Bookish Notes: A Surfeit of Pleasures (including An Unnecessary Woman, The Dancing Goddesses, The Word on the Street, Anne of Green Gables, & The Queen of America)
Oh guys. It’s clear to me by how sporadic my blogging has been over the past year and a half that my old approach is no longer working. I find myself missing blogging but also feeling overwhelmed by it: I don’t even like to read the blogs I subscribe to unless I have the time, energy, lack of pain to comment on them. This is silly. Writing that down made it clear just how silly it is, and I shall return to reading your blogs, even if I can’t comment, forthwith.
As for my own blog, my beloved, if slightly shabby striped armchair, I envision this space as a kind of reading journal. I have in mind things like Nick Hornby’s lovely columns, but I don’t know how to bridge the gap from where I am now to where I want to be. This is especially challenging as I am not, in fact, Nick Hornby. There will likely be bumbling involved, as I sort things out, but at least it will be better than nothing. Books are so much more fun when they’re talked about!
This morning, I began An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Despite reading and adoring both The Hakawati and I, the Divine, and despite one of the most enticing covers I’ve seen in quite awhile, I was unprepared to fall instantly in love. But that is exactly what happened. I love reading essays by older, reflective, bookish women, and this novel is narrated by just such a woman. I’m fussy about male authors writing female characters, so you can believe me when I say that Aaliya Saleh is utterly convincing. I find myself wishing she’d written more books, her style is so perfect, before remembering that this is in fact a novel. I love the kind of novelists that allow me to suspend my disbelief without the slightest effort on my part. I’m thrilled he set this in Beirut too: it feels like a love song to the city, and I do love a book with a strong sense of place. I’ve now used love four times in one paragraph, which is probably excessive, but that’s what certain books do to readers, isn’t it? I’m one hundred pages in and will pick it back up as soon as I’ve published this post, although a quote on the cover about heartbreak as me a bit nervous. He did break my heart in both of the other novels I suppose, but in the best sense. When an author is as talented as Alameddine is, I can forgive him for a streak of tragedy.
As always, I am a polygamous reader. I’m in the middle of two completely satisfying nonfiction books too: the first is The Dancing Goddesses by E. J. W. Barber, all about folklore and language and women and Central/Eastern Europe, so is clearly my type of history. In December, I became mildly addicted to British historical farm series, available on youtube, in which historians spend a year living and working on a farm following the methods of whatever period they’re looking at. My favourites are the medieval ones (Tales from the Green Valley and The Tudor Monastery Farm), and this book reminds me a bit of them, especially a terribly enthusiastic folklore professor who seems to visit at least once in each series to lead everyone in reenactments of old traditions and customs. The midsummer bonfire of the Tudor series was particularly notable, if only for watching them try to get a burning cartwheel to roll down a hill!
The other is The Word on the Street by John McWhorter, a fun and thoughtful linguistics essay collection that just convinced me it’s time to start performing Shakespeare in modern English translations. I’m one of those who believe a translation should sound close to the author’s original intention anyway, so even if it’s a translation of a classic, it should only read as stilted or archaic if that’s how it would have sounded to the author’s contemporaries. So in a certain sense McWhorter was already preaching to the choir, although I thought he overly exaggerated a bit to get his point across. The other essays, in which he explains why constructions such as “You and me should go to the bookstore” are actually rooted in English structure (while the rules against them come from an 18th century academic intent on making English more like Latin), and in defense of non-standard dialects as legitimate in their own right, have been equally fascinating.
And then there are the audiobooks. This year, I began listening to two audiobooks at once: a children’s book for bedtime and whatever caught my fancy for the rest of the time (chores, knitting, cooking, walking, etc.). This new policy has resulted in far fewer terrible dreams, which is quite a relief, and I’d be thrilled to hear any audiobook suggestions you’d consider sage for a nightmare-prone seven-year-old (yes, that’s how cautious I need to be). I’ve become particularly drawn to modern authors inspired by classic children’s lit, both parodies like The Willoughbies and The Mysterious Howling and more straightforward books like The Penderwicks (whose sequel I just picked up on CD from my library this week). Right now I’m listening to Anne of Green Gables, and rereading it (again) as made me realise just how much Anne influenced my worldview. I believe I finally have any answer to that tricky question: what book has changed your life? I must admit I don’t care hugely for the narrator, who pronounces certain words in an oddly Southern tone of voice for a Canadian novel, but I love Anne so much I can overlook that. My other audiobook is The Queen of America: it was slow going for the first couple of hours, but I’ve loved all of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novels, and it’s almost eighteen hours long, so I stuck with it and now it’s amply rewarding me. The narrator is fabulous too!
In other words, I’m in reader bliss at the moment. There’s not a bad one in the bunch: just a lot of soul satisfying, intellectually stimulating, endlessly comforting and entertaining books, the kind that make me so grateful I’m a bookworm.
I’m hoping to do a post like this twice a week but no promises yet. I’m not sure if the format (which desperately needs a more elegant title solution: any ideas?) will be as helpful to readers as my more straightforward book review style posts, and I might alternate between the two, depending on my mood, however I hope this new approach will get me back in the blogging habit and avoid the dreaded paralysis induced by an every growing review backlog. Time will tell, I suppose.
Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat-show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell.
-Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination
I spent most of today socialising with my mother, which was wonderful, but means I’m a bit exhausted. So I made it easy on myself and chose to write about Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie. As I said yesterday, Crombie and her mystery series were one of my very favourite discoveries of last year. If you haven’t tried her yet, you have no idea what you’re missing!
Crombie is American, Texan actually, but she’s also lived in the UK and her mystery series is set there: Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James are both detectives working in London. According to her biography, she travels there several times a year, and the sense of place is one of my favourite aspects of her writing. Each novel is steeped in its own particular locale: be it a London neighbourhood or a different English city, Crombie brings them all to life with exquisite, loving detail. I expect I could draw maps based on her novels and go on walking tours without getting lost: she’s that precise. She also weaves in the history of the area, and without ever becoming pedantic, she makes the locations another character. I love it.
Of course, I wouldn’t have read ten books in six months without also being in love with the characters. We get to spend time in the heads of both Gemma and Duncan, and they’re both just so damn loveable. Not to say they’re perfect: they each struggle with their own issues and occasionally make mistakes. But I’m always rooting for them, and thrilled when they manage, with honesty and goodwill, to sort out their troubles yet again. I will say I think it’s fairly important to read the books in order, as Crombie develops their characters in response to various events, and it’s nice to have that background knowledge.
And the detectives aren’t the only well-developed characters: these are psychological mysteries, with a deep component of developing the lives of each suspect, as P.D. James does. Sometimes we get to spend more time with a certain player, but even the minor characters are deeply memorable. Often, Crombie weaves past events in with the present, showing how powerful history can be. And while her plotting style varies from book to book, there’s always a thread of the traditional puzzle mystery, in that the reader knows all of the suspects, has all of the clues, and can figure out the killer if she picks up on them.
In short, this is a dream series for me. I usually begin the next one as soon as I get it from the library, and it takes considerable self-control to only request one at a time. Obviously, I can’t recommend it highly enough to mystery lovers and suggest they begin with A Share in Death and read them in sequence from then (Wikipedia has a helpful list of the titles in published order). But even those who don’t usually care for mysteries will find a lot to enjoy if they’re fans of contemporary literature. The writing, characters, and plotting are all top-notch: what more do you need to enjoy a book? If you’re not a mystery person and don’t care about reading the series in order, but want to give her a try, I’d suggest Dreaming of the Bones, which includes literary pastiche and a double mystery set amongst Cambridge dons. A bookworm’s dream!
Edited to add: I just realised I didn’t talk about the specific book at all. Whoops! There’s not a lot I can say without giving away series developments, but this one involved canals and the people who live on narrow boats and travel about them, and I loved that. It’s funny reviewing series, especially when you’re as spoiler-phobic as I am. But there you go. ;)
I write this looking at the early morning sun, at least what has filtered through the clouds, and it is magnificent. The morning holds such a strange combination of calm and hope for me: the day stretches out, full of hours not yet spent. The blueish light makes everything feel not quite real, a bit bewitched. Anything can happen.
My illnesses are easing back towards their everyday existence, leaving behind the heightened drama of a flare up, and I will celebrate with my delayed new year cleaning. This involves not only tidying, but also sorting and rearranging and clearing out my various possessions. They somehow multiply, no matter how close an eye I think I’ve kept on them, and systems that a year ago made tidying easy now need rethinking. I love it because it combines physical work with philosophical reflections, aesthetic decisions, and logical solutions. My entire being is engaged, and at the end I will once again have a cosy, working little place.
This week, spent mostly with various heating pads on various pieces of furniture, allowed seemingly endless time for reading. Lots of reading. Last Sunday, I’d completed three books in the year. This Sunday, I’ve completed thirteen. In fact, midweek I started deliberately spending time on other things, because I was afraid of my back list piling up at even more rapid pace. Which is something I’ll return to later.
Meanwhile, I found several nonfiction treasures amongst my reading. Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma (already posted about) was everything I could ask for in a natural history book. I found myself moved to tears and laughter and much inward reflection by Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty: the ideas in this book are far heavier than its seventy page slimness would suggest. If you have any interest in the intersection between life and art and physical objects, do look for a copy. Of course, The Inconvenient Indian, the latest book by Thomas King, one of my favourite authors, was incredible: a mix of history and storytelling that takes no prisoners in its account of how both the US and Canada have treated native populations, particularly in the more recent decades. That he managed to do all this without leaving me depressed or guilty or hopeless is a testament to his power as a storyteller. I’m now craving more books by Native American authors; luckily I have Crow Lake out from the library right now and Marilyn just listed several intriguing sounding ones.
I also read two books by authors with very different viewpoints than my own; while I can’t say I wholeheartedly loved either, I did encounter interesting or valuable ideas in both Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez and The Plain Reader ed. by Scott Savage. Reading books by authors who hold very different philosophies of my own sometimes feels like berry picking: lots of thorny branches to be cautious of, but if I can make it past them, there’s a reward waiting.
In contrast, my fiction reading was less than stellar. I only loved one without reservation: Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie. Crombie, and her Duncan/Kincaid mystery series, is one of my favourite discoveries of 2013, which should be obvious when I tell you this was the eleventh in the series! That means I read ten of her books last year, and I didn’t discover her until July. Three of the other novels I read were by authors I already like, and while they were all page turning, ultimately I ended up feeling a bit dissatisfied upon completing each of them, although for different reasons. A Spider on the Stairs by Cassandra Chan is the latest in her mystery series, and while the others have been very traditional and puzzle-like, thus qualifying as comfort reads, this one included a serial killer subplot that I found unnecessary and disturbing. Bellman & Black, Diana Setterfield’s latest, started out strong, but couldn’t sustain its magic and rather than following through on the promise in the beginning seemed instead to weaken. Not a terrible book by any means, but not a fabulous one either (of course, I was never quite as in love with The Thirteenth Tale as many others).
Raj by Gita Mehta also began strong, only to lose itself towards the end, although its cultural richness, sociopolitical commentary, and cleverness made me forgive it. It was published in 1989, which makes me think about how few books I read that were written from, say, the 50s to the 80s. They seem in a kind of in-between land: too young to be classics but too old to receive much attention. Unless I’m reading a favourite author’s back list, I tend not to come across them. I’d like to seek more out! And then of course there was Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, which I expected to love like all of the other bloggers I’ve seen talk about it. That didn’t happen, to put it mildly, as I detailed on Thursday. Oh and I began a new audiobook, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, but I’m not far enough in yet to guess how I’m going to feel about it.
I’m currently in the middle of Love in a Headscarf, a fabulous memoir that includes a lot of religious and cultural musings on love, marriage, and a woman’s place. This is personal feminist writing at its best, despite the impression the title and cover might give you. And once I finished this post, I plan to begin Pathologies, an essay collection by Canadian Susan Olding. I have had very good luck with essay collections by women older than me, so I’m looking forward to it.
I accomplished a lot in blogging this week too: I posted almost every day, which considering my 2013 track record is almost a miracle in and of itself. I also did lists for four reading challenges (and added a few more besides) if you’re curious. And yet, having read ten books in one week, I’m now faced with an unavoidable fact: I read books more quickly than I post about them. Even if I did write a post as soon as I finished every book, when would I publish it? In general, I only post ‘reviews’ three times a week, as I like to discuss other bookish things as well. If I adhere faithfully to that schedule, I could write about at most 156 books in a year. I tend to read twice that amount. What should I do? Publish more than once a day? Accept that not all books will get their own individual attention and go back to group posts so at least I talk about it a little bit? Ration my reading (just kidding)? I don’t know yet. I do know that it’s easy to feel crushed by a review backlog and end up not blogging at all; I don’t want that to happen this year.
Of course, I don’t always read this much: during a flare up, it becomes almost impossible to pursue my other interests, so reading and perhaps a bit of knitting are all that happen. As much as I love reading, when my health permits I want to expand the time I devote to making this year, so perhaps this will end up being less of an issue. I’m not sure.
I’m off to do a bit of reading and knitting, the latter of which will provide plenty of space to contemplate possible blogging approaches. Do share your own approaches or any solutions that come to you for my dilemma.
Story can be the clothing that makes the mystery visible. Story kept us alive when food failed, when water dried up, when the body itself began to fail.
-Pat Schneider, How the Light Gets In
I’ve been meaning to read Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker for ages due to Simon’s blog, he of so many fabulous 20th century English middlebrow novels recommendations. When I was casting about, wanting to read a slightly older book, my eyes lit on the beautiful blue of the spine and that was that.
I loved the musical aspects of the novel: Baker was a musician himself and it shows in the magical organ and violin and piano passages. I’m so glad I’m about to begin violin lessons already, because otherwise this book would have made me long to do so! The premise of the book immediately captured me as well: Norman, the narrator, creates an imaginary woman only to find her come to life and arriving for a visit. And of course Miss Hargreaves, with her refusal to bow to societal norms, or fade into respectable old lady invisibility, was darling. Simon, avert your eyes for the rest of this post.
Despite these aspects, though, ultimately I found Miss Hargreaves deeply disturbing, an example of patriarchy and male privilege run amok. There’s Norman’s father, who at first seems endearingly quirky in his bookish abstraction, inability to truly respond to anyone in a conversation (he just keeps voicing his own thoughts instead) and love for music. And yet…as his actions continued, they became more and more selfish, in the sense that he is literally so self-involved no one else even exists for him. He has some moments of emerging from the cloud to advice his son, but all of his other actions and interactions show privilege at its most extreme: he can literally choose not to acknowledge others’ existence or wishes. I cannot imagine this character as a woman, say as Norman’s mother instead of father.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a scene in which he’s been asked to perform a Miss Hargreave’s musical composition and instead performs his own work. Putting a brave face on it, she then announces to the audience that he will now play his own work, and instructs him in a whisper to play hers instead. And yet, hearing the title of his own work, he merely plays the same thing again. This scene is written primarily for laughs, looking at how the social-climbing audience responds differently to the exact same piece depending on who they think composed it, but I found this silencing and, indeed, crushing of Miss Hargreave’s own creative endeavour, portrayed so lightly, terrible.
That is merely a subplot, though, and not the reason this book made my skin crawl. No, that would be Norman’s own actions, which require me to provide a summary of the entire plot (including the ending; be warned if you don’t want to know it, skip the following two paragraphs, although it’s essentially told in the prologue of the novel). Having created Miss Hargreaves, he is first furious with her for wanting to be his friend, as her unconventionality embarrasses him in the little village. All he wishes is that she would leave him alone. Finally she does leave, and when she comes back she has reinvented herself as a fine lady. She proceeds to create a life for herself in the village, one without Norman. She doesn’t attack Norman in any way, simply ignores him. One might think he would be relieved. One would be wrong.
He becomes obsessed with making her acknowledge, really befriend, him again: when his semi-stalking behavior gets him nowhere, he then attempts to destroy her life via an anonymous poison pen letter. While he does regret this, it seems he regrets it most for the harm he does to himself (first his self-image and, when he’s revealed as the author, his moral standing) rather than truly seeing how despicable his actions are. After this, Miss Hargreaves is quite sensibly furious with Norman and warns him off. He cannot stand this independent thought from a woman he originally only imagined and decides that she must die. In the end, after a creepy reunion scene in which Miss Hargreaves suddenly dismisses-not forgives-all of Norman’s actions as if they weren’t immoral and awful and describes him as her “truest friend,” Norman does kill her. Since she was imaginary to begin with, this is not a physical killing, but it has the same effect: she ceases to exist for not pleasing Norman.
Let me reiterate: Miss Hargreaves is not doing anything wrong or destructive in society at large, such that Norman might have a moral obligation for stopping her behaviour (a la Victor Frankenstein). The only problem is her independence, first in caring too much for Norman and later in ignoring him. Ugh. This is essentially a novel of an abusive relationship, without any seeming awareness on the part of the author, much less Norman, of its problems. In the second part, Norman’s thoughts read like those creepy stalker/serial killer internal monologues found in some mystery novel, but with a comedy of manners patina. This isn’t an instance when I would have enjoyed the book except for some intellectual problems: I was honestly, truly upset and unnerved on a gut level. It made me afraid. When I finished I had to quickly put the book in the library bag so I wouldn’t see it. A quick trip through the blogosphere reveals I’m the only one who felt this way, so you might not. As I mentioned early in the post, there were some charming bits in the book. But ultimately, they were drowned by my uneasiness due to the plot.
Suggested Companion Alternative Reads
- The Love Child by Edith Olivier : this is my favourite Simon recommendation! It’s another novel about a person accidentally conjuring up another person out of their imagination. In this case, though, it’s beautifully done.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson : this will make your flesh creep, as Jackson intended, and it revolves around how people can be trapped by love and obligation.
- Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi : another book that revolves around whether imaginary characters come to life deserve their independence, and it explicitly takes on patriarchy and male privilege with a male author and his female character, whom he keeps killing off in various ways.
At its heart, amateur naturalism is about love. The kind of love that inspires quiet observation and close attention, the kind that notes tiny changes as well as large ones, the kind that is patient and humble and hopeful. It draws me out of myself, into a world in which I am only one tiny link in a terribly complex and wide-ranging chain. Yet it also anchors me in the here and now: the physical reality of the weather, the geographic idiosyncrasies of my local neighbourhood. It’s a way of affirming life, really. And of course, it’s also about curiosity: endless curiosity that collects tiny facts and delights in oddities and adds new depth to wonder.
Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma captures all of that, and as such was an utter treat for this aspiring naturalist. Following a divorce, Blocksma moves to a cabin along Lake Michigan, fulfilling a long-held dream and allowing herself to begin to reinvent her life at the same time. She’s surprised and slightly horrified to realise she can’t name any of the trees she sees from her window, a sign of the ‘nature illiteracy’ our society generally encourages, so she sets out to learn one new species a day for a year.
The book is set up as a journal, with a short new entry for each day (rather blog-like, now that I think of it). It’s a mix of Blocksma’s observations, facts about whatever plant or animal or other natural phenomena she’s writing about, tips on how to identify species (obviously most useful to residents in a somewhat similar habitat, but she does include information for all regions of the US, which was nice and refreshingly inclusive), and peeks at her daily life. Her tone is infectious, and I defy any reader not to become as interested in the little curiousities of nature as she is! Early in the book, she mentions attempting to sketch some of what she sees; as the year progressed, her efforts must have improved, because the book also includes little sketches done by the author herself, so that until I got to that entry I assumed Blocksma was a professional illustrator.
It’s fascinating to watch her knowledge and confidence grow, and it’s truly inspirational for someone like me who’s pretty much starting at ground zero as far as specific natural knowledge goes. Written in 1992, pre-internet, it includes a handy guide to guidebooks (which as a newbie I’ve found terribly overwhelming), and it so accessible I finished it thinking I could become like Blocksma too, even if I don’t have the rich environment she does. In fact, I’ve begun my own little daily learning project.
Sadly, Naming Nature is out of print (not to be confused with another book by the same title written by Carol Yoon, which has now been added to my wish list); with any luck your library still has it. I got my copy from Better World Books, and I’m glad I did: I love knowing I can dip in and out of this as it suits me. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it: in fact, if you’d like to read more nonfiction but feel a bit intimidated, this would be a wonderful choice. Of course, if you have any interest in knowing more about the world we live in, you owe it to yourself to pick this up! As Blocksma herself puts it:
I am convinced that even rank amateurs like me will be rewarded with a glimpse of something rare and wonderful if we poke around nature in a regular sort of way.
Suggested Companion Reads
- Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt : an interesting look at blending learning more about nature with urban living.
- American Primitive by Mary Oliver : this happens to be the book of hers on my nightstand, but any of her poetry collections are full of a careful attention to and love for the natural world.
- A Field Guide to the Familiar by Gale Lawrence : a wonderful collection of similarly themed short essays (originally newspaper columns).
It’s difficult to find a bookworm who doesn’t love lists. There’s something so beautiful and orderly about them, each item receiving its own line and perhaps a bullet point or annotation. Lining up the world, as it were, creating categories and finding connections. And yet, lists are not always about boxing life in: they can also be a way of expanding possibilities. Creating a list can lead to new discoveries or the reinvention of olds ones. They can be a kind of magic.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying, I have decided to join in reading challenges again this year. I miss book lists, and despite my intentions to simply make my own lists without external prompting, I make far fewer of them when I’m not involved in challenges (my bookish lists category reveals three from 2012 and one from 2013). I don’t know why. Lu wrote a lovely, reflective post recently about how she reads that reminded me of how much I enjoy themed reading as well. So in addition to joining a few challenges, I’m currently brainstorming some themes to explore this year, which will also require lists to be made.
Once when I was at the library with my niece last year, doing catalogue searches on cheetahs and fish, a lady passing by asked me if I homeschooled. I smiled and said no, but since then I’ve realised that in a way I do homeschool. It’s just, I’m homeschooling myself. If higher learning were free, I would be a perpetual student, moving from one speciality to another. Luckily for me, I live in a country with free, extensive libraries, and I have plenty of time and opportunity for reading. Themes will be a way for me to push deeper into my interests, and making a tentative list of possibilities has been great fun these past few days.
I’m sure I’ll share results with you soon. For today, I wanted to list some of the challenges that caught my eye, and to ask for your suggestions for other challenges I might have missed, as I’ve been a bit out of touch. I have compiled them all into a challenge page, and as I finish my list for each one, it will appear there. I plan to include books I’ve already read and would suggest to other participants, to make it a better resource, but all of that researching and formatting will take a bit of time.
This list is pretty tilted towards Europe, which is far more a reflection of what challenges I came across than my geographical preferences. If I can’t find challenges relevant to the rest of the world, I’ll simply incorporate them as themes. I can’t wait to get started creating some book lists!
Carmen la Coja, the protagonist and narrator of Peel My Love Like an Onion by Ana Castillo, is a stunning work of fiction. Larger than life, but with a wry, self-deprecating humour that keeps her believable, she made me care about her from the first page. I loved all of her contradictions: her bohemian, dance-filled past alongside her dutiful daughter present, her frank sexuality despite being middle-aged (let’s admit, that’s not a combination often seen in literature; I don’t mean that middle-aged real people lose their sexuality!) and of course her disabled but still famous flamenco-not flamingo-dancing. I also loved her voice, with its magnificent storytelling power, proud Chicana rhythms, and continuous love of life and music and dance. I kept running to the internet to listen to flamenco songs, her descriptions were so enticing. Here’s a random sample of her voice:
Loving Manolo-Manolio-was thrusting both hands out into the darkness to clutch on to something more than luminous air but also hoping that whatever it was won’t bite you. Mi Manolio was dark, even in winter, his skin savory and sweet like Mexican chocolate that makes your mouth water just to whiff it simmering and waiting for you on the stove to have with birthday cake. Manolo was a birthday cake with exactly twenty lit candles when we met. A cake not quite done yet. And I was the birthday girl surprised in the dark.
Castillo’s imagery and timing and rich characterisation makes Peel My Love Like an Onion an easy novel to recommend: anyone who loves a good story, particularly one with quirky, strong women, one that is inclusive from racial, class, and sexuality viewpoints, should give it a try. It’s certainly the most loveable of her novels I’ve read so far, the one that feels a bit like a fairy tale.
And yet, this is so much more than a delicious book. Castillo is a smart, politically aware, activist of a woman, and she endowed Carmen with the same characteristics. She observes, and comments on, all kinds of issues, from patriarchy to the economic system.
Carmen’s parents are Mexican Americans, who came to Chicago from Texas to find work. They are solidly working class, which means that their situation has deteriorated since the 80s:
Apa worked a lot of overtime back in the days when this was a great country for laborers and you could get time-and-a-half for working past your forty hours, not like companies are doing now, allowing foreign children to work as slaves because on their shoulders rests their families’ survival, children who were unlucky to be born in countries that don’t have labor laws.
Now in their 70s, they’re still working, and get by as long as no unexpected medical bills come up. Remember, this book was written in 1999, before a lot of these economic issues had burst on to the scene. I love it. I love that statements like this are casually mixed in with a love triangle-fueled plot. That’s the way political awareness and activism should be, a part of our everyday lives.
Anyway, Carmen notes that for them, work is a religion: even as her health worsens and she’s barely able to walk or stand, her mother keeps insisting she try work. This brings them into sweatshops, piecemeal labour, of the kind that provides our cheap consumer goods. There’s a powerful scene in which Carmen conveys how quickly she was dehumanised, as even her music & headphones were taken away from her, in one of these little sweatshops, a room full of women with brown skin. Women, particularly young women, are preferred employees because they can be paid less and are less likely to stand up for themselves. That is what allows people to buy $5 scarves and $10 memory sticks, but it’s also what allows Western companies to make huge profits selling them. It’s interesting that consumers so often get blamed for demanding cheap goods, when it’s the corporations who follow race-to-the-bottom policies and benefit most from the lack of laws protecting regular working people. And it’s not consumers who fund lobbyists who work hard to make sure such laws are never passed.
At the same time, in the past Carmen opted out of the typical American life, instead dancing for a living, from gig to gig, living on what money she made. While her contentment with her life is obvious, Castillo doesn’t romanticise the actual conditions of poverty in this country: Carmen regularly kills cockroaches in her apartment, talks about installing sturdier locks to avoid junkies breaking in, and of course doesn’t have medical insurance. Her best friend, while coming from a similar childhood, went to an Ivy League school and now works as a financial investor; the glimpses of her world, and the work she puts in to make sure she belongs in it, are just as fascinating.
Oh dear. I’ve written all of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the sexual politics at the heart of the story! Carmen is a flamenco dancer, and in her dancing, she ends up meeting two Roma men. The first is her mentor, and older lover, from the moment she graduates high school. After many years, she meets the other, who is younger, in fact the godson of the older man. And so a love triangle is formed. This is a pretty classic set up in Latin American lit: older man-younger man-woman. But it seems like I’m always reading about it from the male point of view: Castillo subverts it all by putting Carmen at the center, a woman unafraid to question the decisions and motivations of the two men. Particularly as they come from different cultures, which allows Carmen to be even more mystified and frustrated as the men keep removing her agency and voice from the events. Earlier this evening I read this post though, and it made me want to bring up these issues. Castillo makes it very clear that women, fictional or not, are people, with opinions and motivations and agency, and that treating them as anything less is wrong. As someone who has struggled with the way women are written about by some Latin American male authors, I found this turning of a traditional plot into something feminist and activist and progressive very empowering.
There’s also this beautiful moment, soon after she meets the younger man, in which she discovers that her older lover’s unwillingness to do a certain bedroom act is not in fact cultural but just him:
All the years I had been with Agustín had led me to believe that gypsy men weren’t particularly eager about the act because they feared women could put a spell on men that way, a spell that would send them howling like wolves under black skies, a spell that would make their you-know-whats drop off the next time they tried to make love with any other woman, a spell of evil for life. Still, like I said, when he had drunk too much he’d do it as if he were doing me some great big favor.
But Manolo didn’t do it like he was doing me a favor.
(You can read the whole mini-chapter online if you’re inclined).
There’s also moments examining parental expectations of Carmen, the only daughter, and her three brothers, who’s expected to be a caretaker, and more that I simply can’t get into because this post is incredibly long as it is and my arthritis can’t take much more.
Before I close, I wanted to say one more thing: Carmen’s disability and health problems are written in such a true way. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with a disabled protagonist before, and I didn’t realise how much it would mean to read passages like this:
I don’t like pain. I really don’t. I don’t even like talking about it but sometimes it feels better if you complain a little, if you whine, let out a toothache whimper, at least ow and then. So I tell my mother one day that I feel just lousy, lousy all the time, even in my sleep and when I wake I feel worse, and then I just look over at her and start crying. …
There are better days, as they say. On those days I get around a little. I celebrate and make espresso. I’ll cut up a fish, red snapper or salmon, for Ama and me and put it in the broiler. I’ll add two potatoes and make a little butter-lemon sauce, although she will be the one who has to finish up the task because by then some part of me is hurting too much.
The careful way that Carmen approaches every little aspect of her life, has to, in order to negotiate the tasks that healthy people undertake without thought, really struck home for me. It’s something you can’t completely understand if you’re healthy, but reading about it will help. I wish there were more authors writing character like these. It reminded me of this essay about living with a chronic illness, something I encourage you to read, just to give you a bit of context.
I’m remembering now why I stopped writing analytical posts. I’m at almost 1500 words, and I’ve only been able to touch upon a few of the thoughts and issues raised by a two hundred page novel. It’s frustrating. But at the same time, I’m glad I got to talk about them at least a bit, and I hope the talking continues in the comments. I’m undoubtedly out of practice, and I trust you will all make allowances for that. I won’t be able to do this for every book, simply because of my physical limitations. But I’d like to reclaim every aspect of my voice this year, and not shy away from raising difficult, complex questions, just because of my typing problems.
As I said in the beginning, I highly recommend Peel My Love Like an Onion to all kinds of readers, even those who aren’t as political as I. The activism never gets in the way of the story, and as long as you don’t mind stylised melodrama, a la opera or even musical theater, I think you’ll quickly fall under its spell. This would also be a great choice for those who are interested in reading more diversely but not quite sure if you’ll be able to connect. The combination of universal themes and plots with cultural specifics makes it accessible, and nothing will leave you sobbing your eyes out. Go read it already!
Suggested Companion Reads
- Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance by Lloyd Jones : another novel centered around dance, this one is by a New Zealand authors. I liked it when I read in 2009, but who knows what I’d think of it now (the plot centers around a young man and his coming-of-age experience with an older Argentine woman)? Sometimes I worry about recommending books I last read years ago, as we all change in our tastes. But it’s the first book that sprang to mind as far as dancing goes!
- Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros : if, on the other hand, you’re drawn to the Chicana aspects of Castillo’s writing and the Chicago setting, I have no hesitations recommending this one. I loved it and still love Cisneros.
- Samba by Alma Guillermoprieto : Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist, was based in Rio and decided to spend a year with one of the samba school from a poorer Rio neighbourhood. This book is about that experience, and it’s fascinating.