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R&R 140 | Beloved

It's a little last minute… But I made it! Two reviews in January! A good start, methinkst.  

Toni Morrison
Beloved
First published in: 1987
This edition: Picador, 1988
ISBN: 0-330-30537-9
Genre: american literature
Pages: 273
Cover information not available

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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.

R&R 139 | Holidays on Ice… v.2.0

David Sedaris
Holidays on Ice
First published in: 1998 (first edition), 2008 (second edition)
This edition: Back Bay Books, 2010 (second edition)
ISBN: 978-0-316-07891-7
Genre: memoir, humorist
Pages: 166
Cover design by Chip Kidd; cover photography by Marshall Troy

post_RR139

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

R&R 138 | Travels in the Scriptorium

SPOILER ALERT – in order for this book to be properly reviewed, I'm afraid I do have to reveal important elements of the story. Do not continue reading this review if you plan on reading this book.

Paul Auster
Travels in the Scriptorium
First published in: 2006
This edition: Henry Holt, first edition
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8145-9
Genre: meta fiction
Pages: 145
Cover design by Raquel Jaramillo; photography by Nick Vaccaro

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Prior to reading TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM, I've read 3 other novels by Paul Auster (THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES, ORACLE NIGHT and THE NEW YORK TRILOGY), and it's only good that I did. You see, if you are completely new to Paul Auster, this book will be confusing, and its meaning might pass you by. I really wouldn't recommend this as your first Auster book.
On the other hand, knowing of Paul Auster and his work will make this book more understandable, but also too predictable, too soon – a major downside. Either way I didn't feel like much of a winner with this book.

The book starts off in a typical Austerian fashion. An elderly man, Mr. Blank, sits in a room. Slowly – oh so very slowly – Mr. Blank tries to analyze the contents of his room, looking for clues to help him figure out who he is and how he got there. There are photographs on the desk as well as several manuscripts, one of which tells the story of a man living in a dystopian society, imprisoned – eerily similar to Mr. Blank's current situation. Mr. Blank has visitors he vaguely remembers, but most of the time he only feels intense guilt in their presence, and even more confusion about his identity. (The reader meanwhile 'sees' all: there are cameras and microphones, documenting everything.)

——————–[SPOILERS from here on out!] ———————-

In the very beginning, I had no idea what I was going to be reading and I am not going to lie, I was excited about figuring out the mystery of Mr. Blank's identity and the purpose of the room. I of course expected we'd revisit some of Auster's themes ("the man in a room", the book-in-a-book metaphor and other meta fiction techniques he uses to tickle the reader and his or her reading experience). I just didn't expect a literal rehash of his body of work. But that's what happened. I'll explain.

After we meet Mr. Blank, several other characters are introduced. We meet Anna on page 5 and a James P. Flood on pages 6 and 7. Familiar names to devoted readers of Auster's novels. Unfamiliar, yet, to me. For me, it was the name Peter Stillman (jr and sr) that rang a bell. The recognition was vague at first because it's been 5 years since I first encountered the names, but then it hit me that the Peter Stillmans are both characters in THE NEW YORK TRILOGY. After some quick Googling, I understood that both Anna and James P. Flood were also characters in works by Paul Auster. Other Auster characters join in: David Zimmer. Fanshawe. Sophie. Daniel Quinn. Etc.
I knew in that moment, upon seeing those names, what this book was all about. The mystery was solved. I was only on page 28.

Mr. Blank is obviously Paul Auster / The Author himself, locked in a room (his creative mind), suffering from writer's block, trapped and haunted by his own creations – characters he's killed off or made suffer in other ways. It doesn't get more meta than this: the author becomes a character in a book in which he is confronted by characters from his other books. The ultimate revenge! The ultimate predictability! The ultimate meta.

I had almost 120 more pages to go, but in knowing the above, I felt like I was wasting my time finishing the book (which thankfully only took a few hours; I honestly don't think I would have finished the book had it been 500 pages instead of the 145), and it frustrated me. I wanted to be able to properly review it, and so I had to force myself to finish something I had already finished in my mind.

Fans of Paul Auster might get a kick out of it: there are so many easter eggs! But I couldn't get over them leading to only THE MOST OBVIOUS THING, LIKE, EVER – so, so soon. If you expect me to a buy a book, the least you could do is give me some kind of challenge, as an "intelligent enough" reader. I want to be intrigued a little longer. I want to feel like I'm doing something useful with my time. This one was meant to be complex and deep, but in knowing how Auster rolls and what his themes are the book instead ended up being entirely too simple to bother with. A summary would have sufficed in helping me to understand Paul Auster, The Author, better.

Auster could easily be accused of being self-indulgent. I don't agree. I don't think Paul Auster wrote this to make a quick buck and stroke his ego. His previous works have revealed as much to me: the man is truly interested in writing about writing. It's his thing. But he's been doing it and doing it and doing it. This book was an exercise perhaps useful and insightful to him, but I didn't really have to read it and I wouldn't have, had I known what it was about first. THE NEW YORK TRILOGY is enough. I didn't need the DVD extras.

One notable thing that I wasn't happy with was that the only two female characters in the book, Anna and Sophie, were both Mr. Blank's "nurse" figures, giving him spongebaths (of course), jerking him off and letting him touch their boobs. It probably means something Freudian and unsurprising like how an author secretly lusts after the women he creates. Honest, sure, but I couldn't really appreciate it.
It almost makes me hope there will be a sequel to this book, where the women take revenge on The Author by hanging him up by his balls to teach him, all meta-like, how to *really* write strong female characters.

One positive note though: I found the locked room mystery as a literal mystery (is the door locked or ISN'T IT?!) amusing. Those are the kinds of nods I can value in meta fiction.

But my absolute favorite part? A particular quote from page 84. After Mr. Blank got irritated with that manuscript he was reading, he thinks to himself: "…regretting having wasted so much time on that misbegotten excuse for a story". Perhaps he didn't mean anything by it. Or the man is very self-aware with a penchant for cheeky irony, which I could then respect. Either way, Auster took the words out of my mouth. A fitting end, then, to this review.

R&R 137 | The Secret History

I've been writing everywhere now that I decided to look at this project as something I'm doing completely and unapologetically for myself. Nonetheless, I do wish to sincerely thank those of you who've been keeping track of this project and site, who've supported me and who've tried to keep me going. Thank you guys. And now without further ado: 

Donna Tartt
The Secret History
First published in: 1992
This edition: First Vintage Contemporaries edition, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-3170-0
Genre: psychological thriller (mostly)
Pages: 559
Cover photography by Alinary / Art Resource NY; cover design by Barbara de Wilde and Chip Kidd

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For my first review in many, many months I've chosen a book that I've read a while ago, a book that was buzzed about a lot when it was first published. That buzz is no more. But one of the things I personally like about my taste in books, is that I don't go along with fads. I don't always read “what everyone else is reading”, I don't keep track of what's new and what's hot. Sure, at times I will get curious and read and review new books (I just had to do FIFTY SHADES, obviously), and I can get really excited about upcoming new material from favorite authors… but to me, any unread book is a new book, and it's worthy of reviewing just as much as recently published work.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt is a book I read earlier on during this project, but it's always stayed with me. I read Tartt's THE LITTLE FRIEND before this one, and I was already very impressed with the author's ability to set a haunting, eerie, foreshadowing mood. But THE LITTLE FRIEND wasn't what I expected it to be; I'd decided to read thrillers for a month, and in the spirit of Themed Reading had hoped it would be more of a plot-driven thriller. It ended up being good in different ways; it had that beautiful haunting undertone throughout. But it wasn't what I wanted at the time. But it did inspire me to get a copy of THE SECRET HISTORY, which did turn out to have that eerie mystery, but with a bit of a faster plot to it, which really takes off after only a few chapters.

What I love about reading thrillers is "helping" to solve the who- and/or whydunits, but I prefer it if it isn't too corny, except of course in case of comedy and satire. Much like in THE LITTLE FRIEND, Tartt drops subtle hints and omens throughout the book, but whereas THE LITTLE FRIEND ended up in a different direction from my expectations, picking up on bits and pieces in THE SECRET HISTORY did prove to be more rewarding for a wannabe detective like yours truly.

THE SECRET HISTORY is a whydunit: a thriller in which the focus of the mystery is on motive, not on the culprit's identity. We instantly know someone dies: our narrator, scholarship student Richard Papen, informs us of the death of Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran on the very first page. The how and why of it, that will have to wait.

First Richard brings us to Hampden College, Vermont, where he studies the classics, eagerly hoping to be included in Professor Julian Morrow's elite class consisting of a small clique of eccentric and too-smart-for-their-own-good students from privileged backgrounds. After being rejected, however, Richard still hangs around, hoping to impress the other students, eventually gaining their approval when he helps them solve a problem, thus proving his worth and earning a spot in Julian's class after all. The group collectively worship Julian and his moral-less teachings to a point of obsession, and one evening while under the influence of both alcohol and their mentor, things go horribly, irreversibly, devastatingly wrong…

The clique, that's what it's all about. My first impression of the group of students is that they are all incredibly intelligent. Knowing what you know right off the bat – that someone dies – it also is clear immediately that this will be their undoing: they actually feel like they are above the laws of man and nature alike. The reader is wary; I for example found myself instantly prejudiced against the students. I disliked them and found them to be arrogant. And that's entirely the point.

I never fully trusted our narrator, and he has himself to thank for it. His background embarrasses him, and while at Hampden college Richard invents a different version of himself, a more glamorous and wealthy version, in hopes to impress the others. He does this with ease, nonchalantly, without regard for consequences. For instance, he spends all his money on expensive clothes, and proceeds to almost freeze to death in the only living arrangements he can now afford: an “apartment” without heating, but with a hole in the wall. His expensive clothes won't keep him warm.
It foreshadows the bigger, similar storyline ahead: secrets and lies… and dramatic consequences.

Despite all of his lies Richard still seems to be relatively untarnished and naïve. Shame is what motivates him, and the only person affected by and seriously hurt because of his lies is Richard himself. I sure as hell never trusted the others. Not one iota, so to speak. Reading this book was interesting in itself, as I never quite knew whom to trust, and it got to be a little bit nervewracking at times.

The plot line in itself could be considered to be unbelievable: how is it that these super intelligent (and you would think rational) students collectively lose all sense of reality because they are so mesmerized by just the one person? It could also be argued that the consequences are farfetched as well. But Tartt gets away with it because, for one, the psychology behind it is valid. The behaviors and motivations in THE SECRET HISTORY are reminiscent of cults.

Furthermore, it helps that Tartt's writing skills are off the charts, which to me was very evident from the start, when she began to set the scene: the (initially) idyllic college, where bookish students burn their way through subjects like philosophy, Greek and Roman mythology and history… a timeless place almost. (I felt the book could be set in any decade really, whether it's the 20's or the 80's. I marveled at this. You don't often find a timeless book these days.) Tartt was a student when she started writing this book, and it her intelligence and imagination both showed. I felt enveloped in the atmosphere.

It's quite a story, then, but Tartt makes it work, while always making clear, despite if and how justifiable a motive might be, that secrets and lies will break you eventually – and that nothing is certain. For our characters, these words may ring empty. But the message certainly comes across to readers of this book. Which is why I haven't forgotten THE SECRET HISTORY, and probably never will.

28/11/2013. On a final note before publishing this post, I do intend to give this site a new layout, something a bit cleaner and to the point. So when the site looks a bit messy in the next few weeks: it's not you. It's me.