book review: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

8099283

 

HUMAN CHAIN by Seamus Heaney
★★★★★
FSG, 2010

 

A sparse, supple collection of poems that each capture something singular and striking about human connections. The standouts to me were Human Chain, Route 110, “Had I not been awake,” and “The door was open and the house was dark,” the latter of which I’ll copy here because I think it captures what’s so elegant and perceptive about Heaney’s style:

The door was open and the house was dark
in memory of David Hammond

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

That kept me standing listening while it grew
Backwards and down and out into the street
Where as I’d entered (I remember now)

The streetlamps too were out
I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here there was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

Or an overgrown airfield in high summer.


You can pick up a copy of Human Chain here on Book Depository.

Advertisements

book review: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

30245389

 

NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS by Ocean Vuong
★★★★★
Copper Canyon Press, 2016

 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is an invigorating, razor-sharp poetry collection that meditates with both candor and artistry on themes of war, nationality, sexuality, and violence. Vuong, born in Vietnam and raised in the US, threads details of his own family history into his broader narrative verse that centers on Vietnamese identity. It’s a fierce, provocative, political, and sensual collection that I found both challenging and moving, and I’m looking forwarding to reading Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous even more, now.

The type of review that just quotes a bunch of passages tends to be my least favorite to both read and write, but I’ll break my own rule here because my own words feel rather inadequate next to these:

“How a horse will run until it breaks
into weather — into wind. How like
the wind, they will see
him. They will see him
clearest
when the city burns.”

– from Trojan

“Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
with gunfire. Red sky.
Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.

The city so white it is ready for ink.”

– from Aubade with Burning City

“He laughs despite knowing he has ruined every beautiful thing just to prove beauty cannot change him.”

– from Immigrant Haibun

“To love another
man — is to leave
no one behind
to forgive me.
I want to leave
no one behind.
To keep
& be kept.
The way a field turns its secrets
into peonies.
The way light
keeps its shadow
by swallowing it.”

– from Into the Breach

“Don’t laugh. Just tell me the story / again, / of the sparrows who flew from falling Rome, / their blazed wings. / How ruin nested inside each thimbled throat / & made it sing”

– from Seventh Circle of Earth


You can pick up a copy of Night Sky with Exit Wounds here on Book Depository.

book review: The Long Take by Robin Robertson

35659255

 

THE LONG TAKE by Robin Robertson
★★★☆☆
Picador, 2018 (UK)

 

Hmm. I seem to be in the minority in not being completely enamored with this novel in verse, though in a lot of ways it’s certainly an impressive feat. Robin Robertson’s writing is elegant and immersive, the tone is achingly sad, and he uses the form to explore a myriad of subjects – PTSD, the development of post-war America, the advent of cinema… There’s a lot of content packed into this little book, but while I found myself impressed by many aspects of it, there was also something a bit empty about the whole thing.

So much of this endeavor is just very on the nose. The protagonist, Walker, is suffering from PTSD, so how do we show that? By interrupting the narrative with snippets of his flashbacks to the war. One of the central themes is the downside of the extreme modernization of Los Angeles that occurred in the 1950s, so how do we show that? By the characters narrating the ways in which the modernization of Los Angeles is negatively affecting their community. I think I just wanted this to be longer and more nuanced. There’s so much going on in this book, but it’s all there for you to see right on the surface.

This is ordinarily the sort of book I’d want to reflect on for a day or two before writing a review, but with the Booker announcement tomorrow I’m racing against time, so I will admit up front here that my thoughts on this may evolve over time, for better or worse. I also want to admit that I read this in very punctuated bursts over the span of a week which is just about the worst possible way to read a book like this – if you can, I’d implore you to try to finish it in one or two sittings – so that may have clouded my experience with it. And I did really enjoy it, for the most part; I just didn’t quite feel the magic.

All of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman
Everything Under | In Our Mad and Furious City
Warlight | Normal People | Sabrina | The Overstory
Washington Black | The Long Take

book review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

35540804

BLOOD WATER PAINT by Joy McCullough
★★☆☆☆
Dutton Books, March 2018

I really wanted to love this book. I studied art history extensively in college, I love Artemisia Gentileschi, and the promise of a story from her perspective was so tantalizing that I ended up ignoring my suspicions that this book was going to be too young and too heavy-handed for me. I really should have listened to my gut on this one.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, whose works are often overshadowed by the fact that she was raped by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. She and her father Orazio took him to trial and eventually won the case, though she was subjected to torture to verify her claims, and Tassi only served two years in prison before his release. Blood Water Paint is a novel in verse told from Artemisia’s perspective, which focuses mainly on her rape and the subsequent trial, which explores the way she drew on the biblical figures Susanna and Judith for inspiration.

Look, I am a self-proclaimed feminist. I could not agree more with McCullough’s indictment of the patriarchy, her lament of how women are treated in society, the parallels between Artemisia’s circumstances and the #MeToo movement. The problem is, she sacrifices subtlety and authenticity at the altar of these ideas. This book is one of the most maddeningly simplistic, binary, melodramatic, and anachronistic things I’ve ever read. While the word ‘feminism’ never appears in this book (thankfully – not because I don’t like the word feminism, but because it isn’t a concept yet in in the seventeenth century), we do see a lot of hot-button issues that we’ll all recognize, like:

(Why, though, does it take
a mother, daughter, sister
for men to take
a woman at her word?)

and:

If I wait it out, he’ll go.
I learned this as a child:

When boys pull your hair,
it means they like you.
Just ignore them.

… which, I’m sorry, but narrated from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl in 1610 just strike me as laughably unbelievable. Not because these aren’t universal, timeless ideas, but because they’re stated so eloquently by this character who I hesitate to even refer to as Artemisia because she is so transparently a mouthpiece for the author.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a historical novel that focuses mainly on themes which don’t have an established vocabulary or some kind of developed social discourse at the time the book is set. I recently read and loved On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which deals primarily with asexuality in a time before the term was coined, and the way McEwan handled the subject was done with subtlety and brilliance. I guess I was just looking for more of this here, I was hoping for a more nuanced and intellectually stimulating rumination on the themes in this book, rather than having everything stated so plainly and positively shoved down the reader’s throat. (I mean, I guess it’s also worth noting that Blood Water Paint is YA, so maybe I’m being unfair here, but I’d argue that it’s even more unfair to posit that YA doesn’t have the capacity to be more nuanced than this.)

There’s also another element to this whole thing that admittedly grates on me. As I’ve said, I really love Artemisia Gentileschi. But the way she’s become a cipher for contemporary feminism I think does a disservice to the complexity of her character, as well as to the sundry other groundbreaking female artists we tend to overlook in holding Artemisia up as this feminist poster child. So when I say that I wasn’t impressed with the research and historical accuracy in this novel, I’m not trying to be some kind of academic purist. It just felt like the author had seen a tumblr post about how ‘Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes!!!1! Badass feminist ICON!!!!’ and spun the novel out of this half-formed idea of who Artemisia actually was. The few times the art itself is referenced also suggests to me that McCullough is out of her depth. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, please pick up one of the many brilliant biographies written about Artemisia, notably those by Mary Garrard.

So, to wrap up this novel length review (sorry, thanks for sticking with me): This is a book of (relevant, necessary) 21st century feminist concepts that try to masquerade themselves as Artemisia Gentileschi’s story at the expense of narrative, character development, and subtlety, which I felt ultimately did a disservice to its protagonist. But clearly I do not hold the majority opinion about this book, and that is perfectly fine. There are many brilliant and eloquent reviews which discuss this book’s virtues, if that’s what you’re looking for.