The past weeks have been nothing but chaotic. Fortunately I have found time to read, perhaps the sole activity keeping me grounded. It’s not much, but I thought I’d share with you what I’ve read lately.
Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clarke
I love anything related to ghosts and I absolutely loved this book. Roger Clarke, once a ghost hunter, shares some very interesting ideas and anecdotes about ghosts and why we are so obsessed with them. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, this natural history of sightings will make you wonder about the tight bond between Western societies and ghosts. This is a very entertaining read that offers both anecdotes and theories, as well as a classification of ghosts.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
A bizarre novel that follows the adventures of John and Owen, two kids from New England. Owen Meany is a very small boy with an eerie voice, he is John’s best friend but also the reason why his mother is dead. The novel revolves around many theological and religious issues as John begins to believe Owen is some kind of instrument of God, if not a new Messiah. I must say I did not love this book, it is quite dire and long, but I thought some parts were absolutely marvelous.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
I declare myself an Ishiguro fan! This book a perfect novel. We follow Stevens, a very oldfashioned british butler on a road trip that will disentangle some of his memories from when he served an English aristocrat whose connection with the Nazies is suspicious. As always, Ishiguro’s writing is poignant and nostalgic, a reflection on memory and duty in the words of an endearing and reticent character. A must read!
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
I have had this book for years and finally read it a couple of weeks ago. I generally don’t enjoy “magic realism”, but I loved this book. The House of Spirits is the story of three generations of women, Clara, Blanca and Alba in a Southamerican country in which racism, clasism, poverty and politicians are terrible. Although the book explores many themes and its a family saga, I could say it is a story of womanhood, of love and an interesting critique of the military dictatorship that happened in Chile in the 80’s. A lovely book that I will not forget.
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
As a fan of Steinbeck, it pains me to say I did not like this book. This short novel focuses on a family in Baja California Sur. The father, Kino, is a pearl hunter and is searching for a pearl big enough to pay a doctor for treating his baby son. And he finds one. The biggest pearl ever. And things just get worse. Steinbeck describes the systemic injustices that plague the poor, native people of Baja, a system in which they just can’t prevail and in which everybody else is constantly abusing them. Although Steinbeck’s intentions were surely good, I find the book lacks tact in approaching the subject without glorifying poverty.
I am also just beginning with The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. It’s too soon for me to say anything about it. Have you guys read it or any of these books? What are you reading?
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.”
“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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The Secret Historyby Donna Tartt has been on my radar for a while now. I’ve heard many people praise it and as many hate it, which really made me want to read it. One of the reviews on the back of the book says, “a thriller for thinking people”, which I took as a challenge.
It took me almost three weeks to read this one, which is extremely rare for me. It wasn’t however, because it was boring or tedious, it was just because this is one of those books you want to savour slowly, taking in every word, every sentence. I spent many a sleepless night reading The Secret History and thinking about it; sometimes, after hours of reading and what felt like a thousand pages, I would come out of a daze to find out I had read less than fifty. Donna Tartt’s novel is both bewitching and gripping, chilling and endearing, paced masterfully, a perfect balance between contemplation and action, narrative and dialogue.
The Secret History tells the story of Richard, a California-born 20-year-old who gets accepted into Hampden, a prestigious college in Vermont, to study Classics. In Hampden, he’s quickly seduced by professor Julian Morrow and his reduced group of students, some kind of elitist sect in which all study hours are devoted to classic Greek. A group of rich, young people who dress cool and spend their afternoons discussing the sublime? Yes, defiintely cool. As Richard slowly gets to know his new friends, he also starts suspecting something is definitely wrong with their weekend getaways, their excess drinking and their suspicious behaviours at night.
I would definitely describe the novel as a thriller. Not because it adjusts to the model narratively speaking, but because the whole plot is driven by expectation. The first part of it deals with the anticipation and suspicion of murder while the second part deals with the consequences of the murder and the possibility of it being discovered. The plot is at all times intertwined with various literary references, mostly to Greek tragedies, in which various themes come up: can one escape destiny? is it possible for us to understand ancient texts? can we achieve an experience rid of thought? is beauty good? is knowledge good? (and what does good mean, for that matter?)
While the plot kept me both horrified and intrigued, it was Tartt’s descriptive abilities that made me fall in love with the book. Every description of gloomy New England in words of our protagonist, Richard Papen, who had never been outside of California before, is magical and nostalgic. Every word about trees, skies and clouds, about flowers and college buildings, sleepless nights and Vermont landscapes is spellbinding. Every time I opened the book I would feel immediately transported to this dreamy, hazy New England.
There also many philosophical topics that come out as the novel advances, most of them related to Classical philosophers, but also the burdens of the modern mind and the possibilities of existence without thought, a discussion that leads to fatal events in the novel. I guess what’s chilling about The Secret History is that its about a bunch of nerds who take their philosophy classes too far.
“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.”
The book also a powerful critique of our society and its constant quest for the aesthetically pleasing, whether through money, excess or knowledge. There is a very relatable theme too, for any person who, like me, studied anything related to humanities: the loss of innocence that comes when we discover that our teachers aren’t perfect, that our favourite authors are mortals, that artists aren’t necessarily good and, in words of Richard, that “there is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.”
And I believe that in The Secret History beauty and that “something more meaningful” come together in a perfect balance. In conclusion, I enjoyed this book enormously and it gave me the chills very often. I can’t wait to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt too! She’s a wonderful writer.
Have you read The Secret History? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
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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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I’m very excited to be posting my first book tag ever! I think it’s a perfect excuse to share some books I love even if they’re not very recent reads (basically I just want to rant about books). My friend DianaHerself tagged me and I’m happy to oblige. The theme: Avatar, The Last Airbender. So here we go:
Katara and Sokka: Best Sibling Relationship
I’ll have to go with Aaron and Caleb Trask from East of Eden* by John Steinbeck. I have such a crush on this book, I think I have talked about it to every person I’ve seen this year.
Yue: Favourite Star-crossed Lovers
This is really hard. I really have a thing for 19th-century romances, so I’ll go with Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore from Shirley* by Charlotte Brontë. Shirley is such a wonderful novel and, even when it focuses more than her other works on social and political issues—especially the position of women—, it has such a passionate and lively set of characters. Their circumstances are very unfortunate and they’re kind of stubborn too, hence the star-crossed tag.
Bloodbending: A Book With an Unsettling Concept
The most unsettling thing I have read in a while has to be Mysteries of Winterthurn* by Joyce Carol Oates. Before that, I read The Accursed*, which was also very creepy, but her writing is just mesmerising. Winterthurn is composed of three short stories, three different cases that Xavier, our hero, comes across in the village of Winterthurn. They all have a hint of the supernatural and are not really solved in the end. Instead, very disturbing possibilities are suggested. I can’t really say more without spoiling it, but if you’re into mystery, modern gothic and creepy stuff, look no further.
Toph: A Character Whose Strength Is Surprising
Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind* came to mind immediately! I know she’s kind of unpopular, but she is undeniably strong and brave, even when her motivations might not be entirely selfless. I mean, she survived widowhood and poverty, the loss of her parents, unrequited love, took care of an entire plantation, started a business, shot a man, married three times, etc. Remarkable achievements, all because “burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them”.
The Tales of Ba Sing Se: Best Short Story/Poetry Collection
There are so many options! I’ll choose Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials saga. She’s just awesome and I can’t wait for the second part of The Book of Dust* to come out.
Zuko: Best Redemption Arc/Redemption Arc That Should Have Happened
This might sound cliché but I have to say Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment*! I still cry when I think of the Bible scene between Sonya and Raskolnikov. Ivan Ilych also came to mind, what is it with Russians and redemption?
Iroh: Wisest Character
I was tempted to say Dumbledore, but I think I’ll choose a more recent read: Katie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith. I finished this one recently and am still heartbroken. Will post about it soon.
Lately I have been so busy! During all those all-nighters at uni I thought I would never be so busy again. And here I am, finding that graduate life is twice as demanding (but also twice as rewarding). The biggest lesson I have learned from having a lot of things to do is that there is always some time for what we really care about. It’s all about priorities, and no matter how busy I think I am, I always make time for reading. I could not function otherwise.
The kind of reading that keeps me grounded at such hectic times is about adventures: people venturing into the great unknown, people doing amazing feats of courage, daring to walk their own path and march to the beat of their own drummer. It is amazing when books inspire us to be a better version of ourselves. And this post is about the kind of books that keep you up at night, give you the chills and almost make you leave the house in you pijamas in search for adventure, “that flighty temptress”.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I’ve hyped this book too much but I don’t care. It’s awesome, raw, unputdownable, honest and thrilling. I have yet to watch the movie. Strayed tells of her own experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a young, unexperienced woman whose life is falling apart. This book is funny, angering, heartbreaking and liberating. If you like hiking, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Specially if you, like me, have struggled with hiking boots in the past.
This book is so funny! All it had me thinking was, if Bryson set out to hike the Appalachian trail at sixty, what the hell am I waiting for? Bill Bryson is the kind of person I would love to have as an uncle. This book is full of politically incorrect jokes and unglamorous truths about hiking. It is also full of wonder and amazement, I learned many things whil reading it and took a huge tbr list from it. Seriously recommended.
Travels With Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck
Is there anything Steinbeck couldn’t write about? Probably not. This is the story of how he set out on a road trip with his French poodle, Charley. As road stories go, this is one of my favourites.
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This book is beautiful in many different ways. Exupéry’s prose is delightful and his stories about his time as a pilot are incredible. He tells of a time when transatlantic flights were dangerous feats, of landings in the middle of snowstorms in Chili, of being all alone in a plane with nothing but desert plains below and blue skies above. This book is a descriptive wonder, and a beautiful reflection on why we humans crave adventures.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
A classic. I can honestly say this book changed my life, I still reread parts of it every now and then. I admire Jon Krakauer greatly for his journalistic abilities, but most of all for his understanding and sympathy with the subject of his book, the life of Christopher McCandless.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
This one I am currently reading and loving! Unlike the other books on this list, this is a novel. It’s the story of a family that moves to Alaska in search for peace, but the wilderness pretty quickly turns their lives into a feat for survival. I can’t wait to finish it to write more about it.
Have you read any of these? Which adventures on the page would you recommend for me to read next?
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This a continued rant about our society and Henry David Thoreau.
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was incarcerated for not paying his taxes. He owed the government six years of taxes, but he refused to pay because he knew the money would go to two causes the was against: the Mexican war and slavery. Today we mostly hear of millionaires that avoid paying taxes to get richer, but it’s rare to hear someone making a statement out of not paying taxes. Thoreau did, however, and the night he spent in prison was the motif of one of his best pieces of writing. “Civil disobedience”, as most of Thoreau’s essays, resonates too much with the issues we face today.
In this essay, Thoreau defends his actions arguing that he could not possibly support through his taxes something that he knows in his heart is wrong. But the essay goes further than that, he proposes nobody should abide a law that is wrong, he dismantles the myth of the law-abiding citizen and exposes the moral failing that subordinating one’s conscience to law or social codes represents. Generally speaking, that is what civil disobedience is about: acting according to our own moral code—which, according to Thoreau is not arbitrary, but transcendetal and and valid for all—, whether it contradicts or not the laws.
“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
This might sound problematic if we think of democratically elected governments. But I do not believe that democracy is incompatible with the “higher laws” Thoreau suggests; we must remember that democracy in his time—and still in our time, in many places— excluded women and people of colour from political participation. It is not incompatible with democracy, but it is only possible to act thus in a democratic system in which people are free to choose, and this implies they’re educated. Anyhow, Thoreau is probaby right in deeming democracy as a transitory system, a step towards a form of government in which the state is not above the individuals, but instead recognizes them as the real source of power.
Moreover, the essay poses some uncomfortable questions: Is it right to support a democratically elected government even when we believe its actions go against the dignity of some people?
“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”
Another issue Thoreau addresses in his essay is the unwillingness that rich people show towards disobeying laws that are unfair. He argues that money is a way in which the government secures the allegiance of the rich, for they’re bound to be loyal to whoever allows their riches to grow. In our times, however, the monster is bigger, more dangerous and complex; it is no longer the government but the corporations, the stocks, thousands of people we can’t see and are more comfortable to call “the system”, which give and take value from properties and goods. The tiny percentage of people who are super rich are mostly supportive of these systems of exclusion and dehumanisation, not to their fellow human beings and certainly not to themselves.
In our times, the disobedience Thoreau poses is not only about taxes, it’s about disobeying the industries that tell us that buy more is to be better, at the expense of the half of the world that suffers for it, at the expense of global warming and pollution. To be disobedient would be to say no to the fashion industry and the plastic industry and the TV and Netflix industries, even at the cost of being uncomfortable or an outcast.
Utopy or possibility?
So why is civil disobedience necessary? Its importance lies in the need for coherence between our actions and and our thoughts, between our lifestyle and what we know to be right. For Thoreau, every one is capable of listening is himself to a higher truth, and acting according to it might sometimes go against laws, regulations or social codes.
Ideally, every individual would be capable of determining what is good or evil without being subordinated to a government or religion. The ideal role of the state would be to regulate affairs between individuals, but it would not hold any authority in itself: every individual would be capable of acting, thinking and expressing in the way he chooses, but he would also have every tool to form an autonomus conscience, aka education and time for introspection.
“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,
so much as for the right.”
It could sound impossible and anarchic, but Thoreau is not talking about the kind of individualism we are familiar with today. He is nor for “every man for himself”, but rather for “every man for the greatest good, for he knows in his heart what this greater good is”. Thoreau’s approach is very similar to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson—his mentor: they both propose an individual search—for truth, justice and meaning— that goes beyond the limitations of culture and governments. In his essay “Experience”, Emerson also speaks of individualism as the source of good, and argues that the best access to knowledge and innovation is through personal experience. Both texts are about individuals that dare to go beyond old conventions in search of a higher knowledge, a better way of living for them and the other living creatures.
First of all, Happy International Women’s Day! Today is a great excuse to both look down at every step we have taken, and to look up and to look up and remember there’s still a long way to go to achieve justice, for women all over the world.
At high school and even at uni I was always amazed at how quickly some teachers dismissed the questions about why there weren’t enough women in the syllabus: “It’s not my choosing, there are actually not many women writers worth studying in this period”. While I am not at all for including any women writers just to make it half and half, I do believe we have not completely gotten over the myth of the literary canon.
Nowadays we think twice before assuming that books become “classics” just because of their literary value. Perhaps we know now that being a “classic” is a matter of politics and money and many other things we would never directly associate with literature… and yet we are so quick to assume that the writers we know and revere, Nobel prize winners and celebrities, go down in history thanks only to their talent as writers.
Even when we have various famous examples of how the literary industry is hostile to women—J.K. Rowling didn’t publish under her actual name; Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters published anonymously or under a male name; George Eliot, anybody?; Taylor Swift is still a hate target just because she writes lyrics about her own experiences; etc.—, I think we have not yet understood completely what Virginia Woolf meant when she said, “for most of history, Anonymous has been a woman”.
The further we look back in time, the more adventurous and courageous women had to be in order to get their writing published. Now it pains me to think of how many wonderful writers we will never have the pleasure to read just because they lived in a world that did not care for what they had to say.
Some voices, however, we do get to enjoy while we hope that, in the future, a woman doesn’t have to fight or be fierce or a prodigy to get the treatment she deserves as a human, and to be judged by her talent and not her gender. Without further ado then, I present you with 7 female writers that I love and that I think should be read by more people.
Some books remind us of things we feel but thought we couldn’t possibly put into words. Lispector’s prose is like diving into a kind of existence that precedes thought: it’s all emotion and mysticism. Both her novels and short stories take digs at the foundations of language and uncover the unsettling ferocity of existence, specifically of female existence. I recommendThe Stream of Life for a start, and then The Passion According to G.H.
Enriquez is one of the freshest voices in Latin American literature, and she’s sure to make you uncomfortable and even give you a few nightmares. She combines fantastic literature with contemporary concerns (mainly taken from the Argentinian political context) and creates deeply unsettling short stories. I specially recommend the collection Things We Lost in the Fire.
Anne Carson is perhaps my favourite living poet. Instead of trying to explain why, I’ll just quote a fragment from Glass, Irony, and God:
“You remember too much, my mother said to me recently. Why hold onto all that? And I said, Where can I put it down?”
Jackson is again in the spotlight thanks to the Netflix adaptation of her novel The Haunting of Hill House (they’re completely different). However, most of the talk about her is still centered around her person (was she really a witch?). Her short story “The Lottery” is already a classic, and it pretty much shows what she’s about: people are way scarier than ghosts. My favorite Jackson is We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Many years ago I read Assassin’s Apprentice and I remember thinking, woah, there might be good fantasy writing after Harry Potter. A couple of days ago a friend told me it is actually the first book in a trilogy and I can’t wait to read the other two. If I had to describe Assassin’s Apprentice I would say it’s a bit a like GoT but well written.
I read Galloway for a class and I had never heard of her before. Her book The Trick is to Keep Breathing is just amazing. It is both a social critique and the story of a young woman trying to survive pain and loss. It also extremely quotable, so even if its a pretty bleak novel, it is still a pleasure to read it.
Boullosa has written almost 20 novels and they are all about completely different things. There’s one about the US-Mexico war, one about Anna Karenina, one about a saint, one about her own childhood. She’s one of the most versatile Mexican writers today and definitely worth checking out.Antes (Before)is my favourite.
So here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them. May we read them.
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