Book Reviews

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Book Review: The Difficult Farm

Published March 29, 2013 by pipsqueak
Image

       (via spdtoday)

Heather Christle’s poems are full of emotion, conveyed in oblique ways involving pioneers and assassination and yelling at forests.

Some of her poems sound like the beautiful babbling observations of an omniscient magical alien. The poems change emotions as unexpectedly as a finicky toddler, so you’re never bored. Christle’s work is mostly very exciting to read, full of novel phrases and shiny metaphors. Some of her poems contains snippets of fairytales, historical references, or bits of dialogue snagged from a stream of conscience. It’s these expertly-joined bits that forge such exquisite little stories.

Dear stupid forest

Dear totally brain-dead forest

Dear beautiful ugly stupid forest

full of nightingales

Why won’t you shut up.

-“Acorn Duly Crushed” by Heather Christle

Heather Christle is a young poet, pretty much free from the norms of traditional poetry.  Not a rhyme scheme or iambic foot in sight anywhere. Her poems are full of vivid, unorthodox ideas and images. However, many of them do have a sort of hypnotic rhythm when read out loud. There’s also something about them that, even though many of the poems are somewhat uncomfortable, seems very humane.

When they say nobody rides horses anymore

what the mean is: look, the ineffable sadness

has returned

-“Pale Lemon Square” by Heather Christle

I’m not really sure how to describe Christle’s poetry. It’s zingy, it’s full of surprises. Every poem contains 2-4 phrases that will make you feel strong emotions. Go read it.

Book Review: Everything Is Illuminated

Published March 22, 2013 by pipsqueak
everything is illuminated normal cover

(via coverspy)

This book is a book that will haunt you. It’s a book, after all, about haunted people: Haunted by hatred, haunted by loneliness, and most of all, haunted by the past. 

This book weaves three narratives, each of which echoes and reflects the other. In alternating chapters, we experience the “very rigid journey” through Ukraine undertaken by Jonathan Safran Foer (the main character who shares his name with the author) to find a woman named Augustine who saved his grandfather in World War II. Accompanying him and recounting this story, in hilariously broken English, is his translator Alexander Perchov (“my friends dub me Alex, because it is more flaccid to utter”). Alex writes letters to Jonathan after their journey detailing his efforts to record their journey and telling Jonathan about his life in Ukraine. The third storyline, a story written by Jonathan, is a fairytale-like story of a shtetl where Jonathan’s ancestors live.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a knack for the heartbreaking, the hilarious, the bizarre. I do not believe there is another book I could call similar to Everything Is Illuminated. Instead, Jonathan Safran Foer combines various disparate elements to create an entirely unique story. The questions raised about the nature of love and loneliness, as well as what it means to be a good person in a time like World War II, are subtly and skillfully woven into the text. You start this book laughing at Alex’s dreadfully awkward references to pop culture and end up feeling like you’ve been told a very sad and complicated secret. Everything is Illuminated, for me, was akin to cutting yourself on a blade so sharp that at first you don’t even feel it piercing your skin. It’s only when the blood springs to the surface that you realize the impact has been made.

Book Review: Eeeee Eee Eeee

Published February 24, 2013 by pipsqueak
eeeee eee eeee

an average thing about this book is that talking bears can teleport in it

Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin is really, really, really postmodern.

I’m not really sure how to describe it accurately, so I’ll just tell you some things about it. There’s talking animals – bears, dolphins, moose, hamsters – and talking humans who deliver pizza. The bears like to cover people’s heads with blankets. Almost all of the characters are struggling with crushing ennui and depression, yet the text is far from lethargic. The text crackles and spouts bizarre insights on every page. The pages are punctuated by sentences that I reread several times for their brilliant bizarreness. For an example, I read this one out loud to several of my friends, my sister, and my mom:

Andrew had a flat tire once and the martial arts champion drove out to help, late at night. He seemed very nice and a little shy, but also like if he wanted he could walk quietly through a crowd with a neutral facial expression breaking people’s bones.

Eeeee Eee Eeee is surreal, sure, but it also smacks of realness. It’s a book about being a human in the 21st century, where disconnection and isolation are pretty much normal.

He didn’t want to elaborate. It would take forever to elaborate. Someone would eventually realize that the conversation was just a matter of semantics. Was there even a point to talking? … Not wanting to elaborate, that was a symptom of something – something bad. Andrew didn’t want to think about it.  Maybe he should take antidepressant medicine.

Tao Lin’s writing style mimicks the infinitely-distractible, faster-than-the-speed-of-starbucks-wifi mindset of Kids These Days. He also manages to bring up some pretty pointed observations about humanity without moralizing in any way. His book is about lonely and depressed people and the lonely and depressed teleporting bears/moose that interact with/kidnap/punch them.

In which I start to read Nabokov’s Lolita and have to stop

Published February 19, 2013 by pipsqueak
lolita-vladimir-nabokov-paperback-cover-art

here be dragons

Alright, confession time. I knew, or at least had heard and accepted without much actual mental processing, the basic concept of Lolita. It’s about an older dude who… falls in love with?? (or so I had been told) a young girl. A reaaal young girl. But it had been mentioned so often, and with none of the revulsion I hear when people talk about pedophiles.

I think maybe what threw me was that it’s a capital-C Classic book. When I think classic literature, I don’t know about you, but I think Scarlet Letter, Tale of Two Cities. Things with morals. Books that have been determined, by a jury of Literary Elites, to be Good For You.

Lolita is no such book. This book is disgusting. It’s a rotting, putrid story wrapped up in finely-woven prose. The sentences are so beautifully crafted, so cleverly written, that I suppressed the sickening feeling illicited by Humbert Humbert’s prurient descriptions of “nymphets,” his romanticism about historical pedophiles, his young love affair that haunts him still.

But Humber Humbert does not restrain himself to trysts with prostitutes and lecherous gazing at the lecherous young girls that he deems “nymphets.” His description of these “nymphets” is heinous in itself: to his mind, these are young girls who know of their sexual desirability to older men and are willing to act on it. This sick fantasy gives Humbert permission to prey on these girls, but he never acts on it because he deems himself too cowardly.

Then he meets Dolores Haze, the Lolita of the novel’s title. She, too him, is the epitome of seductive childhood. He describes his lust for her, and then, in one scene, how he gets off secretly as she sits on his lap.

Right now, I’m not sure if I am going to continue reading this book. It is masterfully written, but guys, this is a deeply-disturbing look into the mind of a monster.

Also, anyone who says Lolita is a love story is wrong and should feel bad.

Goodnight.

Book Review – Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Published February 8, 2013 by pipsqueak

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End Of the World, by Haruki Murakami, is not a book easily pigeonholed into a genre, although “magical-realism sci-fi noir” kinda fits. It could also be accurately described as a head trip (for more reasons than one).

Hardboiled Wonderland

Hard-Boiled Wonderland  alternates storylines chapter-by-chapter. One story takes place in a fenced-in community known as The End Of The World, where unicorns roam and all newcomers are severed from their shadows upon entry. The members of this town share a mindlessness that relates to the loss of their shadow. The amnesiac narrator tries to cope with his confusion and decipher his surrounding, and The End Of The World slowly surrenders its secrets as the book unfolds.

The other is the story in narrated by a Calcutec, a man programmed to interpret and synthesize information in a modified compartment in his unconscious mind. The nameless narrator is hired by Grandfather, a genius scientist with data-scrambling needs for his work interpreting bones. In joining this assignment, the narrator meets his teenage granddaughter, who is constantly referred to as ‘the chubby girl.’ She is probably my favorite character – she wears only pink, knows how to do everything from manipulating the stock market to spelunking, and makes a habit of sexually propositioning the narrator every few chapters.

Don’t take the namelessness of the characters as a sign of blandness: oh no. This is Murakami, and he bestows unforgettable character traits on each of them. The narrator, a poshly cosmopolitan loner, observes the strangeness of the events unfolding around him with wry shrewdness, but willingly goes farther and farther down the rabbit hole. Myriad unexpected elements, such as monstrous water-creatures known as INKlings, a beautiful librarian with an incommensurate appetite, and a meditation on Bob Dylan add spice and humor to the  story.

HarukiMurakami

Murakami is one of those authors who is the absolute best at what he does. This is partially because no one could hope to replicate his curious form of storytelling, but mostly because his mind works differently than most people’s. He’s a sort of writing monk, an ascetic of the written words and the mind.

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

-Haruki Murakami (source)

Murakami’s absorption in and fascination with the functions of the human mind translates into some insanely complicated neurology-themed subplots in Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Readers are tossed into unrecognizable worlds and cultures at the beginning of the book, and must maneuver some elaborate technical descriptions and do some guesswork in order to find their way. However, it’s a gratifying complexity, the kind that leads to really electrifying “Aha!” moments as the plot unfolds.

I picked up Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World because I had read Murakami’s short stories and wanted to dip my toes into his longer work before starting on the behemoth that is 1Q84. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys science fiction, mind-bending plots, the Matrix, and mythical creatures. It’s an intelligent and compelling read.

Book Review: The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer

Published February 1, 2013 by pipsqueak

The Dark Wife is a book with very specific appeal. This book is for the girls who wished all the Disney Princesses kicked as much ass as Mulan. This book is for the girls who made their Barbies into action heroes. This book is also for the girls who wished that Ariel would get rid of her boring prince and go on some more adventures.

ariel and pocahontas

now kiss. (source)

That isn’t to say that The Dark Wife isn’t enjoyable to more general audiences- it’s an enjoyable story in and of itself. But it’s a true boon to those of us who love mythology and mysticism but are frustrated with the lack of truly inspiring and multifaceted female heroines in these genres.

The Dark Wife takes the best bits of the mythology of Ancient Greece, queers it and serves it up as a lyrically-crafted fairytale. Diemer’s writing style is a pleasure onto itself to read. She weaves poetic metaphors and elegant turns of phrase into a readable and fast-moving story. Hemingway she’s not, but her  lush descriptions of the heroines and their fantastic surroundings are  pure pleasure to read.

The female Hades is an austerely beautiful, black-eyed woman whose name has been slandered by the selfish Zeus.

Her eyes were black, every part of them, her
skin pale, like milk. Her hair dropped to the small of
her back, night-colored curls that shone, smooth and
liquid, as she cocked her head, as she gazed down at
me without a change of expression. She wasn’t
beautiful—the lines of her jaw, her nose, were too
proud, too sharp and straight. But she was
mesmerizing, like a whirlpool of dark water, where
secrets lurked.

I hope I'm not the only one who immediately thought of Noomi Rapace. mmmm.

I’m not saying Hades is Noomi Rapace… but yeah she is

SWOOOOOOON. Hades is a god(dess) of riches and well as the dead, an oft-overlooked detail that Diemer uses for lovely aesthetic effect: Hades’ kiss leaves a dusting of gold on Persephone’s hand.

aww yis goddess kisses

aww yis goddess kisses

Zeus, King of Gods is cast as the villain in The Dark Wife, and he’s more or less the same domineering, bullying rapist in the legends. For those of you unfamiliar with the King of Gods, he was known to go out in disguise (white bull, swan, shower of gold coins) and having his way with whatever attractive mortal/nymph/goddess who took his fancy. His victims often suffered transfigurations into wild beasts post-assault. No further villainization required.

Besides Zeus, the God of Thunder and Being The Worst, this story included Demeter, the well-meaning mother, Athena (including a human lover named Pallas) and a significantly more spirited Persephone. 

by enayla

source: enayla

Let’s talk about the lesbians. The Dark Wife is full of homoeroticism from the beginning. And there’s no coming-out angst, no trauma of familial rejection. It’s quite refreshing. Instead of agonizing over why she doesn’t desire some Adonis action, Persephone unabashedly admires and desires other women. Diemer captures the storminess and uncertainty that even hot immortals feel when falling in love.

source: wrenling27

source: wrenling27

There’s also a pretty interesting underworld citizen-discontent theme. Without revealing too much, they also subvert the violent hero-worship of the original legends and question the justice of the Greek afterlife. The Dark Wife has a style of conflict resolution similar to that found in Miyazaki films, with an emphasis on compassion and nonviolent problem solving (although there is a small amount of very satisfying Poison-Ivy style asskicking).

Especially recommended for fans of mythology and queer/feminist lit, The Dark Wife is a delicious little lesbian fairytale. I recommend making yourself a cup of Pomegranate Green Tea and devouring it over a cozy afternoon.

athenaandpersephone

(I’d like to apologize for the gratuitous queer fairytale art in this review. Actually, wait, no I don’t, because queer fairytale art is the best.)

 

The Dark Wife is available on Sarah Diemer’s website in several formats, including a free ebook and audiobook for those who can’t afford to pay for the book.

Book Review: The Complete Poems of Sappho

Published January 31, 2013 by pipsqueak
complete-poems-sappho-willis-barnstone-paperback-cover-art

sappho no no no don’t hide we love you

My first exposure to Sappho was when I picked her as the subject of my Famous Ancient Greeks presentation in sixth grade. My most salient memory of this presentation was asking my teacher in a whisper before the presentation:

“Should I tell the class that she was a lesbian?

Her answer, accompanied by smirk: “It depends. Do you think they can handle it?”

(I didn’t.)

I do remember that her poems seemed pretty dry and nonsensical. Part of this I blame on the fact that only fragments remain of most of her work. But the other problem was that the language was boooorrrrriiiiiingg. It was like fake Shakespeare. This, to me, is tragic. Nothing detracts more from intimate loveliness and honesty than unnecessarily grand language. The truth of the poem gets weighed down and drowned by large words. It’s sad.

Seven years later, my dear friend gave me a copy of The Complete Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone. She was very, very excited about this edition. So were the people who wrote testimonials in the front of the book.

“If there is any final justice, which there probably isn’t, the world of letters would erect a monument of Willis Barnstone and strew it with fresh wildflowers ever day.” – Jim Harrison

“…this is the book of Sappho you want on your bedside table.” – David St. John

And although these conjured hilarious images of venerable writers capering around in togas and throwing petals onto “The Complete Poems of Sappho” and/or snuggling with “The Complete Poems of Sappho” before bed every night, they were right. It’s a damn good collection of poetry.

I won’t try to wax lyrical overmuch about Sappho, because there are a zillion academics and published authors who have done it better. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that really hit me in the feels. And oh man, there are so many to choose from.

from the greek word for feels, φιλία (philia)

greek root: pheeeeelia

What is it about Sappho? On the surface, there are many things that make her remarkable. The first real prolific women writer, almost certainly queer, and the probably victim of book burnings and the erosion of time. What remains of her work is exquisite fragments.

And then there’s the fact that no one really knows what she looks like. Barnstone’s book illuminated her life as fully as he can, providing details and popular opinion about her appearance, sexuality, and family life. Although it’s fun to try to put her poems into the context of her life, a lot of her charm is in her mystery.

Also, that means everyone comes up with a different idea of what she looked like. Most artists decided that she was probably super hot. The Victorians made my favorite Sappho: Exasperated Fauxhawk Sappho.

apparently the gay-girl faux-hawk goes way back

swoon

Here are a few of my favorite poems from Barnstone’s translations. I picked these because they were especially potent to me. Sappho’s forte is transmitting distilled emotion in just a few words.

Abuse

Often

those

I treat well are just the ones

who most harm me

vainly

You I want

to suffer

In me

I know it

Ugh, who doesn’t know this? There are those people who hurt you and you cut them out of your life, there are those people that don’t really challenge you, and then there are those that cause you pain but have some astounding other qualities so you take them in anyway. On the other hand, you could read this poem as an example of someone in an unhealthy relationship, à la “Love The Way You Lie.” There are four missing lines between the first and second stanzas, so the reader can fill in the gaps for whatever fits them.

Paralysis

Sweet mother, now I cannot work the loom

Sweet Afroditi broke me with longing for a boy

Ah, longing for a boy/girl/person! All-consuming crushes happen to everyone, even enigmatic greek poetesses.  Weaving? Ha! You have a crush, which requires 85% of your useable headspace to be devoted to reliving small conversations and mentally murmuring their name and being shocked by how cute their nose is. You’re in no condition to do… loom stuff. Sappho gets it.

A Ring

Crazy woman

Why are you bragging to me about a ring?

I love this one because it’s saucy. Saucy Sappho is the coolest. She also delivers poetic burns to her brothers, when they are acting like idiots, and to some of her immature ladyfriends. This is a fragment, and I can only imagine the incredible rant that must have followed those opening lines.

"Gorgo I love you but mmmmgurl you need to stop"

“Girl I love you but you are a total troglos”

No Oblivion

Someone, I tell you, in another time

will remember us

I love this Sappho. This poem feels like a conversation, like she has put her hand on my shoulder. She’s so sweet, reassuring the reader that nothing is lost. In her case, it’s true. We’ll be enjoying Sappho forever, even though she’s been in the Elysian Fields for the last few milleniums.