Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two Pieces of Literary Art About Art..and More: The Small Backs of Children (Yuknavitch; 4.5 stars) & What I Loved (Hustvedt 3.5-4 stars)

It's time for a couple of book reviews, along with a rambly Rambler aside...

First, a "warning" --  This book incredibly intense and readers should be aware that there is violence and graphic sex, often intertwined.  I think these scenes are meant to disturb/disrupt but I know these scenes are simply not something every reader is comfortable with.  Okay, again I'm caught in my own language a bit, few will be "comfortable" with these scenes, but it does limit the audience substantially.  I'd skip this book if you have any distaste for the use of graphic depictions of sex (including consensual BDSM-ish sex as well as child rape) violence (sexual and non-sexual) in fiction.

Moving on -- The characters in TSBOC are labeled but not named and the narrator/protagonist shifts from chapter to chapter.  In many ways this is a book about characters and intangibles, but there is an underlying plot that begins with the picture of  young girl running away as her home explodes with her family inside.  The moment occurs in an unnamed country plagued by violence that has been largely ignored in the "first world."  The photograph wins acclaim.  It also has a deep impact on "the writer" who shares much of her history with the book's author herself; both are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and both have experienced the anguish of a stillborn child.  As the writer falls into a suicidal depression and is hospitalized at the cusp between life and death, a group of artists gather.  They decide to go get the girl in the photo and bring her to the writer.

There's a lot to say.   This is art, not "just" words.  This is the type of book that you truly experience rather than simply read.  Some chapters felt like a long exhalation and I felt compelled to read quickly, like I was speeding through breath.  I could definitely see plowing through in one seating, in fact that may be the ideal way to experience TSBOC.  There are an incredible number of themes including the nature of art, the construction of meaning, and the struggle to own one's own (female) body.  One interesting element is the fact that the few men who play major roles in the book are largely defined by their relationship to women.  They are called "the playwright", "the artist", and "the filmmaker" but they are really the brother, the ex, and the husband.  A reversal of cultural norms, this is particularly interesting for those who've pondered things like the Bechdel test (and its limitations..and I do link Wikipedia often, it is far from an ideal source but sometimes gives more detail than, say, this basic Bechdel test page) that draw attention to how we define women.

I'm giving this four-and-a-half stars.  I'll even round up to five.  This is NOT for everyone.  It was a quick read but by no means an easy read.  This is the polar opposite of an airplane book (both poles have merit); I'd recommend reading alone when you have energy and emotion to invest.  Elements may be VERY triggering for survivors of abuse.

Note: An advance copy of TSBOC was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  Harper in no way constrains the contents of this review.
This is a story in three parts defined, in large measure, by various forms/stages of love and loss.  It would tell too much to lay out the plot points of each part.  The story is narrated by Leo, an art historian.  Leo discovers a painting by Bill and the two become close friends...actually, those two words fail to encompass the deep connection and affection between the pair.  Leo is married to Erica and there are two women in Bill's life, Lucille and Violet.  These four characters and the families they form are the backbone of the story.

Although a few other key players do emerge, these four are all intensely/intimately connected and all are also, in various forms, artists.  Art is, in fact, probably another main character and there are discussions about real artists and about fictional artistic works "by" the main characters. There's a good deal of discussion about art more broadly including the role of women & women's bodies* in art, the dichotomy of seeing & being seen, and the interplay between how art defines us & how we define art.  Ultimately, however, while art matters deeply, this is a story about relationships and, more specifically, love.  To use more paired descriptions, it is about what love does to us & what we do for it and also about what love cannot do & what love cannot save.  Elsewhere, I titled this review: "Gorgeously Written Story of Loving/Being Loved/Loss, of Seeing/Being Seen, and of Making Art/Being Art/Viewing Art.

Overall -- I very much enjoyed the first two parts.  I truly disliked the third part.  this book is very literary and very concerned with what some might call "academic" matters.  In truth, calling this book pretentious may understate the case; somehow, though, this didn't really turn me off, perhaps because it fit the characters.  Overall, the language is quite beautiful. I'm torn between three-and-a-half and four stars and suppose this time I'm lucky many review sites don't allow for half-stars.  The rating reflects the fact that my enjoyment of the language overall.  Ultimately, it also reflect the fact that my interest in parts one & two overshadow my dislike for part three, especially since I've had a little time to remove myself from the immediacy of the concluding section.

Honestly, I can't tell you how long this one has been sitting on my "to read" shelf...well, I couldn't until I checked Amazon and saw I bought a used copy for a penny ($4 with shipping) on 12/7/11.  I'm glad it finally surfaced.  It calls for a reader who will admit to enjoying the literary and artistic.  This reader is probably comfortable admitting to enjoying the pursuit of learning, a philosopher in the true sense of one who loves wisdom (and talking, or at least reading about it!)....okay, the ideal reader is used to hearing terms like "dork" and "nerd."  It is, as I say above, pretentious and you need to accept that about the book and about the characters.  

*Random Aside (more a personal experience given context by the book than a reaction to the text itself, though the word "reaction" is quite on point)-- The book mentions women who used their bodies as art, "drawing" on their skin by scratching it lightly to make red marks appear.  This caught the narrator off-guard a bit and sent me on a bit of a search.  I remember many a doctor over the years running a dull edge along my skin and noticing that a red mark arose a few moments later.  I can't recall any ever mentioning it though until this year when my dermatologist was looking at an intense allergic reaction.  I didn't catch the word she used but offered to demonstrate on her own since she didn't want to irritate me further and as soon as she mentioned scratching her skin I responded by saying "and a red line appears."

Anyway, apparently the term is dermographism.   Honestly, I don't know if there are degrees of severity, but it is nothing I've ever found really troublesome.  But it surprised me to learn that only 4-5% of people have it.  I knew it wasn't something that happened to everyone, but it was always my normal so I guess I assumed it was pretty common.  It does explain a bit though....whenever something has been itching and I've inevitably given in and scratched. the area becomes very red and angry.  Again, normal to me (and I assume anyone could irritate an already itchy area by scratching, but probably not to this extent) but sometimes concerned onlooker and I never understood why until I dug into it because of the book. 

It is a really interesting condition and there are indeed people who've turned it into art.  There are also a lot of people who go online looking for a cure (there isn't one though antihistamines can help) but it isn't something I feel any need to treat given other maladies.  It has also made me think a lot about how we construct our concept of "normal" and how intensely personal that term truly is.

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