Lee's Reviews > Maidenhair

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
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's review
Feb 17, 2013

bookshelves: put-down-for-now

Decided not to assign "stars" for this thanks to my inconsistent, distracted, impatient reading. Top-notch prose, for the most part, on a sentence level. Or at least it seems like top-notch prose -- same with the various approaches employed. Sometimes it seemed like a semblance of Towering Literary Artistry, the semblance of an international mind-fuggin masterpiece, the semblance of Big Important Book imaginatively portraying atrocities, dealing in ye olde Faulknerian verities, harkening back to bloody days of yore and not so long ago. At its best, it reminded me of David Grossman's See Under: Love. Fantastic similes, wisdom, audacity -- often ingenious in terms of approach. BUT so often I felt like I was meant to applaud the author's awesomeness instead of see into the novel -- and it's possible this was the plan. Force upon the reader the experience of interpreting various stories, some viscerally real, some obviously concocted to the point of mythology/fairy-tale -- but, other than moments during the Q&A bits and the girl's diary, it didn't make for an "enjoyable" read, even for a reader with semi-masochistic tendencies. It took about 200 pages for the distinct narratives to clarify (I could've saved readerly navigation time by looking at the backcover copy earlier than I did -- copy that explains the rotating approaches -- although revealing its four or so rotating sections right away might dymystify things for readers, again, interpretating one's way out of initial disorientation seems like part of this one's plan). At first I was open to the book thanks to aforementioned unfakeable fantastic similes and insight and gorgeous descriptions. I read maybe 100 pages (pages 200–300 or so) with something like pleasure or engagement, following the story of the young singer's apostrophe-happy diary entries about a boy at the front, also the interpreter's time in Rome with his wife thinking about an idealized deceased boyfriend. But then skimmed the last 200 pages in the time it takes to read 20. No characters interested me and after a while I succumbed to the impulse to skim. Let's blame the crappy recent weather that dampened my regular daily walking/reading program. An absolutely ambitious novel that might bring endless joy to a patient reader, especially one with a soft spot/hard-on for Eurasian atrocity? It did sometimes feel like atrocity porn, like the author got off on the grotesque beauty of wartorn horrorshow. Might make for more engaging reading for someone better versed in Russian history, who's read the Arabian Nights and enjoyed Midnight's Children and Cloud Atlas (two well-liked novels I haven't been able to read much of). I love Open Letters -- and this one at first reminded me of the highly recommended Zone by Mathias Enard that they also published. Loved the look and feel of the book itself, but this just didn't do it for me. I was all set to love it and hype it to the heavens. A shame. Sorry. I fall upon my readerly sword, too dull to pierce this instance of high-falutin lit.
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Reading Progress

February 17, 2013 – Shelved
May 17, 2013 – Started Reading
May 22, 2013 –
page 148
29.25% ""it seems odd that the children of cyclopses and cicadas are islands" -- they're just enough lines like this to keep me reading this hyperprosey atrocity exhibition. Hard to keep with it despite the prose, might not make it all the way to the end -- sort of too uber-modernist show-offy stylie for these warm days of May?"
May 28, 2013 – Shelved as: put-down-for-now
May 28, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Lee (last edited May 29, 2013 06:26AM) (new) - added it

Lee I came to this with high expectations thanks to those glowing words. I failed it, most likely -- it's clearly a wildly ambitious novel in scope and subject matter, but if I honestly represent my reading of it, I was impatient and distracted and once in a while impressed, if rarely immersed/engaged/interested/psyched to read it. No intention of writing another word about it. So many (presumably) good things waiting -- which accounts for some of the impatience. I've never been one to grin and bear 200 pages of prose once I've given up on a book, which doesn't happen so often. And when it does, my bad!

message 2: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee Crosspost -- by "review" I thought you meant something more official than offhand goodreads offloading of initial thoughts

message 3: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Ah, shame, I had some high hopes for this as well. I quite love your statement of 'audacity porn' (I had a good laugh), and I think I too would be a bit turned off by that.

message 4: by Szplug (new)

Szplug A very fair review, Lee. I finished it in a conflicted state, and failed with every attempt to try and settle my thoughts upon the screen via review. All I managed was the following blurb squeezed out somewhere around the midpoint, which I hope you won't mind my including below:
There is some seriously enigmatic-but-magnetic literary originality going on here. Kind of an extension of Zone , with the violence transferred from the Mediterranean littoral to Mother Russia (and Switzerland!) and set to work within a trinity of wistful fantasy, bureaucratic procedural, and casually brutal recollection—and all without making clear who is who, or doing what, or when performing these echoing, membranous acts. It's a beguiling slipstream wherein stories serve as the essence of life, bedrock mythologies to be borrowed from, amended, and added to as proves needful—one that ranges across a porous century of concussive upheaval, purloined and/or permutational memories, and gut-wrenching loss, all set to the karmic rhythm of Ten Little Indians.

Here's the thing: Maidenhair is an amazingly rich book—and I'm still not fully certain about what, exactly, is going on, apart from the tantalizing discernment of a fascinating development in the Nietzschean Eternal Return by means of mitt-deployed, Oreo™-white dimensioned resurrection—but Shishkin is also, to some degree, indulging in the same logorrheic delirium and rampant creative overflow that I recently persevered with in Already Dead, and my fictive nerves are still jangling enough to rebel at diving straight into another lengthy journey through the same style. This is a brilliant work of fiction, but it just might be the case that it could not have been partaken of at a less propitious point of my recent reading life.

Still, I'd be utterly loathe to abandon something so potent and piercing, however much certain parts start to test one's patience...
And, alas, that patience was continuously tested right through to its amazing and yet eminently dissipative conclusion. I think I would have settled upon a three star rating—but your two is much better qualified, and nicely hits upon several valid points in relation to my own experience. Thanks.

message 5: by Lee (last edited May 29, 2013 11:05AM) (new) - added it

Lee Exactly: "This is a brilliant work of fiction, but it just might be the case that it could not have been partaken of at a less propitious point of my recent reading life." Also, if "logorrheic delirium and rampant creative overflow" comes off as tedious (or to state it simply: more often than not, just plain ol' effin boring), I'm not so sure how successful the book is. I mean, I'm more than willing to do my share of the work as a reader but only if sufficiently rewarded every few pages -- although admittedly I quit on Gravity's Rainbow very deep into it for similar reasons. Blasted in the face by a hose of prose. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Just wasn't getting enough juice.

Why didn't you rate/review the book on here?

message 6: by Szplug (last edited May 29, 2013 12:53PM) (new)

Szplug I mean, I'm more than willing to do my share of the work as a reader but only if sufficiently rewarded every few pages

You are right-on with this, and the rewards, in the moment, simply weren't consistently there—while its ultimate qualities are announced in that Maidenhair proved to have little staying power. Unlike with Zone, to which I compared it, this endless atrocity/inhumanity exhibition is blurred together when I go to pick out individual pieces. I'm also with you in that few of the characters were sufficiently interesting—not even the singer's diary entries, which failed, in my case, to cut through the novel's overall abstruse qualities and seize a part of my readerly heart and/or soul.

Why didn't you rate/review the book on here?

Ridiculous as it may sound, I couldn't find a way into writing up a review for it and refused to post a rating without some kind of reasoning as to why it was so made. Plus, I was in one of those anomic periods where nothing was really appealing to me, either in the reading or the writing. I should rectify that omission one of these days.

message 7: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee Rectify it, yes! And thanks for the good word: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/anomic

Justin Evans This is just what I was going to say. Thanks for saying it first!

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