16 February 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo / George Saunders

Yes, I will be writing about grief again.

But first things first: what does "bardo" mean? According to Wikipedia, it is a Buddhist concept related to reincarnation  and designates the intermediary state between death and rebirth. This is the main stage, set in a graveyard, on which this novel's events unfold.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders imagines what happened after the body of President Lincoln's young son was placed in a crypt; more specifically, what happened to his soul. Over the course of that night, punctuated by two visits that Lincoln makes to his beloved boy's remains, we encounter a fascinatingly varied cast of characters who take an interest in Willie — and in his father—, each for their own reasons. The cemetary becomes a war zone in a country ravaged by war.

This is such a peculiar work of literature that I am not exactly certain how to describe it... Try to picture a written patchwork made up of bits of accounts by spirits from all segments of society, interspersed with extracts from Civil War-era and more recent books, journals, letters, etc. I would compare it to reading a play and a series of interconnected quotes that accidentally got shuffled together. I enjoy novels that tinker with form as much as the next human (David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is among my all-time favourites, after all), but this one truly pushes boundaries. As I read, I kept delightedly thinking "This book is completely mad... and I love it!"

I have already mentioned my instinctive dislike for historical fiction based on real people in my review of Alias Grace, but an interview with the author on the Open Book podcast in March 2017 intrigued me enough to borrow the book from my local library anyway. I am so glad that I did. In the interview, George Saunders mentions that working on this book changed his life. I can see why. This remarkable novel took me on what I can only call a quasi-spiritual journey, although I am still as much an atheist as ever. I have now purchased my own copy and will cherish it for many years to come.

I am fully aware of how strange it is to sound so enthusiastic about what is essentially an exploration of love, grief and mortality that unflinchingly probes the deepest human emotions. Perhaps you will understand when I tell you that I read Lincoln in the Bardo as my mom lay dying in hospital.

Sometimes, what seems to be the absolute worst reading choice at a given moment ends up being exactly what one needs at that time. It was a consolation to me to be reminded that, although it felt like what I was experiencing — the wrenching away of someone who was so intimately a part of me, anger at the unfairness of life, the inability to care for much beyond the next breath, impotent worry for my father and sister, this brutal realization of mortality — was unique, these things has always existed and always would. Thousands of people were going through something very similar at that very moment. Billions had in the past. Life had gone on for them, as it would for me, and my father, and my sister.

One passage in particular brought me a bit of solace, and I have re-read it often:

He sat, distraught and shivering, seeking about for any consolation.
He must either be in a happy place, or some null place by now.
Thought the gentleman.
In either case is no longer suffering.
Suffered so terribly at the end.
And in his mind the gentleman stood (we stood with him) on a lonely plain, screaming at the top of our lungs.
Quiet then, and a great weariness.
All over now. He is either in joy or nothingness.
(So why grieve?
The worst of it, for him, is over.)
Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing.
Only there is nothing left to do.
Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad.
Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.
Thus thought the gentleman.
Thoughtfully combing a patch of grass with his hand.
(roger bevins iii)

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: *****

15 February 2018

L'Élégance du hérisson / Muriel Barbery

[...] personne ne semble avoir songé au fait que si l'existence est absurde, y réussir brillamment n'a pas plus de valeur qu'y échouer.

13 February 2018


It's been a long while since I talked about podcasts here, so it's about time I told you about a favourite of mine: Lore.

In my early teens, I was obsessed with strange and unexplained phenomena: apparitions, disappearances, sightings of unidentified animals, etc. I never missed an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" on television, and read every book I could find on the Bermuda Triangle. I'm not sure of the reason behind this fascination; while I didn't believe in the truth of these accounts, there was room in my mind to entertain the possibility that a fragment of truth might lie underneath it all.

For some unknown reason, this interest slowly faded over time... only to flare into life once more when I followed a BookTuber's recommendation (thanks Simon!) and downloaded an episode of Lore. Then I downloaded all of the back catalogue — there are close to 80 episodes now — and listened to them compulsively, one after the other, over and over again, each time throwing new details into focus, triggering fresh lines of thought and waves of emotion.

Host, writer and producer Aaron Mahnke is a masterful storyteller (he's also the author of supernatural novels, which I intend to read soon). His tone is never sensationalistic — nothing irritates me more than a "DUDE, LOOK HOW WEIRD THIS IS!" attitude — but always empathic towards the people whose circumstances he describes. For me, his ability to imagine himself in their position plays a vital part in the show's appeal.

What also contributes to making Lore so compelling is that it takes an anthropological approach to the phenomena it examines, with a view to exploring what lies beneath the surface, what they reveal about us as humans. It addresses each topic from a variety of angles in order to explain how folk tales, singular events, myths and legends, stories both old and modern, reflect who we are. The music, especially that by Chad Lawson, serves to enhance the deliciously creepy atmosphere.

Although I'm aware that this will sound morbid, this podcast helped to keep me sane over the three months when my mother's life was slowly ebbing away... It reminded me that we're all of us mortal, and that grief — universally, historically — is one of the most powerful emotions we can face. I can't quite explain why, but this knowledge comforts me.

Episodes are released fortnightly on Mondays and can be accessed from a multitude of sources. (Episode #2, "The Bloody Pit," which probes our fear of the dark, remains my favourite thus far.) Lore is also a TV show (on Amazon Prime) and a series of books. To receive the latest news, you can do as I did and subscribe to the newsletter called The Epitaph.

8 February 2018

The Miniaturist / Jessie Burton

As 18-year-old Petronella Oortman crosses the threshold of her wealthy new husband's house, she cannot possibly imagine the secrets concealed behind its opulent facade or how severely the next few months will test her mettle.

Despite the social and financial protection it affords her, married life in this small household composed of a distant spouse, an austere sister-in-law, an irreverent maid and a puzzling manservant bears little resemblance to her girlish expectations or her mother's lessons.

Perhaps wishing to gain some control over her surroundings, Nella orders a few miniatures to furnish her wedding present, a cabinet house that almost perfectly replicates the conjugal home, but the uncannily accurate — and prophetic — pieces continue to arrive unsolicited as catastrophes and scandal loom. 

Seeing Nella navigate the scrutiny and prejudices of 18th-century Amsterdammer society, try to unravel the mysteries that surround her and come into her own was an absolute delight. This novel is as detailed and finely crafted as the miniatures it features, with characters that teem with life, and the many unexpected twists give it an intricacy far greater than I could have suspected from the opening pages. For me, the only defect in this remarkable work lies in the ending, which sadly leaves the fate of some characters up in the air.

This novel was inspired by Petronella Oortman's real doll's house, which can be admired at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Author Jessie Burton may only post about once per year on her blog, but she offers a fascinatingly intimate look at the highs and lows of a writer's life. You can also read a very interesting article about her long-standing interest in doll's houses (complete with M.R. James reference!).

You may be interested to know that The Miniaturist has been adapted into a TV miniseries by the BBC.

I borrowed this book from my library network through ILL.

Rating: ****

4 February 2018

book title poetry

Far from the madding crowd,
North and South the odyssey.
Elephants can remember the monstone,
The well of lost plots, the waves.
Testament of friendship.
The nutmeg of consolation,
Every living thing:
The way we live now.
Exit music.

30 January 2018

The Essex Serpent / Sarah Perry

I can't help but think that I entirely missed the point of this novel.

After seeing so many Booktubers raving about The Essex Serpent, even lauding it as their favourite book ever, I had to see what all the fuss was about. And alas, I was bitterly disappointed. 

Over the course of 11 months, from January to November, the narrative — scattered with a few letters — follows Cora who, shortly after her husband's death, moves to Essex with her young son and her very close companion. Relishing intellectual and physical freedom, wearing a man's coat and boots, and trudging through mud in search of fossils, she has left behind most societal expectations towards women as to their appearance, speech and behaviour.

Perhaps imagining herself as a successor of Mary Anning, the 19th century fossil collector who made capital discoveries along the Dorset coast, Cora sets off to the village of Aldwinter in search of the mythical serpent that, according to rumours, was shaken awake from its slumber by the earthquake that occured a few years before. There, she befriends the very conservative Reverend Ransome and his family... and things start to go downhill.

Jumping between London, Colchester and Aldwinter, the story features (in no particular order): lots of mud; two murderous attacks; a display of surgical skills; an obsession with the colour blue; an objectionable piece of sculpture; a missing girl; social housing plans; did I mention the mud?

Are we meant to establish parallels between Cora and the Serpent, to see both as disruptive factors in various characters' lives? To be perfectly frank, I can't muster the energy nor the interest. I simply couldn't bring myself to care about any of these people.

To me, the tone of the novel was rather flat, devoid of emotional depth. We're told that characters experience feelings such as love, jealousy, fear, sympathy, etc., but always externally. As a result, they're not much more than vague figures given lines to speak and moved from one location to another. With the Serpent apparently on the prowl, we should apprehend something dark and dangerous out there, but other than children not being allowed to play outside, there's barely any sense of dread and very little of foreboding. As for Cora's supposed passion for fossils, it's always demonstrated passively: she suddenly has fossils in her pockets or on her desk, but is never actively shown hunting for them or studying them.

Worst of all, I never at any moment forgot that I was reading, which to me constitutes an essential element of a good book. (For example, without absolutely loving it, I remember being completely immersed in Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries from the very start, as if watching a movie inside my head.) Don't get me wrong, I've no doubt that Sarah Perry can write, and there are a few lovely passages. The last section, for the month of November, is better than the rest — but unfortunately, it came far, far too late...

I borrowed this book from my library network through ILL.

Rating: ***

29 January 2018

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet / David Mitchell

"There are times when I suspect that the mind has a mind of its own. It shows us pictures. Pictures of the past, and the might-one-day-be. This mind's mind exerts its own will, and has its own voice." (Ogawa Uzaemon)

25 January 2018

Into the Water / Paula Hawkins

All her life, Nel Abbott has been fascinated by the Drowning Pool, the accused witches taken there to "swim" in olden days and the female victims found floating on its waters in more recent times. She's working on a book that will tell the story of these women and girls, a project that gives rise to strong reactions in her small town.

This is a suspenseful tale of "troublesome" women and the secrets around them that obstinately refuse to remain under the surface. It's told in short chapters, with the point of view switching among a host of characters (Nel's sister, her daughter, her neighbours, the investigating police officers); the use of either first- or third-person narration, I thought, made it dynamic and always interesting. The notion of fault, of who is to blame, becomes a recurring theme over the course of the novel. Plus, there's tension galore until the very last page!

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ***

22 January 2018

Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn

Truth or lie? That's the question that niggles at the reader with each page.

Let me admit straight away that I wasn't favourably disposed towards this novel for two quite unrelated reasons: firstly, because I have an almost visceral loathing for titles that use the word "girl" to designate an adult woman; and secondly, because I heard a guest on a literary podcast accidently blurt out a crucial part of the plot (my immediate response was: "Oh, how cliché..."). In other words, it took me a while to warm up to it — and warm is the best I can muster.

We're told a tale about a couple and a disappearance, with the chapters alternating between Amy's and Nick's points of view. It quickly morphs into the very dark story of a marriage with many, MANY twists along the way. Seriously, there are so many U-turns that my brain got torticollis! The proof that this book works brilliantly as a thriller is that, even once my interest in the irritating characters waned, I continued to read it simply to find out what other unexpected development the author had devised.

If you're looking for something entertaining and unpredictable written by someone with an extremely imagination, this book is for you.

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ***

20 January 2018

Women & Power / Mary Beard

In this slim volume, classicist and demigoddess Mary Beard expands on two London Review of Books lectures she presented in 2014 and 2017.

"The Public Voice of Women" (listen to the original lecture here)

It will come as a surprise to few people that the desire to silence women did not start with the advent of social media. Although we cannot pinpoint the exact moment when it began, there is a rather splendid literary example in one of the best-known works of Ancient Greece: Homer's Odyssey, which dates back to approximately 3000 years ago.

In the Classical world, there was such a deep divide between expectations of what women's voices should be used for (domestic matters) and what public speech represented (power as an integral component of masculinity) that the rift still has not been completely bridged.

Even now, in our supposedly enlightened days when self-expression has come to include both the spoken and written word, and the public sphere has expanded to include media and the internet, women who dare to speak in public (even more so on topics not typically within the female purview) are viewed with scrutiny and more than a shade of suspicion; their remarks are reported as "shrill" or "strident;" they whine in high-pitched voices, while men assert in deep tones.

These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones), but into our culture, our language and millennia of history.

Without recognition of the validity of a woman's speech, she is effectively shut out from power. It has become commonplace to see women called "stupid" and much worse for simply expressing an opinion. They are routinely invited — in more or less polite terms — to "shut up," not infrequently with associated threats to secure that silence through physical means.

Alas, the advice given to targets of such remarks rarely goes beyond ignoring and blocking the offenders. Mary Beard urges us, as a society, to begin by questioning what constitutes the voice of authority. Simply shrugging off these modern-day silencers is not good enough; women must "put up or shut up" no more.

"Women in Power" (listen to the original lecture here or watch it here).

What is behind our society's issue with women in power? Why is it so difficult for them to attain it and, once they have done so, why are they almost automatically (and not always consciously) treated as interlopers by the media and the public?

It all has to do with the structure of power and how we view it — something we inherited from the Ancient Greeks. As Mary Beard made plain in "The Public Voice of Women," our patterns of thought and speech have their roots deeply in the Ancient World. Even thousands of years later, the division established at that time between women and power still infuses our reality, our culture and our imagination, to lengths we do not suspect.

Even the so-called "heroines" of Greek myths and literature (Medea, Clytemnestra, Antigone) make a tremendous mess as soon as they take charge, requiring men to swoop in, save civilisation from impending chaos, and put the poor inadequate creatures back in their place. In recent years, prominent female politicians have been represented as Medusa, the monstrous snake-haired Gorgon (a quick image search on the Web will produce numerous examples), a personification of female power and therefore of the havoc it will inevitably wreak — which must be incapacitated, decapitated by the male hero.

This served to justify the constraints placed by the Ancient Greeks on women in real life, and this is why society is so determined to exclude them from power. Indeed, the notion that women belong outside of power has such force that the very possibility of their accession to it comes across as an assault on a male preserve: they "smash the glass ceiling," they "storm the citadel."

How can we change this sad state of affairs? As ever, Mary Beard does not pretend to have simple solutions, but urges us to ponder and offers suggestions as to where to begin. This is one of the reasons why I love Professor Beard: she never says, "Here is what we must do," but rather "Here are some points we need to think about." Consequently, we need to question what power is, what shape it takes, who wields it. Power should not be something that one possesses, but a tool that can serve to improve things, as individuals as well as collectively.

You can't easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

To my mind, Women & Power deserves to be viewed as A Room of One's Own for the 21st century.

I purchased this book online.

Rating: *****


On a related topic, I highly recommend watching this recent video by the always relevant and articulate Jean in which she discusses what makes an inspiring woman, with thoughts on power and influence.

For more Mary Beard, here is my playlist on YouTube.