Until recently, I was content thinking of Russian writer-turned-politician Eduard Limonov, a founder of Russia's National Bolshevik Party, as just another strange puzzling figure on the murky Russian political landscape.
Then I stumbled upon an article in my morning-off internet perusal spree that made me cautiously curious about the writer part of his image¹ (since the political part makes me really try to do a one-eyebrow raise, and I'm horrible at that).
The aforementioned article, if you're interested: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/05/16/dirty-words-russian-girls-cant-say-on-the-internet/
And so I started (and, honestly, ended) my literary acquaintance with Limonov through his first novel It's Me, Eddie, a cynical memoir (or at least a memoir-ized work of fiction) of young Limonov's life in New York after leaving Soviet Union in the mid-1970s.
"We always find it difficult to forgive our heroes for being human."
This is one of the best books I've read this year, despite it being a children's book. Here, I said it. It has that amazing level of complexity and ambiguity, the brave tackling of difficult questions - friendship, loyalty, and the grey undertones of both right and wrong - that so many adult books lack.
And it does not talk down to children, its intended audience. Instead it assumes - and does so correctly - that children have the mental capacity to deal with the ambiguities of life without the need for sugar-coating and simplification. In short, it's another addition to the ever-growing pile of books meant for my (future, hypothetical) daughter that I will be proud to give to her as a (future, hypothetical) parent.
The hardest thing for me was to get past the silly American edition title - "Well Witched" - the title that just screams of silly unicorns and candy canes and perhaps a magical witching school somewhere. Well, from now on I'll think of this book by its original British title - 'Verdigris Deep', the title that avoids the childish cutesy (that is really not a part of this book!) and instead suggests something more sophisticated and more sinister - exactly keeping up with the tone of this book.
Whoever those people are who decide to change the titles of books for American public, mostly succeeding in making them sound dumber or sillier or needlessly more sensational - those people need to be fired pronto, with Donald Trump-like stone cold 'You're fired!' phrase chasing them out of the door. Idiots.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles is not a feel-good book, which sharply sets it apart from the other 19th century novels about young women (think Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, for instance).
No, it's sad and depressing to the point where it almost makes me angry. Because poor Tess, prone to making choice that are invariably the worst for her, just cannot catch a break. Because it's like she has majorly pissed off some higher power(s) that be and they are taking revenge, giving her the most rotten luck. Because Tess seems to have resigned herself to a future with few silver linings, having learned to view herself through the cruel prism of social conventions. Because it lacks any happiness and warm fuzzies that would make you want to reread this book while curled up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate on a cold rainy day¹.
¹ This lack of any feel-good warm fuzzies and Hardy's relentless destruction of anything that can make Tess' life tolerable (and, of course, combined with the fact that this book apparently is on the required reading list for many high-schoolers - and we all know how intolerable the books we have been coerced to read as teens can appear) may be at least partially responsible for why so many of my GR friends dislike it - the same people who apparently have enjoyed other 19th century novels about young women.
And yet I liked it.
Oh Gatsby, you old sport, you poor semi-delusionally hopeful dreamer with 'some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life', focusing your whole self and soul on that elusive money-colored green light - a dream that shatters just when you are *this* close to it.
Jay Gatsby, who dreamed a dream with the passion and courage few possess - and the tragedy was that it was a wrong dream colliding with reality that was even more wrong - and deadly. Just like the Great Houdini - the association the title of this book so easily invokes - you specialized in illusions and escape. Except even the power of most courageous dreamers can be quite helpless to allow us escape the world, our past, and ourselves, giving rise to one of the most famous closing lines of a novel.
'Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter - to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning--
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'
Dear Gatsby, not everything I liked back when I was fourteen has withstood the test of time¹ - but you clearly did, and as I get older, closer to your and Nick Carraway's age, your story gathers more dimensions and more tragedy, fleshing out so much more from what I thought of as a tragic love story when I was a child - turning into a great American tragedy.
How do you picture the area around the scariest human-made natural disaster zone a few decades later? Perhaps, like a postapocalyptic dark world filled, possibly, with mutated cockroaches that, as the popular wisdom states, would surely be the ones to survive a nuclear disaster? That surely seems fitting, and so once thought Mary Mycio, a journalist and a writer, many years ago, when she first heard of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the wee hours of the morning on April 26, 1986.
"Surely, whenever I thought about the irradiated lands 50 miles north of Kiev, it was like contemplating a black hole. All I could picture was a dead zone, like a giant parking lot paved with asphalt or a barren desert of dust and ash where nothing could grow and nothing living could survive without protective gear. Only gloomy shades of black and gray colored my mental images.But when I first visited the Chernobyl region, 10 years after the disaster, I was surprised to find that the dominant color was green."
DISCLAIMER: There is an actual risk that one of the patient's charts in my local ER will say by tomorrow, '28yo female presents with symptoms of NyQuil poisoning, incoherently rambling about underground cities and glass faces. Poison control contacted.'
Yes, this review is written in that febrile, NyQuil-fueled fog of hazy clarity where the world becomes muted at its edges and yet everything comes into a strangely sharp focus, and brain-mouth dissociation may reach dangerous levels.
I wrote a final paper back in college with high fever and in the similar NyQuil daze, shaken by raspy cough, breathless with congestion. I got an A-plus on that paper. I could not recall writing a single word of it. Go figure.
And so NyQuil says: This book is like a breath of fresh air, the gulp of fresh water from a mountain stream, a birdsong in the sunshine (damn birds, stop chirping, there are sick and grumpy people over here!!!).
It made me wish my future hypothetical daughter were real and present - so that we could bond over reading this book, loving its every page.
"During his reign, France was a great country, and the French were the most miserable of all people."
George R.R. Martin has apparently called The Accursed Kings, a seven-book historical novel series by Maurice Druon, 'the original game of thrones'. Which pretty much means that soon everyone and their grandma will be reading these.
Well, for once I'm the cool kid (ahem, I mean, nerdy overachiever, of course) who can say - Well, I first read¹ these books years ago, having spent every penny of my sparse pocket money on these tomes.
¹ Actually, 'read' is an incorrect description. I *inhaled* these books (figuratively) at the age of 11, completely entranced by the fascinating world of historical intrigue, for the first time having realized that history is not just the boring collection of dates, names and battles - that the wheel of history can be turned by people who are very much unaware of the overarching implications of their actions and scheming.
This book, the first in The Accursed Kings series, drops the reader smack into the middle of French palace intrigues that surrounded the last year (1314) of the reign of Philippe IV (a.k.a. Philippe the Fair - as in 'pretty', and not 'just') - and into the thick of the events that eventually precipitated the Hundred Years' War between England and France.
'Sir, you have turned the fractured land into a united country that is beginning to have a single beating heart.'
Uh-oh. Why did I break my promise to myself and read this book?Was it my curiosity? Well, I need to be more careful. After all, curiosity killed the cat - and I'm a Leo. Uh-oh.
Now I'm afraid that this book may have made me use up a few of my allotted nine lives. O_O
Welcome back to the senseless world of dystopian Chicago where you are only allowed to have one personality trait, which apparently is determined in what seems to be an equivalent of a 5-question multiple choice test. And this ridiculousness is presented very seriously. Let's catch up, shall we?
If you happen to give your seat on a bus to an old lady - well, you must be selfless! Welcome to Abnegation where you can enjoy shapeless clothes and bland food.
If you have ever wondered how stuff works and dared to ask a smart question - welcome to the EEEEvil Educated Erudites Exclusive Establishment! A set of complementary spectacles and a seat at the library are waiting for you!
You frown upon lying? Welcome to candid life of Candor. Enjoy your lie detector tests! Now there's only one answer you can give to the eternal question, "Does this make me look fat?" (and punched in the face you will be, no doubt.)
You are a tree-hugging (or people hugging) hippie? Amity, 'nuff said.
You are a near-suicidal borderline sociopath who loves jumping off moving trains and beat the crap out of people??? Heh-heh. You must be Brainless Dauntless. Enjoy your youth because you'll die young and in true Darwin Awards fashion.
After a re-read, I can no longer think of The Giver as simply a childish sci-fi tale with heavy moralistic leanings. What I see now is a story about growing up and confronting the world outside of the safe haven of childhood.
Well, yes, of course, it *IS* a dystopian tale about a young boy growing up in the commune of sameness that is devoid of colors or intense feelings or individuality - and the said boy has an unusual ability to experience what the others are missing out on, and he selflessly sets out to bring that experience to others at the cost of his own life, likely, and you can see it as an ode to individuality over sameness, written shortly after the end of the Cold War. But let's focus on the other aspects first, and worry about this later. Because that's not how I choose to see this book now.
The way I do choose to see it after this reread is a story of a child learning to see past the happy and safe confines of childhood into the bigger world and realizing that the wonderful security of childhood, the rules and foundations of that world no longer apply in the adult universe. Remember how small and secure the world was for most of us when we were children? There were rules designed to keep the world simple and predictable, and to keep us safe. There were adults who had fascinating jobs and were in charge of keeping our world safe and protected. There was a valid concept of 'that's not fair!' It was simple and secure, and everything happened for a good reason. At least it's how I remember it through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
In this book, I see the realization that people's lives are very different from what you perceive as a child, and that it's going to happen to you, too.
It seems that almost every book with young characters runs a risk of becoming a mixture of love story and coming-of-age journey - a combination that can easily turn stale, grounded in tropes, cliché-filled pseudo-deep conclusions and quasi-sophistication.
After all, the pains of growing up are far from unique. They seem stereotypical for a reason - we all have been there. And yet, while you are there, caught in the moments - the years, actually - of painful transition "in no-man’s-land between the trenches of childhood and adulthood," it all feels raw and new to you, and, like any transition, riddled with uncertainty and disappointments and harsh lessons.
What Laura Buzo managed to do was capture that scary feeling of transition between stages in life and present it in a thoughtful, touching and self-deprecating way that gives the old stereotypes new unexpected freshness. What she also managed to do is give a fair spotlight to things beyond love and growing up - to things like social issues, economic constraints, and gender roles.
"Sometimes you just need to be someone else, someone who doesn’t care about anything at all. I know I do. I want emptiness but I can’t have it."
I read this book because of the amazing review Kris wrote, and she truly has an impeccable taste in books. The memory of her praise of this slim volume was what kept me from giving up through the first third of the story, until finally the book gripped my heart and insisted that I continue with it, until I finally was powerless to put it down.
"Lately, I’ve become afraid that the feeling I used to feel, like something good was waiting, is what people mean when they say “young” and that it is nothing more than a chemical associated with a metabolic process and not anything real at all."
The core of this book hinges not on the plot but on the metaphor-laden emotions and feelings - desperate and overpowering ones. It's very internally oriented - which eventually becomes its strongest point.
“I wish it were enough just to be alive.”
I knew what she meant more than anything I had ever known.
Sometimes words can shatter worlds.
Especially when they are like this:
"I don't want to be a simile anymore," I said. "I want to be a metaphor."
This book lived up to all my expectations. No, it did not quite knock The Scar off its Miévillish pedestal but it came pretty damn close to it. I loved it so much, and yet when a colleague politely asked what it was about (when I told him I stayed up half the night before taking call to read it) I could not figure out how to describe it in a few words. So I'll remedy it now.
What IS this book about? It's about language, of course, or rather - Language. It's about the inevitable and destructive culture clashes. It's about the painful casualty-filled struggle between the New and the Old. It's about the allures and the dangers of power. It's about inability to escape politics. It's about love and friendship and betrayal. It's about a surreal fantastical world in the best sci-fi traditions. It's about the easiness with which even the formidable things can get destroyed by slightest mistakes - mistakes that can destroy worlds. And all of this is done with the usual Miéville flair and love for weirdness - albeit Miéville slightly toned down as compared to his Bas-Lag works.
"Language, for the Ariekei, was truth: without it, what were they? An unsociety of psychopaths."
So, book, you decided not to play fair, huh? You used Tearjerking 101, huh? You armed yourself with adorably precocious teenage characters delivering insanely quotable lines while dying from cancer, huh?
Well, guess what - "I'm not cryyyyying! It's just been raining on my face..."
And so my hard-won cool image of a cold-hearted cynic has been saved by this line, courtesy of New Zealand's 4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo:
Seriously, book, you know that most heartstrings cannot resist being tugged on in this fashion, especially when you are using kids who are off the charts on the precocious cuteness scale with all their precocious irony, precocious sarcasm, precocious world-weariness and precocious vocabulary.
Are you tired of reading the word 'precocious' yet? Too bad, since adorable and fragile precociousness is at the 'literal heart' of this book. That's what alienated some readers - but I'm a sucker for precociousness in literature; guilty, your Honor!
A year ago I got through fifty pages of this book and quit in bored frustration. But its alluring squareness kept nagging at a little corner of my brain, and I gathered my will to finish it a year later.
And I'm still not quite sure what I think about it.
On one hand, it's full of superb writing, smartly constructed prose, quite lovely memorably fascinating passages. Whatever I may think about the plot or the characters or the narrative passing, there is no denying that Paul Harding sure knows how to yield a pen (or a typewriter, or a computer keyboard, or a smartphone - whatever he chooses to compose on).
"And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough."
The ideas this little square book tackles are also profound enough and quite literary - thus the Pulitzer. It's the memory and identity and life as seen through dying, and dreams and pain and inevitable disappointments and humiliations, and the family relationships that define our complicated selves. Especially those of fathers and sons (once immortalized by Turgenev's Fathers and Sons), full of hurt and pain, unexpected love and tenderness, and - hopefully - that one final moment of understanding.
---This is a review of Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente, which appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 71 ---
Catherynne M. Valente builds strange and unsettling worlds with precision and vividness of paintbrush strokes. The experience of reading her stories is like looking at a canvas from close-up - the multitude of swirls and lines and colors suddenly fall together in the stunning finished image once you take a step back and marvel at it.
Valente does not set up her worlds with a concise description or a neat infodump at the beginning of her tales; instead, she draws the readers into the story, allowing them to feel the ambiance, live the setting, have it crawl under their skin, thus creating the final, finished image. This is how we saw the mythical country of Buyan and the dying besieged Leningrad, the strange skin-etched sexually-transmitted city of Palimpsest, the ever-shifting Interior of Elefsis, and the strangely whimsical Fairyland. And this is how we get to see something new - the alternate history of the 1960s in the world where there was retaliation for Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, and the very real war that was anything but 'Cold', and McCarthy is President - and yet the 'traditional' American life (or what we think of as the stagnating 1950s with the babies and 'Honey, I'm home!' and seemingly idyllic Caucasian (of course!) family life and all that) continues - or, at least, the appearance of it, the pretense that nothing has changed. Even though it did - but you have to go on pretending it did not.
Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending has a lot packed in the short 150 or so pages.
Memory and history, responsibility and blame, deceit, misunderstandings, aging, guilt, remorse - and, of course, a safely passive coasting on the smooth sailing surface of life, occasionally interrupted by the tidal waves of unexpected upheavals and disturbances, just like Severn Bore, seen once by Tony Webster and Veronica.
"We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient — it’s not useful — to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it."
It is the story of fickleness and subjectivity of memory that creates the unreliable histories we tell ourselves; the dissonance between what happened and what stories we choose to tell ourselves - because such unconscious lies are often what we just happen to need to feel alright about ourselves.
And so we construct our own memories and write our life stories the way it suits us.
"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves."