Archive for the ‘Genre’ Category
Caramelo is a multi-generational family saga that revolves around Celaya, a.k.a. Lala, the only daughter in a family of sons. Her childhood is spent in Mexico, Chicago, and Texas, transversing cultures, languages, and fragmented identities. She’s a bit of a tomboy: tough, funny, but a little unsure of herself all the same. It’s only in piecing together her family’s tumultuous history that she is able to situate herself and put roots to her own experiences. I loved the way that Cisneros incorporates both English and Spanish into her prose, the way she references real historical/political events (most apparent in the narrative of The Little Grandfather’s experience in the Mexican Army), and most of all I appreciated the in-text dialogue that Lala has with The Awful Grandmother, who keeps interrupting her narrative to question her framing of things, her omitting of certain details and her emphasis of others. This is a story about how stories get told, and why, as much as it is about a particular individual, family, and community of migrants. A wonderful, thoughtful, rambling novel, full of contradictory characters, intense infatuations, and unpredictable unravellings. Fantastic!
Oh, Rebecca. Rebecca is just as perfect as everyone who’s ever told you to read it has promised it would be. Mrs. de Winter is the paid companion of a rich, boring socialite when she meets Maxim on vacation in Italy. In him she finds romance as well as financial stability and a way out of her dead-end present. But when she comes to Maxim’s estate, Manderley, a new bride after a rushed marriage and a short honeymoon, she feels…unsettled. She is intimidated by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who seems immediately to dislike her, and she is uncomfortable in her new role as lady of the house. She has big shoes to fill, she knows, for Maxim has been married before. And his previous wife was everything that the current Mrs. de Winter is not: confined and composed, a dark, classic beauty, the perfect hostess. In every corner of the unfamiliar house, the new Mrs. de Winter catches hints of Rebecca, and her lingering presence taunts her. Rebecca builds slowly, creepily, avoiding cliche and indulging in the most lovely descriptions, reveling in archetype. Read it on a rainy, snowy, or otherwise foreboding night.
The stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise populated with women who are struggling with loss, family, and questions about personal evolution and “biological destiny”. They are animal hoarders, bird watchers, veterinarians or married to veterinarians, each working to define their relationships to nature through their relationships with other animals. Bergman uses animals both captive and wild to play around with what might be parallels to her characters’ subjectivity as women working toward and against bonds of domesticity and freedom. In “Housewifely Arts”, a woman takes her son on a search for a parrot capable of mimicking her dead mother’s voice, and in another favorite of mine, “The Artificial Heart”, a woman wonders about the moral implications of life-extending technology that keeps her father alive in a semi-apocalyptic world. Some of Bergman’s characters were repetitious, while others felt more satirical than real (I’m thinking of the anti-population growth activist/husband in “Yesterday’s Whales”). Regardless, each story in this collection arced gracefully and gave me something lasting and multi-layered to think about. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories and eagerly await future releases from Bergman!
Though a very different reading experience, The Snow Child in some way fits thematically with Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Craving a change of scenery following a terrible, personal tragedy, Mabel and Jack become early settlers of the Alaskan frontier. They fight against the cold, the brutality of the land and their surroundings, and growing emotional distance. One blistery night in the middle of winter, they build themselves a child out of snow, and shortly thereafter begin to see a young girl alone in the woods. Familiar with the Russian fairy tale, Mabel convinces herself that the child is theirs, that she was borne of hope and snow. But, however mysterious, the Snow Child does have a very real history of her own, and is as untamable and foreign as the Alaskan wilderness itself. The story is tense and moving, as the reader must come to wish for the best possible outcome for Jack and Mabel, yet can’t shake the worry that there isn’t something to the warnings inherent in that fairy tale, after all. This book was strange, entrancing, and masterfully told. A new favorite!
Unfortunately, Galore broke my winning streak. It had so much potential, too. An interesting departure…a pale man found alive in the belly of a whale beached upon the coast of newly settled Newfoundland, whose mute presence has inexplicable effects the people who find him…an intriguingly convoluted family tree and feud that survives multiple generations…and complex mythological undertones drawn from folklore and Methodism. While the idea behind this book was magnificent, and I was really looking forward to it, I found Crummey’s writing dry and his recounting of events tedious. I felt that the constant reference to the relationships between successive generations of the townspeople drew my attention away from what I found magical about the world he’d constructed. All the pieces were there; I wished he’d spent more time on plot, on playing around within the world he’d created, than reinforcing it’s boundaries and contents. I loved the dark mystery that pervaded the novel. I did not love the energy I had to expend on keeping names and eras in place and, personally, I would have liked the second half to have been more concise, with clearer intent. Oh, well.
ALRIGHT! So poetry is a genre I’ve had very little experience with, but I’ve enjoyed the collected works of Emily Dickens and plenty of one-offs recently, so have been slowly pulled into its orbit. This year I’d like to make a concerted effort to explore poetry more fully. I’m not going to set myself a specific goal or challenge or anything, but here’s a list I’ve been compiling for a while of poetry that interests me. I think I’ll start with something akin to a novel-in-verse, as narrative poetry is the kind that’s been most compelling to me thus far, and then dabble!
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Dante’s Inferno, by Dante Alighieri
Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The World Doesn’t End, by Charles Simic
The War Poems, by Wilfred Owen
The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
Ariel, by Sylvia Plath
The Collected Poems, by Langston Hughes
The Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché
The Moon is Always Female, by Marge Piercy
The Fact of a Doorframe, by Adrienne Rich
The Great Fires, by Jack Gilbert
Map of the Lost, by Miriam Sagan
The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, by Pablo Neruda
A Village Life, by Louise Glück
Emplumada, by Lorna Dee Cervantes
The Black Automaton, by Douglas Kearney
Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith
Voices, by Lucille Clifton
Breaking Poems, by Suheir Hammed
Citizen, by Aaron Shurin
Smith Blue, by Camille T. Dungy
Pretty Tilt, by Carrie Murphy
As I’ve said though, I’ve had very little exposure to poetry and so I don’t really know where to start. This list is incomplete and only a rough jumping-off point. Now that I’m looking at it all typed out, I realize that it’s made up almost entirely of works by European and American poets, which is unsatisfactory. Clearly, I need to do some more pointed research, and will be updating this list as I go. General recommendations are greatly appreciated, and specific ones for poets from non-Western countries are even more so!
Do you have a favorite poet? Collection? Single work? Let me know!
Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century, by Philip McFarland
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt were two of the most famous men in America at the turn of the century, but had little in common besides an intense mutual dislike of each other. Where Roosevelt was a beloved leader, Twain had his finger on the country’s cultural pulse and was a sort of pre-pop icon. Twain was immensely famous in his own lifetime, and traveled in many of the same circles as did the president. Though they only met briefly a few times, they were each highly aware of the other’s career and looked upon each other with disdain. Mark Twain may have been known as a writer and humorist, but much of his work was politically engaged and often critical of Roosevelt’s administration in particular. In fact, Twain once went so far as to write that Theodore Roosevelt was “far and away the worst president we have ever had”. Roosevelt, in turn, found Twain so irritating and meddlesome that he was once said to have dreamt aloud of skinning Mark Twain alive.
Twain and Roosevelt were representative of two different facets of American masculinity in an era wrought with change due to industrialization, urbanization, and imperialism, the last of which became the most hotly contested issue between the two men when Roosevelt lead America in occupation of the Philippines. Twain had written the blueprint for American boyhood with his stories about the boisterous Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, reflecting a folksy Americana and drawing from his own childhood despite his relatively privileged upbringing. Roosevelt, an east coast War Hero, was known for restraint, discipline, and a love of hunting, which Twain found grotesque. If my post so far seems to center Twain’s reactions to Roosevelt’s policies, that’s because McFarland himself seems to favor Twain and rely on these reactions for marking narrative transitions.
The first real problem I had with this book is that all physical and otherwise direct interaction between the men was so few and far between that a joint biography makes little sense. Had the framing been skewed to focus more on the ways in each man was symbolic of a different set of American values at a particular time (which it did, only not enough) instead of constructing an active rivalry from little more than a couple heated opinions on the part of each man, perhaps the tie that binds the two biographies would not have been so weak.
This would not, unfortunately, do away with the problem of organization. The book moves thematically rather than chronologically, which might work better were it not so repetitive. To come to the point of the death of Twain’s daughter or Roosevelt’s marriage multiple times following the tellings of different events was perhaps meant to emphasize the importance of those events in multiple contexts, but instead confused me entirely about where I was in each man’s life story and also bored me.
McFarland is a perfectly capable historian whose passion is evident in his writing, but while the relationships both personal and impersonal between Twain and Roosevelt is tempting material, it appears a thin foundation for such a lengthy and ambitious work.
A copy of Mark Twain and the Colonel was kindly sent to me by the folks at Newman Communications on behalf of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville: Benito Cereno/Bartleby the Scrivener/The Encantadas/Billy Budd, Foretopman
Oh, Melville! There was not one story, or novella, in this collection that did not tussle my hair with wind, spritz my skin with salt-spray, or intimidate me with the threatening sound of white-capped waves slapping the side of an old, leaky ship (save Bartleby, which is no less fantastic for it’s relatively mundane setting). I was equally transported by each, across a world of land and sea.
In Benito Cereno, our narrator witnesses a strange vessel rush to the shore of a vacant island with sails tattered and flapping. The mysterious craft looks in no shape to start trouble, so he boards with the intention of lending a helping hand. But something seems…off, with both the evasive captain and the menacing crew. I liked the way the narrator flip-flops in his interpretation of what’s going on: his discovery is not a slow dawning of the truth, but a constant interrogation of bizarre surroundings. Sadly, but fittingly for Melville’s time and place, this story is heavy on Heart of Darkness-style racism which is used to play up the unsettling tone of the story and the savagery of past events aboard ship, intermittently revealed. Nevertheless, it’s tied up in a manner I found quite satisfying. The final paragraphs pack a creepy, powerful punch!
It’s slightly shameful that it has taken me so long to read the second story, Bartleby the Scrivener, since I’ve watched the movie adaptation with Crispin Glover a number of times already and am not at all opposed to watching it again.* In Melville’s original, it’s startling how quickly Bartleby begins to issue his “I’d prefer not to”s, and how earnestly his boss works to understand his employee’s refusal to do, well, anything. He really tries to get into Bartleby’s head, and feels a genuine sympathy for him, imagining how such a person could make it so far in life, and what such a life must entail. What could make a person so obstinate, so anti-authoritarian, so disruptive to simple bureaucracy by his very temperament and presence?
The third, The Encantadas, was my favorite. It’s almost out of place, as it doesn’t contain a standard, cohesive narrative. It’s a portrait of a place, a sketch of the many enchanted isles that make up the cluster known for misleading lost crews. It’s a place where compass needles spin wildly and ghost ships appear and disappear into the mist. A place where people have never lived that draws them in with the hunger of a bottomless stomach. One that doesn’t show up on maps, but is legend to all who’ve spent time at sea. Some micro-histories of sea-faring fellows’ contact with the islands are provided, a sort of warning about nature’s imperviousness to human willpower, an environment that promises eternal exploration and unknowing.
The last novella, Billy Budd, might have held the least pull for me, but only just so. Billy is a handsome and extremely popular sailer born of low means and conscripted into service. For all but the captain, he is a golden child and can do no wrong. But the captain disdains him and, with a paranoia likely mirroring the real feelings of captains at the time following true and recent mutinous events, accuses him of organizing against him. In a frustrating confrontation, Billy accidentally kills Captain Claggart, and despite everyone else’s conviction that he is a good man and didn’t mean to, they are committed to upholding The Law. I like the contradiction here between what is legal and what is right, though after having heard inferences of a gay subtext in this plot I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t much make it out. Or, maybe I have, but I’m not sure about it. Is it that the descriptions of Billy as handsome and perfect imply desirability amongst an all male crew? Is it that Claggart hates him in the way school kids hate on their crushes, and kills that impulse by causing his downfall? I know this is only one reading of the text, but it’s a popular one, right? I think I might need to read this one more closely, or seek out a critical essay or something about it.
As I’ve hopefully made obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Melville…much more than I expected to. I never truly considered that I would before, but I’ll be damned if that taste of his work hasn’t inclined me toward taking a stab at Moby Dick some day.
*Bartleby is now streaming on Netflix! It is weird and fun and the set is in the style of that town in Edward Scissorhands, and Crispin is great as Bartleby, so consider this a recommendation (but it is weird, so I’ll be sorry if you do take this recommendation and then hate it, as both my mom and brother have done. Oops :/)
Catching Up pt. 3: A Natural History of the Senses, The Housemaid, North and South, The Book of the City of Ladies, Epileptic
In A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman draws from a number of sources and memories in a meandering rumination about the senses through which we understand the world and interpret our own human experience. It is particularly hard to communicate the specificity of different physical sensations, but Ackerman writes about smells, touch, and the like so effectively that these mercurial interpretations manifest concretely and jump straight off the page, making the reading experience, well, sensual. The book is filled with interesting trivia, such as that smell was likely the first sense developed in the primordial oceans by the earliest living organisms, and I enjoyed the recounting she did of an interview with a professional “nose”, or perfume mixologist. Clearly I was most won over by the chapter on smell, as it sticks most strongly in my memory. However, I became increasingly annoyed with Ackerman and her frequent, bizarrely specific and lengthy descriptors. They often distracted from her main point and felt unfocused, a feeling intensified by the book’s format of short, thematically arranged but otherwise non-sequitor chapters. Also, while not generally opposed to heavy reliance on anecdote, hers felt obnoxiously self-referential and pompous. So, while the subject matter was fascinating, I didn’t really get along with Ackerman very well and will likely avoid her other writing.
One day, an older woman labeled a “witch” and disowned by her grown children finds a dead infant abandoned behind her hut in rural Ghana. Word spreads quickly through her village and suddenly everyone is arguing about who is to blame, with men vilifying the imagined neglectful mother and the women bemoaning the sad arrogance of undependable men. But as the true story of what happened is told through the perspectives of a number of women, it becomes clear that this child’s death is not the fault of one or another sex, but a society in which exploitation is quickly becoming a dominant means of attaining wealth. It begins when a young housemaid travels from her village to Accra to work for a wealthy older woman whose deceased husband’s family believes that her money rightfully belongs to them. The housemaid gets caught up in a plot of inheritance to win back the money for the husband’s family, but does not realize that her employer, though happy and confident in her independence, is not free of the sexual demands of the businessmen who remain in a class above her and so is not easy to manipulate. Nor does she understand that her own family’s motives may not be good for her, personally. The final telling of what happens to her baby is tragic but it is the fault of no individual: instead, it is the result of greed and an caustic individualism. A very worthy novella that counts toward Kinna’s Africa Challenge.
I’d been wanting to read North and South forever, but passed up the North and South read-a-long because it overlapped with my trip to Kenya and then promptly forgot about it. Even though I coincidentally ended up reading it at the same time as the read-a-long, I guess it’s still good that I wasn’t signed up because I didn’t have regular internet access nor the time to participate in the discussions, but anyway. I had huge expectations for this book, and while I enjoyed it, it fell just a little flat for me. It’s hard not to compare Gaskell to her contemporaries: not as much nuance as Austen, not as righteous as Dickens, less detailed than both. Perhaps such comparisons are unfair, but some combination of Austen and Dickens is what I thought I was going to get. Margaret, who moves from an idyllic country village to a busy, crowded industrial town, falls in love with the rugged Mr. Thornton (about whom I agree with Iris is a much more worthy love interest than most of Austen’s suitors ;)). There, she befriends some of the working poor that she’d previously been so judgmental about, and sides with them in a strike against factory-owner Thornton. Thornton, a proud, self-made man, learns through Margaret to sympathize with those less successful than he in “working their way up” while Margaret reconciles herself to the reality that the country isn’t exactly paradise for the poor, either. Culture clash, class, and the industrial boom frame this troubled love story, and I appreciate how direct Gaskell was in dealing with such themes. However, there was a bit too much compromise and neatness in the way it all wrapped up for my taste. Still liked it, though, so will try more of Gaskell.
This was (ahem) the FIRST book listed for The Year of Feminist Classics challenge* and yes, I only got to it last month. This book was written by Christine de Pizan, the only (?) professional female writer in late fourteenth century Europe. It is impressive not only that she was able to support her family with her writing at this time, but that she was able to do so while unequivocally challenging the most common anti-woman sentiments of her day. Here, she imagines a scenario in which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice come to her aid embodied as three strong and lovely women to help her construct a city of positive history and mythology in which she will collect and house all the world’s most virtuous ladies. They do so first by debunking myths such as that women are natural liars, that they lack conviction and are emotionally weak, that they are selfish and are intellectually inferior to men. Much as Mary Wollstonecraft would do almost four hundred years later in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, de Pizan argues that it is the way in which society brings girls up differently from boys that makes these stereotypes appear true and universal, but that given an equal education, girls would show as much aptitude as boys and in the same subjects (she does, however, fall very short of actually advocating for this). While her argumentation rested on reworking mythology, and this is not an acceptable form of debate nowadays, it was then–and since I was unfamiliar with so many of the stories, I kind of got a kick out of ’em despite the fact that it became very, very tedious reading. All the stuff about being a good, chaste wife etc. was irritating to my modern sensibilities, too, but I get that then she was reacting against the fact that women were only thought to be about their bodies, rooted in materiality with no spiritual or mental inner lives and value. I wouldn’t call this book relevant for feminists today, but I still enjoyed it as a feminist for the times when de Pizan utilized her stinging sense of humor and because it really made me consider context. It’s interesting to see that some ideas which are completely regressive and sexist now were once a step AWAY from an oppression that we still know, but in a completely different transformative phase. Of course, not all reactions against oppression are “progressive”, nor can that word be applied evenly across cultures and eras, which raises a lot of important questions about what constitutes progress in any given situation.
Epileptic is the deeply troubling autobiographical story by David B., formerly Pierre-Francois Beauchard, whose life has largely been shaped by his brother’s epilepsy and his family’s never-ending search for a cure. Epilepsy was little understood in 1960’s France when Jean-Christophe had his first seizure, and one of the most horrific aspects to this family history is how cruelly Jean-Christophe was treated by children and adults alike, alienating him, his siblings, and his parents from the community as punishment for exposing them to the symptoms of his illness. Their parents move Pierre-Francois, Jean-Christophe, and their sister in and out of various new-agey macrobiotic communes, inspiring hope in an unrelenting succession of mystical mentors and spiritual healers who are ultimately as lost as they are. While his parents experience increasing guilt after every failure to “fix” their eldest son and his sister becomes despondent with depression, David B. pours himself into his illustrations, picturing epic uphill battles that signify his struggle against his brother’s sickness. His thick, bold-lined drawings are appropriately claustrophobic and disconcerting, adding a fantastical element to this tragedy. David B. is always honest, refusing to leave out the ugliest bits of his history and the resentment he sometimes felt toward his brother, whose disease he could never measure up to. Dark and moving; beautiful work and intensely raw.
*I think it’s time I admitted to myself and everyone else that I’m not going to catch up on The Feminists Classics challenge this fall like I wanted to. In fact, there’s only a few books from this year’s selection that I haven’t read, but even excluding re-reads, it just isn’t going to happen. Truth be told, I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of a Very Bad Thing that happened earlier this month in the life of myself and my friends and have had difficulty concentrating on books, so I know that if I don’t allow myself to read at whim I won’t be doing much reading at all, and I don’t want that. Sincerest apologies for committing to it and then only reading one book and not participating in any of the conversations**…hopefully I will get to all the others at a later date, as they all remain interesting to me. I still plan to host the last read when the time comes, but all reading projects and such will otherwise be put on hold or ignored.