Sunday Salon: the Almost-Christmas Post
Can you believe we’re less than a week away from Christmas? That means next Sunday I’ll be able to talk about my Nook and the out-of-print classics I’ll be able to read on it. It’s quite thrilling to contemplate! Anyway, I’ve been reading up a storm lately! Well, and I’ve grabbed quite a few shorter books. ;) But either way, the result is a list of books, waiting impatiently to get talked about in this Sunday Salon. Let’s see how many I can get to, eh?
I listened to Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott after seeing a couple mentions of it in the blogosphere. I think I would have loved this even more if I had read it as a girl (it has a bit of a Secret Garden/Little Princess feel to it), but I still thought it was cute. Occasionally, the tone became a bit too preachy/hectoring for me, but I did love Rose’s uncle’s rather feminist approach to bringing up a young girl. Off with her corset, plenty of fresh air, and real learning to boot! It was interesting to contrast the uncle’s attitude with the narrator’s view; Rose helps set her boy cousins on a better path by being such a good example of feminine virtue, which struck me as very nineteenth century. Little Women has some similar moments, but Eight Cousins was more saccharine, to be sure. It was a nice little read, despite what I’ve said here, but I doubt I’ll reread it. I think there’s a reason it’s not as well-known as similar books, but there were quite a few scenes that really made me smile. I especially loved Rose’s close relationship with her uncle: it’s nice to see such a positive male role model!
I picked up Rapunzel’s Daughters by Rose Weitz on a whim, since its sociological approach to the relationship between American women and their hair promised an interesting read! I wasn’t disappointed; Weitz’s style is informed and readable, which is nice. And I found myself often identifying with the various women she interviewed (the book is primarily built on these conversations, which she had with women of various backgrounds): it felt like a good girl chat with smart intellectuals. The book is also decently inclusive: in addition to interviewing straight and gay women, she also made sure to interview women of different ethnicities. Most of her attention is paid to white and black Americans, though; I think I remember a couple of bits about Native American experiences as well as women who choose to veil, but I’m not sure Asian Americans ever made an appearance. She often connects what modern women have to say with historical experiences; this comparison and contrast really enriched the book. Overall, it definitely lived up to my expectations, and if you enjoy women’s studies, this is definitely one for your wishlist.
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd was a marvelous read; I picked it up when I realised how sadly I’d neglected Irish authors this year. Now I want to read Dowd’s entire back list! It’s set on the North Ireland/Ireland border during the Troubles, specifically during the hunger strikes. I read a nonfiction book about that time period last year, so it was really neat to see recent history come alive in Dowd’s writing! Fergus is studying for his A-levels, which he sees as his ticket out of North Ireland, when his life seems to suddenly explode. He finds a Bronze-Age girl in a bog and befriends the archaeology professor and her daughter who come up from Dublin to investigate. Meanwhile, his brother, in jail for anti-British activities, joins the hunger strikers, which increases family tension. Not to mention, a guy associated with Sinn Fein starts pestering him for a ‘favour.’ And then he starts dreaming about the bog child’s life. What I love is how real Fergus feels; as he tries to sort out everything going on, and as he struggles with impossible decisions, feeling his way towards his own personal moral code, I was right there with him. I as definitely rooting for him as well! But even though the plot sounds dark, Dowd brings a lot of humour and lightness to the book. There were moments when I giggled out loud and others when my eyes teared up. Each page of this was a treat, and I’d highly recommend it. (This is classified as ‘young adult’ fiction, but if you’re one of those readers turned off by that label, just think of it as a bildungsroman.)
I have read and loved Jackson’s most famous novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I’ve also read a smattering of her short stories (including, of course, “The Lottery”), but I was under the impression that she hadn’t written any other longer fiction. I was so wrong! Jenny’s recent post on The Sundial made me immediately want to pick it up. And while it hasn’t dislodged We Have Always Lived in the Castle as my favourite Jackson, it was quite a read! For the first couple of chapters, I was completely disoriented; Jackson just throws you right into the middle of a complicated, extended family unit living in a grand old house somewhere in the country, along with a few followers-on. But then I got my bearings, and soon the family was busily planning to meet the apocalypse, of which they expect to be the sole survivors due to the message old Aunt Fanny received from her father’s ghost in the summer pavilion. Got all that? Jackson really has such a dark sense of humour, and it comes through in much of the dialogue. Most of the people in the house don’t really like each other, and they give the most witty cuts and think up all of these subtle ways to annoy each other even more that it’s delicious to watch. I might not recommend this to those new to Jackson, but for Jackson fans, it’s a treat.
I almost always try to give authors a second chance (unless they’ve written something so sexist/racist/other offensive -ist that all of the blood rushes to my head just thinking about it), just in case I happened to read their worst book first. In this case, I read Denise Chong’s biography The Girl in the Picture last year, about the Vietnamese girl who was napalmed in that famous photograph, and it just fell flat for me. Egg on Mao sounded so interesting, since it looked at a man who participated in the Tiananmen Square stuff, but who wasn’t a student, and it was 250 pages (unlike the 400 of The Girl in the Picture) that I decided it would be the perfect way to give Chong another try. And now I know that she’s definitely not for me; while her nonfiction always seems to be about topics that sound very Eva-ish, I will only end up disappointed. Seriously, if I ever mention The Concubine’s Children in a future Library Loot post, save me from myself. Never has a 250 page book felt sooo loooong. Sorry, I’m getting a little snarky, aren’t I? But for some reason Chong’s writing style doesn’t appeal to my reading style at all. I spent most of the book wondering why on Earth she decided to do a biography of her subject, who all-in-all doesn’t seem like a great guy; I also wondered about her sources. All of this is cleared up in an endnote, which I think the publisher should have put as a foreword instead! Anyway, the guy had gotten political asylum in Canada, so Chong conducted interviews with him for his story, then travelled to China to get some perspective from his friends and family (although she also had to be careful not to arouse the attention of the authorities). To me, that explains why parts of the story just don’t *quite* hang together. As a biography, I just wasn’t impressed; I never cared for the subject and he never felt like the most important part of the story. One of his friends, who was the leader of the group, seemed the obvious choice, and I kept wishing I could learn more about him instead. But then, he isn’t living in Canada. That being said, Chong does a good job of capturing the fear and everyday difficulties of living in a totalitarian state; her treatment of the one child policy was especially effective. I am one of those people outraged that China was given the chance to host the Olympics, though, so in this case Chang was preaching to the choir. Still, I think even those who don’t go in with a disdain for Chinese government policy (for the record, my disdain for government policy extends to many other nations) will be moved. I think Chang would do better to move away from biographies and write general nonfiction. In fact, if she ever decides to do so, I’ll probably give her yet another chance! But no more of her biographies; they’re just not my style. (I don’t read a lot of biographies in general, though.)
You know how I’m always talking about how writing style and characterisation are more important to me as a reader than plot? And how I don’t mind if I don’t always know what’s going on (a la Helen Oyeyemi or Shirley Jackson)? Well, I think I finally met my match with Without a Name and Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera. This is a collection of two novellas. I actually loved “Without a Name”: it was powerful and moving, and while the jumps back and forth in time was at first disorienting, the narrative spirals around a central event in a way that makes sense. The story has its internal logic, and I cared deeply for the protagonist. It was dark and heartwrenching but in a genuine way, and some of the imagery will stay with me forever. The writing, of course, was stunning:
The laughing made her curious and careless, made her want to pull at the mushrooms, so she reached her thumb and forefinger ever so delicately, and held the soft cushiony head, held it so gently, feeling already the grooved underneath so tender and the surface above so smooth that her finger slid over the head past the grooves and met a thin polished stem, soft, then she held that stem tight by gentle, pulled it at tight by gentle. The ground was soft and yield.
There was nothing like pulling that mushroom. It accepted her gentle hand, followed her in a long slow quiver and the stem grew out of the ground into her palm. White. The neck was smooth and waiting and soft. She felt the softness linger between her fingers, slippery, fragile. The soil crept beneath her nails.
However, “Under the Tongue” exaggerated the more difficult aspects of “Without a Name” to the point of virtual unreadability (for me). I was constantly wondering what was going on, and finally decided to just read it as a prose-poem so that my poor brain would stop frantically trying to detect the plot. At the end, Vera does reveal the central ‘point’, but when I read the blurb on the back, which gave away the entire plot (a reason why I never read blurbs anymore), I found that I’d still missed one of the main threads. Writing this, I’m tempted to go back and reread it (the advantage of novellas), but unfortunately I already returned it to the library. That being said, I think Vera’s fiction is the kind that rewards a reader the more she works. She certainly has a lot of talent and a fearlessness for describing some of the worst experiences women can go through. So I definitely want to read the two other novels/novellas she’s published (each is in its own volume but under 200 pages), but I’m hoping that as she developed as an author she went more for the “Without a Name” style.
It is rare for me to worry too much about the edition of a book I read, unless I’m focused on the translator. I tend to be a bit oblivious to introductions and the other ‘extras’ publishers add to older books, but in the case of The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier, I really wish my library had the republication with Edwidge Danticat’s introduction. Because I feel like I completely missed the point of this one, and Carpientier’s machismo-flavoured writing definitely rubbed me the wrong way. Here’s one of the annoying bits:
Sidestepping the mob, Ti Noel put his mouth to the bung of a barrel of Spanish wine and his Adam’s apple rose and fell for a long time. Then followed by his older sons, he went up to the first floor of the house. For a long time now he had dreamed of raping Mlle Floridor. On those nights of tragic declamations she had displayed beneath the tunic with its Greek-key border breasts undamaged by the irreversible outrage of the years.
I was so excited to pick this one up, and then I went through a variety of emotions upon reading it…from anticipation to confusion to wry amusement to outrage to ‘wtf’?! and finally my current state of hesitation. For awhile, I thought that maybe it was a metaphor for Castro’s rise and rule of Cuba (Carpentier is Cuban), until I saw it was originally published in 1949. Well, there goes that theory. There are very few times when fiction leaves me at this much of a loss, but I feel like I need a literature class to tell me how I’m even supposed to understand The Kingdom of This World. I can tell that Carpentier was attempting to create *something*, and I picked up on the magical realism, but other than that the book just felt so disjointed and random. The parts barely match up, despite Ti Noel appearing in all of them…it takes more to make a synthesised narrative than one character popping up in each time. So yeah, I’m sure this is stuffed full of themes and would be a delight for literature students, but I just didn’t feel I had enough context to appreciate it. And I was *really* annoyed by Carpentier’s approach to his women characters. Sometimes his descriptions of black Haitians felt racist, but his descriptions of the white characters were just as bad…so maybe he was just a misanthrope? I also was skeptical of his depiction of Haitians, since he himself is not a native. So how much should I trust? This is me throwing my hands up in the air; if someone can explain this to me, by all means do so. I just wish I could read Danticat’s introduction.
Let’s move on to a book that made sense to me, shall we? Since I began reading about Burma a couple of years ago, I’ve had Freedom from Fear by Aung San Suu Kyi in my sights. But her recent release from house arrest made me more resolved than ever to read her! This was published on the heels of her Novel Peace Prize win, while she was still under her first period of house arrest (which ended up last for six years). It was assembled by her husband, and it’s a bit uneven. The first part consists of Suu’s writings before she got involved in politics, and spans the spectrum from an introduction to Burma aimed at children to academic analyses of Burmese literary tradition. The second part includes transcripts of speeches Suu gave on the campaign trail, as well as excerpts from letters to her husband, letters to Amnesty International, and other related material. The third part consists of essays about Suu by people who know her. Honestly, the book feels a bit cobbled together. That being said, I’m quite glad I read it: much of Suu Kyi’s own writing I found interesting and/or inspirational. Here’s a particularly striking bit from the title essay:
Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’-grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.
Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which helped to preserve man’s slef-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilised man.
While most of the essays in the third section bored me a bit, one of them (a look at Suu Kyi’s personal side from a college friend) was magical. I will definitely be reading more of Suu Kyi’s thoughts, starting with The Voice of Hope which is based on a dialogue between her and a British Burma scholar. I’ve also put in a purchase request so my library will hopefully acquire Letters From Burma, a collection of letters from her about Burmese everyday life, which sounds just perfect. I’ll have to ILL it if the library doesn’t buy a copy! ;)
So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba is a novella of a book that I’ve been wanting to read for ages, but libraries here in the States are woefully understocked when it comes to West African fiction, particularly from the more francophone countries. This makes even attempts at ILLing unlikely. But then the lovely Amy offered to let me borrow her copy! She included it in the same package as the two Adichie books she sent me (um, have I mentioned how generous she is?), and I pounced on it. Now that I’ve read it, I can say it lived up to all my expectations. I loved it! It’s an epistolary novel (as I’m sure you guessed from the title), but we only see one side of the correspondence. Ramatouale, a new widow is writing to an old school friend who now lives in the States. She discusses a lot of their mutual past, especially their marriages, which were both profoundly affected by polygamy. I found Ramatouale’s voice powerful and real; I instantly connected with her, and while I didn’t agree with all of her decisions, I felt for her and her life. Later, she moves her focus from her past and experiences as a wife to her more present concerns as a mother. If anything, I found this part even more fascinating: the way Ramatouale deals with her children is wonderful and looking at the changing culture through different generations made me feel as if I had gotten to know Senegal a bit better. This is the only book I’ve ever read about the country, so I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but Ba was so good at bringing it to life! While there are a lot of ‘issues’ discussed in the novella, in my opinion it never feels preachy. More like an older woman taking stock of her life; Ba’s tone is pitch-perfect. I highly recommend this one, and I almost don’t want to mail it back. ;) (Just kidding Amy!)
Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster was my next audiobook (after an abortive go at Billy Budd; I think Melville works better on paper), and it was also another one-sided epistolary novel! It also features an orphan, Judy Abbott, although it reminded me more of Anne of Green Gables than The Secret Garden. This is a good thing for me as an adult reader! Judy’s voice is strongly defined right from the beginning, and it starts with her entering college. I loved getting a glimpse into college life at the turn of the century (Webster was a Vassar alumna), and the book has a light-hearted humour to it that is enchanting. I saw the ending coming, but I’m still a little surprised at Judy’s reaction (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about). I can’t say more without giving it away, but while the ending was in one sense inevitable and satisfying, it still gave me a bit of a pause. I’m happy that Judy’s happy, though, and I definitely want to read more of Webster! (There’s a sequel to this, Dear Enemy, in my library’s catalogue. And Project Gutenberg has her other books as well!) I thought the audio version was particularly well done; the narrator (Kate Forbes) made Judy’s voice even more loveable. That being said, I believe the print one included little sketches (sometimes referenced in the letters) that I did miss out on; for me, that was a small price to pay though. Recommended if you’re in the mood for something light and cheery!
That’s ten books, and I don’t want to tax your attention span for any longer. Although if I want to post about all the books I’ve read this month, next week’s Sunday Salon might be a super-sized version. Prepare yourselves! ;) Have you read any of the books I talked about? Have any gone on your wishlist?