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I’ve been putting off writing about this book because it’s everywhere right now, and I was inundated with reviews before I even picked it up. I don’t think this is always a bad way to begin a book–in fact, I was lucky enough to attend a reading by Zadie Smith a few days before I started in it which she said a lot of things that focused my attention and inquiry as I read, giving me things to think about that I’m not sure would have occurred to me on my own. But sometimes when I don’t have a very particular point to make about a book that’s already the focus of so much hype, contribution to the conversation feels less enticing, certainly less urgent, ya know?
Let me begin by saying that I think Smith is kind of genius, and if you ever get the chance to hear her speak, you should take it. She has a knack for distinctive voices and for recognizing the everyday details of city life which, under her pen, shed their mundanity to reveal telling characteristics about urban modernity at large. I adored White Teeth, which was critically recognized for its representation of London’s multiculturalism, and I also liked On Beauty, her lesser-well received third novel (I skipped The Authograph Man and have yet to get to her essay collection Changing My Mind). So, I was thrilled to learn of this novel’s release a few months ago.
NW is the postal code for the low-income neighborhood in which the book’s few characters grew up. The first of the sections focuses on Leah, who lives in that neighborhood still and has a nice husband and a steady though not very lucrative job but can not reconcile herself to the fact that her life seems to be creeping along, progressing predictably. Her husband wants children and though she also seems to think of children as the logical–or biological–next step along a preset path, she is loath to surrender herself to it, to aging. She struggles against change, clinging to stability, to the past.
This is why she seems to resent her lifelong best friend Natalie, whom she knew in childhood as Keisha. Socially disadvantaged by her race, Keisha works much harder than her white friend Leah and far surpasses her in class. She becomes a successful lawyer with two children and a lovely house in a nicer neighborhood. Whereas Leah fears the passing of time, Natalie does her best to accelerate it, to distance herself from the past that she shared with Leah and other youthful acquaintances, to become someone important. But Natalie is far from the happy, confident person that Leah sees when she looks at her. She is empty, a projection of a person she worked hard to create but does not particularly like, know, or identify with at all. She acts out secretly, eventually reuniting with sketchy, down-and-out Nathan, Leah’s first crush and their early playmate.
To my mind, the most sympathetic character is Felix, whose story provides the novel’s action and is in that way, without their knowledge, at the center of the others’ orbit. He’s a funny, easygoing young black man, less career-driven than Keisha, more dynamic and less privileged than Leah. The mostly apolitical son of radical parents and a recovering druggie, he takes things as they come and is constantly moving, working to make ends meet for his kids. His narrative is complex and alive: I wish he could have commanded more of the novel’s focus.
The book is about all of the uncomfortable ways in which race, class, and other tensions are broached every day in a contemporary urban setting and, as Ana writes about so perfectly, begs questions about free will, ambition, and identity in this context. It’s an interesting theme, and the book’s characters, particularly Natalie, who believes that people get what they work for and therefore deserve their what they get, are set up perfectly to explore the truth or deception of this belief system. Like Ana, I am adverse to this idea, but agree with her that
if we want to fight these ideas it’s important to understand their psychological appeal, especially for people who were not born into privilege or whose lives are still so precarious – people we’d perhaps expect would be deeply aware of how far from a meritocracy the world really is.
Zadie Smith’s portrayal of Natalie in NW allowed me such understanding.
Still, I felt a little bored by both Natalie and Leah and their discontent. Not that it’s somehow invalid for either character to feel the way they do, but both characters seemed a little too perfectly constructed as emblematic of ideas, of representative of a modern malaise that is already a familiar trope. The everyday scenes that made up their narratives may have elicited knowing smirks from this city-dweller and, I’m sure, from many others so suited…but the weight of Smith’s philosophical query hinged on very little plot. Normally, plot doesn’t concern me much if what I’m reading is exquisitely written, and I do think Smith is, generally, an exquisite writer. But the “big picture moment” comes late in the game on this one (at least, it did for me), and for too long I felt “I get it…so?”.
NW does offer a lot to think about in terms of class mobility, social inequality, and self-determination, and Smith maintains her acclaimed stylistic edge. It may not be White Teeth, but it is still a good, smart read, and I would recommend it for those who have enjoyed Smith in the past and haven’t cracked it yet…I might just wait for all the talk of it to die down first, and unrealistic expectations with it, which mine possibly were.
In the late 1840’s, Kate (age 12) and Maggie (age 15) excitedly reported that they heard “rappings”, or knocking sounds, emanating invisibly from the walls of their Hydesville, NY home. Not only did the origins of the mysterious sounds defy all scientific explanation, but they seemed to reflect a knowing, responsive consciousness. Tales of the Fox girls’ communication with spirits spread rapidly, and American spiritualism was born. For the rest of their lives as mediums, the Fox sisters spearheaded a movement that would forever change popular ideas about death and the afterlife in both America and Europe, and toured as celebrities in an era when most women were strictly limited to the dependent, domestic sphere of the home.
The Fox sisters pronounced themselves spirit mediums at a time of drastic change in mainstream American life caused by increased mobility, urbanization, religious developments, and problems of social in/equality. These changes prompted Americans to grapple with the following questions (p. 6-7):
Shall we pack our worldly goods and journey westward? Or leave the farm behind and head for the city?
Are our struggles moving us upward on the social ladder, or have our risks only pushed us down a notch?
Is our society advancing toward utopian perfection? Or under new pressures…is it descending into chaos?
Those of us who are women–will we stay placidly at home or step out into the street, into the labor force, into public life?
Those of us who are enslaved–will we remain in bondage or march forward into freedom?
…am I bound for heaven or hell?
…what control do we have over any of our destinations?
Weisberg notes that the Calvinist concept of pre-destination was too unforgiving to satisfy the needs of those so troubled by uncertainty, and a discursive space was opened up wherein “the girls’ appeal surely stemmed in part from the ways they embodied–and intuited–their culture’s anxieties and ambitions” (p. 7). It is little wonder, then, that spiritualism was received most warmly in reformist circles by those already working to stretch the boundaries of society.
Though immensely popular, Kate, Maggie, and their older sister Leah were not without detractors. Indeed, they were subject to a number of invasive investigations, including public searches of their near naked bodies by councils of scientists determined to uncover the secrets of the “fraudulent females” (p. 81). To this day, the truth about the origins of the sisters’ rappings remains unknown; Weisberg engages debate about the authenticity of the events that occurred around the Fox sisters as well as possible explanations for them, but doesn’t dwell on them too much, which I liked. Those lingering questions are intriguing, but there’s so much more to this story worth looking at.
What was most interesting to me were the ways in which the Fox sisters were almost solely responsible for creating a new, public occupation for women: that of the medium. Mediumship was provocative; it took place in close quarters amongst mixed company under dim lights and required hand holding and whispering. It was sexy, intimidating, and provided women an independence through public demonstrations that they might not have gained had they been considered the primary actors in spirit communication and not only “passive media”, constitutionally weak and at the mercy of pushy ghosts. They troubled normative gender ideologies without completely dispelling them. The public was generally ambivalent about them, revering them at times and lambasting them for impropriety at others.
Impressively, Weisberg is able to make sense of the tensions found in mid-19th-century America at large without losing sight of the sisters themselves. As they grew into older, they each experienced the kinds of tragic breakdowns that we’ve sadly come to expect from people who’ve been followed so closely by the media and featured regularly in tabloids throughout the whole of their childhoods, adolescence, and young adulthood. The lively, charismatic sisters eventually fell into conflict with each other (mostly Kate and Maggie with Leah, the significantly older sister who managed their careers before becoming a medium herself and was widely thought to be manipulative and exploitative), succumbed to alcoholism, and died in poverty. Despite the limited knowledge we have of them as individuals, Weisberg highlights what she can of their personalities, lending them strength as complex and memorable people.
Weisberg has written a wonderful biography that manages to tell a story not only about the Fox sisters, who are incredibly fascinating on their own, but also a nation struggling to re-invent itself. The text is littered with fun trivia, too, including the origins of the term “con man” and speculations about the reason for Benjamin Franklin’s status as the most commonly manifested spirit amongst American mediums. This book was the first read for my 19th century spiritualism project, and it was a great place to start. Weisberg provided me with compelling human stories through which to understand the larger cultural shifts that helped the spread of spiritualism and provided an excellent platform, I think, from which to continue my exploration of spiritualism; particularly its gender implications in both the American and European contexts. Recommended for those interested in 19th century America, gender, celebrity, and/or the possibilities of spirit communication!
Hey everyone, just a quick note to let you know that my computer is dead 😦 I’m also going out of town next weekend, so it might take a little time to get myself all set up with a new one. I’m afraid I’ll be pretty far behind on reviews, both mine and yours, when I get back, but what can you do? I’ll still have intermittent e-mail access, though, so don’t be shy about sending me links to things you think I can’t miss (address can be found at my “about” page), and happy reading to you all in the meantime!
So, here’s the deal. I’ve put off the whole Twitter thing for a while now, and am probably one of the last of my generation (with regular hi-speed internet access!) to do so. I don’t know, I’ve just been stubborn about it! You know how that happens, sometimes? You just decide that you don’t like something for no reason and convince yourself that you’ll never have any use for it?
Well, next week I’m starting a new internship with The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a non-profit that advocates for small, independent publishers. I’m really excited about it! And one of my Digital Marketing duties is, of course, to tweet for them. So, I’ve made a practice account @bookedallweek. Follow me, if you’d like! Who knows, maybe I’ll even keep the account open a while, if it turns out I have enough to chirp about.
Now, some fun miscellany: The picture I’m using on Twitter is of my bunny, Taco, posing atop my computer case with a paint can and an old copy of The Color Purple that I sacrificed to him about a week ago. He has great taste in books…in NIBBLING them that is! (I couldn’t find my camera, so this dark and fuzzy iPhoto is the best I could do. Sorry!)
The binding on this book fell apart before Taco was able to sink his teeth into it, so no real harm was done to any book in the making of this photo!
I find that it’s surprisingly easy to live with a furry little book-eating monster if I just allow him an old, beat up toss-a-way every now and again to temper his voracious appetite for words.
Having read–and loved–The Little Stranger last year, I foresaw that Affinity would likely make for a fun, engaging, and creepy post-finals-intro-to-winter-break indulgence read. Which it was. Though it rests on a decidedly lower rung of my estimation than does The Little Stranger, I was still gladly grabbed by the suspenseful rush of the story. And with a Victorian women’s prison as the setting, and the trend of spiritualism as a key element of the plot*, how could I not be?
“Spinster” Margaret Prior is a Lady Visitor to Millbanks, where she is to set an encouraging example for the prison’s inmates. She makes a special friend of Selina Dawes, a calm and quiet girl who proves to be one of the prison’s most mysterious wards. Miss Prior feels strongly for Selina, who claims innocence and maintained visitations from spirits. Miss Prior is skeptical, at first, but as her desire for Selina grows, and strange objects manifest both within and outside the bars of Selina’s cell, she must call into question her own convictions, feelings, and secret histories all at once–and the result is startling.
I find the supernatural amusing in theory, but I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to summon enough suspension of disbelief for this book. Luckily–and without giving too much away, I hope (um, spoiler alert?)–some of that skepticism was vindicated by a twist ending. The twist ending was a little out of left field, I thought, and at times throughout the book the emotional melodrama was a bit much (whereas the intensity of emotion was very subtle, I thought, in The Little Stranger, and there was considerable and gradual lead-up to the “twist”, which I prefer). I really enjoyed Water’s exploration of Victorian punishment, sexual repression, and spiritualist subculture, though, so for me this book was still totally worth reading.
*New Year’s reading resolution: find out more about this whole spiritualism thing.
This year I read significantly less than last, which was both my first year blogging and keeping track. I gave very few 5-star ratings on Goodreads, maybe because I took more chances by straying from the “classics” and breaching new-to-me topics. I guess those risks didn’t quite pay off this year, though I will continue to take them in the future. Here’s the small list of books that got 5 stars from me this year:
I bet you can spot a few of my favorite themes, particularly in my non-fiction reading 🙂
And there you have it! As for 2012, The Year of Feminist Classics project that Amy, Ana, Iris and I hosted this year will be continued. We’re adding more hosts so that we will be better able to cover for each other when we’re busy (which is a lot, these days) and will be making the announcement about this year’s reading list soon.
So far I haven’t joined any challenges. I’m more interested in challenges this year than I was last, but honestly, I haven’t across any yet that particularly grab me. I might sign up for a few a little later down the road, but for now I’m still pretty happy leaving my reading plans wide open.
Thank you to everyone who’s commented here or inspired me to comment at your place. I’m so grateful for all the bloggy friends I’ve made and kept this year, and can’t wait to keep talking books with you all in 2012! Happy New Year’s Eve!!!
Brown Girl, Brownstones is a coming of age story about Selina Boyce, daughter of two warring Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn circa WW2. She is boisterous and lively, wanting nothing better than to spend long summer days in Prospect Park running, skinning her knees and laughing with her best friend. But she is not altogether carefree. When her father learns that he has inherited land back in Barbados, and her mother learns that he would rather save up to build a house there on the island and move back rather than pay off the mortgage on the house in Brooklyn so that they can be property owners like their most prosperous neighbors, all hell breaks loose–and Selina’s loyalty to each of them is severely tested. She sympathizes more with her kind but irresponsible father, yet she may have more in common with her difficult, volatile mother than she cares to admit.
As Selina grows older and, she thinks, more estranged from her family–including her sister who, in her opinion and unlike herself, is the model of a good, proper Barbadian girl who will settle down early with an upwardly mobile man to raise a family and perhaps move one day to Crown Heights–she struggles to find her niche in her community and in U.S. culture at large. Her mother’s materialistic obsession with becoming a property owner disgusts her and her cultural assimilation feels to Selina like a betrayal of both her own identity and of her father. There is a conceptual rift here between house and home, and for Selina the two can not ever be reconciled by the purchase of a Brooklyn brownstone. But when Selina finally sets herself on a truth-seeking path of her own design, she finds unexpected support. And when she does, she begins to understand, if not agree with, the import and appeal of the values and aspirations that her community shares.
There are some really interesting scenes here of Selina sitting in on a meeting of the Association of Barbadian Homeowners, a group with which her mother is very active, and also a sermon by Father Peace in Harlem that she goes to with her father. The contrast is illustrative of her emotionally conflicted family life; both experiences are disillusioning for her, and both are settings I wasn’t expecting and found really fascinating in and of themselves.
There were a few moments toward the end of the book where I was bothered, though, by homophobic jeering and gender policing on the part of both Selina and her lover, Clive. Selina makes fun of the “fairy” youth leader at the Association of Barbadian Homeowners she attended, and Clive warns her about falling in with Bohemian circles in which women “act like men” and such, as if to say: your critique of your mother’s way of life is cool and all, just don’t, ya know, take your radicalism that far. Like those people do. Or something. I’m not really sure, but it didn’t seem to add anything to the narrative and it didn’t sit with me very well in any case.
I was also bothered sometimes by hasty transitions in Marshall’s writing. Sometimes things just seemed to happen out of nowhere, and not always with reason. It was confusing at times, and a bit disruptive. It lead to me feeling lost more than a few times.
Marshall deals with a lot of interesting themes in this book, and I’m glad I read it for that reason. For other reasons previously mentioned, though, it was mostly a so-so read.