Week 32 (Blaga): Collected Poems by C.P. Cavfy, translated by Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #23: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Book: Collected Poems: Revised Edition, by C. V. Cavafy

Publisher: Princeton University Press (1992)

 

Guard, O my soul, against pomp and glory.

And if you cannot curb your ambitions,

at least pursue them hesitantly, cautiously.

And the higher you go,

the more searching and careful you need to be.

Excerpt from “The Ides of March”

 

Throughout his lifetime, Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote numerous poems, of which one hundred and fifty four were completed and published. A Greek born in Alexandria, Egypt, Cavafy made his living as a journalist and civil servant and gained little renown as a poet until after his death. Today, he is considered one of the great modern Greek poets. This second edition of Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard, and edited by George Savidis, offers a chronologically arranged selection of his works, both published and unpublished during his lifetime.

Cavafy’s poetry is based in topics related to the ancient world, so I knew that I had to read it. It was an interesting experience, given that I am not used to reading collections of poetry, let alone collections of poetry in translation. Unfortunately, my first impression was that the wide-ranging differences between Greek (both modern and classical) and English renders the translation process difficult and not necessarily rewarding. Of course, a translated text is never the same as the original, but when two languages have different flows to them, it makes conveying even an approximation of tone impossible. In this case, the alleged intricacy of Cavafy’s style (especially the verse) did not usually seem to be well-reflected in the English.

Although not all of the poems made an impression, those that did carried a powerful impact. I was struck by two poems in particular: The Ides of March and Waiting for the Barbarians. They struck a chord due to the political and philosophical statements that Cavafy makes through them — statements that are still true today. The Ides of March, quoted above, addresses political ambition and the dangers it carries, highlighting the inevitable downfall resulting from over-confidence.

Waiting for the Barbarians was particularly powerful and relevant to the present political situation. I will quote a few slivers of the poem here and let it speak for itself:

 

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?

Why do the senators sit here without legislating?

    Because the barbarians are coming today.

What laws can the senators make now?

Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

 

But, in the end, the barbarians do not come. So Cavafy asks:

 

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.

 

Cavafy’s poems can be divided in several general categories: mythological (alluding to Greek and Roman myth), historical (alluding to historical figures or events), erotic (especially homoerotic), and contemplative/instructive. A reader does not have to be acquainted with many of their subjects to appreciate them (I was not really familiar with the majority of Byzantine figures he alludes to); the message of these poems has a certain amount of universality which can impact anyone. Turkish Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk is one example. His New York Times essay on his relationship with one of the poems is worth reading and considering.

Whether you are a reader of poetry or not, I find that this collection has something for everyone. I would recommend looking through it, even if you do not read the entire collection. Like me, you might be surprised, or even inspired.

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Week 31 (Sam): Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

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Reader: Sam

Topic #23: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Book: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Author Unknown)

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)


“Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,/ eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride./ For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ but it fades quickly…Your piercing eye/ will dim and darken; and death will arrive,/ dear warrior, to sweep you away.”


Long ago, when dying paganism was still fresh in the hearts of those who dwelled in the cold lands northeast of Britannia, a small ship bearing fifteen Geatish warriors disembarked on Danish shores. There had been plenty of bad blood between the Geats and the Danes, enough reason for war in that era of violence, but these Geatish warriors had no plans to revive hostilities. Quite the opposite; their leader, Beowulf, had heard stories of the monster, Grendel, and the Danish corpses he had left behind him and he was spurred to come to their aid. Brave as he is strong, strong as he is proud, Beowulf means to win not just the favor of King Hrothgar, but lasting glory as a warrior by the only means he can: the risking of his own life.

As one of the oldest surviving texts in Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf’s archaic English is unintelligible to readers of modern-day English, other than the occasional familiar word. Like any other foreign language text, a modern reader must depend on a translation, and it is this translation that largely dictates the quality of a reader’s experience. Seamus Heaney is mostly successful in turning the original Old English into something easy to read while respecting the line order; he breaks the action down into quick, simple clauses, often chaining many of these clauses together to convey more complicated ideas, but rarely allowing any part to break the rhythm that he undoubtedly heard in the original language.

This edition has everything a passionate reader might want in a translation. With the original text and the translation printed on opposite pages, scholars or students of Old English can check between the two instantaneously. There is also an excellent foreword, which provides much-needed  background on the era and allowed me to follow the story pretty well from the start. I was especially pleased with the miniature summaries sprinkled through the book, which quickly explain the meaning of each passage. At times, when the narrative dipped into one of its many nested stories and it became unclear which character was being described, a quick check in the margins was often enough to reorient me.

As a tale of monster-slaying and adventure, Beowulf is frankly, a bit lackluster. Beowulf combats three foes in over three thousands lines of the poem, but of the three, only the third and final reads as anything more than a summary of the most important points. Great care is spent in establishing each of Beowulf’s opponents as a dangerous threat, and after he defeats them, many lines are spent extolling his greatness in slaying them, but again, only in the last case does the battle prove to be more than a trivial concern. Beowulf’s seeming invincibility carries some interesting thematic resonance, but whatever the poem might be trying to say with these dull battle scenes, they also rob the poem of virtually any sense of excitement

Rather than an adventure narrative, the poem is much more successful as a reflection of a way of life entirely foreign to any modern reader. The Scandinavian kingdoms of Beowulf may be in frequent conflict with each other, but culturally, they are indistinguishable. Beowulf’s quest to win glory in battle is simply one example of an obsession that animates so many other stories in the poem: the hunger to prove oneself to subordinates, to superiors, to comrades, even to enemies and to oneself, but always through battle. In a world nearly empty of joy other than the meager distraction of drinking and stories, the only real value a person can obtain is obtained through the sword. But when the specter of death hangs over everything, are even the greatest deeds capable of bringing a life lasting meaning? It is when Beowulf considers this question that it achieves its most beautiful stanzas and ideas.

Final Grade: C+

Week 30 (Blaga): Trust the Focus (Focus#1), by Megan Erickson

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Topic #20: Read an LGBTQ+ Romance novel

Book: Trust the Focus, by Megan Erickson

Publisher: Intermix (2015)

After graduating college, Justin Akron and his best friend Landry climb into Justin’s RV and take off on a cross-country trip. Justin’s father, a renowned freelance photographer, has just passed away, and their goal is to visit the places he most loved in life and spread his ashes, all the while blogging about the journey. Along the way, what was simply meant as a tribute to the dead brings long-suppressed tensions and truths rising to the surface. If they are willing to face them, Justin and Landry’s lives and relationship might change forever.

Trust the Focus benefits from a strong and believable premise that makes the central conflict easy to relate to.  Justin has been suppressing his sexual orientation for years, adopting the image of “masculinity” as much as possible – playing baseball, joining a fraternity in college, etc. – while simultaneously behaving as his conservative politician mother’s perfect son, majoring in political science and preparing to become her campaign manager, despite really wanting to become a photographer like his father. Landry, his best friend since childhood, seems every bit as  free as Justin is constrained: he is openly gay in a happy relationship and he studied whatever he wanted in college. Place those two opposites in a small, isolated space for several weeks, and two perfectly-crafted facades begin to crack. The consequences of this simple and believable premise felt just as real and meaningful as the set-up, the struggle their relationship becomes carrying real pathos.

While this book tells a great love story (of the friends-to-lovers variety, which I find particularly strong), it is just as effective as a coming-out story. Justin’s decision as to how honest he will be to his real wishes is not something that he can rush into comfortably. Yet he chooses to admit the truth because of love. This smart pairing of two types of story gets a lot out of its protagonist and makes him feel more developed than most.  Their evolving relationship reveals vulnerabilities in Landry as well, and his clashes with Justin showcase the human imperfections that make him a more balanced and nuanced character.

While Erickson develops Justin and Landry well, this cannot be said about the other characters in her novel. The character who presents the most notable problem is Justin’s mother. As a politician running for office with a conservative platform, she is portrayed as the largest obstacle to Justin coming out freely and publicly. Their estranged relationship, along with the fact that the story is written from Justin’s first person perspective, means we never get a clear view of her as a human being until, with one small exception, the very end. The problem with her portrayal is not so much her being the barrier Justin needs to overcome; it is her main motivation, as stated: the future of her career. Her personal perspective is not revealed until the end, when we get to see her as a single mother who has fought to raise her child and make a life, and a person with flaws and feelings of her own as opposed to a personification of Justin’s insecurity who only interjects to limit his possibilities or spur him to action. In fact, most of the secondary characters in the novel are there solely for the convenience of the story or to artificially hasten the conflict. Of course, a premise where two people are on a cross-country trip makes it convenient for side characters to leave minimal impressions on the reader, but I found the hasty introduction and subsequent irrelevance of these characters to render them largely pointless.

Despite a strong start and central conflict, the denouement left a lot to be desired. In the immediate aftermath of the climax, the way the plot ties together—and especially, the way two main sources of conflict are addressed—is needlessly melodramatic. It shifts the tone of the story from a realistic, believable one into one more appropriate to fairytales. Erickson would have done a better job if she’d been careful to make the conclusion of her story as grounded and plausible as the rest was. Ultimately, despite its flaws, Trust the Focus is an intelligently crafted, fast-paced and enjoyable read. It tells a rather sweet (and quite steamy) friends-to-lovers story and does tap into realistic and important questions. A good book for a rainy day inside.

Week 29 (Blaga): Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #13: Read a non-fiction book about technology

Book: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Narrator: Robin Miles

Published by: HarperAudio (2016)

Print Copy Published by: William Morrow (2016)

 

Dorothy Vaughan. Mary Jackson. Katherine Johnson. Christine Darden: these are just four women of color from over forty who worked at NASA as human computers between the 1940s and 1980s, contributing to scientific achievements and social developments. Blending history and biography, Margot Lee Shetterly masterfully recounts these sweeping changes while paying homage to the work and lives of the women who played a part in them.

When the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later be dissolved and replaced by the National Air and Space Agency (NASA)*, hired women for the first time in the 1930s, their male colleagues were scandalized; it was not until 1943 that they began to hire black women as computers. It was wartime though, and with President Roosevelt’s executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry, anyone who was qualified could be hired. Whether anyone intended for it to be so initially, these female human computers remained at work even after the war – one of the first barriers on the path of overcoming was broken. Dorothy Vaughan was one of the first to be hired. Mary Jackson became an aerospace engineer. Katherine Johnson, among other things, calculated the rocket trajectories for John Glenn’s 1962 flight orbiting the Earth, the Mercury and Apollo missions. Christine Darden, the youngest of these four women, was hired directly out of graduate school; she became an engineer at NASA eventually working on sonic booms. These four and their colleagues were college or graduate school educated. They were hard workers, brilliant minds and patriots serving their country through a World War and into a Cold War. So, why has the wider public mostly not heard about them until recently?

Shetterly’s advantage in authoring this book is that she grew up in Hampton, VA – the town where the black computers lived during their decades with NASA; she knows many of them personally, and demonstrates a comfortable understanding of their work. The book is part biography – it tells the stories of these four women, relating their early lives, including their educational backgrounds and what ultimately brought them to Hampton, and tracing their achievements at NASA. It is part history of science – Shetterly does not shy away from science and mathematics, and proves willing to engage with complex vocabulary and concepts. It is also part socio-political history, detailing the sexually and racially discriminatory practices of the WWII and Cold War eras. Together, these three aspects form a holistic image of the world the black computers lived in, and how they lived in it.

At times, the book’s preoccupation with conveying the precise details of rocket science became somewhat overbearing. While a certain degree of this is appreciated, parts of Hidden Figures were challenging to get through. The detail Shetterly gives the historical background is similarly exhaustive, but much more consequential. It is important not to look at the events at NASA through the perspective of 21st century people, but within their historical context. Here, Shetterly’s accessible narrative style was of large help in getting through these fact-heavy portions of the book.

While Hidden Figures is not really a light read, it is very much worthy of attention. Shetterly pays respects, very much overdue, to a group of incredible women who contributed a great deal to America’s space program, highlighting how impressive their achievements are given the difficulties women and people of color faced in that era. An excellent book.

 

*Note: for the sake of simplicity, I will use only the acronym “NASA”  for the remainder of the review, even though NACA was technically (at least on paper) a different agency.

Week 28 (Sam): The Captive Prince, by C.S. Pacat

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Reader: Sam

Topic #20: Read an LGBTQ+ Romance novel

Book: The Captive Prince, by C.S. Pacat

Publisher: Berkley Books, 2013

 

CW: Rape, Slavery


“The blindfold was tied around his eyes, tight. A moment later, Damen felt ringed fingers on his jawline, lifting it, as though Radel wished simply to admire the picture he made, blindfolded, arms lashed behind his back.”


Prince Damen of Akielos has spent his life enjoying the service of slaves: they cleaned him, dressed him, fed him, and, of course, serviced him sexually; he never paid them much attention. After a palace coup, however, he finds himself in chains, declared dead and shipped off in secret to Akielos’ worst enemy, the country of Vere, to serve as a “pleasure slave.” Damen is proud and prone to explosions of anger, but he must learn to control his emotions in order to survive the machinations of the Veretian royal court or the cruelty of his master, Laurent, the Prince of Vere. The palace hallways swarm with schemers and manipulators, and the key to Damen’s continued survival is to keep any of them from discovering his true identity.

Before you go any further, a warning is necessary: in The Captive Prince, C.S. Pacat explores a world of inequality and the dehumanization of slavery. The newly-enslaved Damen is subjected to constant physical and emotional abuse, every little act of rebellion punished in the hopes of “taming” him. More than that, his very role as a harem slave means that he has no sexual autonomy and his masters can choose to rape him whenever they like. While the abuses of slavery are most obvious to Damen, who is accustomed to unconditional respect, other slaves in the palace are also suffering under the yoke, no matter how much they’ve been trained to accept their positions. Ultimately, I’m not sure the book has anything profound to say about sexual abuse or slavery in general, but I can at least promise that it is respectful enough of the material to never gloss over the suffering of victims. 

Despite the word “Romance” written on the back cover, The Captive Prince doesn’t seem like a romance story at all. Presumably, the romance the book promises is the slowly-thawing relationship between Damen and his master, Prince Laurent. From the start, Laurent and Damen resent each other, but by the end, they grow to respect each other, at least a little bit. There are even hints of genuine sexual chemistry between them, and yet, to call their uneasy near-friendship a romance just isn’t accurate. The grotesque power dynamic between them is far more a prominent part of their relationship than anything more specific to the two of them. Presumably, their relationship will develop further in the two sequels, but as a reader expecting something more substantial, it was a bit of an anticlimax.

Denied the most basic autonomy and at the mercy of others, Damen makes for an unconventional protagonist. He has a few goals—survival, avoiding rape, escaping, protecting other slaves from Akielos from abuses—but he has almost no power to pursue any of them. His intelligence and his physical prowess as a fighter mean almost nothing when he spends his days chained alone in a room or at court gatherings surrounded by armed guards. His diplomatic and martial skills rendered useless, the skills that help him now are his ability to control his temper and understand the intentions of the schemers around him, seeking leverage in the complex social web of the palace. In contrast to most stories, what makes this one most interesting is not what the protagonist can do, but what he can’t do.

C.S. Pacat’s prose is simple and effective, describing the endless passage of days in the palace with an easy, almost lazy, grace. She conveys the limitless luxury of the Veretian court not with extensive descriptions, but through a few simple images: golden chains, painted faces, huge baths and flowery perfumes. The sex scenes are related with similar ease, evoked simply and quickly, even when they are describing assaults. The terror of rape is an essential part of the core of this story, but Pacat is tasteful enough to understand that rape doesn’t need to be established as terrible through lurid descriptions and traumatic images, but is already self-evidently terrible.

Ultimately, despite some good prose and character writing, not all that much actually happens in The Captive Prince. Mostly, Damen waits for things to happen to him, and they only happen occasionally. His lack of agency is a part of the unique appeal of the book, but it left me wishing for something more exciting instead. Maybe reading the other two books in the series and treating the trilogy as one text would address some of my reservations, but that’s not how it was published and not how I will evaluate it.

Final Grade: C

Week 27 (Sam): The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

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Reader: Sam

Topic #13: Read a non-fiction book about technology

Book: The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

Published by The Penguin Press (2011)


“There were times, and they came frequently enough, when one could believe that modern society, machine-age America, was addicted to poisons.”


It’s the early twentieth century, and the behemoth of mass production is carrying New York City, like the rest of the country, into a technologically advanced future. Automation floods the streets with automobiles, with canned food and gasoline-jet lamps, with pesticides and medicines. Yet, for all their value, these products of a modernizing world carry tremendous dangers as well: poisons. Toxins swirl in the air, ooze from the machines on the assembly lines and seep into the cocktails and whiskeys. For Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris, the still-emerging field of forensic toxicology holds the key to identifying the dangers of the modern world and preventing them, and he will do anything in his power to pull the field up to the level of respectability.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is Deborah Blum’s guide to the development of the vital practice of forensic toxicology, now taken for granted despite its importance. In January of 1918, Charles Norris is appointed to the brand-new position of Chief Medical Examiner for New York City, and with the help of toxicologist Alexander Gettler, he investigates poison-related deaths all across the city. With the exception of a few suicides and the occasional murder, most such deaths are rather mundane, a result of countless new products flooding the apartment buildings and factories, released carelessly and without oversight from the new and virtually-powerless FDA. To protect their city, Norris and Gettler must take up the fight, not only battling the poisons themselves, but taking on the negligent companies and government bodies that allow them to menace the citizens of New York.

Blum divides the years of Norris’s tenure into about a dozen chapters, each marked with a date and named for the poison that was most prominent in the department’s work at that time. The precision of this system of subdivision is representative of the book as a whole; Blum writes clearly and concisely about the events of the period, presenting them as plain fact. She keeps the science simple enough for a layman to understand, explaining whatever is necessary as quickly as she can so she can return to the big picture of Norris’s crusade against poisons. Rather than relying on expressive language or craftsmanship, she instead trusts in the inherent drama of life and death that plays out before us. Terrible dangers menace the ordinary citizens of the city, and the book gains an atmosphere akin to that of a thriller as it untangles several odd and notable cases.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this book is its reflection on the dangers of the Prohibition era, which in stark contrast to the expectations of its architects, leads to far more alcohol abuse than ever before, the death toll climbing correspondingly. Deprived of legal alternatives, New Yorkers turn to bootleg liquor instead, unaware how much of it is composed of the often-deadly wood alcohol. Rather than trying to protect citizens from the dangers, the US government actively adds wood alcohol to products that might be used for bootleg liquor in the naive hopes of discouraging it. In addition to standing as an indictment of the US government’s behavior during prohibition, it echoes one of the book’s main ideas about the United States as a whole: that death was frequently an avoidable result of ignorance in the face of the awesome scientific forces of technology.

Despite presenting some interesting details and teaching me some facts about history I’m glad to know, The Poisoner’s Handbook is not altogether a compelling story. If Norris and the other members of the medical examiner’s office were particularly colorful characters, it isn’t clear from Blum’s treatment of them, and in any case, it would have little to do with their work. In the same vein, there aren’t any particularly notable through-lines to keep the book focused from chapter to chapter. The main criticism toward Deborah Blum’s book is simply that the personalities she chose to center her exploration of the era around are forgettable. Perhaps with greater care, she could have brought New York city’s past to life in a more human way.

Final Grade: B-

Week 26 (Blaga): My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #4: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author

Book: My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, by Patricio Pron; translated by Mara Faye Lethem

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2013)

When his father is hospitalized, the nameless protagonist of Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain goes on leave from his work at a German university and flies back to Argentina to be with his family. And as he waits for any news regarding his father’s condition, he begins to follow a story his father has been investigating. The more he reads, the more his distant memories of Argentina’s Dirty War (ca. 1974-1983) resurface, and the better he comes to understand his family, his generation and himself.

One of the first things that made an impression on me was the novel’s flow, and the speed with which it moves. Pron masterfully plays with structure and text, creating a vivid and realistic stream of consciousness, that illuminates the inner workings of his protagonist’s mind. Some of his chapters are long, others as short as a paragraph; in some, he narrates events linearly, in others he implies events through recurring loops of thought. This is a good fit  for the protagonist’s state of mind. He is a man who has been self-medicating with psychoactive drugs and sleeping pills for the past eight years in order to forget his past, and as a result his mind and memory have been scrambled into a mess that begins to untangle as the work progresses.

The novel is divided into four parts, the second of which is the most unusual. It consists mostly of newspaper articles and descriptions of photographs the narrator discovers in his father’s file. The reader not only follows the investigation more closely than a conventional approach might allow, but they also get to do so through the eyes of the novel’s protagonist specifically. Later, as his memories return and he learns more about the Burdisso siblings and their relation to his parents’ past, he makes new connections more easily and more directly; again, we are reminded that we are very much in his mind, seeing this story through his eyes. Pron uses his keen eye for detail to great effect. He observes, for example, how the file is held by two elastic bands “that could have once been white but at this point had a slightly brown tone; one of the bands held the folder from top to bottom and the other along its width, which made them form a cross; more specifically, a Latin cross.” While information like this is not crucial in itself, its presence enriches the text, making it even more of a pleasure to read.

Pron’s writing expertise would not have come through had the translation work not been equally expert. Here, I tip my hat to Mara Faye Lethem, whose top-notch translation seems to preserve the lyricism and flow of the original Spanish. Through my own translation experience, it is my understanding that every language flows differently from the others, and it is therefore rare to find a way to transmit a text that feels at all the same as the original.  Professional translation goes far beyond simply finding equivalent words (although this alone can also be difficult) and requires a translator to find ways to convey this lyricism from one language to the next.  I am not a Spanish speaker myself, but I know enough to judge that there are all the hallmarks of an elegant translation here. Not only does the English text read well, it possesses a unique character that conveys both Pron’s style and the texture of his native Spanish. Given certain revelations during the epilogue, which I will refrain from divulging, this preservation of style is essential to the book and to the author himself.

Altogether, this novel is a real gem. Patricio Pron has proven himself a master wordsmith who can manipulate a text’s structure and flow with ease and confidence. My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is not only a noteworthy work, but also one that possesses an insight into a generation that survived the Dirty War and must keep on living in its aftermath. Highly recommended.

Week 25 (Sam) The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende

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Reader: Sam

Topic #4: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author

Book: The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende and translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc


“Alba was born quickly. Jaime removed the cord from around her neck, held her upside down and dangled her in the air and with two resounding slaps introduced her into the suffering of life and the mechanics of breathing. But Amanda, who had read about the customs of African tribes and preached a return to nature, seized the newborn from his hands and gently placed her on the warm belly of her mother, where she found some consolation for the sadness of being born.”


Esteban Trueba, although destitute, falls in love with Rosa del Valle, the green-haired daughter of a family as wealthy as his once was. He swears that he will regain his family’s wealth so that the two of them can get married, but when tragedy strikes, Esteban ends up marrying Rosa’s psychic younger sister, Clara, instead. Over the sixty-five years that follow, Esteban and Clara’s marriage leads to children, and then grandchildren, their gradually expanding family changing the lives of those they meet, and having their lives changed in return. Just as the marriage began with tragedy, it is destined to end in it, each step they take leading toward a nightmare that even Clara’s clairvoyance is unable to predict.

More than anything else, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is concerned with the interconnectedness of events and people, even across decades and great distances. A careless word mumbled to a stranger might change your daughter’s life in thirty years, or even shift the political leanings of the government itself. Although Allende focuses on the lives of a few immediate family members, their lives intersect with so many others: disgraced French nobility, house servants, peasant farmers and even a man who will one day become President of the country. The way the family treats each other and the friends they make over the years will shape their ambitions, their fears, and their loves. In The House of the Spirits, human beings have the power to shape their own futures, but are too ignorant of the future to take advantage of it. Even the prophesies of the superhuman Clara are too vague and inconsistent to do much good, so the family spends their lives wandering around in the dark, tripping over disaster as they go.

By tracing the ancestry of a family from the first decades of the twentieth century to the 1970s, Isabel Allende has necessarily also told a story about the country they live in, an unnamed but clear analog to Chile, a country Allende once fled to escape political violence. At the start, Allende paints the image of a simple world where the wealthy throw lavish parties and travel the world while the poor farmers die young without ever knowing the world beyond the places they were born. There is a sense of the country as unchanging, and even terrible natural disasters can come and go without lasting impact. Over the course of the book, bit by bit, the world grows more complicated—or rather, the mask of simplicity is torn away, revealing that it was always more unstable than it seemed. Socialist ideas blossom among the working class, while Esteban Trueba, who has reclaimed his family’s fortune and become an ardently right-wing senator, hatches schemes to ensure that power stays in the hands of the wealthy. He has no idea that the collision of the right and the left will unlock a potential for human cruelty that neither one would ever wish for.

Allende’s characters are not all equally effective or engaging. Esteban Trueba and Clara del Valle are both vivid characters, strikingly believable, even in their strangeness. They are nearly opposites: Esteban is stubbornly attached to the protection of his wealth and status, driven to abuse and violence by his explosive temper whenever he feels they are threatened, while Clara drifts through life like a dream, forgetting the names of family friends and paying more attention to séances than finances. Unfortunately, the descendants of this marriage are not always as interesting as the couple themselves. Their twin sons, Jaime and Nicolás, are both eccentrics with plenty of interesting stories attached to them, but their daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba, are almost interchangeable, coming across as less eccentric reproductions of Clara. Sometimes, I had to stop and wrack my brains to remember which of the three had said or done a given thing. While a certain degree of consistency between these three women is part of Allende’s design, illustrating a sort of spiritual sisterhood between them, it reached the point where it was actually distracting. This was a problem for Alba particularly, whose lack of strong characterization undermines the otherwise tremendous (and frightening) climax.

The House of the Spirits is the first novel I’ve read in the magical realism genre, and as a lover of fantasy, I was a bit disappointed by how little magic there was. As someone admittedly ignorant of the genre, the power of magical realism seems to me to lie in the absurd power of treating the magical as if it is mundane, but despite intermittent prophesies and Clara’s habit of playing the piano telekinetically with the cover down, the supernatural simply isn’t prominent enough to feel important to this book. A book that embraced Clara’s paranormal gifts more confidently might have been a fun read, but I found I actually wanted the opposite: for the supernatural to play a much smaller role, so that when it appears, especially at the very end, fusing the past and the present, the normal with the impossible, it carries a mysterious power.

At times, The House of the Spirits achieves a kind of brilliance, with well-written characters forming rivalries and friendships in an unbroken series of fortuitous coincidences. At other times, especially toward the middle, the text seems more like aimless melodrama intended to kill time, not to express anything profound. A few times, when it reaches its greatest heights, The House of the Spirits is a deeply moving portrayal of the subtle flow of destiny, but sadly, this is not nearly enough of the book.

Final Grade: C+

Week 24 (Blaga): Dear Life, by Alice Munro

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Reader: Blaga

Task # 22: Read a collection of stories by a woman

Book: Dear Life: Stories, by Alice Munro

Publisher: Vintage International (2013) (First edition by Knopf Doubleday, October 2012)

In 2013, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature for being a “master of the contemporary short story.” Throughout her career, the Canadian writer has published a number of award-winning short-story collections but I had never opened any of them, despite their presence in my family library. So, when I had to choose a selection for this task, I realized that the time had come for my journey through Dear Life.

I suppose that when a writer (or, most recently, artist) wins this prestigious literary award, the first question that comes to mind is “What makes this person — and their work — stand out?” My personal observation on the Swedish Academy’s selections over the years is that it is not always about the art itself; often, there is politics involved as well. Naturally, there is only so much that one can judge from a single collection, yet if Dear Life is any indication, then Munro truly deserves her award.

If this collection has some kind of a common thread, I found it difficult to see – not because it was not present, but because it was rather subdued. Dear Life presented me with fourteen stories that could hardly be more different from one another. In “To Reach Japan,” a  restless mother rides the train with her child; in “Gravel,” we learn of the events leading to a drowning and its consequences; “Corrie” is (seemingly) about an affair that leads to blackmail; while “Dear Life” is strikingly biographical and addressed directly to the reader, as much a personal essay as a short story. Some of the stories take place in small towns, others in locations as diverse as a cross-country train or a children’s hospital. Some take place over days, others over years. Many take place in the 60s or 70s in Canada. Some are told in the first person perspective, others in third. A few examine religion, most explore relationships of various kinds. What is most striking is how understated they all are, and how this lends them a sense of realism and importance.

Munro is concerned with the everyday, ordinary lives of ordinary people. None of her characters are particularly extraordinary, nor does anything extraordinary happen to them. Yet, they are as real —  as individual and complicated — as any living, breathing human being. The choices that define them, the key moments in their stories, are not described in any remarkable way; so much so that in some cases it was not until the end of a story that it became clear which of those moments was the one that would change someone’s life. This is yet another way that Munro strengthens the believability of her stories. In real life, life-changing moments are not announced with fanfare; life continues and it is only in hindsight that they can become apparent.

On the technical side, Munro’s work is also excellent, demonstrating an unusual command of language. At times, she switches seamlessly from one tense to another, using them all for greater impact. She employs dialogue, but only in controlled quantities; many times conversations are summarized rather than reported directly. The calm, confident flow of her prose is often more than enough to keep the reader engaged through all fourteen stories.
If I have one regret in reading Dear Life, it is only that I used it as my introduction to Munro’s body of work. It is, after all, her last published collection and established a high bar. I can only hope that the rest of them will be as wonderful as this one, but thankfully, Dear Life has left me with no doubt that Alice Munro is a master of the contemporary short story.

Week 23 (Sam): The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

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Reader: Sam

Topic #22: Read a collection of stories by a woman

Book: The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

Published by Victor Gollancz Ltd (1979)


I shall take two huge handfuls of his rustling hair as he lies half dreaming, half waking, and wind them into ropes, very softly, so he will not wake up, and, softly, with hands as gentle as rain, I shall strangle him with them.”


The pattern is simple. There is a woman and there is a man, and when they collide, the world becomes something much stranger, a dream come true, half nightmare, half fantasy. In her short-story collection, The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter retells several classic fairy tales, some more than once, and invents a couple of her own, all of them gravitating toward an obsession: sex, and the power it has, both in concept and in action, over human beings.

The ten stories in The Bloody Chamber vary in quality from astoundingly beautiful to fairly forgettable. The eponymous “Bluebeard” retelling, “The Bloody Chamber”, is the highlight of the collection, followed by strong entries such as “Lady of the House of Love” (a variant on “Sleeping Beauty” involving vampires) and “Wolf Alice” (an original story about a feral girl slowly gaining her humanity for the first time). On the other hand, “The Snow Child” is obtuse to the point of virtual unintelligibility, and “The Werewolf” seems strangely irrelevant to the spirit of the other nine stories. Fortunately, while the weakest, these are also the two shortest stories in the collection. Carter rounds out her offering with two versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” the eerie “Erl-King” and a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss-in-Boots.”

The Bloody Chamber opens with Carter’s version of “Bluebeard,” and it is in this story that her unique, dreamlike voice is most effective. For those who don’t know the story, a young woman marries a fabulously wealthy old widower, only to find that her new husband may be hiding a terrible secret that threatens to claim her life, just as it claimed the lives of his previous wives. Carter describes her unnamed protagonist’s extravagant, new home with equally extravagant prose. Everything that the woman sees combines with what it seems to be. The ruby choker she wears is a bleeding wound in her throat. A hall of mirrors is an army of identical hers, all equally her husband’s bride. Speech is often reported without quotation marks, muddling the distinction between what is said and what is seen. The tale is written in the past tense, but is sometimes written as though it is being lived through at that very moment. The topic shifts strangely from paragraph to paragraph, a certain vagueness hanging over the story like a dream where whatever the dreamer is not paying attention to is subtly shifting and changing. The effect is haunting. 

The dreamlike quality that Carter establishes in the opening story continues in those that follow, becoming more or less prominent depending on the story. The cat narrator of “Puss-in-Boots,” for instance, doesn’t have much of an inclination toward metaphor, making it (ironically) feel a bit more grounded in reality than most of the others. On the other hand, “The Erl-King” takes the effect further, describing the story of a woman’s seduction and imprisonment by a strange man who lives in the woods through such tangled metaphor that it’s difficult to know precisely what happens in the story.  If a less talented author had written The Bloody Chamber, I might have advised readers who prefer a story to have an easily traceable plot to skip this collection, but I hesitate to do so in this case. Truthfully, these stories are much easier to follow than they sound, the emotional content of the symbolism often supporting the general meaning of a story even when the details are vague.

Despite the craftsmanship on display in individual stories, The Bloody Chamber feels redundant as a collection. Over half of the book consists of stories about monstrous and sexually-threatening men imprisoning helpless young women, but Carter is only able to capture the full horror of this scenario in her eponymous story. By comparison to “The Bloody Chamber,” other attempts to convey this dynamic through retellings of “Beauty and the Beast” or “Little Red Riding Hood” feel half-hearted and unnecessary. The monsters of these stories are less monstrous, and their power over the lead characters is less threatening, but rather than giving these stories their own identities, this fact only makes them seem like less engaging versions of the “The Bloody Chamber.” The stories are far from identical, but they rely on the same psychosexual core with a gradually reducing effect as the collection advances

Although self-sabotaging as a collection, I still have to acknowledge the stories themselves. Even the worst story in the The Bloody Chamber is worth reading, and the best stories it has to offer are classics I’ll return to in the future, even if I never read this collection in its entirety again.

Grade: B