bulgakov (and through him, the Master) performs an excellent bit of magic and you find yourself really feeling for Pilate as he is manipulated by forces outside of his control into killing Christ, who is sad that his apostle, Matthew, is twisting his words while recording them.
While there are definitely a handful of moments where I wish I would have known more about Stalinist Russia, the state-approved entertainer's guilds and the ever-present fear of the police in order to better understand Bulgakov's satire, I still had a rollicking good time while reading this and it stands up next to Crime & Punishment as one of my favorite works of Russian literature....more
You know those books that sit on your shelf and mock you for being too hesitant to pick them up? We all have them. They sit there, perched on the edgeYou know those books that sit on your shelf and mock you for being too hesitant to pick them up? We all have them. They sit there, perched on the edge of the shelf like hooligans on a stoop tossing out insults to passersby and just daring them to pick them up and give 'em a spin. For me, Their Eyes Were Watching God was the ringleader of my abusive books. It would yell vicious things at me as I sat near the shelf and once, in collusion with my long-time archenemy gravity, contrived to whap me upside the head. Suffice to say, I was intimidated. Yet we all have to face our fears at some time and February seemed like the right time for me.
Looking back on my years-long avoidance of this book, I can't help but think that I make some truly awful decisions. This is one of the most lyrically beautiful books that I have ever read and, at the same time, one of the most ground-breaking portraits of an independent woman's voice that I've ever come across. Neale Hurston's book is simultaneously a work of art and a strong declaration of independence for the entire female gender.
Janie is a woman who first tries to conform herself to the molds that she has been taught in the form of two very dissatisfying marriages to men who feel compelled to, after heaping praise upon her for her independent spirit, snuff it completely out. After the death of her second husband, Janie chucks social propriety out the window and listens instead to that niggling voice inside that dares her to dream of a better life, even if the person she wants to share that life with is far beneath her on the limiting rungs of social positioning. Instead this man, the charming and appreciative Tea Cake, is a rascal who cares more about enjoying the everyday moments of life than he does for climbing to the top of the dung heap. His very lack of sober seriousness is what draws Janie to him, his living example proof of what is possible for her.
Hurston's style is beautiful, her poetic prose balanced perfectly with spot-on accurate renderings of the rural Southern dialect. J.D. Salinger, who I hold in the absolute highest esteem when it comes to rating dialogue, is put to shame by Hurston's ability to craft the slow drawl and missing consonants in her characters' speech. Reading it can not help but conjure each person's voice within your head so that, after a while, it's as though you're listening to a radio telecast rather than reading a book....more