Oct 27, 2013

Stuff I’ve Been Reading, Part One Hundred

You know, I have to confess I have occasional moments when I feel like a bit of a blogging failure because most of my posts this year have been short reading notes along the lines of what you’re about to read; but then I remember that keeping a brief record of my reading is better than no record at all, and that at least this has kept me writing instead of collapsing under a heap of guilt, inadequacy, and unreviewed books. So here’s to keeping the words flowing and the stack on my coffee table under control — have some thoughts on a couple of non-fiction titles, a Gothic romance, a poetry book, and a most excellent picture book:

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds: the winner of the 2012 T.S. Eliot prize is a sequence of poems about the end of Olds’ marriage. As you can imagine, there’s plenty in this collection about loss and loneliness and all the reasons why the dissolution of intimacy is painful; however, there’s just as much about finding life meaningful and fulfilling outside the context of marriage and traditional family life.

Olds’ focus is not on blame or recrimination, and she doesn’t look back on her time with her former husband as a waste or a mistake. Instead, she sees it as a precious period of her life that has now come to an end, and will be followed by something that can be just as meaningful. As customary for Olds, there’s a lot of rawness and vulnerability and focus on small intimate details in Stag’s Leap, but the one poem I’d like to highlight is about the social perception of divorced women and how it worms its way into your head and heart.

In “Known to be Left”, Olds talks about the deep shame that comes from thinking that all the people around her will now perceive her as someone abandoned by her intimate partner. There’s no real reason for this shame — it comes from faulty assumptions about women’s lives being worthless outside of heteronormative structures — but cultural narratives are powerful things, and knowing this rationally doesn’t mean it won’t still mess with your head. I’m interested in seeing this kind of experience voiced, and I love how candid Olds is about experiencing this shame and trying to overcome it. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
“Known To Be Left”
“If I pass a mirror, I turn away,
I do not want to look at her,
and she does not want to be seen. Sometimes
I don’t see how I’m going to go on doing this.
Often, when I feel that way,
within a few minutes I am crying, remembering
his body, or an area of it,
his backside often, a part of him
perfect to think of, luscious, not too
detailed, and his back turned to me.
After tears, the heart is less sore,
as if some goddess of humanness
within us has caressed us with a gush of tenderness.
I guess that’s how people go on, without
knowing how. I am so ashamed
before my friends—to be known to be left
by the one who supposedly knew me best,
each hour is a room of shame, and I am
swimming, swimming, holding my head up,
smiling, joking, ashamed, ashamed,
like being naked with the clothed, or being
a child, having to try to behave
while hating the terms of your life. In me now
there’s a being of sheer hate, like an angel
of hate. On the badminton lawn, she got
her one shot, pure as an arrow,
while through the eyelets of my blouse the no-see-ums
bit the flesh that no one else
cares to touch. In the mirror, the torso
looks like a pin-up hives martyr
or a cream pitcher speckled with henbit, pussy paws,
full of the milk of human kindness
and unkindness, and no one cares to drink.
But look! I am starting to give him up!
I believe he is not coming back. Something
has died, inside me, believing that,
like the death of a crone in one twin bed
as a child is born in the other. Have faith,
old heart. What is living, anyway,
but dying.”
For a full review of Stag’s Leap, check out So Many Books. I agree with Stefanie that this collection doesn’t quite have the same emotional punch as The Father, but I’m still very glad to have picked it up.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: After falling head over heels in love with Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, I knew I had to get my hands on her memoir of hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail as soon as possible. I expected the two books to be completely different, and they were, but they were linked together by Strayed’s sensibility and that was more than enough for me.

I enjoyed Wild so much because in part because of how much I enjoy spending time with Strayed; while I realise that’s not the end-all and be-all of memoir reading, to me it plays its role. Readers of “Dear Sugar” will already be familiar with some of the events this book covers: Strayed’s mother’s untimely death of cancer, the dissolution of her first marriage, the growing distance between her and the rest of her family, her years of growing despair, and finally her “journey from lost to found” on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The above description might have made Wild sound like a misery memoir, but the way Strayed tells her story is neither self-pitying nor life-affirming in a simplistic sort of way. In fact, Wild works largely due to its emotional honesty: in between describing the stunning Pacific scenario and the physical hardships of long-distance walking, Strayed unwaveringly examines her own grief and loneliness and the possibility of accepting unspeakable loss; of learning to exist with it even though the sheer fact of such a loss will never, ever be okay. Strayed’s time of the PCT is not about turning her mother’s death and everything that followed into an inspiring life lesson, but about reminding herself of she is despite the devastating effect it had on her life.

In addition to this, I was interested in the ways in which Wild is unapologetically gender deviant. We’re used to epic physical challenges and confessions about despair-infused drug usage and infidelity being the prerogative of men, so I can’t help but wonder about the role this plays in how divisive the book has proved to be. Obviously I don’t mean to imply that sexism is the only reason why anyone could possibly dislike Wild, but I’ll let the focus on Strayed’s “slutiness” and “self-indulgence” on the GoodReads 1 star reviews page speak for itself.

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart: My first experience with Mary Stewart was one of her Gothic romances — this one tells the story of Bryony, the only daughter of the owner of romantic but decaying Ashley Court. When her father dies unexpectedly, Bryony knows the entailed estate will pass on to her male cousins. But when she returns to Ashley Court to help settle her father’s affairs, one of the main things on her mind is the fact that this will bring her closer to her mysterious lover. Ever since she was a little girl, Bryony has known she’s inherited the Ashley supernatural gift, and the person she calls her lover has been a constant intimate companion she communicates with through telepathy. Bryony is certain he must be an Ashley and therefore one of her three cousins, but she doesn’t know which one. Additionally, her father’s dying words were a warning of lurking danger, so she knows she must proceed with caution.

Let me start with the good: I liked how the story allows Bryony to express sexual feelings and be the one to take the first step with her love interest without ever punishing or shaming her for it. In the scene where Bryony and her lover finally meet in full knowledge of who they are to each other, Bryony wants to sleep with him straight away; in the end they decide to wait because he prefers it, but there’s no slut-shaming behind this decision. I know this kind of thing should be unremarkable, but I’ve read enough stories where this is not the case that it stands out.

Additionally (spoilers for this paragraph), I loved the fact that Bryony’s cousins, who are initially introduced as alluring bad boys she’s attracted to despite her better judgement, turn out to be actual jerks rather than sexy jerks whose ruthlessness is romanticised. Hooray for a kind love interest who actually respects the heroine! The reveal about Bryony’s lover only disappointed me in one regard: I was hoping for a romance that would be subversive in terms of class, but no, of course he’s secretly an Ashley with illustrious ancestors rather than the simple country boy he appears to be. Sigh. I guess there can only be one Nightingale Wood.

I have to admit that the romance-that-starts-with-telepathic-communication premise is the kind of thing that tends to raise my hackles, because there’s so much potential there for intrusiveness or troubling power differentials between partners. This happens to an extent, in the sense that Bryony’s lover has always known who she was while she’s kept in the dark, but I was pleased to note that she’d always had the power to opt out of the telepathy by shutting down their link. Part of me was slightly terrified that Stewart would expect us to find Bryony having her thoughts read against her will romantic, or, possibly even worse, give Bryony’s lover the power to opt out but not Bryony herself. As it is, thought, the telepathic bond only works when they’re both willing to communicate.

So, I had fun with Touch Not The Cat, but the reason why I didn’t fall in love with it is that all the Gothic romance tropes the story revolves around felt old and rewashed to me, even though that was probably not the case when it was first published. A story that revolves around familiar tropes can still be interesting, but in this case I didn’t think the execution was spectacular enough to make up for the lack of surprises. Like I said, this isn’t the poor book’s fault, but it still affected my experience as a reader. I still want to read The Ivy Tree and Nine Coaches Waiting, but Mary Stewart will probably not become the new favourite comfort author I hoped she would.

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard: This book was a complete surprise to me. It’s ostensibly a book about the effects of light pollution in our world, but as it turns out it’s also a beautifully written amalgamation of science, natural history, cultural history, travel writing and personal musings, all revolving around the topic of darkness. The End of Night is kind of the Cold of the night skies, and some of you might remember how much I loved that book.

Bogard organises his chapters around Bortle’s scale of darkness, which ranges from 9 to 1, and takes us from one of the brightest places on Earth (Las Vegas) to the British island of Sark, an International Dark Sky Island where all the lights go off at night, and to Death Valley National Park in the Mojave Desert, one of the darkest places in the continental US.

I learned a ton while reading The End of Night: about light pollution and how to prevent it, about the lack of empirical support for the assumption that more artificial lighting always equals greater safety, about the history of our relationship with darkness, about astronomy, etc. But the main reason why the book resonated so much with me was emotional: it gave me a glimpse of what I’ve been missing by always having lived in places where you can barely see any stars at night. Some of Bogard’s interviewees talk about how more and more people reach adulthood without ever having seen a sky dark enough that you can clearly spot the Milky Way, and guess what? I’m one of those people. Not only that, but changing this isn’t really something I can do without carefully planning a New Moon trip to one of the few places within my reach where this is possible, and then hoping I’m really lucky with the weather.

Bogard does a wonderful job of capturing the wonders of the night sky, and also of explaining why the hold it’s always had on humankind’s imagination is not something we want to do without. I don’t want to live in a world where such a sky is gone for good. I’ll leave you with a passage I really loved, which deals with darkness in a more metaphorical sense. It really resonated with me and I didn’t expect to find it in a book about light pollution, but I guess that’s one of the joys of reading widely:
“I think that when we’re truly moved by something, it always feels sad,” Wilson says. “And it may not even be sad… I love this folk band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, that old-time string band music. I saw them in Greensboro two weeks ago, and during some of their songs, I felt myself tearing up. It was really this sense of, life is fucking large and marvellous and weird and I don’t even come close to getting it. And I love that. I feel like something deep and inscrutable opens up for us when we see something beautiful. And there is that sense that, yes, this is transient. It will never be again. But there’s something else going on, too. It’s a darkening, but a darkening that suggests there’s more. It’s like terra incognita, the unknown land on the map. I think that’s what darkness is. We have places within us which can never be mapped.”

Weasels by Elys Dolan: As I’ve said before, I’ve been reading a lot of picture books this year, mainly to try to make up for a glaring gap in my knowledge of children’s literature. Although I veer more towards youth services than early years librarianship, it’s important to be well-rounded and aware of what’s out there, so I’ve taken to putting any picture books that catch my eye when I’m tidying or shelving in the children’s library aside for myself. Unfortunately I’m no good at reviewing them — not because I believe there isn’t a lot to be said about picture books, but because I lack knowledge and practice. Knowing what makes a picture book work is a skill just like any other, and I haven’t yet had the chance to develop it. So mostly I don’t blog about them, but every now and then something so extraordinary comes along that I need to tell the whole world about it.

Weasels is one such book: it’s a story about what weasels get up to when you’re not looking (plotting world domination, naturally), and it’s pure hilarity and delight from start to finish. I read it all the way through twice in a row, and it’s one of those books where you find something new to enjoy every time you revisit it. Elys Dolan’s art is absolutely brilliant, and every page is filled with details that add to the humour and intricacy of the story. Here’s a sample of the art:

…plot world domination!

(Have you posted about any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. However guilty you may feel about posting your thoughts, these posts are ten times the substance as mine! Love them. I was particularly interested in your opinion of Wild. I had heard quite a few people say they were put off by her crazy behavior in the book. I guess if I'd lost my mother and my marriage, I might act a little wacky too. I've always been interested in the book though, I like people reinventing themselves. I haven't written it off yet.

  2. Reviews of Wild have been so mixed but I still want to read it since I love memoirs. Weasels looks adorable!!

  3. Ditto what Sandy said--your mini-reviews convey so much more with so much more eloquence than even the best review I've ever written. Truth.
    And yes, yes indeed, these lovely tidbits have left me wanting. Especially The End of Night--that sounds like such a wonderful book! And Wild, though I was pretty sure I wanted to read that one anyway (mostly because of how pissed off I get when people start throwing around the "slut" crap.) And that poem--ummm, wow. So yeah, that goes to the wish list too.

  4. Weasels! See when my friends have kids I am going to come back to all this sort of thing as presents :)

    And The End of the Night sounds great, especially as you describe it as being like Cold which I'm so looking forward to reading this winter after you bought it for me. Love that last quote.

    PS I love your short reading notes. I think it can feel really satisfying to the person writing complete a big project of one long review (and I love reading those too) but readers like ALL the content.

  5. I still haven't read Mary Stewart, despite many urgings by my mother, but I'm going to soon, I swear! I don't think she'll be the same level of comfort author that she is for Mumsy, though. I think I'd have had to have read her books when I was a little younger.

  6. I've been wondering about your thoughts on Wild as well; I loved how much you loved Dear Sugar. It wasn't her behavior or any sort of divisiveness that had me skittish over this book. It was, well, mostly the fact that Nature featured prominently in it, hahaha. But I caved some weeks ago, and finally bought Wild—a couple of days after chancing upon her novel, Torch. I'm so glad you liked it, and I can't wait for her memoir to surprise me!

  7. *kicks Ana in shins for first paragraph* You're far from a blogging failure! You've just caused me to add two books of poetry to my wishlist (I added The Father as well) a nonfic book to my wishlist, The End of Night (only because I can't afford it right now :p) AND I just used one of my Audible credits on Wild after your review :p

    I've been walking almost every day lately and have been enjoying it so much. My counselor recommended it actually and it's been a great time to sort of clear my head, so I'm really looking forward to Wild after your review.

    And I'm with you on never living in a place where I could truly appreciate the night sky :( The closest I've gotten is some family that live in the country and they're further removed from the city than me, but still, I would love to see a truly dark sky one day and appreciate the beauty of the stars. One of these days....

  8. The End of Night sounds interesting.

    I read Touch Not the Cat for the first time when I was really young, so I don't remember a lot about it beyond the fact that I liked the beginning but had problems with it as it went on. I did like the fact that she didn't know who the guy in her head was at first--mystery!--but I forgot who it was, so. The Ivy Tree is a lot better; I read it perennially between the ages of nine and 21. And you'd probably love her Merlin books, which don't rely on romance tropes at all.

  9. Wow! Known To Be Left...<3 Amazing...thank you :D

  10. I love that you gave us that one Sharon Olds poem in its entirety. Thank you for that.

  11. I love your reviews! I need to read more poetry and will certainly seek out some Sharon Olds. I really loved reading her in University.

  12. I reviewed Wild on my blog: http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2013/10/wild.html

  13. I've just read Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree for RIP VIII. It's also one of her gothic novels and I recognized my feelings about it in many of your observations, especially the re-washed gothic stereotypes. Did you had a sense of time? The Ivy Tree was set in the early 60s but you could hardly tell.

  14. The End of Night sounds fantastic. I'm not sure if I've ever been somewhere that was completely without light pollution at night, but I've come pretty close - in Maine and in deserts (Utah, Jordan). It makes me think also of how much I treasure true silence in nature, like when I take a walk in rural Vermont in winter, and maybe all you hear is yourself and snow falling off a branch.

  15. I have to get Weasels!!! Just the drawing and the sly dialogue was enough to hook me!

    The End of the Night - awesome review, I MUST get this. As someone who always looks at the nightsky as soon as I am outside, I am aware of how little we see in the city. I love the stars, and they are my companions in the evenings....I had never heard of this book before your review, so you are adding to my pile, Ana!

    I just Selected Poems by Sharon Olds out from the library, having problems finding Stag's Leap. I do want to read it. The poem you quoted was powerful, and speaking from experience, her poem does capture that feeling that you are becoming invisible through shame. No matter what, saying he left me, is devastating.

    At least I've read Touch Not the Cat, though it's been so many years now that I can't recall it! I just read Thornyhold by her, which I enjoyed, but it had some flaws as you point out - light reading fiction, enjoyable, but veers really close to stereotypes. I'll be reviewing Thornyhold shortly because there were some interesting things in it I want to discuss.

    Short reviews or long, your effect is the same, Ana: wonderful reviews that encapsulate the books and make us want to read them!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.