writereaderly

writing of readerly reviews of writings

Month: August, 2013

Review: Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

sylvia plath the bell jarAn out-of-curiosity reread: Plath’s 1950s’ heroine Esther Greenwood, poor college girl trying to make good in the big city, progressively suffocates in the bell jar of her “mental health issue” (as we like to call it these days). Pretty thoroughly autobiographical, from what I understand, and a fairly comprehensive indictment of the limitations that constituted 1950s bourgeois US womanhood, it lacks the eloquent punch of Plath’s poetry – as brutal as that is – but is still informative as an insider’s view on madness. Presumably more interesting if you’re a somewhat-suicidal post-adolescent.

PS Coincidentally, I saw that the Melbourne Writers Festival had a 50th-anniversary retrospective type event on The Bell Jar, the day after I read this. I would have been curious to learn if the speakers thought this novel would really have lasted 50 years had it not been written by a mentally ill author who did, in fact, top herself in the year the book was published. I guess that’s the core reason I’m reading it — Plath’s poetry alone may not have lasted, as powerful as it is, and may not have made her famous, but a suicidal Plath’s poetry is a headliner.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading:
Bed and armchair reads
Where it went: Home
Best line of the book:
Reminds me of/that: Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well
Who I’d recommend it to:
Literary-historical readers
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

Review: Tom Cho’s “Look Who’s Morphing”

tom cho look who's morphingI’d been on the lookout for this one for a while, having heard Cho read a piece on Paper Radio and come across short fictions here and there. Cho at one point gave his bio as previously having had a different name and a different gender, and the short pieces in this collection are replete with examinations of identity in terms of ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality and anything really that you think makes you who you are. Generally, the characters in each piece morph and warp into something unexpected, ridiculous and entertaining, a simple strategy in order to make informed commentaries on the ID-list above. The writing is straightforward and witty, the politics contemporary, by and large I really enjoyed it. I have a suspicion that the standard plot-device of the transformation tends towards the gimmicky, though, as I started to get bored about a third of the way through; they’re perfect for individual performances, as Cho has proven. I’d read Cho again, but in small smart-arsey doses only.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading:
Park and bedtime reads
Where it went: Home
Best line of the book: “I wanted to cover my embarrassment, so I changed the topic by destroying part of a building: I turned to my right, saw what looked to be a luxury hotel and tried to look busy as I punched a hole in its penthouse level.” (p.149)
Reminds me of/that:
Who I’d recommend it to:
Novelty trans-queer readers
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

Review: “The Girls from La Vie Parisienne”

the girls from la vie parisienneFrom the sublime to the frivolous. A 1960s item that proclaims itself “a superb scintillating album of endearing beauties designed for the collector-connoisseur” – aka a selection of drawings of ladies in various states of undress and precoital abandon, taken from editions of the magazine La Vie Parisienne from the 1870s through the 1920s. Apparently it was terribly popular porn in WWI, and some of the drawings are quite winning; also bizarre: watering one’s indoor plant dressed only in a hat, apron and stockings? A very fine slice of life, and (given the attention paid to clothes in states of removal) fabulous for historic costume parties.

Where it came from: Birthday gift from DC
Time and manner of reading:
A bedtime read
Where it went: Keeper Shelf
Best line of the book: DC’s favourite caption: “Suzy, why this fuss at an insect’s buzzing? Did you not this morning give in to your cousin?”
Reminds me of/that:
Who I’d recommend it to:
You know who you are
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

Review: Lorna Sage’s “Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth-Century Women Writers”

lorna sage moments of truthI read this book faster than it deserved and I just couldn’t help myself. Lorna Sage selected these essays on seminal twentieth-century women writers from among her writings; they’d been previously published as introductions, reviews, obituaries. Her subjects: Djuna Barnes, Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Bowles, Christine Brooke-Rose, Angela Carter, Katherine Mansfield, Iris Murdoch, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Violet Trefusis, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf. There’s an awful lot of big names there, and Sage does them such shining justice: her nuanced, informed, vastly read reading of these writers’ work – particularly to examine the concept of vocation for a woman writer – is insightful, witty, intimidating. What a joy it must be to be read with such intellectual aplomb. I’d read most of the writers included, and those I’ve missed have just been jotted up the to-read list by several notches. A fabulous book, and I will have to reread it in a few years to see if I can bring more reading and understanding to it. Highly recommended.

Where it came from: Birthday gift from MOD
Time and manner of reading:
A few days of bed, train, café and writers’ centre reads
Where it went: Keeper Shelf
Best line of the book: “Reflection here is a kind of pun on thought and mirrors: mirrors flatter our delusions but most of us probably can’t think without them. We know ourselves best as images that are ambiguous, hypothetical, provisional.” (p.215)
Reminds me of/that: How much more – and more wisely – there is to re/read
Who I’d recommend it to:
Literary readers
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

Review: Monica Hejaiej’s “Behind Closed Doors: Women’s Oral Narratives in Tunis”

monia hejaeiej behind closed doorsI wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book but I found parts of it most interesting. Hejaiej, Tunis born and bred, returns to her home city as a Western-trained ethnologist to study the Beldi women’s oral storytelling tradition and its cultural role. (The Beldi are the old-world rich, educated upperclass of the city of Tunis, proud of their culture and refinement.) Hejaiej got access to three mistress storytellers, recorded their performed stories – that’s the bit that readers really miss out on – then conducted an ethnographic analysis of the content, meaning, linguistics, audience, etc. The ~100pp analysis which introduces the book I found fascinating, but the stories (like most written folktales divorced from their true, oral ambiance) I found dull and repetitive – not to mention horrifying, what with all those long-suffering women doing the right thing and letting their husbands kill their children to test the women’s fortitude. Etc. Culturally interesting and terrible, probably particularly useful for researchers.

Where it came from: Market book stall
Time and manner of reading:
A few days of armchair, waiting, bed and train reads
Where it went: Keeper Shelf
Best line of the book:
Reminds me of/that: Ana Castillo’s theory that women’s repression in Mexican culture can be traced to Muslim Arabic traditions in the Spanish colonisers’ culture
Who I’d recommend it to:
Culturally curious
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

Review: E.L. Doctorow’s “City of God”

e.l.doctorow city of godThis description of the book’s hero acts as word-portrait of the novel as a whole: “He is not even six feet but appears larger, the size of a strong presence, a divinity student with a good name and no money to speak of, and manly as hell” (p.186). Doctorow’s novel is comprised of half a dozen distinct, high-falutin’ male narrative voices, questioning god, life, meaning, etc., etc. For me, they never resolved into a transcendent chorus of meaning, but remained enmired in performative masculine literary self-doubt, ie a tiresome cacophony that delighted in pretentious spectacle. I tried hard, I finished it despite the pain, thinking that at some point I would be appropriately revelated to feel as the worshipful back-cover reviewers did about this book. But no: I did not enjoy it and I did not feel transcended. Try-hard religious glamour.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading:
A few days of intermittent reads
Where it went: Home
Best line of the book: “I wonder if revelation comes not like light to the eye but as an imposed ordering of that part of the self so deeply interior as to be anonymous.” (p.169)
Reminds me of/that: This one and that one that I’ve recently read: more of the erudite machismo ilk
Who I’d recommend it to:

Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Behind Closed Doors by Monia Hejaiej

Review: Tash Aw’s “The Harmony Silk Factory”

tash aw harmony silk factoryThis was a gripping read, I’ll give it that – three characters (son, wife, onetime best friend) exploring the enigma that was Johnny Lam, set mostly during the late-30s and early 40s in the Federated States of Malaya. None of the three, of course, plumbs the depth of mysterious Johnny. I’d say only two of the characters are truly three dimensional: wife Snow is just an evocation of distance on the page. Actually, the best friend was *not* creditable as a straight man, nor was his passion. And the novel was well written, quite lovely, but I remained unmoved by it. It was most enriching, however, to read a Malaysian late-colonial novel, and I pined for the heat and the fruit and the fragrant air (and they stuck with me for a day or two after I had moved on to other bookly distractions). I wouldn’t write Aw off, though; I may try another of his if it crosses my lectern.

Where it came from: Library reject shelf
Time and manner of reading:
A couple of nights and afternoons, mostly in the armchair
Where it went: Opshop
Best line of the book:
Reminds me of/that:
Who I’d recommend it to:
Culturally curious
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; City of God by E.L. Doctorow