May 7, 2014
A lot has happened in the past few months. In the span of a mere six weeks, we've had to bury both my uncle and my grandfather. When I'm processing a lot of emotions, I can't read. I can't finish the book I'm reading at that time. I develop a kind of tunnelconcentration – much like tunnelvision, I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. The past few months I concentrated on being okay and on acceptance. The rest fades away, and I'll wake up the next day thinking, "Oh right. That."
This is something I'm going to be working on – to try and multitask, to place value on multiple things at once.
Anyway, I've picked up my reading now. The Neil Gaiman book I started and paused? I'm almost finished, and glad I didn't give up on it after all. I've read a few books in the Aurora Teagarden series, and the third Bridget Jones. Books are once again a source of relaxation, mild escape, analysis and thought. The Bridget Jones book especially was a good one to read during this time, as it did in fact help me to process a lot of the sadness I've felt.
Well, then. No promises, remember? But this is just an interlude.
© Karin E. Lips
2008-2011 and beyond.
January 31, 2014
It's a little last minute… But I made it! Two reviews in January! A good start, methinkst.
First published in: 1987
This edition: Picador, 1988
Genre: american literature
Cover information not available
One of my bookish friends really recommended that I read Toni Morrison. He was with me when I bought a copy of SONG OF SOLOMON, his favorite. I haven't read that one yet. I want to. But I've perhaps always intimidated by the idea of Toni Morrison. So when I found a copy of BELOVED, her most famous book, I thought it would maybe be best to start with that one. I should note that I've never seen the Oprah movie, but I'd heard of it before and that helped me to get started on this as I felt BELOVED would be more approachable to read as my 'first'.
It's good that I try not to get further information about movies I don't plan on watching (any time soon) or books I won't be reading (any time soon). I keep the element of surprise that way. Because anything I thought I knew about BELOVED was based on my own assumptions on what it could be about. I connected Oprah's love of it to Oprah's love of THE COLOR PURPLE, a book I read and cherished when I was a kid. I just assumed it would be something similar. Of course I was wrong (and I should really stop assuming). One of my first notes about this book opposed my assumption BELOVED would be like other books: I noted instead that BELOVED certainly is unique.
BELOVED is set in the mid 1800's: slavery is about to be abolished. But Sethe has already made the flight to freedom, following her children to Cincinnati, Ohio, to live with them and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs.
Years pass by before Sethe is reunited with another former slave from Sweet Home, Paul D, and a love affair blooms… but Sethe's new chance of happiness is threatened by the heavy burden she carries. Her daughter Beloved, dead at Sethe's own hands, is making her way back to 124 Bluestone Road.
After finishing the book I learned that the story is based somewhat on Margaret Garner, a former slave who infamously murdered her own child in order to save her from a life of slavery. Morrison adds mystery to it, beginning her story as a sort of poltergeist tale. The reader knows a child died at 124 Bluestone Road, and it would appear as though that child is haunting the house. My interest was immediately peaked, as I do love a bit of a supernatural element to a story.
Later on, upon the arrival of a young woman named Beloved (a fascinating character and open for interpretation, if you pay attention to subtle clues as you read), the story shifts to complex themes such as mother-daughter co-dependency (and how the co-dependency transforms into a mutual, destructive obsession), sisterhood (another lead character is Denver, Sethe's other daughter), trauma, loss of individuality and the meaning of freedom. And it is then that I really got into the story.
It took a while though: the prose, while beautiful, was at times hard to follow. (It took me until about page 40 to really get into the book.) Morrison has a talent for not stating the obvious in the most lyrical way possible. I at times had to re-read a paragraph, either because I loved the prose, or to try and figure out what it was I'd just read, to make sure I understood Morrison's meaning correctly. BELOVED is definitely one of the more challenging books I've read as of late.
What mostly made me think of Morrison as an interesting author, is her emphatic writing. I found it admirable, her ability to create soulful prose that rings authentic with her characters and has the strength to deeply move me. I could wax poetic about my feelings about her writing, or I could just post an example and let her writing speak for itself:
"Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right or permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon – everything belonged to the men who had the guns. (…) And these 'men' (…) could (…) stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. (…) A woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia."
The book also includes a few unexpected (but still fitting) stream-of-consciousness chapters which have the same effect as the piece I quoted up there. I loved that Morrison could express empathy through words but also through form: it's clear that these are fragmented souls, people who've experienced a lot of trauma. Working through that doesn't involve a precise manual. It's memories, nightmares – all hauntingly unexpected and catching you off guard. (And that's why freedom is not necessary really freedom. These characters are never free from fear and from the past.) The flashbacks, the stream-of-consciousness chapters, the almost poem like paragraphs: it's confusing, fragmented writing. And it fits.
While none of these characters will have a complete resolution – re: trauma – the story does come full circle. A mother's love for her daughter results in tragedy; a daughter's love for her mother is what overcomes it. Beautiful.
It's Morrison's clear skill in understanding humans that makes me want to explore more of her work. It made me feel that Morrison is one of those few "important authors". Her work, while full of tragedy, is not theatrical. It's not obvious. And I should never assume anything about it ever again.
© Karin E. Lips
2008-2011 and beyond.
January 9, 2014
Holidays on Ice
First published in: 1998 (first edition), 2008 (second edition)
This edition: Back Bay Books, 2010 (second edition)
Genre: memoir, humorist
Cover design by Chip Kidd; cover photography by Marshall Troy
The first thing I plan on doing when I'm done writing this book review is to deconstruct the myriad of branches and bulbs that is our Christmas Tree – which, I should add, is our second tree. We've managed to kill off our first one. It was quite a pathetic sight, really: limp branches, falling off. Needles everywhere. Duct tape couldn't save it. Tears were shed, some out of pride: that dear ole tree lasted us 4 whole Christmases. The rest of the tears were the direct result of my husband and I crylaughing our way to the gardencenter to pick up our new tree.
The holidays are once again over and done with. So this review is, as we Dutch would say it, "butter after the meal" and thus completely unnecessary and too late. BUT. It's how I roll.
When I bought HOLIDAYS ON ICE v.1.0 in 2010 at a second-hand book store, I wasn't actually aware of there being a newer version published two years earlier. I found that out when I reviewed it, but also figured I'd get to the rest of the book at some point! Now, I'm reviewing v.2.0, but only the 6 additional stories as I already covered the rest several years ago.
The first "new" story I discovered in v.2.0 is Jesus Shaves, from one of my favorite Sedaris bundles, ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY. It's more about Easter, but generally can be read as a story about any holiday, and holiday traditions. And how they vary across cultures. And how secretly, one can be pretty intolerant about someone else's beliefs – whether we're talking about easter bunnies here… or about something deeper. What I believe? That works. That makes sense. What you believe (or don't believe)? Man. That's fucked up. I liked that bit of social commentary here because it's true! It's what we humans do. Many tend to judge everything that doesn't fit within their own mindset. And I love how Sedaris addresses that with light humor.
What I also loved about this story is the dialog, which is in broken French (as it's set during a French class) translated to broken English for the sake of this story. Hilarious. It's like Sedaris ran Google Translate over it before getting it ready to send to the publisher.
Us and Them continues with the theme of intolerance for other people's traditions and beliefs and non-beliefs. (But takes place during Halloween.) The Tomkey family, you see, doesn't watch TV. They don't believe in TV. But it's so normal! Everyone watches TV! Etcetera. It's a great analogy. Or at least, that's how I read it. It's not quite as direct of a Christmas story, but it was still apt: it made me think about how some people clutch their pearls when someone deigns to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. I say Happy Holidays. Not to stomp on Christians… but to include everyone.
The next story is a short one with a big message: Let it Snow, about Sedaris' siblings and stubborn mom (I love reading about her, I really do), is about forgiveness and loving your mom – no matter what insane crap she pulls at times.
Six to Eight Black Men is a little close to home, and a great addition to the collection. The Dutch holiday Sinterklaas, after all, is how Santa Clause originated.
It's one thing to live in this country during this Holiday (December 5th/6th; a time of arguments about political correctness, or the amount of pepernoten you'll find in stores nationwide from freakin' August on), it's another to try and explain it to foreigners without feeling embarrassed… or being called a racist. See, Sinterklaas doesn't have elves as helpers: he has black men. Six to eight black men. The story behind this is that Sinterklaas freed slaves, and gave them paying jobs. People who don't know this tend to assume they are slaves, and they judge us harshly, probably based on our history.
…the blackface doesn't help. While kids here are taught that "Black Petes" are their friends (a good message), I still cringe every time I see shoe polish (!!!) and bright red lips mixed with golden hoop earrings and a bad afro wig… on white people. To refer to Jesus Shaves for a moment: "Man. That's fucked up." I don't know what I'll do about this holiday when I have kids.
Thankfully, Sedaris doesn't make us feel like we need to crawl into a corner and never show ourselves again. Every country has embarrassing traditions and silly stories to tell. We've all got something that makes others raise their eyebrows all the way into their hairline. (Sedaris mentions how a blind man in Michigan can legally hunt.)
So far so good: all the new stories, despite different holidays, seem to fit well with the older six. It seems it's become more about holidays in general, making the bundle a lot more varied. The stories are each unique and just very different, and the book's a joy to read. But The Monster Mash could easily have been excluded from the bundle, and I wouldn't have missed it. Don't get me wrong, it's funny – morbidly funny (it's about David working at a mortuary), but there was no holiday spirit like with the other stories. Any other time of the year: bring it. I'll read it and love it. But it's not something I'm looking to read specifically over Christmas.
The final story is from Sedaris newer book SQUIRREL SEEKS CHIPMUNK (which is on my to-be-reviewed pile). This illustrated bundle of books is about animals doing human things, which is both bizarre and hilarious to read. The Cow and the Turkey is definitely Christmas themed (as barn animals are doing their annual Secret Santa), and it covers selfishness and how karma will eventually bite you in the ass. It's a bittersweet ending to a fun bundle of Holiday stories.
Sedaris is a walking oxymoron: the best cynical sentimentalist I've ever had the joy to read. I'm just grateful he's writing. He's cheered up many a foul mood of mine. And he's given me at least 11 (out of 12) reasons to enjoy Christmas even more. Thanks man.
Happy new year, everyone. I hope 2014 will bring you a lot of happiness and joy; that you will accomplish what you hope to accomplish or at least find the spirit and inspiration to try; that you and yours will be safe and in good health. And of course I hope that in 2014 you'll have the chance to explore lots of new stories and worlds…
XO Kaat Z
© Karin E. Lips
2008-2011 and beyond.