In 2015, the Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Back in the day, as a Literature undergraduate, I was very interested in a non-fiction writer, a historian and someone whose work could be labelled as journalism had won the award.
The Swedish Academy remarked in their speech the “polyphonic” quality of Alexievich’s work and I, at the time reviewing that concept concerning Russian literature, was very intrigued, so I bought myself two books by Alexievich: War’s Unwomanly Face and Voices from Chernobyl. I read the first one in 2015, but it wasn’t until last month that I picked up the second one. It was not because I didn’t want to read more by the author, but because War’s Unwomanly Face proved to be a very intense and challenging read.
In War’s Unwomanly Face, Alexievich describes her work as a “history of the soul”. Although booth books are framed within historical events, Alexievich makes it clear that she’s more interested in the stories, feelings and sensations of those involved in the events.
War’s Unwomanly Face focuses on testimonies from women who participated in WWII under the URSS. These women were nurses, soldiers, pilots, bombers… and yet their names were forgotten, their stories silenced for decades. Interviewed by Alexievich, these women recall little incidents, vague feelings, vignettes that have nothing to do with the glorified portraits of war we often see in [especially male] literature and film. This is where the “polyphonic” nature of her work comes in: she does not unify and generalize these experiences under a single narrative voice, she does not homogenize all these voices under a label like “female perspective on war”, she instead gives each voice the space to tell her own story, without judgment or censure.
In Voices from Chernobyl, we have the same exercise: we are presented with testimonies from survivors of the nuclear catastrophe: bombers, soldiers, residents of the town of Pripyat, wives, daughters and sons of the deceased. In both books, Alexievich introduces us using her own voice, never disguised as an authority in history. We get an introduction and more essays or, as she calls them, monologues by the author in which she discusses her own experience interviewing these people, as well as some reflections on what it means to remember, on patriotism, pain, grief, nostalgia.
In Alexievich’s works, the very well constructed fantasy of a “history” crumbles. We are left with the raw memories and vague feelings of those who experience what we now call “historic events” first hand. We are left with pain, pride, sorrow and perhaps above all, love. What good are, then, the so-called facts we learn in school?
If I was left with a question after reading Voices form Chernobyl, it is this: What is history if we take feelings out of it? We pride ourselves now in “scientific” discourses and often forget they’re just that: a discourse, a specific use of language. Alexievich gets shakes us out of that delusion and confronts us with the hard questions.
It’s no surprise for me that those things that can’t be history by science are left to literature; it is in art we can both understand and feel understood in our fragility, it is in literature we can open the doors which science, politics and history dare not enter. For what good is remembering dates if we forget the stories of those who came before us? What good is to know the names of battles if erase the faces of those who fought? What good is remembering and why must we remember?
I would have loved to live in a Charles Dickens novel. I would have because, in Charles Dickens’ universes, everything makes sense. The tiniest fact, knock on the door, face seen through a window in the dark, silhouette drawn in the distant fog, dream or vision, signifies something. You would get to the end of the novel and realise in every little detail from the very first page there was the ending, an unavoidable fate written in every line, a unique conclusion advertised in every omen; everything is a sign.
Perhaps in our everyday lives, it is harder to see the connections, to interpret the omens, to wade through the random and insignificant. Is everything random, coincidental, or do we just fail to see the connections? That’s something Donna Tartt’s third novel The Goldfinch had me asking myself regularly. Dickensian in its structure, marvellously paced and incredibly moving, The Goldfinch is one of those novels that not only rescue the genre but bring it to its full bloom, an incandescent explosion of meaning, beauty, tragedy and humanity.
“What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civil responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?”
The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker told by himself. An autobiography and a manifesto. For him, it all revolves around the tragic death of his mother at a bombing when he was thirteen. The incident irrevocably links Theo’s fate to a painting, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch from 1664, and to an antique shop in New York, Hobart & Blackwell.
As Theo puts it, the death of his mother made a clear cut in the fabrics of his life, there was a before, where everything was happier yet illuminated by a dim light, almost blurry when looked at, and there’s an after. An after in which he is alone. The events take Theo to the Barbour’s house on Park Avenue, to Las Vegas with his father, to his calling as an antique’s dealer in New York, to unlikely friendships and drugs, to unrequited love and the underworld of illegal art dealing. And in the middle, connecting it all, is The Goldfinch.
“And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.”
I cannot express how much I loved reading the novel. I can’t say I enjoyed all of it, for it is a sad book, but I read it obsessively, always scared that it might end. Like a painting, this novel is made of light. It is made of thousands of brushstrokes, some fast-paced, some slow-paced, some violent and some gentle, a million colours, shades, textures by, surprisingly, a single brush: Theo’s point of view.
The narrator is, by the way, one of the things I most enjoyed. Like Jane Eyre, Theo is a compelling storyteller that mingles his memories and his reflections in a delightful way. The pace of the novel is also remarkable, for the time in the novel is like the time of the mind, some periods pass by rapidly in a couple of paragraphs while some instants—golden summer afternoons, visions of The Goldfinch— remain for pages, as if lived in slow motion.
Ultimately, The Goldfinch‘s theme (as with another of Tartt’s novels, The Secret History) is beauty. Could beauty be the meaning itself, instead of an accessory to the meaning? In Theo’s life, it is, for there is beauty in the most tragic of circumstances—or, at least, the most tragic events of his life led him, through crooked paths and unorthodox methods, towards beauty. Is beauty an honourable thing to seek? Who cares, argues Theo, the heart wants what it wants.
“And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. Only what is that things? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about al the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet—for me, anyway— all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?“
In Tartt’s novel, and in this it is not Dickensian, beauty is found in the connections between things and not at the end of a chain of events. There’s no meaning in the destination, but in the light that shines out of the cracks in an otherwise evenly paved path. And this is also why Theo Decker is not a hero or a villain, perhaps a decadent hero, a troubled one, a mistaken one, an honest one. The Goldfinch is, then some sort of Dickensian novel for our times, one that does not offer happy endings or meaning, but one that creates meaning in its very composition, in its own beauty.
“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. […] life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing.”
The past week has proven everything can change in the blink of an eye. In less than five days I’ve had to close my coffee shop, cancel all traveling plans and postpone indefinitely a publishing workshop I’d been working on with several independent publishing houses. On the other hand, an academic article I wrote in university has been accepted for publication in an important American journal, and another piece of writing will be featured in an independent travel magazine. So it’s not all bad, really.
I figured, since I can’t really work from home, I might dedicate my time to things I had lately neglected: writing, reading and my blog. I am currently writing a review of The Goldfinch, which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I also recently finished Anne of Green Gables and started with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I believe the quarantine can be an opportunity to rearrange our priorities, even if that sounds and is a quite privileged approach. As an introvert I can confess my social routine hasn’t been altered much.
Since I might be spending a lot of time online, I’d love to know what are you guys reading and which books and tv series you recommend (I’m currently watching Vikings). Much love to all, let’s make the best of these hard times.
February has not only arrived but almost left and yet this is my first post of 2020. 2019 was a difficult yet beautiful year. I got my degree and opened a coffee shop in my hometown, a project that began with my family’s support and has been getting bigger and bigger… so much that we now moved to a bigger space and, thanks to my boyfriend’s help, are organizing book clubs, live music nights and movie projections.
This is the reason I haven’t been reading and writing as much, but I wouldn’t dare to complain. I read just a few books last year but they were important and marked me in many different ways —this year seems to be following the same pattern, for I have read only two books and they’ve made a big impression on me—. All of this is just an excuse to post about the books I liked best in 2019. It is also some sort of reopening of my blog, for I’ll be back posting reviews and whatever I find myself musing about. Thank you for reading and for making me part of such a beautiful community as this.
“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
I’m lying on a cushioned sofa inside a wooden cabin in Montezuma, Costa Rica. A storm is raging and heavy drops of water that find their way inside reach my feet. Everything is quite wet: the wooden logs that form a roof let the water in, the cushions I lay on are damp and my hair, I feel, has not been completely dry in days. The book I’m holding with both hands has doubled its size and is now a container of sand and seawater. There is no phone signal or wifi here, there’s no one in sight, just me and my sadly damaged copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
I put the book down and look outside. “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, Solnit writes. I look around. Am I lost? I tried, I think, to lose myself on this trip. And I find myself short of money, stuck in some remote beach, reachable only by boat. I am alone, too. But I’m not lost. I have a plane ticket to go back home, I have let my mother and my boyfriend know where I am. Moreover, I am travelling with a friend, although I don’t know where she is at the moment.
“It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”. I don’t feel lost—that is, physically lost, lost somewhere—, but I feel open to being lost. I keep looking around and thinking of those words. Once I felt the need to travel every now and then to lose myself—on mountaintops and remote places, miles away from home—. Then I felt the need to travel to find myself. Now I know those things are the same, and I travel to let both happen to me. I think of something Emerson wrote, “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.” I think of this and I think I understand, at least I begin to fathom, what Solnit says. I’m not lost here, but I’m open to being lost, I’m okay with uncertainty. Not here, but everywhere I go. I read again, “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, and I got a warm feeling inside me.
“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever its underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the furthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”
When I came back from my trip to Costa Rica, I was still reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I spent about four weeks reading it, underlining paragraphs, rereading chapters, reading parts of it aloud to myself and to others. The book is not only an impressive piece of writing—part essay and part memoir—, but also a neverending invitation, a Chinese box containing a thousand references to visual arts, literature, music and architecture. The book begins with the physicality of being lost and the origins and meanings of the word, only to expand its meaning: to get lost in the world, to get lost inside oneself, to lose people, to lose things, to get lost from people. Loss, memory, distance, longing and absence are some of the themes of the book.
Solnit argues that “it is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signs the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own […], [while scientists] transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.” And that is exactly what she does; “invitation” is precisely the word I’d use to describe this book: an invitation for the unknown and the uncertain in our every day lives to take place, an invitation to abandonment, to embracing the various mysteries of the world. An invitation, too, to accept and reconsider all those qualities of being lost that we might think are “negative”, such as loss, nostalgia, wilderness, desire and distance.
One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was how Solnit approaches and redefines words like longing, distance and desire. These are words that imply absence: we long for something that we don’t have, we measure distance between where we are and where we are not, and we desire things we do not possess. Solnit, on the other hand, gives these words a meaning of their own: “when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.” To be rich in loss, rich in absence, in longing and desire: not to be lacking but to be able to experience these emotions as inherent part of being human:
“I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective [desire] could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, nu acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.”
Only if we understand this can we truly begin to embrace abandonment and loss, and experience the joys of all those absences that surround us. In Solnit’s book it is easy to see loss and absence as enriching experiences rather than despairing ones: nature and wilderness, lonely tasks like writing, the risks of falling in love, the implications of ruins in a city, the colour blue in the distance, particles of light that get lost on their way from the sun to us; all of these allow us to lose ourselves, and losing ourselves means nothing more than being present and fully aware, if only temporarily, of our true place in the world.
These definitions of getting lost are traced back to both Henry David Thoreau —“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”—and Walter Benjamin —“to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery”—. To be lost, then, means really to be found, and it is only through transformative experiences—art, love, loss, grief, travel— that we begin to find our place in the world, and in a mysterious world like ours, that is means to accept that our place in it is uncertain, yes, but never unimportant, everchanging but vital, connected to all. This world is full of mysteries, and to be lost is to accept the mystery, to accept “that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger”, and the only way to do it is by abandonment.
“Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn’t fail, morality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful?”
To read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost was indeed a transformative experience; it’s one of the books I have most enjoyed reading lately and perhaps the one I have underlined the most. Solnit knits together anecdotes, pieces of history, art criticism and even fiction in what I believe to be the best non-fiction book I’ve read in my life. This book is a dizzying ride around the word “lost” and its importance, its variations and its necessity in a world where it gets harder and harder to be lost.
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Review of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
Whew. I’ve been absent from the blog for a while now and it feels a bit weird to be writing again, so bear with me, please. I’ve been having a hard time with my reading (!!!) and finally managed to finish a book, something I hadn’t done since July (!!!). Do you ever have these weird reading slumps where you want to read but as soon as you start you’re like, ugh? I had been feeling that way for a while and it sucked. I probably began to read five or six books that I have no intention to continue reading any time soon. But that’s life. Fortunately, there have been many exciting things happening in my life, of which I will write about soon. But enough about me, this post is about the wonderful book that brought me back to life. Shockingly enough, it is not a novel.
I came across a copy of Romantic Outlaws earlier this year. It was 70% off, hardcover and beautiful, so I bought it. To be honest, I am not good with biographies. I love reading about authors I love, but it’s hard for me to stick with non-fiction books in general, so I read them in parts, often while reading something else. Anyway, while on this reading slump I thought, what could be better than to read about badass women? I needed some motivation! So I gave the book a shot and oh boy was it awesome.
The book is a dual biography, which is interesting since Mary Wollstonecraft didn’t get to know her daughter, Mary Shelley. She died a few days after giving birth to her. It is also interesting how Charlotte Gordon intertwines the narratives of their lives: we read one chapter about Wollstonecraft, then one about Shelley, in chronological order. Although I thought this would be confusing—especially because they’re both named Mary—, it was not so. Also, this technique shed some light on parallelisms in their lives and their intellectual pursuits: Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and writings would play a very important role in the upbringing and life choices of her daughter Mary —and of other Romantic poets like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron—, perhaps the more so because Mary never got to know her.
Both writers had their share of hardships and heartbreaks, as well as many contradictions between their philosophies and their lives, aspects that the author of the book not only highlights, but also defends. I must say it is refreshing to hear how Gordon portrays her subjects, especially Mary Wollstonecraft. The book is in a constant argument with previous critiques of Wollstonecraft’s works and correspondence.
Although nobody can deny that Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a crucial text for feminism and human rights, her figure has been neglected due to certain “contradictions” in her life (chiefly that she tried to take her own life after a breakup, although now we can say that the depression with which she struggled her whole life was not only caused by said breakup). However, the powerful insight and the extensive research behind Gordon’s biography sheds light on the complexities of a woman who was way ahead of her time, a woman who not only argued for the rights of women and their place as rational creatures, but who also fought for women to be able to enjoy the same sexual and emotional liberties as men. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was not only hard and heartbreaking but also dramatic and exciting—*cue The Man by Taylor Swift*— . I am very comforted by the idea of a woman travelling alone, joining a group of revolutionaries and founding a school for girls in the 18th century.
“Who was the ideal woman? Mary [Wollstonecraft] asked. Was she a fainting maiden, easily fatigued and naïve? No! She was a resourceful intelligent human being. Mary, as usual, was alone with her ideas, a single candle in the darkness”.
And what can I even say about Mary Shelley? Running away at sixteen, travelling across Europe with a handsome poet—*Style by Taylor Swift plays in the distance*––, having sex at graveyards and then casually writing a literary masterpiece. That’s the life.
“The life she dreamed of, filled with love and passion, seemed impossible, a glorious adventure that happened to other people, not her”.
Of course, Mary Shelley’s life was much more complex than that. She had her share of misfortunes, like the deaths of her children or Percy Shelley’s sickness, not to mention the blatant oppression she suffered because she was a woman, the rejection from mostly every social and literary circle in England (“mad, bad and dangerous” was how the press referred to her), etc. Gordon’s book also challenges the popular idea that both Shelley and Byron helped Mary write Frankenstein. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Gordon talks about how the three Romantic poets influenced each other’s writing. I guess you could say the book is as much a biography as it is a study on English Romanticism.
“Artists. Poets. These were the true prophets, the ones with the most profound vision […] No self-respecting Romantic writer (with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe) would ever have admitted (as Poe did with The Raven) that his work was the result of a careful intellectual process, a cold and pedestrian endeavour of plotting and outlining. Sudden burst of inspiration, visitations from spirits in the night—these were the true sources of art to Mary and her friends”.
My favourite part? The stories behind Frankenstein‘s genesis. There is a whole chapter about the famous reunion in which Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori gathered around the fire to tell ghost stories. It was on that night that the idea of a human body reanimated with electric energy occurred to Mary. It was also on this night that Polidori came with the idea for The Vampyre, a novel which would later inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are many accounts about that night and the writing process of the novel—Percy Shelley’s letters and poems, Mary’s diary, Polidori’s diary— that Gordon goes into.
Biographies are funny because even when you know you will never be able to comprehend someone else’s life, their motivations and intentions, their hopes and fears, fully—and the more so when these people lived two hundred years ago—, you end up with a narrative that is not only about its subjects, but also about its author, its author’s time and, most importantly, a reflection on literature itself, on fiction and on the limits of language and the written word. What can we know of these legendary women? Perhaps not much, perhaps only what we see through the glass of our own experiences, but to find in that things that resonate with us, here, now in 2019, is magical.
In conclusion, this book is the perfect mix between juicy literary gossip, drama, feminist theory, literary theory and history. It reads just like fiction because the author is obviously passionate about her subjects, it’s almost like hearing a friend rant about their favourite authors.
This book was powerful enough to bring me out of my reading slump. It also made me feel that I’m better after reading it: I have always enjoyed reading about women who fight for what they believe in and who dare to make their voices heard in a world that is, to our day, chiefly shaped by men. So, here’s to badass women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.
Have you read any cool biographies lately? I am currently looking for recommendations for what to read next.
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Yesterday I turned 24. Scary. I’ve had the fortune to read many things along the years, and most of them have taught me something or challenged me in some way. Looking over all the things I’ve read, as one is bound to do when feeling nostalgic, I noticed that while there are hundreds of books I love, the ones that have actually changed me or that became an important part of who I am today are few, so I thought, why not choose a book that has marked me for each time I’ve completed a lap around the sun? These are the books I can’t imagine my life without (order is alphabetical).
AFarewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dram all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us […] Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their arrive and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil […] There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, ill have left only the hard, clean questions Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.”
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
“The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity; That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
“Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Trust thyself. Every heart virbates to that iron string”
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
“If a coin comes down heads, that means that the possibility of its coming down tails has collapsed. Until that moment the two possibilities were equal. But on another world, it does come down tails. And when that happens, the two worlds split apart.”
The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector
“The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.”
The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe
“I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything, all our strength, happiness and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own”
The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Janice Galloway
“No matter how often I think I can’t stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don’t fall, I don’t foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It’s the same for all of us. You can’t get out of the inside of your own head. Something keeps you going. Something always does.”
The Waste Land and Other Poems, T. S. Eliot
“Do I dare Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
Villette, Charlotte Bronte
“So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.”
“… perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant i too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
I can’t believe the first half of the year is already gone, it went by so fast! It was a pretty good month for me, but I’m afraid I did not read much. In fact, I only read three books, which is weird for me. I, however, did some travelling (I’m really looking forward to posting about it here) and rewatched The Office. So not bad, right? Here’s what I read in June.
Boy is this novel intense. I don’t read as many graphic novels as I want to, but V for Vendetta had been on my list ever since I watched the movie. It is a pretty bleak story, but one I believe is very relevant nowadays, if not more so than at the time of its publication. David Lloyd’s art is marvellous and I spent a long time looking at each frame, the detail is unbelievable. Someone please recommend some more graphic novels.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Probably one of the worst things I have read in a long time, which is really sad considering how promising the premise is: a descendant of Salem witches doing a PhD in Oxford University finds a strange manuscript at the Bodleian library. She doesn’t know why, but other creatures—demons, vampires and witches— want this manuscript.
I don’t even know where to begin with this book though. The dialogue felt really forced, all the non-human creatures resembled Twilight vampires and the universe Harkness is trying to create in the book doesn’t really come together for me. Pass.
This book is awesome and 800 pages long, which is why I don’t feel at all guilty for having read only three books in June. I wrote a review for this one, so I can only say that I totally recommend it. When I was at uni I thought that literary issues were mainly discussions about which is more important, the plot or the narrative, this book is equally impressive on both aspects.
That was it! A very short list this time, let’s hope July brings more time—or a timeturner— with it. I am currently reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, have you read it? It’s part of my Penguin Reading Challenge! I am pretty excited about it.
What are you guys reading now? Let me know in the comments!
About three years ago I entered a bookshop in Quebec City with the sole intention to buy a book in French. I must say I failed miserably and bought a beautiful copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries* instead. I did buy some books in French later, but I am ashamed to admit that my French hasn’t improved much. I remember reading the first few pages of The Luminaries and liking it, but thinking that it required more attention that I could give it at the time of the trip, and so I decided to read it back home.
As it often happens, once I got back home the book ended on my nightstand for a long time before being relocated in my room and bookshelves several times. I did not attempt to read it again until this week when I didn’t feel like reading any of the books I have recently bought ran out of reading material. I’m glad I did.
The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and made Eleanor Catton the youngest author to have ever received it (she was 28). And what a novel it is! I can’t but wonder at Catton’s organisational skills, putting together such an intricately structured novel must be really hard. The book is about a series of crimes taking place in 1866 in Hokitika, New Zealand. Although seemingly disconnected, we begin to discover that these crimes and other strange events are in fact closely related. The novel is a wonderful mystery set in New Zealand’s Gold Rush, in which millionaires, bank clerks, whores and sea captains are involved.
The book begins with an assembly. Twelve men whose reputations have been compromised by the recent events—among them a disappearance, the attempted murder of a whore and the death of a hermit— gather at the local pub to share their knowledge and try to make sense of the events. There, they’re interrupted by a newcomer, Walter Moody, who seems to be himself afflicted by something. As the men start talking, the story begins to unravel.
What is striking about these stories is the manner in which they’re introduced. The book’s narrative comprises only a few dates from the 27th of January 1866 onwards. However, as the characters start telling their stories, we are taken back and forth in time, hearing different angles of every situation. Catton’s style is exquisite, combining some elements from 19th-century novels—I was reminded a bit of Anne Brontë and George Elliot— with whimsical and mysterious commentaries that resonate with the book’s astronomical theme.
The book’s grounding in astrology and astronomy makes it such a complex and interesting read. First off, every one of the 12 characters reunited at the inn is related to a different Zodiac sign. Also, each chapter is called after some astronomical phenomenon: as the novel advances, we get to link the celestial bodies’ positions with the decisions, dispositions and paths of each of the characters.
The plot of the novel is very intricate, crafted with such care that it resembles the internal mechanism of a clock: every turn of events influences a range of other events that in turn influence others. In the end, the fates of twelve strangers looking for fortunes in New Zealand’s gold turn out to be very much connected, in ways they can’t even begin to understand.
Needless to say, I was fascinated by this novel. I am still in awe at the way it is organised, but more so at how it manages to be a such a page-turner despite its complexity: it has a lot of characters, around 800 pages, various settings and the reader has to keep in mind many dates (and planets and signs, really) just to keep up. And yet there’s so much precision and beauty in its descriptions and so much intrigue in its plot that one can’t help but keep reading.
I am very happy to have read it and a bit sad that it is over. I can’t wait to read Catton’s other works. Have you read The Luminaries? What did you think of it? I am currently starting with The Secret History* by Donna Tartt, another book I have been meaning to read for a while. I am reading it for the Penguin Reading Challenge! You can join here to receive a list of books to choose from every month.
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In 1943, Betty Smith published what would become her most famous work and one of the most representative pieces of American literature. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* was an instant hit, at the time being only surpassed by Gone With the Wind * in sales.
The novel narrates the life of Francie Nolan and her family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Francie’s parents are both first-generation Americans, of Austrian and Irish ascendance, which is one of the aspects that mirror the life of Betty Smith, herself the daughter of German immigrants. The social dynamics of the Brooklyn described in the novel are greatly determined by nationalities and religious beliefs, so the Nolans live in a mainly Catholic and Irish neighbourhood, Catholicism being also an important part of Francie’s upbringing and it’s present throughout the novel.
The way in which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is narrated is fairly traditional, but has various peculiarities. We are first introduced to Francie: she’s hiding in a corner between the fire escape and a window of her building, out of sight, a book in hand, observing the world around her. This first description is already telling us a lot about the protagonist, who is six years old at the beginning of the novel. We then are taken through a series of passages about every day Williamsburg and are introduced to Francie’s family: her little brother Neeley, her father Johnnie, and her mother Katie. Some pages later the narrative goes back to Katie and Johnnie’s youth. From here, the novel often goes back and forth in time to tell of events or give other character’s backgrounds. Betty Smith is also the kind of narrator that actively introduces her voice to assess and give opinions about the event’s she’s narrating.
So what is the story? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book about poverty and hardship, but it is not a moral made out of poor people. Being partly biographic (Francie Nolan and the author even share the same birthday, 15th of December), Smith manages to include all the hard and uncomfortable aspects of poverty without glorifying or martyrising her characters. The result is an amazing and endearing set of characters whose personalities and stories are not entirely about their social circumstances.
It could be said the story focuses on how education and sacrifice can better lives—certainly Francie’s love for reading is a great part of her character’s arc throughout the novel—, but if I had to define the novel I would say it is about dignity and character, about resilience and hope, about the universality of human experience and the search for beauty. It is also a book about a people who read, and I think those are usually my favourites.
The highlight of the book is, of course, Francie Nolan. What a character! She is a voracious reader, a quiet observer, a determined and stubborn girl. Her family is far from perfect, her father is an alcoholic and her mother supports them all by cleaning houses. Growing up, Francie goes through a lot—her family can barely afford food, she suffers bullying and harassment, has to quit school to work, is told by a teacher not to write about her family for it is “shameful”.
She is a lonely, shy child, and yet she exhilarates so much life through her reading and writing, her feelings and observations. She is one of those character’s whose internal life is far richer than what their appearances might give out, which is perhaps why I sympathised so much with her. One of my favourite parts of the book is actually a description of Francie:
“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly […] She was all of these things and something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”
At the very beginning of the novel, Francie observes a tree. It is a small, weak-looking kind of tree that grows right outside her building, out of concrete. Not a beautiful tree, perhaps, but a strong one. The whole novel then revolves around the similarities between Francie and this tree, their similarities as resilient beings, gathering strength from scarcity and hardship.
“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”
And Francie is strong, but she is strong in quiet ways. As it happens with many readers, she dreams too much and expects much out of life: she wants to experience everything books have told her exists, she wants to be, in her words, “drunk with life”. This is perhaps why every description of things from her perspective is so lively, from a bakery to a firework show.
“But she didn’t want to recall things. She wanted to live things—or as a compromise, re-live rather than reminisce. She decided to fix this time in her life exactly the way it was this instant. Perhaps that way she could hold on to it as a living thing and not have it become something called a memory.”
For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the kind of book that says, okay, these are the cards you were dealt, what the hell are you gonna do with them? how’re you gonna make it into an interesting story? No self-pity in it. I sure saw many things of myself in Francie Nolan and many familiar things in her family, that is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. I also loved how it approaches reading and literature.
From the moment Francie learns to read, she becomes a voracious reader and then a writer, and throughout the novel the book poses important questions about both: do we read to escape life, or to have a bit more of it? What is really the purpose of fiction, why do we need it so much? To help us cope with living, or to allow us to live more, if only vicariously?
“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book every day as long as she lived.”
I think we read and write for both reasons. What are your thoughts on that? Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I am currently reading A Discovery of Witches* by Deborah Harkness, but I am afraid I’m not enjoying it that much. I took a break from it in which I read V for Vendetta*. That was a wild ride. I’ll finish this post with another beautiful quote from Betty Smith.
“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.'”
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May is finally over! Does anyone else feel like it dragged on forever? It was a very productive month for me, but I have big plans for June: reading challenges, trips and other projects. I’m really not sad May it’s over, but here’s to the books I read in it.
Started the month strong with these thick, beautiful novel about a family who moves to the Australian Outback at the beginnings of the 20th century. More hype about it can be found here, but long story short, it’s a family saga full of forbidden passions, natural dangers, great characters and a sexy priest. I must say I’m not a fan of McCullough’s style, but boy can she come up with a good plot.
Another one towards my goal to read more nonfiction. This book was really interesting! It tells of a man’s efforts to recreate a fatal trip one of his ancestors did in the 19th century. Meanwhile, he also explains a lot of things about the importance of navigation, from how our brains manage to perceive and recognise spaces to a historical account of how we’ve managed to survive in the wilderness/the sea. I did not love this one, but I found it really interesting. More about it here.
This was a recommendation by a friend and I really liked it! I’m only surprised I hadn’t heard about María Luisa Mendoza (not once!) in any of my university courses (I studied Latin American Literature). This is a collection of short stories focused on remembering, on reliving experiences through memory, it has a Proustian vibe that I really liked. It is a lovely book with major references to Guanajuato, the state in which both the author and I were born. A must-read for anyone interested in Mexican contemporary literature.
Another book I couldn’t put down! This book made me cry so many times. It is the story of Francie Nolan, a girl born in Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century. Francie’s family is really poor, her father is an alcoholic and her mother works as a cleaning lady to support the whole family. They just go through a lot, and yet the book is always gracious and elegant, even sassy at times. I’m writing a review about it and I’ll post it soon. I honestly think it became one of my favourite novels.
More nonfiction! I just love Bill Bryson, he’s so witty and funny and I think it would be awesome to have a conversation with him in real life. I fell in love with him his writing after reading A Walk in the Woods and later read Notes from a Small Island, which I also enjoyed but not that much. Well, In a Sunburned Country is really cool. It’s a travel book about Australia (yes, I’m currently obsessed with Australia but I have a reason 🤞🏼) and I just think no one could approach the many dangers—spiders, snakes, poisonous jellyfish and arm-devouring sharks— of the country in such a funny way. Recommended for any travel lit reader.
That was it! I did not read that many books (Goodreads kindly reminds me that I’m 7 books behind my reading goal, thanks) but I enjoyed everything I read! Now I’m back to some fantasy with A Discovery of Witches and have ordered The Secret History* by Donna Tartt as my first book for the Penguin Reading Challenge. You can subscribe for the challenge here! What are you guys reading? Any thoughts about the books in this list?
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In 1937, John Steinbeck published what would be considered by many his finest novel, Of Mice and Men*. It is a book, I hear, that appears in many basic courses of American Literature. It is also an introduction to Steinbeck’s California and its many injustices, its changing landscapes, burning suns and many struggles at the beginnings of the 20th century. Also, it is only a hundred pages long and composed mainly of dialogue.
It was only this year that I was introduced to Mr Steinbeck’s work. I read Travels with Charley in Search of America* in January, then East of Eden* in February and The Grapes of Wrath* in March. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Steinbeck and very surprised about the fact that I didn’t read him for any of my university modules, not even for North American Literature. But I am trying to repair the damage here, so Of Mice and Men seemed like the obvious choice. What can I even say about this book? It is heartbreaking in a way only Steinbeck could achieve, masterful in its narrative and its characters, engrossing and gripping, somewhat of a punch in the gut. It seems to be a more mature work than both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath even though it was published before both (and even though East of Eden will always be my favourite).
“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.”
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
I know this is a very common high school read, so I probably won’t spoil anything here. Basically, it is the story of two friends: George, who is small and cunning, and Lennie, who is big, strong and has an undescribed mental disability. George takes care of Lennie, but Lennie’s strenght often gets them both in trouble because he’s not aware of it. Lennie also has a characteristic trait: he loves to pet soft animals, such as mice, but he often kills them involuntarily.
When we meet them, George has found a new job for the two of them at a ranch close to Salinas. The ranch is okay and Lennie is even promised a puppy, but things get complicated when the son of the ranch owner, Curley, picks at Lennie. In addition to this, his wife is always flirting with the ranch labourers. Anyway, George has a plan for him and Lennie, whose only relative died and left him in charge of George: if they can handle a season of work, then they’ll have enough money to buy their own piece of land. The topic of lower classes looking for a piece of land in the still unexploited California and the relations drawn between the state and the Promised Land is common throughout Steinbeck’s work, the impossible achievement of the American Dream:
“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.”
This small book is really perfect, every word seems to be in place, every dialogue has a cadence and rhythm that brings the world of ranch labourers to life in just a couple of pages. Every character exhilarates life and a rich personality of which we learn through other characters and a few, scant lines of description.
What is probably more interesting about the book is its structure, that of Matryoshka dolls: events repeat themselves in different layers, over and over. For example, when Lennie kills a mouse at the beginning for petting it too hard, you kind of expect this will happen with the ranch puppies, and later when Curley’s wife mentions she has really soft hair, well, you see what is coming. Another story that repeats itself is that of the dog, although here the circle is broken by choice (a very important topic in Steinbeck, too: free will). Candy, the oldest labourer, can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog, his companion for so long, and other labourer does it for him. Candy can’t get over this and regrets not having done it himself, “I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.” Shooting a friend or let strangers do it is a choice George faces later, in the tragic ending of the novel. Also, the plot of the novel is advanced by hints continually, which is why there is so much tension in it. Of Mice and Men is read compulsively like a thriller, you really get a sense of what is going to happen, yet you have to keep reading.
The theme of the novel reminded me of East of Eden for its appraisal of free will and choice. There is always a search for the motivations of people in Steinbeck’s works, a try to understand the meanness and evil that we’re capable of, but there is often a flicker of light—friendship, love, sacrifice— found at the heart of the smallest acts.
Finally, who is the protagonist of the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m still thinking about it. Even though I think the main theme is friendship—the relationship between George and Lennie—, I believe the main character is George. They are both unlucky, tragic characters: Lennie seems doomed to kill everything he loves, and George seems doomed to have all his plans ruined by his friendship to Lennie, he promised his dying aunt he would take care of him. But George does have a choice, and he chooses to stay with Lennie over and over again, even if it costs him his jobs. It’s a heartbreaking piece of literature, definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
Have you read it? What did you think of it? If not, I couldn’t recommend the book more! I just finished another American classic I loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith.