Sunday Salon: the Stiff Post
I woke up after too much sleep this morning, and found that my neck had decided to fossilise. It does this occasionally, and while I’m not sure what has made my fibro act up this time, it’s incredibly frustrating. But don’t worry-I’m ensconced in a comfy chair, with my trusty heating pad, so things could be worse! I ended up reading quite a few books this week…many of them were short, so it looks like I’ve been reading more than I probably have. I’ve been better at reviewing books as I read them so far this year, so I have seven books to discuss today.
I began this week by finishing up Moby Dick by Herman Melville after I posted last Sunday’s Salon. I really did love this classic, and you can read my final thoughts if you’re curious. Then I turned to The Ladies from St. Petersburg by Nina Nikolaevna Berberova, which was a collection of three novellas. As my regular readers know, I studied Russian in college, and so I have a soft spot for Russian authors. But I think this might be the first time I’ve read a classic Russian woman author! They’re sadly remiss from the list of Russian literature. Berberova was born in 1901, and she went into exile in 1922 and settled, like many at the time, in Paris. Eventually (after WWII) she ended up in the States, and the three novellas collected in the book span the time periods. I will say upfront that I am much more interested in literature from the Russian Empire than I am from the Soviet Union. So my favourite of the three novellas was the first one, which lends its title to the collection, and is about a mother and daughter trying to take a vacation in the midst of the revolutionary chaos. They’re from the upper classes, and they still think that their side will win. But the book isn’t really about politics; it’s about the mother-daughter relationship, and the power of individuals choosing to the do the right thing even in the midst of war. But I can’t tell you more about it without explaining the whole plot (this is often a problem for me in novellas), which I don’t want to do because I want you to read it! :) But I found it moving without being sentimental, and the ending was perfect. The middle novella, “Zoya Andreyevna” was my least favourite, probably because it was set in the USSR. It had a bit of a Dostoevsky feel to it, with Zoya becoming feverish and her narrating becoming confused, and pretty much all of the characters (except Zoya) were awful. From a technical standpoint, I think it was well-written, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Finally, “The Big City” was an allegory about communism, all set inside an apartment building so large it contains everything. I liked this one; it’s difficult to pull off allegory nowadays, but Berberova did it. The story itself was still interesting, and I didn’t feel like I was being whacked over the head with the author’s feelings…there was space for me to interpret and make up my own mind. All in all, I’m very happy that I read these novels, I’d definitely be interested in reading more Berberova in the future, and I’d recommend her to anyone who enjoys early 20th century lit.
Continuing on my shorter-classics trend, the next book I finished was The Sorrows of Young Werther and Novella by Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe (my edition included the ‘novella’ at the end-I’d call it more of a short story, but I’m just talking about Werther here). This was my read for the Decades 2010 Challenge, what with Werther being published in 1774. It’s primarily an epistolary novel, which isn’t a form that always works for me, but in this case made for an incredibly readable book. Honestly, I was a bit nervous of reading 18th century lit, but if this is representative of the century, I’m now super-excited. :) I know that when it was published Werther took Europe by storm, a classic equivalent of The Da Vinci Code There were even women’s perfumes named after it! It’s the story of Werther, a young German who while not noble is certainly well-off, his idles in the countryside, and eventually a tragic love triangle. I’m sure the latter is why it was so popular; Lotte, as seen through Werther’s eyes, is pretty adorable, and her fiancee Alfred is also a good man. Werther himself is, as my introduction states, a complete egoist. Goethe does a great job of making his narrative consistent, and I was continually astounded at the levels of petulance Werther could work himself up to with no justification. It’s like watching a spoiled child, except more entertaining! Goethe is a story teller more than anything, and while there’s the occasional pastoral moment, and Werther regularly goes off into philosophical ‘musings’ (that are quite shallow, the work of a dabbler), the plot keeps moving forward. I knew before I read the book how the story ended, but that didn’t ‘spoil’ anything for me, thankfully. I very much enjoy The Sorrows of Young Werther, I fully intend to read more Goethe, and I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a fun, fast classic!
I moved to modern England with White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, my first book for the African Diaspora Challenge. I loved this book to bits and pieces, and you see read all of my gushing if you’re so inclined. Then I turned to Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang, which is a novella and short story collection centered around Chinese/Taiwanese immigrants to America (can you tell that all of these novellas I originally put on hold for the November Novella Challenge had come due with no more renewals? lol). Chang is an excellent writer; she captures emotions so well that sometimes I found myself forgetting to breathe when the characters were having a tense scene. The title novella really affected me, since it involves violinists (I played the violin for five years), and a family with two sisters (just like me) and a father who has difficulty being a father (ditto). The whole story is told from the mother’s point of view, and begins when she meets her future husband and goes all the way to her death. I loved seeing how the relationship dynamics evolved over time, and while it was difficult to watch has the father destroyed his relationship with his daughters, it always felt true. The narrative voice was genuine as well. Then short stories that followed the novella were also wonderfully written. I had to favourites, the first and the last. “Water Names” is a very short story (I think five pages) that tells of young Chinese-American girls hearing old folktales from their grandmother. It’s really more of a ‘capture the scene’ type of short story, and it did that so perfectly. The final short story, entitled “Pipa’s Story” is set on Mainland China during the 30s. It was the only one not set in the US, and since it was set during a time that I haven’t read much fiction about, it felt really fresh to me. Pipa is from a village, and her mother is a wise woman, but when she goes to Shanghai to work as a maid and make more money, she finds her mother’s past catching up to her. You know me-anything that hints of wise women, and I’m automatically half in love! But the whole way the story is told is simply wonderful. I know I keep saying that, but Chang really blew me away with her prose. This was her debut, and I was excited to discover that she also has a novel out (Inheritance, which shares a setting with “Pipa’s Story” and revolves around sisters) which I intend to read sooner rather than later! If you love good writing, I highly encourage you to give Chang a try (if short stories aren’t your thing, just go for Inheritance).
Speaking of China, I then finished a fascinating nonfiction book: The Long March by Shuyun Sun, which I had picked up for the China Challenge. I hazily knew about the Long March before, that Mao and the Communist army walked across much of a China, and that most of the soldiers didn’t make it. But now I know so much more! This isn’t a conventional history book, though. Sun is Chinese herself, and much of the tension in the book revolves around how she keeps discovering facts and stories about the Long March that simply don’t match up with what she was taught. To a certain extent, we’re all taught ‘propaganda’ in school (for you Americans, think about how your elementary school teachers taught ‘the discovery’ of the ‘New World’), but in a totalitarian state like China, Mao’s version of the Long March really became their history. Sun is a journalist, and she decides to go on a trip recreating the Long March, so that she can see all the places for herself. At the same time, she seeks out veterans (who are all septo- and octogenarians by now) to discover their stories, which she shares throughout. I loved this book because it has so much of the individual in it. Sun doesn’t try to disappear from the book; she shares her confusion and shock when she learns, for example, that one of the greatest battles of the Long March was really more of a skirmish. Or that thousands of soldiers disappeared, not because they died fighting, but because their ran off after being virtually impressed into service for the Red Army. At the same time, this doesn’t feel like a vendetta against Mao or the Communists at all; while most of the book portrays (to me at least, as an American reader) the Red Army in a pretty bad light, Shuyun acknowledges the good parts too. She sees how the men and women who survived the March were incredibly strong, and devoted to their cause, and she admires them as real heroes for that. There’s a refreshing lack of cynicism in the book that immediately drew me in, and made it feel as if I was journeying alongside Sun. The stories from various veterans were simply fascinating…although I’ll warn you that I read the last chapter, which concerned what happened to the women soldiers of the Western Legioncaptured in northwestern China, with tears streaming down my cheeks. I’d highly recommend The Long March to anyone who enjoys travelogues or would like to know a bit more about China, and I’ll for sure be reading Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, Sun’s travelogue in the footsteps of the Chinese Buddist monk Xuanzang.
As part of the Woolf in Winter read-a-long, I read and reviewed Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I loved reading all the participants’ posts and comments, and I encourage everyone to join in the fun! I’ll be skipping To the Lighthouse (I read it for the first time last year, and it feels too close for a reread; I’ll be reading another Woolf, though-Between the Acts), but in February I’ll be back to reread/discuss Orlando and The Waves.
I listened to two classics on audio this week: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. I’ll be reviewing them on Tuesday. But after all that heaviness, I decided I wanted a lighter audio selection. Exploring my library’s eBranch (where I can instantly download audiobooks while wearing pajamas! woohoo!), I saw Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. I read it in hard copy back in 2008 (I won it in a giveaway Nymeth had way before it was published in the US! I’m so special! hehe), and really enjoyed it, so I thought it’d be a treat to reread it via audio. Then I started listening, and discovered that Gaiman himself narrates it-double treat! And it’s actually set in Viking Norway (I knew it had Norse gods, but I couldn’t remember whether it was set in contemporary or medieval Norway), so it works as my ‘historical fiction’ selection for the Tournament of Reading Challenge. Triple treat! ;) Since it’s a children’s book, it’s a short narrative (2 ‘parts’, so I think between 2-3 hours), but I really loved it. Gaiman brings a kind of magic to all of his work, that makes me delight in a book regardless of its target age level. And it was great fun to hear how he imagined the voices! Odin’s especially was different than the version in my head. :) Oh-for those of you who don’t know the plot, Odd is a young Norwegian during the Middle Ages who doesn’t fit in. So he wanders off one day, and ends up getting caught up with Loki, Odin, and Thor, who have been kicked out of Asgard by the Frost Giants. If the Frost Giants remain in power, there will be eternal winter, and all of Odd’s people will die, so he decides to help the gods return to their rightful place. I’m a huge fan of Gaiman, so pretty much any time I review one of his books (except for the grahic ones), all I have to say is “OMG, I loved this so much! Myths and legends! I wish Gaiman was my father so that he’d make up stories for me at night!” (because yes, apparently reading children’s books make me regress to the age of 10). And then all the commenters who are Gaiman-o-philes like me say “I know! Me too! He’s like the best!” and everyone who hasn’t read Gaiman yet just nod their heads and back away slowly. So my reviews of his books are less than successful. But yeah: Odd and the Frost Giants was just as good the second time around, and of course Gaiman reading his own work is wonderful. I’m *still* in the queue for the audio version of The Graveyard Book (which he also narrates, and which will also be a reread for me), but this one has me excited that I’m now at #12! Oh, and I liked the hints of Viking society in it, which is what makes it work for the Medieval Challenge. ;)
Speaking of favourite authors writing books for children…I finished Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie last night. I’ve been a big Rushdie fan for several years now, and I’m working my way through all of the books he’s published, but this is the first one I’ve read that isn’t intended for adults. I must say…it took me by surprise! His other novels are so dense and baroque, I couldn’t even imagine how he would manage to write a children’s story. But this works, and when my niece is a little older, I hope I can read it with her. While it’s definitely written at a simpler level, it’s still got those Rushdie touches…firmly grounded in Indian culture (and Kashmir makes an appearance or three), lots of word play, and a strong message against absolute power. The whole book is really a love song to stories, which made it delightful to read. All of that being said, it was a bit like eating delicious, perfect whipped cream, only to discover there’s no pumpkin pie underneath. My brain didn’t get a workout from Haroun and the Sea of Stories the way it did from, say, Midnight’s Children. Still, if you’re a Rushdie fan working though his backlist, Haroun definitely won’t disappoint, and if you’d like a taste of him but are a bit nervous of his bigger works, Haroun could be a good way to get to know him (then go read Shalimar the Clown!). And of course, if you’ve got elementary-age kids hanging around, I bet they’d love the book. :) (Oh-forgot to mention. I read this for the What’s in a Name? 3 Challenge, as the ‘body of water’ selection.)
Finally, this morning I finished Dancing in the Dark: a Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein. This book is incredibly well-researched and well-written, my first bulky, focused nonfiction read of the year. And for the first half (it’s a big, solid read too, at over 500 pages of text alone), I was delighted with it. I imagined writing a post in my head about how Dickstein really illuminated much of the decade for me, how he made me want to read new authors, go on a Steinbeck craze, and watch only 30s movies for the next month. And all of that is true; it’s obvious that Dickstein loves the culture of the 30s, and his enthusiasm is infectious. But then I started noticing something odd. There are almost no women discussed in the book at all, and even those that appear are usually brief asides in a passage about a man (the one exception to this is Zora Neale Hurston). And then I began to get a bit annoyed, and as I read more and more about all these male cultural icons of the 30s, I got impatient, wondering when the women would show up. Well. They never do. Even in the penultimate, very brief chapter, entitled “Gender Trouble,” in which Dickstein discusses one novel by one female novelist, he spends almost the whole time on her male characters. Additionally, although Dickstein does a marvelous job of covering Jewish 30s culture, the book is pretty much whitewashed. There is one chapter that focuses on Hurston and Ellison, but even his discussion of jazz focuses as much, if not more, on white musicians than black ones. There’s no mention at all of any other minorities. Moreover, Dickstein has this odd habit of raising a complicated race/gender issue, than cavalierly throwing it away. Like this excerpt:
As Gary Giddens writes, “From the days of antebellum minstrel shows to the present, the point at which indigenous American music becomes pop culture is the point where white performers learn to mimic black ones.” This could also be seen not simply as theft or imitation but a positive synthesis of different cultural traditions, though deeply unfair in its relative rewards. Jazz itself was a melding of musical traditions-African rhythms, Delta blues, stride piano, ragtime, New Orleans brass-as Ralph Ellison frequently argued. It combined primitive energy with subtle refinement.
I’m not selectively quoting; the next sentence starts Dickstein’s look at Goodman’s life. I mean, ‘it could be seen’?! Why yes, it could, but it’s going to take more than one sentence, or an argument that African Americans melding various styles from their own musical heritage is somehow equivalent to white musicians using their style and profiting from it due to the racist nature of the 30s to convince me. Why even bring it up at all? And whenever Dickstein discusses women, he does it with a distinctly unenlightened air…I rather felt like I was hearing a great-uncle discourse on my gender. Analysing A Star is Born, a film in which the success of a Hollywood actress, Janet Gaynor, makes her alcoholic, declining-career actor husband kill himself, Dickstein has this to say about the ending:
But in her famous concluding lines, Gaynor announces herself to the audience as “Mrs. Norma Maine,” keeping her husband’s name alive by erasing her own identity. It’s an upbeat climax that tugs at the heart, but seems untrue to the film, which kept warning us that, for a Hollywood star, private emotions could scarcely stand up to the public demands of success.
Really?! That’s an upbeat, heart-warming ending?! See what I mean? Dickstein doesn’t even bother to look at how endings like that (in many screwball comedies, the strong women ‘gets her comeuppance’ like Katherine Hepburn in Woman of the Year) might reflect the sexism of the times. He doesn’t even seem to process that far from warming my heart, that ending makes me want to chuck something at the screen, while thanking all the heavens that I was born now. And that’s not the only example I could share. In the end, I think this is very strong as a White Male Cultural History of the Great Depression. I don’t think Dickstein actively set out to exclude women and ethnic minorities from the book. But passive sexism, at the end of the day, is still sexism, and this is a marvelous example of why we have to create ‘Women Studies’ departments at universities. It’s sad that in such a comprehensive study, by such an obviously erudite mind, the blinkers are never taken off. Dickstein makes no attempt to see anything from a non-white or non-male perspective, and in the end, that made me, as a woman reader, feel inconsequential.