Loves, I haven’t written in a while. I know. There you are, sitting around waiting patiently, in quiet desperation, for me to tell you what to read. And here I am, barely able to make it through a page before I have to get up out of my chair and rush with great urgency to feed, rock, hug, wipe, play with, or find something for one of my kids. Here’s my advice–if you would like to spend the rest of your days in uninterrupted reading, do not have children. If you can deal with going through the same paragraph over and over and over again, by all means, reproduce. And for godsake, get a spiffy bookmark and use it with the gusto of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver.
Loves, it’s the end of 2017. That’s right. We did it! (as my toddler says). We walked through this year and we came out
unscathed. But we’re still here, we’re still fighting the power, and if you (like me) are someone who has dedicated yourself to words and reading them, and sometimes even stringing them together, you (like me) think that reading and writing (ENGAGING WITH THOUGHTS) are the most important activities, probably now a bit more so than usual. So let’s keep doing it. And by it I mean this. And by this I mean THINKING. A thing that is done primarily through words.
And with that, my reading life…
There’s no need to introduce Jane Yolen, writer of children’s and young adult books whose name was pretty much all over my childhood book shelves. She is most famous for writing folklore and fantasy, reinventing classic tales and often paired with illustrators whose work will look immediately familiar to any child of the 90’s. This latest collection is certainly composed of typical Yolen material, but, after reading “A Knot of Toads,” a story featuring a long dormant evil forces brought to life in a small Scottish town, I realized that The Emerald Circus is not for kids at all. (By which I mean kids who don’t have nightlights. Because I definitely needed one.)
The stories are hit-or-miss. Some follow a pattern that, for Yolen, is almost formulaic by now, taking a classic tale and subverting its original intent with adult themes or feminist reprisals. The story “Lost Girls,” about Wendy arriving in Neverland and then trying to unionize a collection of “lost girls” is a great example of this.
To begin, I was wary, as one often is when an author revisits a beloved book so many years later. But let me say up front, for those of you who might also be a bit hesitant about going back to the Owens family two decades after Practical Magic, that Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Rules of Magic, a prequel to her mid-90’s hit, is stunning. In fact, it is probably better than the original. (Though, I should interject here and say maybe I’m not the most best person to make that claim, since I always secretly preferred the movie version of Practical Magic already, based, if nothing else, on the phenomenal casting and the addition of a fantastic lady-powered-PTA-turned-makeshift-coven scene at the end.)
The Rules of Magic follows sisters Franny and Jet (who turn into “the aunts” of Practical Magic) as well as their brother Vincent, romping through New York City of the 1960’s and 70’s, discovering their family’s long-hidden secrets and creating a few skeletons of their own for the Owen’s closet. The novel deals quite closely with the famous “curse” explored in the earlier novel, this being that no Owens woman can fall in love, or the man she loves will soon be tragically (and usually quickly) killed. The source of this curse, as family legend has it, was their ancestor Maria Owens, who was burned as a witch by the man she loved and whose child she bore, none other than (actual person) John Hathorne, notoriously sadistic witch hunter of Salem circa the beginning of the 18th century.
Hello! Guess what. I quit my job to read novels full time.
Just kidding! Gotcha.
However, I did some time off work in order to prepare for the arrival of bébé numéro deux. As a tremendously awesome consequence, (which almost-but-not-quite makes up for the unbearable HUGENESS of my life right now), I have more time to read.
Here’s what that looks like…
I was very excited to see an English translation of Yanick Lahens’ Bain de lune, English title Moonbath, published by Deep Vellum in August. Since I’ve written a full review soon to be published elsewhere, I’m not going to dish too much here, but it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that this book gets my thumbs up. Read it, y’all.
In other review reading…
I received a copy of Megan Stielstra’s The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (HarperCollins, August 2017), and I have mixed feelings. Her writing is really quite wonderful. And, in a way, I couldn’t put the book down, simply because it flows so well and because her tone is a delight. I may even pick up her other collections. But as essays, I found them a bit disappointing.
Let me tell you something. Between 9-5 in an office, chasing a toddler, producing literary events, and coordinating volunteers at the Blue Met festival this year, I have barely had enough time to breathe lately, let alone read. Let alone write any words about books that I’m reading.
Yet. Somehow (probably in the time I was supposed to be breathing) I managed to actually finish a few books in May. Let me tell you about them.
First, Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road. I read most of this book on the train from Montreal to Toronto and back. And it was a PERFECT train book. The story of a young girl–abandoned by her mother, raised as a sort of servant in her adoptive home, the choices that she has, the choices that she doesn’t–was told in a tone that is both tender and matter-of-fact. Not indulging in sentiment, but not brutally realist either.
Of particular interest is the character of Fox, an animal spirit (mostly hanging out in different human woman forms) who lives on Dragon Springs Road and takes care of her various female companions. This supernatural element, rather than being relegated to the realm of a fictional flourish, is actually a major driving force in the novel’s plot.
There is a strange quiet to the stories in this collection. They wade through an environmentally devastated dystopian future and give off whispered warnings rather than roaring doom. They are uncomfortable, uneasy, but in a way that emulates the fairy tale, chock full of timeless mythic secrets, shrouded in mystery.
This collection of stories follows a fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat and it feels very thematically and stylistically linked.
The genius of Phillips is the way she constructs a premise and sees it through. You never really seize the meaning until the end of the piece and even then you will doubt whatever it is you think you have understood. We never really distinguish what is metaphor and what is plot. (All are both, but let’s leave it at that…) To each strange circumstance there is in the background a kind of hanging “It’s as if…” that we hope we will see realized when we reach the end of the story. No, it’s not a story about bearing and raising extraterrestrial children, the story is about a woman who feels “as if” she has born alien children. It is not a story about young girls disappearing into thin air but only about a world that feels “as if” young girls are disappearing into thin air. The whole collection is haunted by this ghost simile, moaning like or as…
Any book prefacing itself with the claim that “to understand this novel, readers must listen to ‘Little Earthquakes’ [by Tori Amos] and ‘Pointant le nord’ [by Pierre LaPointe]” is a book that already has the deck stacked significantly in its favour for me. There is probably a lot to love about a book for whom “Both songs might just be the ideal preface.”
That said, knowing the oeuvre of Tori Amos and Pierre LaPointe is not absolutely necessary to enjoying the book, although the continual refrain of “Little Earthquakes” is certainly illuminating, for it is a book about the ways in which the little and large tragedies of childhood–most of which are not even visible to the surrounding adults–create a lifelong trembling in the soul. It is not a novel of childhood trauma per se, and because most of its sadnesses are of a relatively familiar nature, the reader is brought wholeheartedly into this world of coldness and cod, separation and separatism, firsts and forests. There is nothing so common in childhood as the feeling of loneliness, and it is because of this that even the reader boasting one of those so-called happy childhoods can so deeply identify with the young narrator’s deep hunger for affection.
I am not entirely sure of the truth claims here. Are we in the realm of autofiction? If a memoir, then the book certainly stretches the genre beyond its usual parameters. At times very reminiscent of the long tradition of stories about childhood in rural Quebec, and at other times verging on a comic, post-modern-ish, semi-magical realist tale of leave-taking, it’s a book that is irrevocably rooted in its surroundings and yet constantly reaching toward the outside world, with Romanian Olympic stars and Belgian songwriters taking up prime real estate in the cultural atmosphere.
Usually, I cannot abide the claim that a book is “like a love letter to” another book. The expression rarely makes any real sense. And it strikes me as an unnecessarily flowery way to say that one book is like another, or influenced by another, or otherwise responding to another book in some way.
But in this case, there is absolutely no other way to describe The Big Green Tent, the latest novel of contemporary Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, than as a love letter to Russian literature. It is exactly that. It is wonderfully, whimsically, beautifully that.
To read this book is to be stricken around every turn by the ghosts of great writers haunting the pages. It’s as if, in every punctuated pause in the prose, you can hear the whispers of an entire tradition. It is Tolstoy. It is Pasternak. It is Brodsky. If that sounds very masculine, that’s because part of what Ulitskaya is dealing with here is the overall maleness of Russia’s literary history. But there is quite a bit of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva here as well. And her female characters are, in part, a response to the lack of convincing women in the pages of classic Russian literature. (Not only in this book but particularly in previous works like 2002’s Medea and Her Children, one of my absolute favorite books.)
I was not expecting to love this novel.
I’m not totally sure why I picked it up in the first place, except that someone from my Book Riot crew had mentioned it was pretty good and that the main character is unlikeable.
Me, I don’t mind unlikeable women characters. Usually the reason that women characters are unlikeable is that a) they are not what we think they should be, or b) they are not what men think they should be. I always give myself permission to drop a book that has a truly unlikeable character at its center (spending too much time with someone you don’t like is a sure way to incur psychological damage) but I will usually pick them up because, often enough, an unlikeable woman is a very interesting woman. In fiction. As in life.
In some reviews, this debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum is cited as part of the new breed of housewife/mommy books, including recent works like After Birth, Eleven Hours, American Housewife, and Little Labors. But, of course, while there seems to be a surge of women writing about what it’s like to have too many brains and too little time to use them (spoiler alert: it’s like a bottomless jello cup of melancholia), this theme has a long and very rich history.
Boredom is not an invention of the 21st century middle class. Like one of those viruses that have existed since the days of rats hopping hopeful ships to the New World, we seem to immunize it into submission until one day it rears up again. Probably the boredom most famous to our generation is 19th century ennui, that abiding existential syndrome of being a European male. But the boredom of women in the home is something different. Dark and passionate.