Internships & Indie Books

Yesterday I began a new internship writing for Vibe Vixen, and it’s great to have a reason to put on real clothes in the morning: you know, like pants without dancing toasters on them. Actual clothes. Like these:

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Wait, something is missing.

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^^^That’s better. My train book:聽By The River Piedra I Sat Down And Wept.聽I’m thoroughly entranced by it so far.

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Sorry I look like such a goober: posing for pictures makes me awkward and I’m smiling so cheesy because my father (who took the picture) had no idea how to use my camera and it made me laugh.

What I love most about fashion/style is picking together really old pieces from your wardrobe and finding new combinations. Everything about this outfit is old, old, old but I have never worn them like this. Those burgundy tights from American Apparel have become so worn out but I still wear them basically every other week, and the taupe boots from Forever 21 need some love from a cobbler (I also have them in black). But being broke and interning means I have to recycle my old clothes and my staples and find new ways to wear them. I’m up to the challenge 馃檪

And since it was my first day and therefore short, I thought I’d take some time to visit a new indie bookstore. I love finding new places and after a little searching, I found one centrally located on 47th Street between 5th and Madison: The Center for Fiction.

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It’s an indie and a non-profit, and they have a modest collection of Rare Books, a whole back storeroom of Used Books, new titles at 50% off, and a few self-published zines, as well as the now-common collection of printed tees and totes.

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What I found lovely about this place was the architecture of the building itself. It’s attached to a little office building so you can see the old elevators from the inside, nothing about the decor is overwrought, and it feels more like an eccentric collector’s home than a bookstore, which I’m sure is constructed but it’s charming anyway!

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I loved the Rare Books shelves. I found a book I wanted but it was $75. I think I’ll stick to used, thanks. The Used Books section was my favorite, which was definitely a storeroom they didn’t bother decorating, which is awesome. Bonus: no music playing so you get that creepy-quiet atmosphere conducive to book-shopping (I think!)

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All in all, I had a pretty good Monday.

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The Virgin Suicides

It’s been almost a year since I read this book and it’s difficult to fully convey my feelings about it. All I knew when I put it down, after two days’ feverish reading, was that this book had changed me, and would continue to change me. I cherished it without knowing why. This post is less of a review and more of an ode, just like this book if less of an exploration of suicide and more of a poem dedicated to the five girls who made a suicide pact. By taking their lives, the Lisbon sisters affected an entire suburban town and inspired a lifelong obsession in the boys of the neighborhood who find themselves haunted, in their middle age, by the events of a single year of their adolescence.

The narrative begins with a description of thirteen-year-old Cecilia’s first suicide attempt. Her parents find her in a full tub聽having slit her wrists. Skinny, pale, blonde, and wearing a wedding dress, Cecilia feels like the classic tortured teenager. Sitting in a hospital bed with bandaged wrists, Cecilia is asked by a doctor why she wanted to take her life. He says she’s “not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Cecilia responds, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” (5) This chilling rejoinder sets the tone for the novel and introduces the reader to the real private angst of adolescent girls.

Cecilia does accomplish her goal, in a gruesome and public manner, and the rest of the novel follows the actions of the remaining four Lisbon sisters, Mary, Therese, Lux, and Bonnie, as聽we watch them cope with the suicide of their sister and struggle with their identities.聽

What is brilliant and moving about this novel is that it’s not strictly about five girls committing suicide, it’s about a group of boys and howtheyexperienced and perceived the event of five girls committing suicide. Everything about the narrative–the characters, the events–is filtered through the eyes of the teenage boys who witnessed it all, from Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide to Mary’s last, and all the others’ in between. Readers only get to know the five sisters from brief glimpses into their lives, all through the point of view of the boys who never really knew them, who admired and grew obsessed with them, and who ultimately could not save them.

Suicide is right there in the title but this novel is more about life than death. The way it’s written makes it feel like a myth or legend, something eerie like a ghost story, separated by a layer of unreality, but ultimately possible and haunting. Weaved into the narrative is an exploration of suburban, middle-class life that reminded me of Middlesex.聽Most people in the neighborhood have a commitment to upholding the suburban American ideal of a nuclear family and a nice house–you know, the white-picket-fence thing. They do not entertain the possibility of intense depression and an aversion to this way of life, or even conceive that there is something better or more desirable for some. Nor can they understand what could have driven five normal girls, with all the possibilities in the world for an American teenager, to kill themselves.聽

In the words of an elderly Greek woman,

We Greeks are a moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. Putting up Christmas lights after your own daughter does it–that makes no sense. What my聽yia聽yia聽could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time. (169)

The American ideal is critiqued, yes, but it’s also suggested that this aspiration to live up to expectations contributed to the girls’ desperation and depression, that somehow these girls knew they could never achieve happiness and chose another way out.

The novel also critiques media and personal perception of death and suicide, and how tragic events are transmuted into sensational events to be aired on TV and written about in newspapers ad nauseum.聽After Cecilia’s death, reporters appear at the Lisbons’ door day after day, searching for a scoop. The media tries desperately to parse Cecilia’s motives and her psychological health, searching for a reason, and searching for more viable stories to print and air. Meanwhile,聽the neighborhood prints leaflets with helpful information about suicide such as stats and prevention tips. This ridiculous response shows a patent lack of understanding about the realities of depression and suicide and echoes this suburban concept that everything can be solved and perfect happiness achieved.

The Virgin Suicides, despite the title and subject matter,聽keeps you detached from suicide. Just like the boys, we will never understand the true motives of the girls, or of the real people like them. It’s tragic and traumatizing. That’s why this novel is so haunting, but it’s also why it makes great literature: it forces readers to challenge their perceptions and reach new levels of understanding about something unexplainable. Perhaps, in this case, the explanation is that there is none.聽There is no why. There is no closure. You don’t get over it.

We knew that Cecilia had killed herself because she was a misfit, because the beyond called to her, and we knew that her sisters, once abandoned, felt her calling from that place, too. But even as we make these conclusions we feel our throats plugging up, because they are both true and untrue…we are certain only of the insufficiency of explanations. (241)

References

Eugenides, J. (1993)聽The Virgin Suicides. New York, NY: Picador.

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"My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead" and other pretty things

This collection of short stories about love, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, has a weird name. But it’s pretty.

It took me a while to get through this one. I can read a book a week usually but I was nursing this one like a warm beer, and I聽like warm beer. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it’s just that the good takes a long time to find, and when it comes, you lose it again when the story ends. This may be a symptom of how I read, though–I’m not a huge fan of short story collections. Usually I read them in combination with a novel and switch off when I grow tired of one or the other.

Honestly, the two things I loved best about this compilation were the story by Nabokov and Eugenides’s own introduction. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” is everything a short love story should be and all you’ve come to expect from Nabokov.

Eugenides begins the book with a rumination on his short story choices and on what inspired him to become a writer. As a child, Eugenides learned about the Latin poet Catallus in his English class and read his poetry, meant to sound like birdsong. He describes the experience he had realizing that this poem, written two thousand years ago, had reached his ears as if by fate. It was then that he discovered the power of the written word. Whether or not this story is true, it makes for an effective introduction. Catallus was incidentally the first poet to write about a specific person in the context of love, rather than writing about love broadly and without object, as was the norm.

Photo Oct 31, 11 27 32 AMBut the part of the introduction that really tugged at my heartstrings was this passage:

It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can simultaneously partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying a crippling emotional price. I offer this book, then, as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery. Read these love stories in the safety of your single bed. Let everybody else suffer. (xvii)

While I disagree obviously with the sentiment that it’s better to stay in bed and read stories than fall in love, I do think Eugenides has pinpointed the exact reason many of us read to begin with: to experience euphoria and despair, and safely. We read about love so that we may fall in love.

The collection features some literary giants, and you may even have read some of these famous short stories already. My favorites were “Spring in Fialta” by Nabokov, “The Lady with the Little Dog” by Chekhov, “Mouche” by Guy de Maupaussant, “The Moon in its Flight” by Gilbert Sorrentino, and “Yours” by Mary Robison. Those are the ones that stand out most in my memory when I scan the table of contents and the ones that affected me most while I was reading.

I think I liked the idea of this book better than the book itself. Some stories were stagnant and fell flat, while others glittered with beauty and rang with truth. Still others were too long or too short, which was jarring and disrupted the pace of the book.

I don’t recommend reading it like you would read a novel, from start to finish. Rather, pick it up at random one day when you’re looking for a quick fix. The stories included are not simple, however. They’re complex and challenging and frightening. Like love.

References

Eugenides, J. (2008)聽My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead.聽New York, NY: HarperCollins

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Book Lust & Black Friday

I wish bookstores had Black Friday sales so I could get a bestselling $27.95 hardcover for like seven bucks. That would be a merry Christmas! I guess I’ll just have to wait for Read Tuesday though. My family knows me very well by now so they know I usually ask for specific books and if they can’t find those, or if they’ve already been bought, a B&N gift card is always appreciated. On my wish list this year are several of those aforementioned expensive hardcovers released recently:

1. Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

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I loved Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, and was so excited by the prospect of another unique, many-layered novel like that. I read The Thirteenth Tale when I was very young, fourteen I think, and it was a book that made me stop reading YA for a time and focus on adult literature, and so I credit it with introducing me to new books and new authors. I’ve heard Bellman & Black has gotten less-than-stellar reviews but I’m still eager to experience it myself.

2. The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

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Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors, even though her novel The Namesake was my least favorite of her books. I liked her short story collections much better, especially The Interpreter of Maladies. Anyway, I got sticker shock when I saw the price on that one and kept putting off a trip to the library so I could read the thing already, and then I decided to ask for it for Christmas. I’m super excited for it, even though all my other Lahiri books are paperback! But I do like mismatched shelves, and I like hardcovers even more.

3. The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

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I found such a gorgeous hardcover edition of this classic at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago and had to forcibly stop my hand from picking it up and buying it immediately. I want this edition specifically because it’s pretty because I’m sure I could get a cheap paperback of this for close to nothing. Unfortunately, I like pretty books.

4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Box Set Trilogy, Stieg Larsson

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This one is a guilty pleasure. I loved the books but I don’t own them, having borrowed them from my sister a couple years ago. She’s got the cloth-covered box set that I covet, and since they’re so expensive, I feel like they’d make a great gift from my long-suffering family! Barring that, I’ll get myself a used set. Pre-loved, I always say.

What’s on your wish list this holiday season?

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Happy Thanksgiving!

From my family to yours.

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My parents are Italian immigrants and I’m very close to my immediate and extended family. Every year we do Thanksgiving hard, with antipasti, then pasta, then turkey with two kinds of stuffing and like four sides, then fruit, dessert, and around midnight we bring out some hot snacks like baked clams and shrimp oreganata. Our whole event lasts around twelve hours and we take naps to stay energized. It’s pretty awesome!

IMG_0779 IMG_0780Sangria features prominently, as do roasted peppers and soppressata.

IMG_0877 IMG_0880I love this holiday.

Here’s what I’m wearing today:

IMG_2033I look a bit Christmassy this year but I don’t mind beginning the season early!

I also styled my sister:IMG_2029 IMG_2032She was having a little too much fun!

IMG_2036Happy Thanksgiving!

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Bookstore Hopping: Boston and the Brookline Booksmith

Over the weekend I took a road trip to Boston with my best friend. It’s about a four-hour drive from New York, which isn’t terrible, and we stayed in the lovely Boston University area, in the South Campus. This is the Admissions Building all covered with changing leaves and climbing ivy. It was beautiful, but so cold! I had brought only a light jacket and immediately regretted it.

ImageImageImageOne afternoon we took a walk down to the river and what BU kids call “The BU Beach” because there’s a lawn a few feet from the water where kids do homework and lounge during the nice weather. It’s a cool urban quad.

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Though the weather was freezing, it was so beautiful near the water and the view was spectacular.

On our last day, our friend gave us a recommendation for a great indie bookstore in Brookline, in a neighborhood called Coolidge Corner. It’s called Brookline Booksmith.

Photo Nov 24, 1 50 27 PMThe store has two floors: the top floor reminded me a bit of the Strand crossed with Barnes & Noble; there were many other kinds of merchandise there from tote bags, greeting cards, maps, notebooks, and all your various paper-type merchandise but there were also hats, gloves, and scarves and a whole Kid’s Section that definitely reminded me of B&N. It’s an indie but it feels corporate…that is, until you get downstairs.

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The used book cellar, and more my kind of bookstore.

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It was quiet and had that library feel, as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the upstairs. My friend and I scored some cheap titles and spent a lovely half hour browsing drowsily.

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I loved these shelves! There’s something mysterious about stacking books this way, although I’m sure it has more to do with cataloging and keeping new arrivals out of the way than with aesthetics, but it has that mystery nonetheless.

ImageI bought four books:

IMG_20281. Mary and Maria/Matilda, by Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

2.聽The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

3.聽The Heptameron, by Marguerite de Navarre (who is one of my favorite historical figures. She was the Mother of the Renaissance, horribly overlooked and underrated, a contemporary of and a huge intellectual influence on Anne Boleyn)

4.聽My Antonia, by Willa Cather (I also offer for suggestion Dogfish Head’s My Antonia Pilsner, which I bought at Eataly simply because it had a literary name. I love beer, and this seemed like the perfect combination of two of my loves!)

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My friend and me. I had wrapped a scarf around my head to protect myself from the freezing wind! Tip: bring an actual coat to Boston in November–don’t repeat my foolish mistakes.

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Successful Historical Fiction, "Green Darkness" by Anya Seton

When I was fourteen and fifteen, a young freshman in high school, I devoured historical fiction. And no, Philippa Gregory, I’m not looking at you. It started when I read The Memoirs of Cleopatra聽in ninth grade, a tome that took me a month to read and caused many stares among my teachers when I carried it around the halls. I had a love for reading about historical figures as if they were living and breathing beside me and found that I learned much more about actual historical events in this manner, rather than in the dry form it was delivered to us in school. I read a dozen books by Jean Plaidy, a couple by Margaret George, Antonia Fraser, and Alison Weir before I stumbled upon Anya Seton.

Years later, I still love historical fiction but my bar has been set a lot higher. Years of research have made me a skeptical reader. But I still love reading fictionalized versions of history, especially ones that do not feature an actual queen, king, or princess, but ones that use historical setting to tell a story with unique, well-developed characters. These characters have to do two different things simultaneously, and flawlessly, in order to be believable in a historical setting and interesting to a modern audience: they have to act like they would in the past yet speak to some modern issue. It’s very difficult, and can descend quickly into kitsch if not done well. Anya Seton’s聽Green Darkness聽is one of those examples of successful historical fiction.

It’s a little gimmicky in the beginning. In the late 1960s, a young American woman named Celia has just married an English noble. It was a whirlwind romance–they met and married on a boat and claimed love at first sight. A year later, Celia’s husband Richard has become taciturn and withdrawn, and Celia bored and unhappy. When Celia and Richard both suffer emotional breakdowns and hover near death, an Indian mystic recognizes their symptoms and suggests an alternative to Western medicine: an exorcism-like reliving of their past life in order to free them of it. The themes of this novel are reincarnation, the power of cause and effect, and the ways in which our lives–and past lives–influence our souls and the lives of those around us.

There are two main sections of this novel, the one set in the 70s and the one set in the Tudor period of England, during the tumultuous reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary I. There are several reasons why this novel works. One reason is the setting; the other are the characters.

Setting the novel during the Tudor period is trite and overdone. There are so many novels that deal with Henry VIII’s six wives, and with Queen Elizabeth’s reign, whether it features Shakespeare or the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or with Elizabeth’s controversial claim of virginity, that the Tudor period has been so thoroughly canvassed it seems like nothing new can be described. However, Seton chose brilliantly to set her novel almost exclusively within the reigns of Edward and Mary, and in doing so, manages to shed light on a violent period of English history. We learn about the politics of religion during this time period and how believing in–or indeed, even speaking about–the wrong religion could not only impoverish you, it might send you to the stake.

Factions appear in the social landscape of the novel: the Catholics and the Protestants. When Edward is on the throne, all must shut up their chaplains and hide their rosary beads. When Mary is on the throne, they must redact their previous positions and extol the virtues of Catholicism, or else be burned. The political atmosphere of the novel produces some interesting characters and taught me a lot about an often-overlooked period of English history, nestled as it is between those two giants Henry and Elizabeth.

Then there are the characters. Celia, the previous edition of the modern Celia, is an impoverished tavern girl with slightly noble relatives. Her poor but well-bred aunt takes her under her wing when Celia is fourteen, and the young girl spends some time in the luxurious Cowdray Castle. There, she takes faith classes from Brother Stephen, a devout monk disciplined to the point of self-mutilation, and horrified at the Protestant changes occurring in England. Much to Brother Stephen’s chagrin, confusion, and horror, Celia falls in love with him.

The results are complicated, tragic, and vivid. This novel is聽not a romance, yet it is romantic. And at its heart is the question: who pays for our actions in life? If karma is real, how many lifetimes of service to others will cleanse our souls? And if we do meet again those we’ve known in previous lives, how do our past lives affect our present one?

Celia is not your typical romance-novel heroine. She begins the novel as a timid albeit vain young girl and becomes cynical, brave, and strong in the course of it. Brother Stephen reminds me of a much more moral Arthur Dimmesdale crossed with Orlando Bloom: stoic, self-harming, incredibly religious, yet unfailingly fair and kind. Oh, he’s also supposed to be gorgeous.

The novel has aged a bit since its publication in the 70s, but it’s still a lush, thought-provoking, beautiful book. I read 250+ pages in one sitting, and was entranced. Forty years ago, historical novels were still considered intellectual literature. It is only in recent decades that they have fallen in repute, probably due to subpar writers appropriating the genre and sullying its name (Philippa Gregory, now I’m looking at you).聽Green Darkness and the entire Seton collection reminds us what great historical fiction can be. Good literature of all genres introduces readers to new worlds, and that’s exactly what historical fiction does, except it has the power to teach us about world history, our roots, and the way we can relate to people from ages past.

References

Seton, A. (1972)聽Green Darkness.聽New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Timeless Literature and its Opposite: the Lesson of "Angel"

One of my favorite books is Angel by author Elizabeth Taylor. I was first introduced to the novel because I had seen the movie, and loved it. I quickly purchased the book. Angelica “Angel” Deverell is a fifteen-year-old girl living with her poor mother above their shop. She frequently invents stories about herself, her favorite of which is that her mother was disinherited by her rich family when she married beneath her, and that Angel herself is a wealthy heiress. Angel has a vivid imagination and an arrogant disposition. She also has a gift for writing–overblown, purple-prose, bad-romance-novel kind of writing which she uses to escape her poverty.

Angel writes a romance novel called聽The Lady Irania and becomes an overnight sensation, a wunderkind. Fanciful and proud, Angel believes herself to be the most talented writer to ever have lived, and lives her life like a queen. But her novels are fluff; they’re on the bestseller list one day and forgotten the next. Throughout, she refuses to acknowledge reality and keeps inventing stories about herself, until they become reality to her.

Joining Angel are a cast of lively, complex characters either besotted with her, amused by her antics, or those completely absorbed with hatred for her. The novel is Austen-esque in the way it deals with the subtle nuances of people’s personalities and their flaws. It also has the same kind of quiet, dry humor that makes reading Austen such fun.

Taylor has little to no sympathy for Angel in the novel. Her tone is biting and sarcastic, and she makes it clear that she is indicting all bad-romance novelists for believing their work is timeless and meaningful. Taylor presents for contrast the artist Esme Howe-Nevinson, a struggling artist whose works are not popular and would not be popular for generations after. The dichotomy of Esme’s underappreciated work and Angel’s fast fad literature calls to mind our own time, with the likes of聽Fifty Shades of Grey topping the bestseller lists over intellectual literary fiction. Nothing has changed.

Angel reminds us of the undeniable power of timeless literature that transcends social and cultural boundaries to deliver truths from ages past. One thinks of the classics, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, but also of the books published in our own time that will doubtless become the literature our grandchildren will read.

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Now as for the movie. I cannot possibly be unbiased about the movie. I simply love it. I stumbled upon the movie over four years ago when I was stuck home and looking for something to watch. I read the description of the movie from the On Demand menu and chose it at random. I think the description was something like, “The rise and fall of a young eccentric British writer, in the early 20th century.” I read that and thought, “British writer? Early 20th century? Yeah I’ll watch that.” When it began I saw Romola Garai on screen and literally cheered. She’s one of my favorite actresses and has played some of my favorite literary characters. Really–it’s uncanny.

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Garai’s Angel is a complex mix of arrogance, vulnerability, naivet茅, and a certain measure of cruelty. The cruelty stems from the fact that she alters reality around her to suit her fanciful visions of herself, and the people closest to her become casualties. To put it simply, she has enormous delusions of grandeur and lies to make herself seem important. Most interestingly though, she cannot tell the difference between lying about herself and telling stories. Eventually, she believes her own lies and the truth ceases to exist at all.

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I think the Angel in the movie is much more sympathetic than the Angel in the novel. Yes, she’s utterly frustrating in the way a thirteen-year-old girl’s Facebook statuses about her two-week relationship are frustrating, but you can’t help but feel sorry for her. All she wanted was to be special, and when she got it, she had to hold onto it no matter what. And there’s something to be said about an imagination so powerful it can literally change one’s past.

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When I finished the movie, I could not stop thinking about it. It’s a story that burrows into your heart because it triggers some emotion inside you. I saw myself in Angel, in the way I love stories and in my ambition to be a writer. But she is, more than anything else, a warning. You’re not supposed to want to be her. You’re supposed to pity her, and try to avoid her many mistakes.

Plus, Michael Fassbender is in it. Happy and sad things happen. It’s on Netflix Instant.聽You should watch it.

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Francois Ozon’s direction and set design are entrancing. He uses cheesy green-screen backdrops to illustrate how dramatic and removed from reality Angel is, and the effect is just ridiculous in a great way. It’s much more complex than it seems at first watch.

Angel聽is a novel meant for writers. And it’s a novel meant for dreamers. I don’t mean either of those things as good, however. Above all,聽Angel聽is a cautionary tale meant for those with big egos who choose to live their lives outside of reality. Through Angel, Taylor reminds us to keep our feet on the ground and stay self-aware.

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References

Taylor, E. (1957)聽Angel. United Kingdom: Virago Press

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My Review of "Conversations with EVE"

I was recently given the opportunity to review a new feminist theory book, written by Barbara Cuthbertson. I enjoyed the book, even though I had several issues with it. The review is now featured on Gender-Focus.com, a website I’ve written for before. If you want to check out the review, here it is! If you do read the review or feel like reading the book, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments.

Since this is a short post, here’s a picture of a wet cat as a bonus:

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Cheers, everyone! Have a great weekend.

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Human Kindness & Cruelty: My Review of "Cloud Atlas"

Every now and then a book comes along that grabs you by the throat and threatens to never let go. It’s uncommon and infuriating and wonderful. When you’re reading, nothing else exists and when you’re finished, just thinking about the book sends shivers through your body again. Does no one else feel this? If they don’t, then it’s time they picked up聽Cloud Atlas聽by David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas seems simple: there are six narrators each with his own memoir/diary-type section. The first is set in the mid-1800s, the second in the 1930s, the third in the 1970s, the fourth in 2001, the fifth in a not-so-distant dystopian future, and the last on a post-apocalyptic island inhabited by a tribal people. The stories are connected in that the next narrator is reading the diary/memoir/autobiography of the previous one. In the first half of the novel, each narrative stops abruptly, and in the second half of the novel, each story continues and they appear in descending order, tying up loose ends and completing the story (for the most part). And just in case this wasn’t a bit too confusing already, five of the six narrators are聽related in some way [I don’t want to spoil it!].

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them

pictured: the rock I use to keep books open when I write about them 馃槈

There are many reasons why I loved this novel and why I think about it all the time. Obviously, with six narrators, the narrative has a lot of opportunities to become confusing, but Mitchell is such a nuanced and detailed writer that no confusion occurs. Not only does the author give each character a distinct voice, personality, and unmistakable speech habits, but also, each section of the novel is a completely different genre altogether. These aspects of the novel, coupled with the vibrance of the many settings and the elegance of the prose, elevates this story from gimmicky to profound. That’s why I was so disappointed with the movie: they kept the raw bones of the story but stripped it of what made it powerful–tragedy, loss of humanity, and humankind’s capacity for cruel and absolute power, both over the Earth and over others. They made it into a kitschy, easily-digestible story with a neat and frankly, a laughable ending.聽Cloud Atlas the novel is far superior and far more entrancing.

The first “novella” is the story of an American notary making his way back to San Francisco on a treacherous journey from the Chatham Islands; the second is that of a roguish bisexual composer writing to his former lover; in the third, a feminist investigative reporter in the 70s faces the scoop of a lifetime and sexism at every turn; in the fourth an aging vanity publisher finds himself [hilariously] incarcerated in a nursing home; in the fifth, a clone in a corpocratic Korea regales her executioner with stories of how she became self-aware; and in the sixth and final story, a tribe member in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii becomes acquainted with a “civilized” anthropologist.

Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, Zachry–the names all evoke in me affection and nostalgia and even vestiges of the fear I felt when reading. These are the books that stick with you and change you.

This book is about many things, and to list them all would be foolish and simplistic. Indeed, each story can hypothetically stand independent of the others, so that it’s like reading six distinct novellas, each with vivid characters and its own “point,” so to speak. But a common thread that runs through the narrative(s) is humanity’s relation to others and to the Earth. The first narrator–and the last–is a man named Adam who owes his life to a freed slave. The experience he had with the freed slave causes great changes in Adam’s philosophy and he ruminates on the structure of his current society and, essentially, how we may define humanity and how all of mankind may relate to each other:

If we聽believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this:–one fine day, a purely predatory world聽shall聽consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost聽is聽the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

This passage, on the second-to-last page of the novel, directly involves the reader, forcing us to answer some difficult questions about humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and compassion, kindness and subjugation. Implied on every page of this novel is the fact that people need other people to survive, and not just in societies or communities, but by actively practicing equality, compassion, and generosity. Colonialism destroys the colonizers and the colonized. A society built on consumerism strips away what makes us human and replaces it with a need for things. Indulging our basest instincts–power, greed, cruelty–can only result in the total destruction of mankind.

My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?

And the very last line of the novel reminds us that all of us, as humans, are connected in a vast web of future, past, and present, and that we are all beholden to each other to create a better world to live in.

This novel has become popular recently because of the film adaptation but I want to warn you: stay far, far away from the movie. It’s sappy and childish and the book is a world of its own. Many worlds, actually. Reviewing this book is like reviewing six, just like reading this book is like reading six. If Mitchell had released each section as a short story and fragmented each the way he did in the novel but staggered their releases, we would have a聽Harry Potter–release-night kind of hysteria on our hands, that’s how addictive these stories are. And it would have made a helluva marketing scheme.

References

Mitchell, D. (2004)聽Cloud Atlas. New York, NY: Random House

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