Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Passion

In my course of quickly rectifying my lack of experience reading Jeanette Winterson I picked up The Passion. It takes place in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars. One character is a cook in Napoleon's kitchen. Another is a Venetian woman, the daughter of a gondolier, who works in a casino. I don't think I'll ruin it by saying their paths cross eventually.

Both of the Winterson books I read are slender books, but best read slowly and thoughtfully. They're crammed full of big ideas, and each led to a crescendo of language and thought at the end.

In The Passion, Winterson lambastes the heartlessness of war:
Home became the focus of joy and sense. We began to believe that we were fighting this war so that we could go home. To keep home safe, to keep home as we started to imagine it. Now that our hearts were gone there was no reliable organ to stem the steady tide of sentiment that stuck to our bayonets and fed our damp fires. There was nothing we wouldn't believe to get us through: God was on our side, the Russians were devils. our wives depended on this war. France depended on this war. There was no alternative to this war.

And the heaviest lie? That we could go home and pick up where we had left off. That our hears would be waiting behind the door with the dog.
(p. 83)
and the importance of love, or passion:
I think now that being free is not being powerful or rich or well regarded or without obligations but being able to love. To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free. The mystics and the churchmen talk about throwing off this body and its desires, being no longer a slave to the flesh. The don't say that through the flesh we are set free. That our desire for another will lift us out of ourselves more cleanly than anything divine.
Some people go absolutely batshit over Venice, and I suppose they have every reason to. Her descriptions of Venice were exciting and mysterious and made me want to return there. Oddly, this book occasionally reminded me of this goofy Anne Rice book I read a long time ago called Cry to Heaven about a castrati opera singer, due to the lush descriptions and the decadent lifestyle of the Venetians. But it made me think about (I'm not done yet) the difference between "high" and "low" literature.

Not unlike an Anne Rice novel, some of Winterson's characters are not hetero-normative. Winterson's young woman often dresses as a man, for safety and for fun, and moves somewhat freely between the masculine world (particularly as a boater) and a more feminine one. I think one of the main differences, however, between Winterson and Rice is that Rice's characters exist in a hyper-fantasy while Winterson's are more grounded in reality. Winterson's treatment of the female character's sexuality is pointedly easy; she loves.

Often Winterson's writing takes my breathe away. I love her repetition, the acknowledgment of story-telling, the poetry, and the grand themes. I intend to read everything she's ever written.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I recently read Jeanette Winterson described as "one of the most brilliant writers in the English language" on a blog I read and respect so I picked up a few of her books from the library. I actually had quite a few of her books on my "wishlist" so it's about time I read her.

The first I read was Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, which is part of that "The Myths" series. (I love Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad from the series.) In The Myths, authors are invited to tell or re-tell ancient myths, and Winterson tells the tale of Atlas, who was punished with holding the world on his shoulders.

In an introduction, Winterson writes about telling stories and the issue of autobiography:
Weight has a personal story broken against the bigger story of the myth we know and the myth I have re-told. I have written this personal story in the First Person, indeed almost all of my work is written in the First Person, and this leads to questions of autobiography.

Autobiography is not important. Authenticity is important. The writer must fire herself through the text, be the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements. I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.

Later she leaves the story of Atlas and Heracles and writes:
I know nothing of my biological parents. The live on a lost contenent of DNA. Like Atlantis, all record of them is sunk... Spin the globe. What landmasses are these, unmapped, unnamed? The world evolves, first liquid and alive, then forming burning plates that must cool and set. The experiment is haphazard, toxic at times. Earth is a brinkmanship of breathtaking beauty and a mutant inferno. My own primitive life forms take a long time to web intelligence. When they are intelligent they are still angry.


Ultimately, she brings the reader to the conclusion that the weight Atlas (and all of us) carry can simply be put down, if we choose. When she allows Atlas to unburden himself, the world doesn't come to an end, it hangs there without him. Winterson's re-telling of the story of Atlas undoes the story of an eternity of punishment and becomes a beautiful tale about letting go.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Suppress Women's Writing

How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ is a marvelous book that examines the systematic ways that women artists have been suppressed by society and critics. Russ's book is a very readable, accessible polemic against the suppression of women artists (not just writers, but artists, actors, musicians, etc) and explains the various ways that women's work is undermined:

She didn't write it.
She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.
She wrote it, but "she" isn't really an artist and "it" isn't really serious, of the rigth genre - i.e., really art.
She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.
She wrote it, but it's only interesting/included in the canon for one, limited reason.
She wrote it, but there are very few of her.
Aside from verbalizing some of the frustrating questions I've been asking myself lately, Russ presents example after example of brilliant women artists and the denial of their place in the canon. She counts representations of women in anthologies, cites old criticism of books, most amusingly when a book is first published under a male pen-name and later revealed to have been written by a woman - like Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights. After the shocking revelation of the artist's sex, her writing was compared " a little bird fluttering its wings against the bars of its cage." When it was understood to be written by a man, it was described as "powerful and original", "bestial, brutal, indeed monstrous."

Women's experience (sometimes but not always the subject of women's writing) is often rejected out of hand. Writes Russ:
Many feminists argue that the automatic devaluation of women's experience and consequent attitudes, values, and judgments springs from an automatic devaluation of women per se, the belief that manhood is "normative" and womanhood somehow "deviant" or "special." ... Not only is female experience often considered less broad, less representative, less important, than male experience, but the actual content of works can be distorted according to whether the author is believed to be of one sex or the other.

Naturally, she addresses Linda Nochlin's extremely influential 1971 article "Why have there been no great women artists?" in which Nochlin writes, "There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse..." Russ answers that with, "...there is the statement "no great women artists" in a century that has produced Georgia O'Keeffe, Käthe Kollwitz, and Emily Carr, to name only those I happen to like."

Russ ends the book with a challenge to the reader to consider their own prejudices and rejections, while freely admitting that her own book doesn't adequately address the suppression of other minority writers, particularly black women writers and other writers of color and non-Western artists.

I came away with a long list of writers I want to explore more, here are a few:
The Countess of Winchilsea, Anne Finch
Margaret Cavendish
Jane Marcus, Art and Anger
Eve Merriam, The Club
Anna Letitia Barbauld
Jane Elliott
Lady Anne Lindsay
Lady Carolina Nairne
Aphra Behn
Charlotte Brontë's Villette
And, thanks to Russ, I got that Dorothy Sayers recommendation I've been waiting for: Gaudy Night - review coming soon! Let me know if you're familiar with the writers above.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Feed, by M.T. Anderson, is the next book for our book club. It's officially a Y.A. book, but I think very accessible at least to my age group as well. Feed takes place in the (not-so) distant future when everyone has a chip in their head that's kind of like the internet and facebook. People "chat" even when they're standing right next to each other, and, when the characters go to the mall and walk in a store, they instantly get a feed from the store with ads and prizes based on their previous purchases. Basically it's the dystopian future where the entire culture is consumer-based and corporate-owned and naturally, the environments a wreck. People have lesions on their skin, but even the lesions are consumerized and it becomes cool to have lesions of certain placement, size and shape.

You know in a teen movie where there's this group of good-looking rich kids that goof off and are kind of jerks? The main character is one of those. He falls for this girl, Violet, (on the moon!) and it turns out she's sort of anti-feed and anti-consumerism, but following her path is like, well, turning his back on everything he loves.

Some of the things I loved about this book was the creative language that Anderson employs. While some of the characters are so entrenched in the feed they can barely create a coherent sentence, he's created this goofy, idiotic, dumbed-down language and slang that even the President uses. Anderson's book is frighteningly close to reality, minus like, the flying cars. I think, like most good dystopian fiction, he merely expands upon reality to an absurd, but not impossible, conclusion.

One of my favorite parts, and I don't think I'll ruin it for you... is:
Violet was screaming, "Look at us! You don't have the feed! You are the feed! You're feed! You're being eaten! You're raised for food! Look at what you've made yourselves!" She pointed at Quendy, and went, "She's a monster! A monster! Covered with cuts! She's a creature!"

I think it's an important book, and I can see it being very productive to read it with a young(er) person. Or, any person - I read mine to husband on a car trip although he was a bit perplexed by the language. He kept stopping me to repeat and spell words. I'd say, "I don't know, youch, it says, y-o-u-c-h." It reminded me a lot of my favorite book of all time, The Handmaid's Tale - I will not be surprised if it claims a spot similar to Atwood's book, in the annals of, not just dystopian fiction or YA fiction, but simply excellent fiction.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Poppy Shakespeare

I hate to write that Poppy Shakespeare is like a cross between Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because that's what it says right on the book jacket, but, it's a very good way to describe the book.

It's about a group of people in a mental hospital in London. "N" is the narrator, and Poppy Shakespeare is a woman who is sent to the hospital against her will and attempts to get out, only to find herself in a "Catch-22" whereby she must admit that she's mentally unstable in order to get the support of a facilitator, at which point it's she cannot argue that she is not mentally ill. The whole thing is quite alarming to N and the other patients because they are very comfortable in the hospital and feel safe there and, of course, never WANT to leave.

What emerges is that the characters glide between the fluid space of what is considered "normal" and what might be considered "unstable", and that their environment only intensifies their behavior. The book begins with a quote by Chekhov that I was reminded of again and again:
Since prisons and madhouses exist, why, somebody is bound to sit in them.
The author, Clare Allan, created a whole set of language for the hospital, including, in a very English way, various Ministries of this or that. She gives N a rather marvelous way of speaking - I'm not enough of a linguist to categorize it, but it goes like this:
That frist day Poppy gone down alright. After she'd saved Brian the Butcher's life, people give her the benefit. So when she started slagging the doctors off, how she shat better crap than they come out with, I ain't saying there weren't a bristle gone round but people was prepared to overlook it. On top of which she got novelty value; no one met a dribbler like Poppy before, and when they finally got their heads round the fact that she meant what she said, she didn't want to be there, they was that fucking jiggered, that stunned to the core, it never occurred to them they should be offended.

I thought it was excellent. Very funny and poignant.

Monday, July 05, 2010

What my mother doesn't know

What my Mother Doesn't Know is a sweet little book written in free-form verse. It's over 250 pages, but I read it in about an hour. It's about a young woman (12ish?) who's parents don't get along and watch too much television, and her boyfriend's a d-bag who doesn't want his parents to know she's Jewish.

Apparently it's a frequently banned book because this young woman (*gasp!*) acknowledges her own sexual feelings and says the word "breasts" a couple of times. After a school dance, she waits for her mother, who's late:
I never thought
it would happen this way --
with the guy standing closest to me
suddenly bursting out laughing
and grabbing my breasts
with his slimy paws
squeezing them for a split second
that seems to last forever.

I never once envisioned
the devirginization of my breasts
happening like this,
with the guy and his scumbag buddy
slapping five afterwards
(Then she punches him! Yea!)

Well, it's an utterly charming little book and I'd recommend it to just about anyone. One of the most lovely bits (for me) was when she goes to the museum to view her favorite painting, La Bal à Bougival and she later learns that the young woman in the painting is Suzanne Valadon - that's a nice shout-out for a little-known post-impressionist.

Here's some amusing negative criticism on Amazon:

Book Giveaway!

Here are a couple of books I started but weren't for me. If you're in the Continental US and want to read them, leave your email in comments!

The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, by Jennifer Niven. Written by a woman who grew up in a small town in Indiana during the 80s - just like meeee! But, I couldn't get into it.

Sabbath's Theatre
, by Philip Roth. About an old dude trying to get more tail, as far as I can tell. Reminded me of hiliarious article I read on Tiger Beatdown called "Fond Memories of Vagina" about older, male authors who, well, I'll quote the article:
The plot is always the same: “I am a writer in the twilight of my years, bored with life and my sexual powers. Oh, wait: pussy. I shall attain some. I am reinvigorated! Thanks, pussy!” This bores me and makes my entire lower half numb.

That's two, Philip.

I know, I make them sound really enticing, but, one person's trash...