rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Short and charming autobiography centering around Dahl's childhood and adolescence; it follows his usual pattern of covering quite appalling events in entertaining and ironic ways.

Dahl came from a large and loving family of Norwegians living in England, which suffered a serious shock very early in his life when his older sister died of appendicitis, followed a month later by his father dying of pneumonia. His mother, upon his father's death, had two children to raise by her husband's first wife, three surviving of her own, and a baby due in six weeks. Looking back on it, Dahl is justifiably surprised that she didn't sell the house, take the children, and flee to her family in Norway, but she seems to have stuck it out in England with an iron will and a tenacious good humor. His talk about her is admiring and endearing, and she comes across as competent beyond belief, practical, wise, and a master of organizational tactics (she got all of them, and the nanny, to the coastal islands of Norway on summer holidays every year, an undertaking slightly more logistically complicated than siege warfare).

School, however, seems to have been the major problem in his life. His mother took him out of one school because they caned him, and sent him to a highly reputable boarding school-- where they not only caned him more often, but stood over the students writing letters to make sure no one said anything undesirable about the educational environment. His sense of injustice is deep-seated, desperate, and accurate; he happened to be a very good athlete and mentions that he must have been the only team captain at Repton never to be made into a house official, because the faculty knew perfectly well he wouldn't beat the junior students. This goes a fair way for me in explaining the two kinds of adults who appear in Dahl's fiction for children: the good ones, loving, imperfect, and usually economically or otherwise not capable of achieving much, especially in defense of children; and the bad ones, who are rotten clear through and in power and abuse it. This does appear to have been the way adults were to him as a child, and the wounds of school in the 1920s are visible in him writing sixty years later. (And more than visible-- he mentions never having been able to sit on a hard bench for any length of time in later life.)

So this book is an odd combination of terrible things that happened to the author, terrible things he did to other people by way of revenge (a dead mouse in a jar in the sweetshop owned by a woman who hated him; goat droppings in his sister's annoying fiance's pipe), and the usual anecdotes one gets from a happy cheerful large family who all want to be around each other and have gotten very good at it. All told in the same tone of voice, which you wouldn't think would work but does, because the content itself makes the voice ironic or humorous or bitter as the case may be.

I would say, then, that it's enjoyable, and interesting if you like the author; but it is not indispensable as an autobiography, though it is well done, because I have read many books with similar content. The unusual thing is that this time they are all the same book.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Short and charming autobiography centering around Dahl's childhood and adolescence; it follows his usual pattern of covering quite appalling events in entertaining and ironic ways.

Dahl came from a large and loving family of Norwegians living in England, which suffered a serious shock very early in his life when his older sister died of appendicitis, followed a month later by his father dying of pneumonia. His mother, upon his father's death, had two children to raise by her husband's first wife, three surviving of her own, and a baby due in six weeks. Looking back on it, Dahl is justifiably surprised that she didn't sell the house, take the children, and flee to her family in Norway, but she seems to have stuck it out in England with an iron will and a tenacious good humor. His talk about her is admiring and endearing, and she comes across as competent beyond belief, practical, wise, and a master of organizational tactics (she got all of them, and the nanny, to the coastal islands of Norway on summer holidays every year, an undertaking slightly more logistically complicated than siege warfare).

School, however, seems to have been the major problem in his life. His mother took him out of one school because they caned him, and sent him to a highly reputable boarding school-- where they not only caned him more often, but stood over the students writing letters to make sure no one said anything undesirable about the educational environment. His sense of injustice is deep-seated, desperate, and accurate; he happened to be a very good athlete and mentions that he must have been the only team captain at Repton never to be made into a house official, because the faculty knew perfectly well he wouldn't beat the junior students. This goes a fair way for me in explaining the two kinds of adults who appear in Dahl's fiction for children: the good ones, loving, imperfect, and usually economically or otherwise not capable of achieving much, especially in defense of children; and the bad ones, who are rotten clear through and in power and abuse it. This does appear to have been the way adults were to him as a child, and the wounds of school in the 1920s are visible in him writing sixty years later. (And more than visible-- he mentions never having been able to sit on a hard bench for any length of time in later life.)

So this book is an odd combination of terrible things that happened to the author, terrible things he did to other people by way of revenge (a dead mouse in a jar in the sweetshop owned by a woman who hated him; goat droppings in his sister's annoying fiance's pipe), and the usual anecdotes one gets from a happy cheerful large family who all want to be around each other and have gotten very good at it. All told in the same tone of voice, which you wouldn't think would work but does, because the content itself makes the voice ironic or humorous or bitter as the case may be.

I would say, then, that it's enjoyable, and interesting if you like the author; but it is not indispensable as an autobiography, though it is well done, because I have read many books with similar content. The unusual thing is that this time they are all the same book.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Read today. I am caught up! I refuse to fall behind again!

This is a memoir of growing up in the late 1960s in Malaysia. Apparently it is a sequel to the author's Kampung Boy, which the library did not have, but it stands by itself. Lat draws in a very fluid, loose, expressive, intentionally 'cartoony' style, and this is sort of a cross between a comic and an illustrated novel in which there's an illustration for every paragraph.

There's not much in the way of plot, but there's a great deal of detail and atmosphere. Street scenes are popping with background market transactions, traffic, construction work; interiors are cluttered and homey and lived-in, changing over time but retaining an essential sameness that gives the feel of spaces evolving naturally during the eight or so years the comic covers.

Lat and his family move into town when he is ten. They live in the first low-cost housing project in Malaysia-- there is a panel of his recollection of his father accepting their new house keys from a Very Official Person, everyone grinning for the cameras, and then they all troop off to look for the house, not entirely certain where it is. Town, to Lat, means connection to the wider universe: Lawrence of Arabia in Arabic, Bill Haley and the Comets on the record-player his friend from school has in the little room over his family's Chinese tea room (and the pure, perfect joy evoked by thirteen-year-olds meeting rock and roll for the first time leaps off the page). It means learning to draw, becoming the guy who knows about drawing, magically managing to use that to snag a date with the girl he's been eying for years-- but not two dates. Town means excitement, and the excitement of it never fades.

This is an art style I can take or leave, and as I've said there's not really much plot, or much structure. It's a series of entertaining incidents lovingly described. It does well for that, though I don't think it would do much for me on reread. However, there is one thing I wish the publisher had done: notes. There are about six languages used in the text, and they are mostly not translated into English. This is fine, except that a) the protagonist understands them, and b) the author expects the audience to understand them. Leave things in the original language, yes, do, please, that's the best way to make sure your English readers know what language they're in; but could we have some notes, at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the book? I felt as though I was getting about half the text, and I don't think that's the experience that was actually artistically intended.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Read today. I am caught up! I refuse to fall behind again!

This is a memoir of growing up in the late 1960s in Malaysia. Apparently it is a sequel to the author's Kampung Boy, which the library did not have, but it stands by itself. Lat draws in a very fluid, loose, expressive, intentionally 'cartoony' style, and this is sort of a cross between a comic and an illustrated novel in which there's an illustration for every paragraph.

There's not much in the way of plot, but there's a great deal of detail and atmosphere. Street scenes are popping with background market transactions, traffic, construction work; interiors are cluttered and homey and lived-in, changing over time but retaining an essential sameness that gives the feel of spaces evolving naturally during the eight or so years the comic covers.

Lat and his family move into town when he is ten. They live in the first low-cost housing project in Malaysia-- there is a panel of his recollection of his father accepting their new house keys from a Very Official Person, everyone grinning for the cameras, and then they all troop off to look for the house, not entirely certain where it is. Town, to Lat, means connection to the wider universe: Lawrence of Arabia in Arabic, Bill Haley and the Comets on the record-player his friend from school has in the little room over his family's Chinese tea room (and the pure, perfect joy evoked by thirteen-year-olds meeting rock and roll for the first time leaps off the page). It means learning to draw, becoming the guy who knows about drawing, magically managing to use that to snag a date with the girl he's been eying for years-- but not two dates. Town means excitement, and the excitement of it never fades.

This is an art style I can take or leave, and as I've said there's not really much plot, or much structure. It's a series of entertaining incidents lovingly described. It does well for that, though I don't think it would do much for me on reread. However, there is one thing I wish the publisher had done: notes. There are about six languages used in the text, and they are mostly not translated into English. This is fine, except that a) the protagonist understands them, and b) the author expects the audience to understand them. Leave things in the original language, yes, do, please, that's the best way to make sure your English readers know what language they're in; but could we have some notes, at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the book? I felt as though I was getting about half the text, and I don't think that's the experience that was actually artistically intended.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Read August 4th.

After being pleasantly surprised by Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, a book which has been fundamentally misrepresented by the forces which made it into a bestseller and a bad Julia Roberts movie, I decided it was worth seeing if her second would also be better than one expects of A Bestselling Memoir, Subtype: Vaguely Inspirational.

And it is. Gilbert and her lover, who had both gone through nasty divorces, were cohabiting cheerfully enough in a bi-continental relationship sustained by her lover's ninety-day work visas. The U.S. government does not like people to do this indefinitely, and deported him. (She says that the legal word is not deportation, but that no one has ever been able to tell her a different word that would cover it.) This meant they needed to get married if he ever wanted to be able to go back to the U.S., a country in which he had substantial business interests, and out of which she did not want to move permanently.

So, facing what registered emotionally as a governmentally-sponsored shotgun wedding, she decided to do a whole bunch of research about marriage, past, present, and future, and see if she could shake her persistent divorce-caused phobia.

The thing I appreciate about Gilbert's writing here is that it has the same strength her last book had: she admits cheerfully that she is not qualified. She is not a historian, she is specifically not a historian specializing in matrimony, she will give you the names of the books she read and you have her permission to fault her research methods all you like, because this is not an academic text. This is the author, specifically, as a private person, trying to cope with marriage, the public institution, and using anything she can find to help herself do it. She also cheerfully admits that the things that frighten her and interest her about marriage, and the method she finally found to reconcile herself to it, are totally individual and almost certainly do not apply to anyone else. And when she stumbles across giant questions, as, of course, she does every other second, she does not claim to answer them for anyone but her, and sometimes she doesn't have answers for herself either.

So if you're looking for answers to those questions-- you know, the ones like 'why should I, personally, get married?' or 'what role does the patriarchy play in how I view the involvement of the state in marriage?' or 'why in the name of Margaret Sanger do people try so hard to defend something called 'traditional marriage' as an institution when as far as anyone can tell it is less than a century old?', well, this book is specifically not about answering that. It does, however, bring up those questions, and it's a pretty comprehensive list of questions, especially for female-gendered persons who have significant qualms about financial and personal autonomy (qualms which are statistically totally justified and worth consideration).

Gilbert ranges over her own past, the lives of women she knows, and the lives of her extended family in her attempt at reconciliation. Marriage for her is not only undesirable at the start of this book, but a force intruding where it doesn't belong, a symbol of people telling her and her partner that they have to do xyz or they cannot be socially acceptable. She always knows she will do it: she really doesn't want her lover to lose his business, she really doesn't want to move to Australia. What she needs to figure out is how to do it and maintain her self-respect, so that she doesn't feel like they've sold out, and so the whole thing doesn't damage their relationship.

And I have a lot of sympathy for that. That's a real problem, because it does sometimes feel as though when you get married they send you a list of Things People Assume About You Now in the mail (actually, they do, if you are female it begins with the shape of your name on the envelopes) -- and I'm in a same-sex marriage, where theoretically one would think it might be harder for people to make that list. I mean, I'm all for marriage, I desperately want my rights about it and I got married at eighteen and I'm delighted, but I look at the state of marriage as a civil contract every so often and boggle, you know? She is right to fear the things she fears.

So this book doesn't have much in the way of structure, in some ways, because she's wandering from theme to theme and coping strategy to coping strategy (and physically all over Southeast Asia doing miles and miles of paperwork), but I don't see that as a flaw, because this is not a tidy narrative she's in, here. The point is that she doesn't want it to be a tidy little narrative. And there's a fair bit that's funny in it, and a fair bit I sympathize with (I completely understand her total inability, after having gone through said mountains of paperwork, to be okay with the concept of having to organize anything at all by way of a wedding ceremony). The problems with the book are, of course, that she isn't a historian. There are always those moments where, if this is a field one reads in, it could have gone a little deeper. There is the urge to send her a list of further secondary sources. And there is the urge to suggest that she not try to make mental models of the state of marriage in, say, Vietnam, even if she is standing in Vietnam, because she doesn't speak the language and is there for like a month and is operating from a position of very well-meaning and privileged ignorance. Fortunately there is not very much of that. Also, there is a turn of phrase once which annoys me somewhat, in which she says that she thinks that just about everybody attempts some kind of deeply intimate monogamous bonding at some point whether it is sexual or not, and I'm like, no, I have never ever tried to be monogamous and neither have lots of people I know and it does not affect the intimacy of my bonding; you don't know very many poly people, do you, O Author.

But overall, this continues the theme: Elizabeth Gilbert, Better Books Than I Expected. Which is a good thing, and I'll take it.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Read August 4th.

After being pleasantly surprised by Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, a book which has been fundamentally misrepresented by the forces which made it into a bestseller and a bad Julia Roberts movie, I decided it was worth seeing if her second would also be better than one expects of A Bestselling Memoir, Subtype: Vaguely Inspirational.

And it is. Gilbert and her lover, who had both gone through nasty divorces, were cohabiting cheerfully enough in a bi-continental relationship sustained by her lover's ninety-day work visas. The U.S. government does not like people to do this indefinitely, and deported him. (She says that the legal word is not deportation, but that no one has ever been able to tell her a different word that would cover it.) This meant they needed to get married if he ever wanted to be able to go back to the U.S., a country in which he had substantial business interests, and out of which she did not want to move permanently.

So, facing what registered emotionally as a governmentally-sponsored shotgun wedding, she decided to do a whole bunch of research about marriage, past, present, and future, and see if she could shake her persistent divorce-caused phobia.

The thing I appreciate about Gilbert's writing here is that it has the same strength her last book had: she admits cheerfully that she is not qualified. She is not a historian, she is specifically not a historian specializing in matrimony, she will give you the names of the books she read and you have her permission to fault her research methods all you like, because this is not an academic text. This is the author, specifically, as a private person, trying to cope with marriage, the public institution, and using anything she can find to help herself do it. She also cheerfully admits that the things that frighten her and interest her about marriage, and the method she finally found to reconcile herself to it, are totally individual and almost certainly do not apply to anyone else. And when she stumbles across giant questions, as, of course, she does every other second, she does not claim to answer them for anyone but her, and sometimes she doesn't have answers for herself either.

So if you're looking for answers to those questions-- you know, the ones like 'why should I, personally, get married?' or 'what role does the patriarchy play in how I view the involvement of the state in marriage?' or 'why in the name of Margaret Sanger do people try so hard to defend something called 'traditional marriage' as an institution when as far as anyone can tell it is less than a century old?', well, this book is specifically not about answering that. It does, however, bring up those questions, and it's a pretty comprehensive list of questions, especially for female-gendered persons who have significant qualms about financial and personal autonomy (qualms which are statistically totally justified and worth consideration).

Gilbert ranges over her own past, the lives of women she knows, and the lives of her extended family in her attempt at reconciliation. Marriage for her is not only undesirable at the start of this book, but a force intruding where it doesn't belong, a symbol of people telling her and her partner that they have to do xyz or they cannot be socially acceptable. She always knows she will do it: she really doesn't want her lover to lose his business, she really doesn't want to move to Australia. What she needs to figure out is how to do it and maintain her self-respect, so that she doesn't feel like they've sold out, and so the whole thing doesn't damage their relationship.

And I have a lot of sympathy for that. That's a real problem, because it does sometimes feel as though when you get married they send you a list of Things People Assume About You Now in the mail (actually, they do, if you are female it begins with the shape of your name on the envelopes) -- and I'm in a same-sex marriage, where theoretically one would think it might be harder for people to make that list. I mean, I'm all for marriage, I desperately want my rights about it and I got married at eighteen and I'm delighted, but I look at the state of marriage as a civil contract every so often and boggle, you know? She is right to fear the things she fears.

So this book doesn't have much in the way of structure, in some ways, because she's wandering from theme to theme and coping strategy to coping strategy (and physically all over Southeast Asia doing miles and miles of paperwork), but I don't see that as a flaw, because this is not a tidy narrative she's in, here. The point is that she doesn't want it to be a tidy little narrative. And there's a fair bit that's funny in it, and a fair bit I sympathize with (I completely understand her total inability, after having gone through said mountains of paperwork, to be okay with the concept of having to organize anything at all by way of a wedding ceremony). The problems with the book are, of course, that she isn't a historian. There are always those moments where, if this is a field one reads in, it could have gone a little deeper. There is the urge to send her a list of further secondary sources. And there is the urge to suggest that she not try to make mental models of the state of marriage in, say, Vietnam, even if she is standing in Vietnam, because she doesn't speak the language and is there for like a month and is operating from a position of very well-meaning and privileged ignorance. Fortunately there is not very much of that. Also, there is a turn of phrase once which annoys me somewhat, in which she says that she thinks that just about everybody attempts some kind of deeply intimate monogamous bonding at some point whether it is sexual or not, and I'm like, no, I have never ever tried to be monogamous and neither have lots of people I know and it does not affect the intimacy of my bonding; you don't know very many poly people, do you, O Author.

But overall, this continues the theme: Elizabeth Gilbert, Better Books Than I Expected. Which is a good thing, and I'll take it.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Links to the reviews I posted during the recent LJ outage. I am not reposting, but anonymous and open ID commenting are open over there (though I would appreciate some kind of name signed to anonymous comments so as to be able to maintain continuity of conversation).

Day 325: Trilogy, H.D.. Poetry, unfairly overlooked lesbian author.

Day 326: Paying For It, Chester Brown. Graphic novel. Interesting but highly problematic memoir about prostitution from the perspective of a customer.

Day 327: Faerie Winter, Janni Lee Simner. Good YA fantasy by a friend of mine.

Day 328: The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Unfairly obscure Argentinian science fiction indirectly responsible for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.

Day 329: Earth X, Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Graphic novel. Dark Marvel Comics AU with a very interesting take on Captain America.

Day 330: Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As Ghosts, Ursula Vernon. Fifth in Vernon's fun series of illustrated kids' books; not a strong entry.

And the two since made it through crossposting.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Review of the book I read on Thursday, July 21st.

I've read quite a few memoirs by prostitutes over the years, because I am interested in memoir and I am interested in feminism and I am interested in economics. Also in sex. This leads to reading memoirs and essays by sex workers.

However, I had not previously read any memoirs by customers of prostitutes, because, well, they don't seem to turn up as often. Chester Brown's willingness to discuss his interactions with prostitutes is very unusual. His unemotional, flatly biographical, non-sensationalist but definitely ideological approach is even more peculiar. The style of his comic is very stripped-down: panels are all the same size, word balloons take up a lot of space, pictures of people walking along streets are pretty much the same picture repeated with different words. The lines are heavy blackwork and there isn't a lot in the way of facial expression. This means that when there is sex, and there is, it is extremely obvious that it is not intended as anything other than careful documentary.

After breaking up with his girlfriend, the actress and radio personality Sook-Yin Lee (who can be seen in the delightful film Shortbus), Brown decided that he was against romantic love as an institution, and began to see prostitutes regularly. It seems to have been a fairly amicable breakup, although his friends took the whole ideology shift as an expression of some kind of inner pain; I wasn't there, I don't know. Brown doesn't think so. He's a pretty libertarian type and believes that prostitution should be legal because people have the right to make whatever paying contracts they want with their own bodies. Eventually he comes down on the side that it's not necessarily love he's against, but possessive monogamy, with jealousy and everything that goes with that; he also admits flat-out that he is not up for the work of maintaining a relationship and is using money to take the place of putting in that work. At the end of the book he is engaged in a monogamous contract with a particular woman: neither of them sleep with anybody else, he loves her, and he always pays. He claims not to know of a word for this arrangement. (She is a kept woman, and in the French court would have been his maîtresse déclarée. It is not as though this is a new setup he has thought of.)

Unsurprisingly, this memoir is a fascinating mishmash of the interesting and the problematic. He (very politely) chooses not to give identifying details of the women he patronized, leaving out their working names, actual hair and skin colors, and anything any of them said that might be used to trace them. This is probably a good idea, given that some of them are engaged in variants of the work that I think are illegal in Canada (I can't remember whether it's illegal to have the prostitute come to one's home or to have them work out of a brothel, but one of the two is). However, it means that he can't depict them as people. He says he's had a lot of interesting conversations with them about their lives and the philosophy of the business and that he thinks they're mostly happy people who chose their jobs freely and like their work: well, okay, he can say that, but the burden of proof is on him, and he does not give enough detail for me to really believe him. In addition, the no-identifying-details thing has the effect of making the women feel interchangeable and adds to the aura that is traditionally associated with prostitution, that customers treat prostitutes as inhuman and interchangeable commodities. I think there must have been a line between giving information that could identify these women and paring down what they had to say quite this thoroughly.

Also, he gives some very good reasons for wanting prostitution to be both legal and unregulated (legal because then prostitutes will be able to get better health care and call law enforcement more easily; unregulated so that the kind of punitive licensing one gets in Nevada doesn't come into play and produce a black market). But he is operating from a position of privilege, serious privilege: he is the consumer, he is a white male with the money in this equation, and he simply does not seem to understand the kind of societal pressure that can drive women into prostitution when it is not the work they want to be doing. He does not understand the relentless pressure put on women by society to be beautiful and desirable; he does not understand the dynamics of the abusive relationship that can develop between a woman and her pimp (just because she may think of him as a boyfriend doesn't mean he can't be exploiting her; I get the impression that Brown is the sort of person who does not understand why people do not instantly leave any relationship that has become abusive, and the reasons why not of course begin with the physical problems of violence); he literally denies the existence of trafficking. Which just. I don't even. Trafficking? Is a major, serious issue, has been forever, isn't going away any time soon.

This is the most interesting mixture of the sex-positive and the wrongheaded. I mean he goes through and tries to analyze whether any of the women he slept with might have been trafficked: well and good, that's a reasonable thing to do, and he concludes that he doesn't think any of them were. Fair enough. He's buying fairly expensive prostitutes in Canada. The odds of them being were low. Cheaper, on the other hand, or in some other places-- What I am saying here is that the author has the flaw of generalizing from his personal experience to universals. He also does not, I think, understand quite how much these women have invested in keeping him happy and in saying what he wants to hear. (Their physical safety is riding on it, as is the economics of the current transaction and the chance of a repeat customer. One thing a lot of the memoirs I have read by prostitutes agree on is that you never tell a customer you don't like the life, because it never goes well, the very best thing that can happen is that they get rescue fantasies and the worst doesn't bear thinking about.)

As a result, I think this is actually a very good memoir, because it demonstrates the mindset-- the things that one needs to think about, the things that one needs to be in denial about-- of a person who is a regular john. And as I said that isn't a kind of book that crops up, much. It's very interesting to get a chance to look into the head of somebody who does this.

Just be aware, it's quite a dense set of things to wade through and consider; I want to yell at him about at least half of it and throw various other books at him. Which of course also makes it a successful book.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Why yes, I am going through all the Tove Jansson the university library has, why do you ask?

This is described on the cover as Jansson's memoir of her early youth, but that's far too conventional a description for what's actually going on here. I mean, that blurb implies context, the kind of memoir where one says my parents were thus, and we lived here, and I did this. That is not this book.

This book is a series of episodes, each of which is a perfectly acceptable short story by itself, which when assembled produce a picture of what it was like to be Tove Jansson at a very early age. Of a necessity, of course, this includes a lot of description of her parents, her mother the illustrator, her father the sculptor, but a lot of people just drift through. They are there, the way that people are there or not there to small children. Some of the people she talks to and with are not physically real people, because Jansson was of course the sort of intelligent and articulate small child who had conversations with anyone she could call into being or elaborate upon as if they were present, as well as the people who actually happened to be present. There are phases when you are young when all that sort of thing, consensus reality, is irrelevant to the way things are and the question is whether it is an interesting conversation. This may be the best writing I have ever seen from the perspective of that age, the age where with a peculiar double vision one knows both that a certain place is blessed or cursed and that one is by others' definitions being silly. One of Jansson's greatest gifts as a writer is that she doesn't give a damn what other people think and didn't as a kid either.

And the picture we get from her of Helsinki between the wars, and of her family, is consequently highly colored, vivid, individual, indelible. There is the cousin who claims to have the favor of God because a bird perched on her wall hanging of Christ and nodded its head three times. She is insufferable about it to the point of organizing the young cousins into a Bible class. "It was then," says Jansson, "I began to build the golden calf." There is the summer they have guests at the summer place, who keep poking their heads into her father's studio and suggesting motifs, and he becomes quieter and quieter until there is a giant storm and two feet of water come into the studio and he dashes into the house to explain with cheerful gusto that all his clay and plaster are ruined and he will, so sorry, not be able to keep any of the past month's work. There is the time she sees an iceberg and throws a flashlight onto it, watches it ride glowing glasslike out to sea. The parties at her parents' apartment, where the goal is for everyone to stay up as late as possible, and then they all fall asleep sitting up and have to rouse very gently in the morning, opening the curtains an inch at a time and pondering for half an hour over whether it is really pickled herring that everyone wants for breakfast and, if so, whether there is any, because it is unquestionably and undoubtably too far to the pantry from the table.

The whole is illustrated by photographs, many by Jansson's brother, some familial in other ways, black and white, technically stunning, usually focused on things like water on rock. They feel oddly relevant despite having nothing in particular to do with most of the text.

As one would expect, then, this is a brilliant book, not in the slightest like books by any other writers, and full of elements which would crop up in her later work but not in the same way. It is not a book that teaches you to know her (I expect she does not want us to), but it is profoundly lovable.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Why yes, I am going through all the Tove Jansson the university library has, why do you ask?

This is described on the cover as Jansson's memoir of her early youth, but that's far too conventional a description for what's actually going on here. I mean, that blurb implies context, the kind of memoir where one says my parents were thus, and we lived here, and I did this. That is not this book.

This book is a series of episodes, each of which is a perfectly acceptable short story by itself, which when assembled produce a picture of what it was like to be Tove Jansson at a very early age. Of a necessity, of course, this includes a lot of description of her parents, her mother the illustrator, her father the sculptor, but a lot of people just drift through. They are there, the way that people are there or not there to small children. Some of the people she talks to and with are not physically real people, because Jansson was of course the sort of intelligent and articulate small child who had conversations with anyone she could call into being or elaborate upon as if they were present, as well as the people who actually happened to be present. There are phases when you are young when all that sort of thing, consensus reality, is irrelevant to the way things are and the question is whether it is an interesting conversation. This may be the best writing I have ever seen from the perspective of that age, the age where with a peculiar double vision one knows both that a certain place is blessed or cursed and that one is by others' definitions being silly. One of Jansson's greatest gifts as a writer is that she doesn't give a damn what other people think and didn't as a kid either.

And the picture we get from her of Helsinki between the wars, and of her family, is consequently highly colored, vivid, individual, indelible. There is the cousin who claims to have the favor of God because a bird perched on her wall hanging of Christ and nodded its head three times. She is insufferable about it to the point of organizing the young cousins into a Bible class. "It was then," says Jansson, "I began to build the golden calf." There is the summer they have guests at the summer place, who keep poking their heads into her father's studio and suggesting motifs, and he becomes quieter and quieter until there is a giant storm and two feet of water come into the studio and he dashes into the house to explain with cheerful gusto that all his clay and plaster are ruined and he will, so sorry, not be able to keep any of the past month's work. There is the time she sees an iceberg and throws a flashlight onto it, watches it ride glowing glasslike out to sea. The parties at her parents' apartment, where the goal is for everyone to stay up as late as possible, and then they all fall asleep sitting up and have to rouse very gently in the morning, opening the curtains an inch at a time and pondering for half an hour over whether it is really pickled herring that everyone wants for breakfast and, if so, whether there is any, because it is unquestionably and undoubtably too far to the pantry from the table.

The whole is illustrated by photographs, many by Jansson's brother, some familial in other ways, black and white, technically stunning, usually focused on things like water on rock. They feel oddly relevant despite having nothing in particular to do with most of the text.

As one would expect, then, this is a brilliant book, not in the slightest like books by any other writers, and full of elements which would crop up in her later work but not in the same way. It is not a book that teaches you to know her (I expect she does not want us to), but it is profoundly lovable.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A book about how the simple goal of trying to go to Tuva with Richard Feynman inexorably leads to organizing the largest museum exhibit to travel between the USSR and the United States. No, really.

In the late 1970s, Leighton, a longtime friend of Feynman's, was at his house for dinner; the conversation worked around to the question of what happened to Tannu Tuva, a nation at that time mostly known to stamp collectors because of the beautiful and unique stamps it put out in the 1930s. The answer is that it became part of the USSR and is currently still kind of part of Russia, although China and Mongolia also have claims and it would rather like to be independent again. It is known nowadays primarily for Tuvian throatsinging, a technique in which a single person is able to sing more than one note at the same time. (If I could find it, I'd upload you a Tuvian throatsinging cover of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Maybe it's better for everyone that I appear to have mislaid it.)

Of course, nowadays one can find out a great deal about Tuva simply by Googling, and I suspect it is difficult but not ridiculously hard to get there. But Leighton and Feynman, who were intrigued by the entire question of where the stamps came from, were working before the internet and before cell phones and in the days of Soviet bureaucracy, specifically Intourist, whose job was basically to keep tourists from going off the beaten path. Finding anything about Tuva at all involved trawling research libraries, spending large amounts of time with Tuvan-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries, and writing letters to a staggering number of scholars. Actually trying to go to Tuva involved trying to figure out an excuse: since Tuva did not have an Intourist office, going as a tourist was not possible. Thus the museum; Leighton figured that after bringing to the US a massive display of Tuvan and Scythian and Kazakh artifacts, which had already toured Sweden, they could get into Tuva as associates of whatever museum agreed to host the exhibit.

Which is how you get a high school geography teacher and a Nobel laureate in physics as the beginning liaisons between, among other institutions, the Smithsonian, and the Soviets. In the middle 1980s.

As a book qua book, this is not amazing; Leighton's prose is rather lackluster, his organizational schema is peculiar, and he has an attitude towards life that can best be summarized as 'enthusiastically endorsing those Esalen people', which should tell you. He also hero-worships Feynman amazingly, which is probably fair, but does not make for nuanced descriptions of the man. However, as a story about what can happen to a person, given careful research, incredible stubbornness, and a willingness to network and ask for what one wants, it is amazing and continuously unpredictable. As a snapshot of how much the world has changed in the last couple of decades, it's also quite impressive. I remember trying to research some geography questions that were very much less obscure for a contest when I was about eleven, pre-internet. A helpful librarian and I spent quite a while ransacking the three floors of the largest library near me, and got precisely nothing. I would have had to go to a larger city and repeat the whole process. Nowadays-- well, I'm not joking, I used to have a copy of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' as covered by Tuvian throatsingers, and there's a Mongolian rock band I occasionally pay attention to on Myspace.

This is a book that I can see handing to kids in the future and explaining about how there used to be this thing called the Soviet Union, and you used to have to string wire from place to place to make a phone call, and this is the kind of story that you get out of the coinciding of those historical facts.

It's also pretty damn entertaining, but then I like obsessive people.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A book about how the simple goal of trying to go to Tuva with Richard Feynman inexorably leads to organizing the largest museum exhibit to travel between the USSR and the United States. No, really.

In the late 1970s, Leighton, a longtime friend of Feynman's, was at his house for dinner; the conversation worked around to the question of what happened to Tannu Tuva, a nation at that time mostly known to stamp collectors because of the beautiful and unique stamps it put out in the 1930s. The answer is that it became part of the USSR and is currently still kind of part of Russia, although China and Mongolia also have claims and it would rather like to be independent again. It is known nowadays primarily for Tuvian throatsinging, a technique in which a single person is able to sing more than one note at the same time. (If I could find it, I'd upload you a Tuvian throatsinging cover of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Maybe it's better for everyone that I appear to have mislaid it.)

Of course, nowadays one can find out a great deal about Tuva simply by Googling, and I suspect it is difficult but not ridiculously hard to get there. But Leighton and Feynman, who were intrigued by the entire question of where the stamps came from, were working before the internet and before cell phones and in the days of Soviet bureaucracy, specifically Intourist, whose job was basically to keep tourists from going off the beaten path. Finding anything about Tuva at all involved trawling research libraries, spending large amounts of time with Tuvan-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries, and writing letters to a staggering number of scholars. Actually trying to go to Tuva involved trying to figure out an excuse: since Tuva did not have an Intourist office, going as a tourist was not possible. Thus the museum; Leighton figured that after bringing to the US a massive display of Tuvan and Scythian and Kazakh artifacts, which had already toured Sweden, they could get into Tuva as associates of whatever museum agreed to host the exhibit.

Which is how you get a high school geography teacher and a Nobel laureate in physics as the beginning liaisons between, among other institutions, the Smithsonian, and the Soviets. In the middle 1980s.

As a book qua book, this is not amazing; Leighton's prose is rather lackluster, his organizational schema is peculiar, and he has an attitude towards life that can best be summarized as 'enthusiastically endorsing those Esalen people', which should tell you. He also hero-worships Feynman amazingly, which is probably fair, but does not make for nuanced descriptions of the man. However, as a story about what can happen to a person, given careful research, incredible stubbornness, and a willingness to network and ask for what one wants, it is amazing and continuously unpredictable. As a snapshot of how much the world has changed in the last couple of decades, it's also quite impressive. I remember trying to research some geography questions that were very much less obscure for a contest when I was about eleven, pre-internet. A helpful librarian and I spent quite a while ransacking the three floors of the largest library near me, and got precisely nothing. I would have had to go to a larger city and repeat the whole process. Nowadays-- well, I'm not joking, I used to have a copy of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' as covered by Tuvian throatsingers, and there's a Mongolian rock band I occasionally pay attention to on Myspace.

This is a book that I can see handing to kids in the future and explaining about how there used to be this thing called the Soviet Union, and you used to have to string wire from place to place to make a phone call, and this is the kind of story that you get out of the coinciding of those historical facts.

It's also pretty damn entertaining, but then I like obsessive people.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Yes, this is that Agatha Christie.

A memoir of several years spent with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, excavating in Syria entre deux guerres. It's not meant to be about archaeology, really, although they did some very important work; it's about trying to wrangle several hundred people and massive quantities of supplies into some semblance of a dig while dependent on sparse train lines, no roads, and communications by letter. (I particularly enjoy the way that whenever they go to the post office the postmaster, who is literate in Arabic but not other languages, has a bin for letters addressed in languages he does not speak and keeps trying to give the entire bin to anyone who comes in and asks for something that ought to be in it. They keep speculating about who all these people are whose mail they are declining, and hoping said people do the same for them.)

This is one of those books that is a fast, funny, intelligent read marred drastically by having been published in 1946 by a person who has not thought at all about the race and class issues built into the way she expects things in Syria to go for her as an English gentlewoman. Which is to say it has not, in some aspects, aged remotely pleasantly. If one uses the rubric of good for its time, normal for its time, bad for its time, I am afraid it is on the normal-trending-to-bad part of that spectrum.

Still, I think I now know where Elizabeth Peters got her model for the Amelia Peabody books. Agatha Christie was a person of great aplomb and a way of laughing at herself (and other people, when called for: there is the friend of hers who had pajamas specially designed to cover every inch of his body but his eyes, nose, and mouth, to keep off the mosquitoes, and kept saying he was going to be the only one not to get malaria, and of course the second he got them buckled and zipped on for the first time he realized there was a mouse inside his waistband; apparently no one could get anywhere near him to assist, since everyone had collapsed in fits of hysterical giggling). She appears to have been able to write mystery novels in a room actually containing people reconstructing pottery, a feat of concentration beyond my ability to comprehend.

So, the bits that do not have one gritting one's teeth are very pleasant, and as a record of a mindset and a way of doing things and of how archaeology used to work, it is continuously interesting. But there is a lot of teeth-gritting.

She did write a very nice poem for the front of the book, which I am going to include here in full as it is too enjoyable not to, and certainly is not the sort of thing that would be excerpted anywhere. Also, it's a fun example of the geek love poem, a genre that has a long history.

with apologies to Lewis Carroll )

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Yes, this is that Agatha Christie.

A memoir of several years spent with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, excavating in Syria entre deux guerres. It's not meant to be about archaeology, really, although they did some very important work; it's about trying to wrangle several hundred people and massive quantities of supplies into some semblance of a dig while dependent on sparse train lines, no roads, and communications by letter. (I particularly enjoy the way that whenever they go to the post office the postmaster, who is literate in Arabic but not other languages, has a bin for letters addressed in languages he does not speak and keeps trying to give the entire bin to anyone who comes in and asks for something that ought to be in it. They keep speculating about who all these people are whose mail they are declining, and hoping said people do the same for them.)

This is one of those books that is a fast, funny, intelligent read marred drastically by having been published in 1946 by a person who has not thought at all about the race and class issues built into the way she expects things in Syria to go for her as an English gentlewoman. Which is to say it has not, in some aspects, aged remotely pleasantly. If one uses the rubric of good for its time, normal for its time, bad for its time, I am afraid it is on the normal-trending-to-bad part of that spectrum.

Still, I think I now know where Elizabeth Peters got her model for the Amelia Peabody books. Agatha Christie was a person of great aplomb and a way of laughing at herself (and other people, when called for: there is the friend of hers who had pajamas specially designed to cover every inch of his body but his eyes, nose, and mouth, to keep off the mosquitoes, and kept saying he was going to be the only one not to get malaria, and of course the second he got them buckled and zipped on for the first time he realized there was a mouse inside his waistband; apparently no one could get anywhere near him to assist, since everyone had collapsed in fits of hysterical giggling). She appears to have been able to write mystery novels in a room actually containing people reconstructing pottery, a feat of concentration beyond my ability to comprehend.

So, the bits that do not have one gritting one's teeth are very pleasant, and as a record of a mindset and a way of doing things and of how archaeology used to work, it is continuously interesting. But there is a lot of teeth-gritting.

She did write a very nice poem for the front of the book, which I am going to include here in full as it is too enjoyable not to, and certainly is not the sort of thing that would be excerpted anywhere. Also, it's a fun example of the geek love poem, a genre that has a long history.

with apologies to Lewis Carroll )
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I read this for three reasons:

-- I was in an airport bookstore
-- I occasionally have an inexplicable sudden urge to read best-sellers
-- Ursula Vernon, who is a sensible person, rather liked it.

... I also rather liked it.

I think a lot of the hate about this book has been based on the concept that it is, in some way, travel writing. If it were a travel book, it would be really inexcusable, because yeah, the author is going off to Italy and India and Indonesia and does not know that much about the cultures involved and the issues and the histories; yeah, she has a lot of money and privilege and the ability to go off for a year and travel and write about it and sell the book in advance, even. If this were a travel book, it would be aggravating spiritual tourism.

It's not. It's an introspective memoir about the aftermath of a really terrible set of life crises and the way the author pulled herself out of a nasty bout of clinical depression. One way she does it is meditation, and she freely admits that she knows nothing about the history of meditation as a spiritual practice. I do under most circumstances find myself annoyed at people who go off and do yoga for a week and then something ayurvedic for another week and then go off to Bali to study traditional Balinese medicine, because it seems kind of dilettantish.

Except that we are talking here about someone who was trying to save her own life, literally, who was at the 'call my friends and get them to take away my sharp implements' phase. I do not blame people for a buffet-style approach to spirituality if that is what they need to do to keep on breathing-- and she does seem to have tackled her depression with anything and everything she could think of. Meds? Yes. Exercise? Yes. Positive self-talk? Yes. Therapy? Yes. And what worked for her was taking a year and going off and doing exactly what she wanted to do, which, since a lot of her problem was that she'd been defining herself by the men in her life for decades, was a major and difficult thing.

Most people do not have the resources to go do this in continents they don't live in. But the overall arc of this book actually is a woman learning that she can make it on her own, and she can devote herself to things that matter to her even if they seem fruitcake-y to other people (and yes, going to an ashram is A Bit Much in my personal opinion, but at least she decided for herself to do it, and worked hard at it). And I have this suspicion that that arc is one reason this book gets looked down on so much, because I think that arc scares people. Notice how much one hears about her Meeting A Guy at the end, for example, and how little one hears about how adamant she was to maintain a life of her own, how careful she was to try to preserve the autonomy she'd gained while keeping the freedom to go into a relationship. And one hears almost nothing about one of the principal reasons behind her first marriage breaking up being that she desperately, violently did not want children.

So yeah. I could wish this were more complex and nuanced about class and race and religion, I could wish it were an actual look at the places she goes to, I could wish it weren't privileged as fuck. But it's intelligently written, it's sincerely intended, and she never claims she knows anything at all about those places and issues; in fact she repeatedly states the exact opposite. As a book about the inside of its author's head, this totally does not suck.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I read this for three reasons:

-- I was in an airport bookstore
-- I occasionally have an inexplicable sudden urge to read best-sellers
-- Ursula Vernon, who is a sensible person, rather liked it.

... I also rather liked it.

I think a lot of the hate about this book has been based on the concept that it is, in some way, travel writing. If it were a travel book, it would be really inexcusable, because yeah, the author is going off to Italy and India and Indonesia and does not know that much about the cultures involved and the issues and the histories; yeah, she has a lot of money and privilege and the ability to go off for a year and travel and write about it and sell the book in advance, even. If this were a travel book, it would be aggravating spiritual tourism.

It's not. It's an introspective memoir about the aftermath of a really terrible set of life crises and the way the author pulled herself out of a nasty bout of clinical depression. One way she does it is meditation, and she freely admits that she knows nothing about the history of meditation as a spiritual practice. I do under most circumstances find myself annoyed at people who go off and do yoga for a week and then something ayurvedic for another week and then go off to Bali to study traditional Balinese medicine, because it seems kind of dilettantish.

Except that we are talking here about someone who was trying to save her own life, literally, who was at the 'call my friends and get them to take away my sharp implements' phase. I do not blame people for a buffet-style approach to spirituality if that is what they need to do to keep on breathing-- and she does seem to have tackled her depression with anything and everything she could think of. Meds? Yes. Exercise? Yes. Positive self-talk? Yes. Therapy? Yes. And what worked for her was taking a year and going off and doing exactly what she wanted to do, which, since a lot of her problem was that she'd been defining herself by the men in her life for decades, was a major and difficult thing.

Most people do not have the resources to go do this in continents they don't live in. But the overall arc of this book actually is a woman learning that she can make it on her own, and she can devote herself to things that matter to her even if they seem fruitcake-y to other people (and yes, going to an ashram is A Bit Much in my personal opinion, but at least she decided for herself to do it, and worked hard at it). And I have this suspicion that that arc is one reason this book gets looked down on so much, because I think that arc scares people. Notice how much one hears about her Meeting A Guy at the end, for example, and how little one hears about how adamant she was to maintain a life of her own, how careful she was to try to preserve the autonomy she'd gained while keeping the freedom to go into a relationship. And one hears almost nothing about one of the principal reasons behind her first marriage breaking up being that she desperately, violently did not want children.

So yeah. I could wish this were more complex and nuanced about class and race and religion, I could wish it were an actual look at the places she goes to, I could wish it weren't privileged as fuck. But it's intelligently written, it's sincerely intended, and she never claims she knows anything at all about those places and issues; in fact she repeatedly states the exact opposite. As a book about the inside of its author's head, this totally does not suck.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
There's always something of a gamble in picking up a biography because you want to read a biography of the person it is about, and not because you have heard anything good about the author or book for itself. This book is blurbed by Anita Desai and Guy Davenport and lives up to that; I am glad, because I wanted to read a biography of Cummings after The Enormous Room made me curious about what happened next.

The author was, I gather, the first writer to have complete access to Cummings' papers, diaries, notes to himself, etc., and full permission to publish them. He therefore wisely lets Cummings speak for himself a lot of the time, and uses selections from the poetry when it is relevant. But, as a good biographer should, he also presents information and analysis-- not unbiasedly, because no one does that, but in a fashion that lets you see the biases and that he is aware of them.

And Sawyer-Lauçanno's major bias is also the one which is an additional mark of a good biographer: he loves his subject. He says so straight out. He loves Cummings' work, and it has had great impact on his life. Knowing and admitting this, he can get out of his own way enough to give us the man's flaws.

Which were significant. Edward Estlin Cummings was an incredibly complicated man who changed complexities on a fairly regular basis. He was learned, kind, funny, charming, charitable, loyal to a fault, devoted to his work, devoted to an appreciation of the world, in love with the city of Paris par amours, and absolutely unwilling to be fettered by convention. He was also terrible at relationships in some truly amazing directions, never forgot a perceived slight, could not understand financial anything on either personal or larger scales, almost certainly drank too much, and--

well.

cut for a long and sordid story )

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
There's always something of a gamble in picking up a biography because you want to read a biography of the person it is about, and not because you have heard anything good about the author or book for itself. This book is blurbed by Anita Desai and Guy Davenport and lives up to that; I am glad, because I wanted to read a biography of Cummings after The Enormous Room made me curious about what happened next.

The author was, I gather, the first writer to have complete access to Cummings' papers, diaries, notes to himself, etc., and full permission to publish them. He therefore wisely lets Cummings speak for himself a lot of the time, and uses selections from the poetry when it is relevant. But, as a good biographer should, he also presents information and analysis-- not unbiasedly, because no one does that, but in a fashion that lets you see the biases and that he is aware of them.

And Sawyer-Lauçanno's major bias is also the one which is an additional mark of a good biographer: he loves his subject. He says so straight out. He loves Cummings' work, and it has had great impact on his life. Knowing and admitting this, he can get out of his own way enough to give us the man's flaws.

Which were significant. Edward Estlin Cummings was an incredibly complicated man who changed complexities on a fairly regular basis. He was learned, kind, funny, charming, charitable, loyal to a fault, devoted to his work, devoted to an appreciation of the world, in love with the city of Paris par amours, and absolutely unwilling to be fettered by convention. He was also terrible at relationships in some truly amazing directions, never forgot a perceived slight, could not understand financial anything on either personal or larger scales, almost certainly drank too much, and--

well.

cut for a long and sordid story )
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I have read more than a few books about World War I, long, short, assigned, unassigned, good, bad, indifferent, poetical, historical, fictional, factional, truthful or less as the case may be; in fact I once for work proofread the entire poetry of Wilfred Owen, absolutely all of it, juvenilia and drafts included, which means I am in position to tell you that his estate if any ought to sue Disney for copyright over The Little Mermaid as ninety percent of that movie including names of evil eel sidekicks is from an absolutely terrible poem Owen perpetrated at about the age of thirteen. And of course I have read a lot of memoirs about the War, Robert Graves certainly and whatever else I have gotten my hands on. It is not an unfamiliar genre to me, the WWI memoir.

This one, though. This one is different in several directions, beyond the basic fact of being a masterpiece, which would not by itself distinguish it from the rest of its genre as it is a field in which masterpieces flourished somewhat. It is by e.e. cummings, for one thing, the first book he ever wrote, and it is a very truthful and exact memoir which communicates very well what he went through when, as an ambulance-driver for the Red Cross, he was arrested by the French government as a possible spy, put into indefinite detention, and shuffled into a Kafka-esque maze of dizzying bureaucratic passages, all alike. It is a book of great power and honesty.

It is also, and this is where everything I thought I knew about the WWI memoir screeches to a halt, turns about-face, and vanishes into the distance, it is also screamingly hilarious.

I mean it. Portions of this are the funniest book I have read this year.

I have been going through and trying to find an excerpt that will explain why it is so funny, but this is not excerptable humor. It is instead the kind that flows gently and naturally from the endless piling of situation on situation. It also has a great good gift of timing. I mean, this is the sort of book in which we learn, from watching him go through various prison examinations, that the author graduated from Harvard. Two hundred pages later he is attempting to translate and transcribe the various things one of the guards is calling him, most of which are untranslatable and/or unprintable, and among the long list of epithets you get "which is gendarme for 'fuck Yale'" and it is such a completely perfectly unexpected sense-making non sequitur that I laughed for ten minutes.

Part of it is that you will never find a man so happy to be in prison. The reason that cummings and his friend wound up under suspicion was that they did not get on with the leader of their ambulance squadron, and the friend wrote several letters home saying that they did not get on with said leader, and the leader brought this to the attention of the letters censor, and the next thing was of course accusations of treason and espionage. cummings' sole purpose in life, after finding out what was going on, was to stay with his friend, to which purpose he cheerfully manipulated several panels of questioners. When the two of them reach La Ferté-Macé, the camp where people are held until the authorities decide whether they are dangerous, they both decide heartily that it is, and this is a quote, "the best place in the world". Or at any rate better than the ambulance squadron.

A lot of this is irony, of course, though it is also all real. You do not come to a World War I book for comfort reading, not even this one. Most of the humor is not black at all, but some is very black, and some of the sunniest is directly intertwined with the vicious and helpless rage and frustration that build and build and build, when the writer sees what this prison does to people and what the government can get away with. One of the things that makes this book such a masterpiece is that the horror of the prison is that the atrocities of it are carried out in a place where the narrator is happy, much of the time, really honestly happy. The medieval brutality and total chaotic confusion of the prison feel that much more real and honest and sense-making to him than the entire rest of the war. Another of the things that makes this so good is that, of course, the prison doors open and the narrator and his friend go home and the rage goes nowhere, because it can never end; the life before it is over and goodbye to all that. I have a great deal more respect for e.e. cummings after reading this, and I had a fair amount already.

Of course the language is ridiculously amazing, too. He's in his late twenties and still finding his feet, so I cannot blame you if you find this over-written, because sometimes he has no idea where in hell he's going to put the verb among those adjectives. But you get sentences like "He had no nose, properly speaking, but a large beak of preposterous widthlessness, which gave his whole face the expression of falling gravely downstairs, and quite obliterated the unimportant chin." I mean that is the sort of sentence I get the urge to write out and frame and put up on the wall, for seven or eight different reasons.

There is only one thing which prevents me from heartily pressing this into the hands of all and sundry, and that is, well, honestly it is damn close to bilingual. I am lucky enough to read French, and apparently know more of the scabrous kind than I had thought. If you are not a French-reader you will need a dictionary, because there are entire paragraphs in here that were transcribed as their original speakers said them, which is to say in French, and not translated at all. Also all the prison vocabulary is in French, and anything the author felt he couldn't print in English in 1922. But you could get by with a dictionary, I think, or Google Translate or something, or pick up the important bits as one does with a well-world-built novel. I think. The thing is since I do read French I cannot know for certain. I suspect this bilinguality of being the reason no class that assigned WWI lit ever threw this at me, although I guess it may also be obscure? I never know how well known things are, really.

Anyway, this is one of the bona fide great memoirs. I need to find a good bio of cummings, and look more thoroughly into his bibliography, because years ago at the Boston Antiquarian Book Show I saw one of his paintings, and I have seen a collection of the porn he drew, and I think he was just one of those people who couldn't do anything badly. And on his own evidence a good man, and a loving one.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
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I have read more than a few books about World War I, long, short, assigned, unassigned, good, bad, indifferent, poetical, historical, fictional, factional, truthful or less as the case may be; in fact I once for work proofread the entire poetry of Wilfred Owen, absolutely all of it, juvenilia and drafts included, which means I am in position to tell you that his estate if any ought to sue Disney for copyright over The Little Mermaid as ninety percent of that movie including names of evil eel sidekicks is from an absolutely terrible poem Owen perpetrated at about the age of thirteen. And of course I have read a lot of memoirs about the War, Robert Graves certainly and whatever else I have gotten my hands on. It is not an unfamiliar genre to me, the WWI memoir.

This one, though. This one is different in several directions, beyond the basic fact of being a masterpiece, which would not by itself distinguish it from the rest of its genre as it is a field in which masterpieces flourished somewhat. It is by e.e. cummings, for one thing, the first book he ever wrote, and it is a very truthful and exact memoir which communicates very well what he went through when, as an ambulance-driver for the Red Cross, he was arrested by the French government as a possible spy, put into indefinite detention, and shuffled into a Kafka-esque maze of dizzying bureaucratic passages, all alike. It is a book of great power and honesty.

It is also, and this is where everything I thought I knew about the WWI memoir screeches to a halt, turns about-face, and vanishes into the distance, it is also screamingly hilarious.

I mean it. Portions of this are the funniest book I have read this year.

I have been going through and trying to find an excerpt that will explain why it is so funny, but this is not excerptable humor. It is instead the kind that flows gently and naturally from the endless piling of situation on situation. It also has a great good gift of timing. I mean, this is the sort of book in which we learn, from watching him go through various prison examinations, that the author graduated from Harvard. Two hundred pages later he is attempting to translate and transcribe the various things one of the guards is calling him, most of which are untranslatable and/or unprintable, and among the long list of epithets you get "which is gendarme for 'fuck Yale'" and it is such a completely perfectly unexpected sense-making non sequitur that I laughed for ten minutes.

Part of it is that you will never find a man so happy to be in prison. The reason that cummings and his friend wound up under suspicion was that they did not get on with the leader of their ambulance squadron, and the friend wrote several letters home saying that they did not get on with said leader, and the leader brought this to the attention of the letters censor, and the next thing was of course accusations of treason and espionage. cummings' sole purpose in life, after finding out what was going on, was to stay with his friend, to which purpose he cheerfully manipulated several panels of questioners. When the two of them reach La Ferté-Macé, the camp where people are held until the authorities decide whether they are dangerous, they both decide heartily that it is, and this is a quote, "the best place in the world". Or at any rate better than the ambulance squadron.

A lot of this is irony, of course, though it is also all real. You do not come to a World War I book for comfort reading, not even this one. Most of the humor is not black at all, but some is very black, and some of the sunniest is directly intertwined with the vicious and helpless rage and frustration that build and build and build, when the writer sees what this prison does to people and what the government can get away with. One of the things that makes this book such a masterpiece is that the horror of the prison is that the atrocities of it are carried out in a place where the narrator is happy, much of the time, really honestly happy. The medieval brutality and total chaotic confusion of the prison feel that much more real and honest and sense-making to him than the entire rest of the war. Another of the things that makes this so good is that, of course, the prison doors open and the narrator and his friend go home and the rage goes nowhere, because it can never end; the life before it is over and goodbye to all that. I have a great deal more respect for e.e. cummings after reading this, and I had a fair amount already.

Of course the language is ridiculously amazing, too. He's in his late twenties and still finding his feet, so I cannot blame you if you find this over-written, because sometimes he has no idea where in hell he's going to put the verb among those adjectives. But you get sentences like "He had no nose, properly speaking, but a large beak of preposterous widthlessness, which gave his whole face the expression of falling gravely downstairs, and quite obliterated the unimportant chin." I mean that is the sort of sentence I get the urge to write out and frame and put up on the wall, for seven or eight different reasons.

There is only one thing which prevents me from heartily pressing this into the hands of all and sundry, and that is, well, honestly it is damn close to bilingual. I am lucky enough to read French, and apparently know more of the scabrous kind than I had thought. If you are not a French-reader you will need a dictionary, because there are entire paragraphs in here that were transcribed as their original speakers said them, which is to say in French, and not translated at all. Also all the prison vocabulary is in French, and anything the author felt he couldn't print in English in 1922. But you could get by with a dictionary, I think, or Google Translate or something, or pick up the important bits as one does with a well-world-built novel. I think. The thing is since I do read French I cannot know for certain. I suspect this bilinguality of being the reason no class that assigned WWI lit ever threw this at me, although I guess it may also be obscure? I never know how well known things are, really.

Anyway, this is one of the bona fide great memoirs. I need to find a good bio of cummings, and look more thoroughly into his bibliography, because years ago at the Boston Antiquarian Book Show I saw one of his paintings, and I have seen a collection of the porn he drew, and I think he was just one of those people who couldn't do anything badly. And on his own evidence a good man, and a loving one.

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