Monday, June 4, 2018

Book Review: Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Updike said that, “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” “so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Almost a millennium earlier, Montaigne posed the same question somewhat contrastively in his arresting meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”
Yet death continues to distress us, even more so the death of our loved ones, and if adults are so thoroughly unsettled by the notion of death, despite intellectually recognizing it as an inevitable part of life, how is a child supposed to settle into comprehension and acceptance about such an unsettling reality?
Aware their grandmother is gravely ill, four siblings make a pact to try keep death from taking her away. But Death arrives all the same, as he must. He comes gently, naturally, and with enough time to share a story with the children that helps them to realize the value of death and the importance of being able to say goodbye.
Finally, Death goes upstairs, telling the children the words of the title, which offer them comfort in the following years.
Illustrator Charlotte Pardi creates a cozy, lived-in ambiance with her pencil and watercolor illustrations. The character of Death looks so tired, so utterly exhausted in this book, saddened and burdened with what he has been tasked with. His almost grandfatherly appearance suggests to the children, as well as to the reader, that maybe there isn’t really anything to fear about Death and that maybe there just might be a time and a place for all of us to go gently into that good night.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Book Review: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, is a virtual unknown here in the States but a very big deal in her native Russia.
Many of these stories fit roughly into a category of literature that Franco-Bulgarian structuralist Tzvetan Todorov calls the Fantastic—simply put: texts that cause the reader to hesitate between natural and supernatural explanations for the events described, much like Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.
The fantastic can be present in works where the reader experiences hesitation about whether or not a work presents what Todorov calls "the uncanny.”
According to Todorov, this hesitation involves two outcomes: “The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work -- in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations.”
The Fantastic can also represent dreams as well as wakefulness where the character, or readers themselves, hesitates as to what is reality or what is a dream. But again the Fantastic is found in this hesitation and once it is decided the Fantastic ends.
The blurb on the back on the back compares Petrushevskaya to Gogol and Poe. I haven't read much Gogol, so I'm not going to make that comparison. But I can see why some might compare her to Poe, although in translation her language is more fluid, more everyday and her tone, at times, is also more humorous than Poe’s.
Valentine Garfunkel in a review in PopMatters, an international online magazine of cultural criticism, had this to say about the book, “Ultimately, these stories were not intended to sustain such critical scrutiny. Condense in form and plot, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby is best approached as an assortment of appetizing little vignettes, best enjoyed compulsively, in one gulp, rather than chewed over. For in their plain, colloquial language, they evoke, in Petrushevskaya’s own words, the urgent hastiness of bus conversations, with the speaker “making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off.” As everyone from the U.S.A. to the U.S.S.R. knows, the important thing is to make sure to get off the bus before the old babushka grasps your thigh with her horny, wrinkled palm, turns her withered face to you, and starts spinning one of her ole yarns.”
This book was in all honesty a big disappointment. It originally sounded like the kind of book I would love, scary Russian fairytales, but the stories soon became repetitive and were written in a very cold and distant way thus, I never felt any real significant sort of connection to any of the characters or it’s themes. A lot of weird shit happens yes, but not the kind of weird shit that you can appreciate. The only stories that stood out to me in any way were the title story, perfectly dark and twisted, and the very last story, The Black Coat, which was the only story that had any emotional impact on me whatsoever.

Book Review: I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first picked up I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron on a Sunday afternoon at our local library’s annual used book sale. I had been meaning to read her work for some time and now seemed as good a time as any.
She’s a very accomplished writer with a really firm grasp of the english language. She infuses her writing with wit and humor as well as feeling and depth and all this happens within the span of a single sentence.
Her essay “Parenting in Three Stages” was interesting, in it she wonders exactly when and why parenting became an infinitive and blames the women’s movement for turning the idea of raising children into a gender-neutral concept. She rally’s for the good old days when children’s personalities were something other than the handiwork of ambitious adults. Kids were allowed to become who it was they were supposed to become, that’s how it was for me, and I try to emulate that same style of parenting.
The fact that she was 65 when she wrote this book gives Ms. Ephron a plethora of unavoidable subjects for contemplation: age, loss and vanity. None are automatically delightful. But she retains an uncanny ability to sound like your best friend, or really, to me, like an older aunt, even when she is describing the death of one her own best friends in a sobering piece called “Considering the Alternative.” Which is a humorous and poignant reflection on becoming that age where your best friends all start to die. She tells of the passing of her best friend, Judy and another friend Henry. It’s clear to her, and to me, that no matter how much we have or don’t have in our lives, everyone feels the death of a friend as a punch in the gut and Ephron’s reaction isnt any different, but perhaps maybe it is more eloquent than most of us would be able to articulate let alone write an essay about.
This is a charming book, which is why I picked it up in the first place. I wanted to hear her voice and I wanted to experience the world from her perspective. I wanted her to charm me, and I wanted to be seduced by the writing, that’s really the only reason I read anything at all come to think of it.