Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo by Carole Maso

title: Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo [purchase here]
author: Carole Maso
pages: 170
genre: poetry
published: 2002
source:  New York Public Library

"Something strange had happened.  Frida was totally nude.  The collision had unfastened her clothes.  Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold.  This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida.  When people saw her they cried, "¡La bailarina, la bailarina!"  With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer." (p.33)

In college, I was three measly credits shy of a double major in Art History, and any lecture that focused on the work of Frida Kahlo was always a highlight.  As an artist and as a woman she was vibrant, outspoken, honest, raw and incredibly talented.
Carole Maso's poetic exploration of Kahlo's life did for Frida lyrically what Julie Taymor did for her cinematically.  Both were haunting, dreamlike, and pitch-perfect in capturing Kahlo's aesthetic.  

Maso drew from Kahlo's own diaries, medical documents, and letters as well as her biography to craft her poetic exploration of/dialogue with Kahlo's life and art.  I found Beauty is Convulsive incredibly hard to put down, as Maso managed to really appropriate Kahlo's use of startling, jarring, hallucinatory imagery in her work to create a piece that was moving and visceral.  
"Beauty is convulsive or not at all."  (p.124)

Rubric rating:  8.5  I am adding Room Lit By Roses and Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire to my epic "to read" list, and I'm adding Beauty is Convulsive to my "must purchase" list.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Happy (belated) 1st Blogoversary to me!

Guess I'll be sleeping on the couch tonight...I forgot my own blogoversary!  

July 19th marked exactly a year I've been sharing my thoughts on my bookish musings with you!  Thank you so much for reading!!!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

title: How Should A Person Be?  [purchase here]
author: Sheila Heti
pages:  306
genre: fiction
published: 2012
source:   I received an advanced reader's copy from Henry Holt via 
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

"Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn't take them off.  Then there are those who cannot put them on.  They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people.  They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be human."  (p.60)

Expose herself she does.  And how.  Part confessional, part fiction, Heti doesn't hold anything back as she explores the title's question: How Should a Person Be?

This novel is far more conversationally driven than action driven, which really works for the topic Heti has chosen.  Things do happen (the main character, Sheila, meets her close friend, Margaux; Margaux and another artist named Sholem have an "ugly painting" contest; Sheila and Margaux go to Art Basel in Miami) but the most compelling aspect to the piece were the characters themselves, presumably based on people in Heti's own life (Heti is friends with Canadian artist Margaux Williamson, acted with Sholem Krishtalka in Williamson's 2006 film "Teenager Hamlet", and co-wrote The Chairs Are Where The People Go with Misha Glouberman, and all appear as characters in the story).  Part narrative, part philosophy, part transcript, part self-help guide, the narrative structure really works.  

Heti is supremely gifted at conveying largely universal truth and sentiment in fresh and original terms, something all writers aspire to...and she does it with such frankness and ease!  I read the first 150+ pages in one feverish sitting on a Greyhound bus ride from NYC to Baltimore, and found myself underlining passages and flagging pages far more than usual.

A few gems:

"They like me for who I am, and I would rather be liked for who I appear to be, and for who I appear to be, to be who I am."  (p. 3)
"We don't know the effects we have on each other, but we have them." (p. 25)

"The only one you are given is the one to put a fence around. Life is not a harvest.  Just because you have an apple doesn't mean you have an orchard.  You have an apple. Put a fence around it." (p. 300)

There was a bit of a dip toward the middle of the book; I felt like it was on a slightly different pace than the rest of the narrative.  And there was an entire chapter (Chapter 14: Sheila Wanders In The Copy Shop) that's only purpose seemed to set up a recurring line ("He was just another man who wanted to teach me something.") and, in my opinion, could have been cut entirely.  But other than that small detail, I found the book fresh, insightful, vibrant, sagacious, exploratory, original and enormously honest.
Rubric rating: 8.  I am absolutely adding The Chairs Are Where The People Go and Ticknor to the list of books I want to read that will probably distract me from completing my 30-Before-30 Literary Bucket List.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What I'm Reading

A few of the titles I'm reading this week...

1.  The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
Finally arrived from my holds list!  Fist of all, such a well designed cover!!!  I'm about 20 pages in and am finding it to be a really strong read so far...

Summary: (from the Strand website) "A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction. With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition. Ben Marcus is the author of three previous works of fiction: Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String."

Here's what the good folks at NPR had to say about The Flame Alphabet

2.   Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

I won this title through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and I'm really excited for it to be my subway read.

Summary: (from the Strand website) "A debut collection of 10 short stories re-imagines the mythology of the American West through the experiences of protagonists who endure hardship and violence in the face of such challenges as a foreigner's erotic changes at a prostitution ranch, a hermit's attempt to rescue an abused teen and a woman's role in a friend's degrading Vegas encounter."

3.  There Is No Year by Blake Butler

Impulse library pick up.  The premise sounded really cool, so I'm excited to start it.

Summary: (from the Strand website) Blake Butler’s inventive third novel (Ever, Scorched Atlas) is dedicated 'For no one' and begins with an eerie prologue about the saturation of the world with a damaging light. At times grotesque, at times sexual, always pushing the bounds of plot, form, narrative, and reality, the novel presents a demanding yet unique read - a totally convoluted tale of a family in extreme distress.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: A Small Fortune by Rosie Dastgir

title:  A Small Fortune [purchase here]
author: Rosie Dastgir
genre: fiction
pages: 373
published: 2012
source:  I received an advanced reader's copy from Riverhead Books via 
LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

Real talk: I’ve been putting off writing this review of Rosie Dastgir’s A Small Fortune because, honestly, I had a really hard time finishing it.  Not because the text was complex or emotionally taxing…just the opposite, actually. The writing itself was a bit wonky and the tone of the piece was fairly static.  A lot happens in the story, but due to what came across to me as issues with character development, the narrative didn’t seem to progress anywhere that felt realistic. 

Premise: (from the back jacket)  Harris, the presumed patriarch of his large family--both in England, where he's made his home, and in Pakistan, where he was raised--has unexpectedly received a "small fortune" from his divorce settlement with an Englishwoman:  £53,000.  As a devout Muslim, Harris views this sum as a "burden of riches"; all he  can think upon receiving it, if of how best to divest himself of it.  But deciding which deserving relatives to give it to proves to be a burden of its own.

Here's where I feel Dastgir went astray...

Characterization:  Real people can be incredibly complex in terms of personality.  Sometimes, you can know someone a lifetime and still be surprised by their decisions and contradictions.  It’s the very nature of choice that gives humans the leeway to be hypocritical.  But in a novel, I don’t have the luxury of knowing your characters for a lifetime; I get 373 pages.  The central character of Harris was particularly inconsistent, which stood in the way of my being able to empathize with his choices and decisions throughout the story.  Personally, even if I can’t fully get behind the choices of a character, as a reader, I want to be able to know enough about them that I can understand where each decision came from.  With Harris, I feel like I’d learn one thing about him and then he would do something that seemed to completely contradict what I had just been told.  He’s supposed to be very traditional when it comes to his Islamic culture, yet he changes his name from Haaris to Harris when he moves to England.  He’s upset with his daughter having a live-in English boyfriend, yet he engages in a sexual relationship with a widow he meets through family members.  He’s constantly in need of money, but when he receives a settlement from his ex-wife, he gives it away (!!!) to a cousin who he seems to look down upon, not to his family back in Pakistan.  I felt myself asking “where did that come from???” over and over again and not finding that question answered by the text.  So my thinking is this:  1) Harris is one of those people who makes whatever decision benefits him or paints him in the best light in the moment, and spends his time thereafter justifying his actions…someone who has an incredibly difficult time seeing the world from any other perspective than his own in the immediate present.  But I can’t imagine that an author would sit down and create a main character so dense and inconsistent that it renders him this difficult to get behind, so it leads me to think 2) that the problem might be that her writing process was…

Action rather than character driven:  The book reads like Dastgir had decided what was going to happen in the story and then made the characters behave as needed to move the plot along, which resulted in the inconsistent characterization.  This inconsistency made her characters less believable to me, and the farther I progressed through the narrative, the less and less I bought in to the action.  And the way the book was concluded...everything was tied up far too quickly and a bit too neatly...coupled with the disjointed characters, this made it seem less and less real. 

Focus:  What was this book ABOUT?  And WHO was it about? Too many things are touched upon but nothing is really investigated or discussed, if that makes sense.  The entirety of the discussion of radical Islam seems fairly surface, when that's such a complex and rich issue to delve into.  Most of the chapters focused on Harris, but then we’d get a few that focused on Alia (his daughter) or on Rashid (his nephew)...and their treatment felt very surface.  My metaphor for characterization:  If characters are plants, mediocre authors only deal with what the sun shines on.  Great authors take on the soil and the roots.  I want to see some sediment when I read.  And I feel like Dastgir only got as far as the grass line and stopped. Whose story was this?  I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to walk away thinking or feeling.

Dastgir has the foundation to be a skilled writer (there were absolutely some gorgeous moments, mostly in description of setting), but this absolutely feels like a debut novel.  I think with the right mentor or writing group or maybe just with time, she has what it takes to be a successful novelist.  I’d be willing to read her again, but I’m going to wait until she’s written a few more books.

Rubric rating: 4.5

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


On June 19th, I posted a link to an article about the new book Jane Eyre Laid Bare, an erotic retelling of Jane Eyre, and made the crack: "What's next? Pride, Prejudice, and Penetration???"  

Well, apparently the universe was listening a touch too closely.

According to The Independent, this is a real thing!!!!  And there are more to come!!!  In my opinion, we can absolutely blame Fifty Shades of Grey for this surge of poorly written BDSM.  Other classics that are getting all sexed up by the Clandestine Classics Collection:  Northanger Abbey, Wuthering Heights and the Sherlock Holmes series.

I hope you're reading this on an empty stomach, or what you'll find below will seriously put you in danger of losing your lunch.  Here's an excerpt from the new erotic retelling of Austen's classic:

"Elizabeth trailed kisses along his throat and neck until she reached his earlobe and took it between her teeth. “Please take me,” she whispered. “I need it. I ache for it.” Her words were met with only a grunt of approval by Darcy.

He pulled back from her and checked their surroundings, partly to assure they were alone, but also to discover a hiding place for them that was away from the road. He took hold of Elizabeth’s hand and pulled her away from the lane to the trees beyond. They walked on for a short time until they came to a small clearing and without another word, he pulled her to the ground, laying her down on the grass and covering her body with his."


Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe

title:  Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids [purchase here]
author: Kenzaburo Oe
genre: literary fiction
pages: 189
published: 1958
source: New York Public Library

"Nonetheless, for aliens like captured wild beasts to be safe before others watching them, it is best to lead the will-less, eyeless existence of a stone, flower or tree: a purely observed existence.  My brother, since, he persisted in being the eye that watched the villagers, was struck on his cheeks by thick yellowish gobs of spittle rolled on women's tongues, and stones thrown by the children.  But, smiling, he would wipe his cheeks with his large bird-embroidered pocket facecloth and go on staring in wonderment at the villagers who had insulted him." (p. 23)

Clocking in at 189 pages, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids may at first glance seem like a quick read, but due to Oe's mastery of economy of language, this book is far fuller than one might expect.

Premise:  Set during WWII, a group of teenage boys from a reformatory are marched through the woods (presumably on the remote island of Shikoku, Japan, since that's where the author spent most of his life...but no specific geographic location is ever named) and evacuated to a rural village.  Upon their arrival, they're made to bury piles of corpses of rotting animals, infected with the plague.  The villagers soon flee and abandon the boys in the plague-infested village, where they are left to their own devices to determine a means of survival. 

There's a lot going on in such a petite volume:  there's the relationship between the narrator and his younger brother, between the narrator and the rest of the group of boys, between the narrator and his love interest; the juxtaposition of order and chaos; the dividing line between childhood and adulthood; the notion of the "other"; themes of abandonment and responsibility to self v. responsibility to the community v. responsibility to family...and Oe was only 23 when this book was published.    

Warning: There's also a lot of penis-related discussion.  I get that it's a story about adolescent boys, but I swear once a chapter the narrator is either mentioning his erection, talking about someone else's erection, peeing in the snow, etc.  It's a lot.  I understand its purpose (perpetuating this undercurrent of rushed sexuality that invades the narrative from time to time) and it's a bit unsettling considering the age of the characters.  But I can appreciate why Oe made the choice to include such details in terms of character development/establishment...and I like it when something I read makes me FEEL something, even if the feeling isn't necessarily pleasant.  

Penis talk aside, I really valued the experience of reading this book.  It was unlike anything I had read before.  Dark and unsettling, thought-provoking, at times spare, and at times rich...I could picture the action and characters so vividly as I read.  Oe does an amazing job of establishing tone in his work. The entire piece just worked.  I will definitely search out more of Oe's translated works in the future.

Rubric rating: 7.5.  I can absolutely appreciate why Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  

And with this, I knocked another one off my 30-Before-30 Literary Bucket List...though now that I'm 4 months in I'm growing a bit skeptical as to whether or not I can actually finish it!  My book ADD is out of control.  I'm at different points in no less than five books at present...and it's not as if I was driven to pick up another book because the one I was reading was awful/boring/overwhelming.  No!  It's always because I get too excited about the next book I'm going to read and want to start right away, which is why I usually finish books in waves.  Anyway, here's how I'm doing thus far...23 to go!

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald **
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger **
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy **
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Pale Fire by Vladmir Nabokov

Arcadia by Lauren Groff  (in progress)
Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Greenman
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Blindness by Jose Saramago **
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruiki Murakami
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart 
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta   
 (in progress)  
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson **  
 (in progress) 
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notely **
Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
The Old Child and Other Stories by Jenny Erpenbeck 
Spirit Seizures by Melissa Pritchard


The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell 

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Zona by Geoff Dyer
Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

** rereading

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I'm back!!!!

It has been more than a hot minute since I've posted, and for that I sincerely apologize.  A couple of reasons:

1)  My close friends, R & N, got married!  It was an epic celebration of their love...and after the ceremony I edited over 700 pictures.  So that took some time...if you'd like to see pics, they're posted over at my event photography tumblr agirlcalledjack photography.

2)  My younger brother and his wife are expecting a little girl, Paisley Michelle, and I've been shopping like a crazy person.  She'll be my first niece of what I anticipate will be several nieces/nephews from those two, and I couldn't be more excited for them.  Pics from the shower should be up on the photography site this week, too.

(n.b. re: the name Paisley.  When I first heard the name, my thoughts were more along the lines of this.  But then I caught an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras (I may be a book snob, but my taste in TV is admittedly low brow) featuring Paisley, and SHE'S THE MOST HILARIOUSLY PRECOCIOUS CHILD I'VE EVER SEEN!!!  She has this sense of comedic timing and the things that come out of her mouth are priceless!  If our Paisley comes out even half as spunky and witty, we're golden.)

3) I launched a style blog!  I am a beauty product junkie, and spend almost as much time reading Vogue and style/design blogs as I spend curled up with a book, and I figured I needed to create a home for my stylish musings separate from that of my literary ones.  If you're interested, check it out over at XOXO, Jacki.

But I'm back with you and my regular blogging schedule should more or less resume by the end of the week.  Coming soon...

Reviews of:
A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe

I'm almost finished:
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Understories by Tim Horvath

A Small Fortune by Rosie Dastgir

And I just started:
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta
Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo by Carole Maso