“Empress” by Shan Sa

Empress by Shan Sa, 2006, Harper, original language: French.

empress

My carriage was already traveling through eternity. I was tiny, alone, and naked. I was moving toward a god, and an empire.

There’s something deeply compelling about someone’s rise from obscurity to power, be they evil or good, especially if the obscurity is great and the power is immense. When that rise to power involves a woman who raises herself to a position no woman was ever meant to hold, well, count me in.

This is a fictionalized account of person, apparently often neglected, from Chinese history: Empress Wu Zetian. The first woman to wear the imperial robes and become regent.

It’s a beautiful novel, told in lush and evocative prose – a prose that is at times a little too poetic and removed from the people it talks about, although very fitting for the type of story it tells. It’s a truly grand and compelling look at Empress Wu, or Heavenlight’s, journey inside the walls of the Forbidden City, as lover to concubines and emperors, as mother of a nation, as an Empress destined to lead her people to prosperity and glory. Shan Sa tells the story with conviction and power, easily portraying the intricate and delicate web the court of any Emperor or Empress is made of, how one false step or moment of distraction can mean your downfall and humiliation. To place oneself on such a seat of power, to rule a nation, means to adopt a style of swift brutality, whether it be just or not.

Empress Wu’s life, her real life, is of course obscured by the passing of time, as well as attempts at covering up her reign and, obviously, the misogyny of historians, past or present. It’s not something I know a lot about, however, so I’ll talk about this specific book instead. But a lot of the things we do know about her life are shrouded in mystery or ambiguity. And the style, the way it was told, added to the sense that we’re all merely riding on the wings of history, that this life is but a moment of eternity, as well as a moment that will last eternally. And Sa’s constant juxtaposition of death and immortality, of private and public, is necessary and wonderfully done.

Nonetheless, any historical figure with this much power, commanding such a nation and ruling it with such an iron fist, deserves a book such as this. My one regret was that the prose, despite being beautiful and perfectly fitting, obscured the character of Empress Wu a smidgen. I never felt I knew what sort of person she was, what she believed in, what toll it took on her to do the things she had to do, to protect herself, her nation and her family. I understand this might have been a conscious choice. As we know very little of Empress Wu or what she was really like, designing her character based on what scraps we have might have felt dishonest – or maybe it’s to signal that she defies characterization. That she slipped into and out of roles, depending on the situation. Or maybe it’s a style and something was lost in translation. Sadly it made me feel detached from her and her story. I felt as if I was looking at it from afar, and less like I was in the middle of it, because so often the emotions were subdued. Empress Wu felt very little like a real person to me, with real emotions and dreams, and that I regret, but perhaps it was necessary. It’s entirely a question of personal taste, I think. And it did add to the sweeping, consuming feeling of it, as if you were inside a poem, an ancient poem telling the story of things ling forgotten. It was beautiful, but in a slightly detached way.

The somewhat shallow – or rather ambiguous – characterization of Empress Wu, and most other characters too, was as I’ve said a perfect fit for the grandeur, the massive scale of her reign and the superficiality of the court, how everyone hides behind fake pleasantries, and masks, while they plot your downfall, that this novel had to portray. Honestly writing it any other way may have made the novel seem too cheap.

Empress is majestic, splendid, lush, relentless and beautiful in all the ways you’d expect it to be – and that it deserves to be. An excellent fictional look at a neglected, but fantastic piece of the past, and a wonderful way to get swept away by the winds of history.

It’s a stunning work.

Meeting Carol Rifka Brunt

DSC_0576

IMG_2538

Last Tuesday I got up way too early and jumped on a train headed to Copenhagen. I’d been invited to a blogger meet-up, arranged by the danish publisher Lindhardt og Ringhof, with the author Carol Rifka Brunt. She’s written the novel Tell The Wolves I’m Home, which is one of my favorite reads. I cried so hard reading it and saw a lot of myself in her story, so getting the chance to meet her was amazing.

My review of the book can be found here.

It was a very intimate affair, only a few other bloggers were present and then Carol Rifka Brunt. That meant there was plenty of opportunity to chat about everything for an hour and a half. Mostly we talked about the book, how she got the idea, the writing process, the process of making it into a movie (who knows with Hollywood), who Carols own favorite characters are (June and Greta, she said they’re like two halves of herself), and everyone’s reactions to reading it. We got onto a lot of sidetracks, like what YA is, how you classify it, and if Tell The Wolves I’m Home is YA – some were for, some against, but mostly I think we could agree that YA is evolving so categorizing anything as YA is difficult, it’s not a genre that’s really settled yet. We got onto talking about covers as well, and how to market a book like this (because what kind of book is it really). And Carol said something I found interesting; that a lot of people bring up aids as the first thing about the book, and yes, it’s an important part of it, but I never would have thought to mention it first. It’s a book about so many other things. Just goes to show we all experience things different, to some that may have been the defining bit, but I would probably highlight the grief or the relationship with her uncle.

Carol also mentioned that there’s a playlist for the book, done by Carol herself. I never knew, and I LOVE playlists for books, so I’m excited about that!

It was just really, really nice meeting her, she was exceptionally lovely and down to earth. So grateful to Lindhardt og Ringhof for letting me take part in it.

DSC_0580

‘Tell The Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt

(‘Tell The Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt, 2013, Dial Trade Press/Random House)

In celebration of the fact that I’m going to a blogger meeting with Carol Rifka Brunt today I’ve unearthed my original review of her book. A post about the meeting will be up sometime this week!

I felt like I had proof that not all days are the same length, not all time has the same weight. Proof that there are worlds and worlds and worlds on top of worlds, if you want them to be there.

DSC_0563-002.JPG

Sometimes life will give you lemons, and sometimes life will give you inappropriate emotions that you are not equipped to deal with. You will feel love for people you shouldn’t, you’ll get turned on by things you shouldn’t, you’ll say all the wrong things and make an absolute fool of yourself and you’ll realize it’s not the end. That there is a life after all of that, and hopefully you will understand that nothing you could ever feel will make you inferior in any way.

Feelings are not right or wrong, necessarily. Mostly they just are. How we act on them is a whole different matter.

It’s the 80s, June Elbus is 14 and her uncle Finn has just died of aids, a disease that is still very new and largely taboo. June is devastated after her uncle’s death, according to her he was the only person in the world who really got her.

As with many other coming of age books, it deals with realizing your perception of the world is narrow, and that you will feel things that will confuse, wound and scar you, and that you can make it through anyhow. June not only loses her uncle, she loses her first love. Having buried this emotion (that, like the disease that killed Finn, is also taboo) so deep, she can no longer acknowledge it, she isolates herself with her grief, pushing her family and her sister farther and farther away. Then she meets Toby, Finns boyfriend (whom she never knew existed), and they strike up an uneasy friendship, but where June thought she was merely trying to keep Finn alive through Toby, she finds he might be the one person who understands exactly what she’s going through.

However, the prize of understanding is the knowledge that her uncle was not who she made him out to be. Is it too heavy a prize to pay?

I thought of all the different kinds of love in the world. I could think of ten without even trying. The way parents love their kids, the way you love a puppy or chocolate ice cream or home or your favorite book or your sister. Or your uncle. There’s those kinds of love and then there’s the other kind. The falling kind.

There are truly endless kinds of love, but keeping it hidden makes love difficult to live with. June’s love for Finn is a secret, and it makes her selfish, because she can only ever take and never give.

I had no idea how greedy my heart really was.

Her heart is not the only one that’s greedy. Caught up in her quest to keep Finn alive, she constantly mistakes her sister Greta’s unkindness for loathing, when in fact it is love that like her own, not acknowledged or reciprocated, turned into desperation.

The title refers to a painting of June and Greta done by Finn before his death. The two sisters used to be close, but now there’s only miscommunication between them, making their silent conversation, done by adding small details to the painting, all the more poignant.

I love this book because it’s about these things we feel that we are often afraid to own up to. It’s about feeling very deeply and moving on from an incredible loss. It’s learning to accept others, flaws and all, and picking up the broken pieces of the life you knew and putting it back together in a messier, but truer version of itself.

It will break your heart and mend it at the same time. It’s a beautiful, striking and well-written experience.

‘You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)’ by Felicia Day

(‘You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)’ by Felicia Day, 2015, Sphere)

weird-internet

I know Felicia Day through The Guild which she wrote, created and starred in, and I’ve followed her youtube channel Geek & Sundry almost from the beginning. I admire her strength, vivacity, vision and the way she seems to be unapologetically herself. And I’m a nerd, and she’s a nerd, so of course I’d wanna read this.

You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost) is a memoir, it describes the journey of how she got to where she is today; it’s a journey from her slightly odd childhood (she was homeschooled), to university (where she double majored in violin and math, and finished with a GPA of 4.0), to an acting career that never quite took off, through her World of Warcraft addiction, to the creation of The Guild and Geek & Sundry.

It’s a fascinating story, specially because she, and others she worked with, were knee-deep, and at times instrumental (I think it’s safe to say), in bringing about some of the things we take for granted today. I wasn’t fond of the first half of the book (there were some pretty unfortunate phrasings in the beginning as well), and I had a hard time keeping interested when she told of her childhood and time at uni. Part of this was the way it was written: too much internet slang, too many out of place jokes, too many badly photoshopped pictures. Part of me knows this is who Felicia is, and this is her way of very concretely showing a part of herself, but as a reader I didn’t feel like she took the story very seriously, and so I had a hard time taking it seriously. This is most likely also because up until she moves to Hollywood her life is somewhat peachy (the way she describes it anyway). And people who are happy just don’t make for as interesting a story.

But then she graduates college and moves to Hollywood. It isn’t easy for her at all, in fact is hell at times, but the book gets a lot better. The way Felicia talks about her fierce determination to make it (partly because she thinks she’s destined to – which is a great thing to admit), but also her crippling self-doubt is really well done, and it finally feels like she takes her narrative seriously, like this is the story she’s really here to tell.

Her acting career never takes off, and instead she plays videogames all day, because it gives her what “real” life can’t: friends, and a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. It’s easier to hide in a video game where all you have to do to be successful is kill more bad stuff. The way to success is so concrete and easy compared to reality. I’ve hidden in video games often enough, for this very reason, to recognize it, although I never got as bad as her.

However, it isn’t all bad. Her experiences help her create The Guild, a webshow about a ragtag group of gamers, and it becomes massively popular (if you haven’t watched it, you should, it’s really good. I put in a link at the beginning for you!). Eventually she and some of the same people go on to create Geek & Sundry, a hugely popular internet channel. In a way Felicia’s story is a double narrative; it’s interesting because Felicia’s life is interesting, but also because it’s the story of the early youtube and internet community, back from the initial days when people were just starting to really utilize youtube and change the landscape and possibilities of tv and movies. Suddenly anyone could make videos from out of their garage (the way they did the first season of The Guild) and upload it for everyone to see. Felicia and those who worked with her were some of the first people to take the leap and do a tv-show outside of tv. She’s got stories of early crowdfunding and the struggle to keep The Guild their own thing and not sell-out to some major company. Today starting something on youtube is simple, back then? not so much.

Of course success never comes without a price, and Felicia is incredible candid in talking about her anxiety, illness and depression. Some of which almost destroyed her. More than anything that was inspirational, her fight to get back to herself, to stay alive. She hands out tips on doing something you’ve never done before, on taking the leap, and on getting through the rough (sometimes really rough) spots, because they will appear.

And she talks, near the end, of #GamerGate, which is brave and important. That chapter broke my heart, but she ends the book on a positive note – that this too is something we’ll get through. That a few trolls and assholes on the internet can’t and shouldn’t keep us from doing what we love.

Despite my early doubts about the book, I read the whole thing in an evening, and when I was done I’d never felt more ready to take on the world. To do whatever it’ll take to bring my dreams to life. This memoir may not be perfect, and it’s not written the way I would have written it, but it’s honest, it’s fascinating, it’s great for nerds, and more than anything; it’s inspirational.

If you have any interest in Felicia Day, the internet or simply want to be inspired, this is not a bad place to look.

‘Radiance’ by Catherynne Valente

(‘Radiance’ by Catherynne Valente, 2015, Tor Books)

DSC_0547

It is almost like being a god. We create what it is to be human when we stand fifty feet tall on a silk screen.

Radiance is a dream. A lush, saturated, uneasy dream. And a remarkable novel. Remarkable in that it’s so different from anything else I’ve read. I was a little frustrated by the story in the end, but the world, the universe? I’m never letting it go.

It’s a difficult story to explain. It’s a mystery, mostly; what you yearn to uncover is the disappearance of Severin Unck and her film crew. Led by the ever illustrious and imaginative Catherynne Valente you traverse a parallel universe where every planet in the solar system is habitable, where each is a miraculous, mythological, impossible world of it’s own. In this world Thomas Edison sits on the patent for sound in movies, so silent films are the norm – those are the types of movies Severin’s father makes. Severin herself does documentaries. In a lot of ways this is a documentary about her life, pieced together from whatever scraps whoever is writing it could find and scrape together. It’s original and I loved how Valente uses different genres. My favorite part is the world she describes, for that alone I wish you’d read it.

I really, really liked it. But the problem, the reason I didn’t love it immediately, is it worked a little too hard at being pretty, and not enough at having a story to tell, which is not a fair statement really, because there is a story; the mystery of the disappeared Severin Unck, and in many ways, and for many people, I feel it’ll be a satisfying one. I simply felt we were constantly circling the story; never quite getting to it. It’s not a continuous story, though, each chapter takes a different form, some are movie scripts – from Severin’s movies, from her father’s movies, from her father’s personal videos – some are recordings from an interview, some are newspaper columns, some are… I don’t know, they read like chapters from a proper book, but that’s not it. This book is a mashup, it’s a tribute to genres of films, literature, and art. And it works very, very well.

Radiance is a story about telling stories. It’s the story other people have told of Severin disappearing, not the actual story of Severin disappearing. It’s about how everything is staged, to some degree; even documentaries aren’t honest depictions of what happened, everything always has a perspective, someone telling the story, someone cropping the picture. And everyone tells it different, everyone tells it with a different beginning and ending, everyone’s got a different point to make. It’s about the comfort we find in stories, the way they shape our universe, how they can be both devastating and beautiful. They can show us cruel truths and gentle lies. It’s about storytelling – about movies, in particular.

Valente’s universe is glorious. Imagine a parallel universe where we’ve advanced enough technologically to travel to other planets in the solar system (they’re a lot closer here than in our real world). A world where we inhabit planets, but are still stuck in the 20s. The aesthetic of such a universe is gorgeous, and Valente describes it perfectly. Every planet is its own sparkling world of possibility. Pluto is gothic, with a bridge of flowers connecting it to its moon, Venus is wrapped in twilight, a day as long as a year, and so on. The care and effort Valente has put into the universe she presents is astounding. More than anything this book is worth reading for the world it creates in your mind. It’s beautiful, but a decadent beauty, one that maddens and corrupts, but also invigorates. A universe so open, so friendly, so staggeringly fantastical, it’s almost too good to be true.

DSC_0545

When I looked upon that new world, splendid in every way and in every way terrible, I looked upon a tiger with stars falling from his striped tongue. I looked and saw my true bridegroom, but would it also be my grave?

Being in it was a pleasure. I didn’t always care much for the story itself, but I loved the mixing of genres, I loved the imitated Hollywood-setting on the moon, I loved the idea and the world. But I never cared much for any of the characters, perhaps because what we’re given is imagined versions of them. It was difficult to get a grasp on the real Severin, or the real Anchises, because they were always seen through a lens, through someone’s imagination. They didn’t seem real to me, like people I should care about. I felt extremely detached from the story because of it.

I felt the story worked best when nothing was staged, when we saw the real characters, without any sort of filter, unfortunately that didn’t happen very often. But thinking back on it now a while after finishing it, I’m filled with love. It was a good read. And the aesthetic it provides has lodged itself in my soul and refuses to leave. It mixes mystery, film noir, Old Hollywood, romance, philosophy, children’s stories, radio plays and documentary storytelling, and there are enough mysteries and secrets to uncover that I wanted to keep going. Sometimes it got a little too flowery with the descriptions, a little too honeyed and exaggerated, but that’s part of it (as someone else has stated, it’s The Great Gatsby in space), and the vision? Breathtaking. I’ll repeat: it’s worth reading for the world it creates and the images it provides alone.

Valente remains one of my favorite authors, and this book is no exception to her skill. Her worlds always catch me by the heart and refuse to let go. If you want something you’ve never read before, a world you’ve never seen, Radiance is what you need.

Ps. I recently learned there’ll be a new cover for the paperback, and it’s gorgeous. I slightly regret getting the hardback now, although it’s very pretty as well. But I mean, look at this paperback cover, I want it:

“Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

(‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith (1952/2007), Bloomsbury Publishing)

But there was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol.

This is an intense, brilliant and beautiful book. The intensity is subtle, however, you easily get caught by the book, it’s difficult to put down, although it may seem at times not much is happening, and yet, between Carol and Therese things always seem to be moving, to be negotiated and worked out. They’re always in motion, always on a collision course towards each other. When I think back on it now, I’m almost surprised to find so much actually happened when so little seemed to happen. It’s a novel that moves quickly and slowly all at once.

Therese meets Carol at her work place and it’s love at first sight. Well, in a way. It’s the sort of love that exists at first sight even before you know it’s love you’re looking at. Therese falls in love with Carol, but doesn’t seem to truly know it for a while. Some of the novels intensity absolutely derives from the fact that this love between them is a discovery, a slow, careful, desperate uncovering.

They end up going on a road trip together. A road trip that gives and takes so much from both of them. Carol, to Therese and to us (in the form of this book), is a tidal wave. She comes suddenly and changes everything. The landscape of Therese’s life will never be the same.

It’s a romance, of course, but not the sort you might expect. It’s intense, bordering on gloomy, but elegant and wonderful all the same, it’s constantly switching between love and anxiety. See, it’s a romance, but the impossibility of it, the improbability, the odds against it, make it so much more than that. At times I had a hard time seeing the love between the two women, but that’s intentional, I think. It’s not always obvious how or why or sometimes even if they really love each other; you have to read between the lines. Just as Carol and Therese are forced to hide their love, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, so are the signs of that love not always spelled out on the page. You look for it in a gesture, a word, a silence. You find it in the space between the two of them and what they share. Sometimes you find it exactly where you expect to. And yet it’s always clear that love is there, it’s just that love is complicated.

The prose is beautiful and fitting, I was very struck by it. It’s exquisite and overwhelming. As elegant as the world and time they find themselves in. For this only, I think the book is worth giving a try. There were whole paragraphs that took my breath away, like this one:

January. It was all things. And it was one thing, like a solid door. Its cold sealed the city in a gray capsule. January was moments, and January was a year. January rained the moments down, and froze them in her memory […]. Every human action seemed to yield a magic. January was a two-faced month, jangling like jester’s bells, crackling like snow crust, pure as any beginning, grim as an old man, mysteriously familiar yet unknown, like a word one can almost but not quite define.

You can lose yourself in the words, find yourself as submersed and caught up in Carol as Therese is. It’s a novel full of heart, cold precision and an impossible, intense love – almost to the point of obsession – that refuses to be denied.

It’s two women who fall in love though it may prove fatal for them both; but when it comes to love, to your own nature, there’s only so much you can deny before you reach a breaking point. And at the end of the day, what are you willing to sacrifice for love? For the possibility of being who you are? The chance to live without shame?

Maybe everything.

It’s not an easy read, there are scenes that are harsh and unjust, but it’s also beautiful. Is it a worthy read? Yes, I think so.

“Nightwood” by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, org. published in 1936, Faber.

If you ever wished Ulysses was shorter and had more lesbians, this is for you.

Of course that is simplifying Nightwood a great deal. In fact it’s not an easy novel to grasp or describe at all, which in turn is true for a lot of the novels of modernism. And this novel is certainly modernistic.

Truth is this may not be for everyone, but I still think it’s a book everyone ought to give a try. And, as far as I know, it’s not a novel a lot of people are aware even exists. All the more reason for me to sing its praises.

Everyman dies finally of that poison known as the-heart-in-the-mouth. Yours is in your hand. Put it back. The eater of it will get a taste for you; in the end his muzzle will be heard barking among your ribs.

I wish I could say something clever about it. But it eludes me, the same way Ulysses did back in the day. Nightwood is “easier”, more accessible and more forceful, in a way. It moves the reader, shoves us around; it’s unpleasant, brilliant and insistent.

Some novels force the breath out of your lungs, they force you to breathe the air they breathe, to live the life they create for you and to believe in the things they tell you. When done you forget your own words, you’re left with an empty spot where your language used to be. I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t, which is a compliment, truly, to the power of this novel.

There’s an obsessiveness to it. A desperate desire permeates every sentence, a desire you know cannot be fulfilled. Only the doctor of the story (a cross dresser, who perhaps inhabits more than simply one world, perhaps all the worlds, a sort of prophet who spills truths as if they were drops of water) seems consigned to this fate of unfulfillment.

At the center is Robin; child, lover, apparition. She slips through the hands of everyone, even those who loves her desperately. And beside  her, behind her, is Nora, the doomed lover, helplessly waiting for Robin to return, to settle down, all the while knowing it’s not in her nature.

It’s a condensed story, weaving several fates together, always intersecting, touching each other even after the last goodbye has been said. The characters are not many, but they contain multitudes, worlds, they are so many things on so few pages.

I know you shouldn’t compare, but I read Ulysses last January, and I read Nightwood this January, and they are alike. In style, in tone, in vision, and in so many ways they are opposites. Perhaps Nightwood is what would’ve happened had Molly Bloom left her dull husband and had an affair with a woman. And this theme of lesbianism is crucial, because it gives voice to those who didn’t have one, and gives them a place in modern, classic literature (even if it may continue a tradition of non-happy endings for lesbians in literature). I’m saddened Nightwood is not a more widely known work (or so it seems to me), because it deserves attention, scrutiny, criticism and devoted love.

It is love, obsession, joy, jealousy, sexuality, wonder, desperation, all the big things in a constantly transforming pattern. You give yourself up the novel, it gives itself back to you.

Our bones ache only while the flesh is on them. Stretch it as thin as the temple flesh of an ailing woman and still it serves to ache the bone and to move the bone about; and in like manner the night is skin pulled over the head of the day that the day may be in torment. We will find no comfort until the night melts away; until the fury of the night rots out its fire.