Monthly Archives: September 2015

A Little Life

(There are spoilers in this review; so if you’d rather read this with a clean slate, I suggest only reading the first paragraph.)

I love this book and think it is an absolutely incredible achievement, a monumental work, but I cannot recommend it to anybody that I care about. I guess I feel downright feel strange, telling somebody “oh, you simply MUST undergo this incredibly painful experience! I highly endorse it!” Not to imply painful reading experiences are bad, right? Pain is one of the undeniable facts of life (as the majority of most world religions emphasize), and is a big theme (if not THE theme) of this book. But when was the last time a book made me feel this profoundly, spiritually anxious + despondent, while simultaneously exhilarated by the writing? 2666? That book always inevitably takes me weeks to get through, but I read A Little Life on a 10-hour plane ride. I don’t know what that means, but it means something: I could NOT put this book down. I will not be shocked at all if it wins the Booker prize.

It starts out so normal, too. “Tricksy, tricksy,” as Gollum would say. Oh my gosh, I thought as I zipped through the first few chapters, furiously clicking away on the kindle turn-page button, the stewardess drink cart clattering down the aisle. What a good campus novel this is! I can’t think of when I last read a book that was so focused on the post-college life of early 20’s-men. This book is so cool, the way it’s evoking the friendship and intimacy between these four male friends. I love that they’re not all white and heterosexual and rich. I love that with one exception, their careers all focus on art or creativity of some kind (Willem the actor, JB the painter, Malcolm the architect and Jude the lawyer respectively–guess the exception!). I love quotes like the following about early adulthood life; they really ring true for me:

“There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.” (39)

Yeah, this is really enjoyable. I wonder what’s going to happen in the next 700 pages?

Thankfully in regards to this last question, I’d already read some reviews online, so by the time the first “moment” happens, I was (or so I thought) prepared for it: Jude and Willem have moved into their new dumpy apartment in New York together (so reminiscent of my current dirt-cheap abode here in England, with the sink-less bathroom, temperamental shower and giant manhole in the front yard which has claimed the foot of one delivery man already). A few references are made to Jude’s difficulties in navigating flights of stairs, the pain in his legs he’s had since they all met in college. And then the night of their housewarming party, Jude comes to Willem with his arm wrapped in a towel and says that well, there’s been a little accident, he’s cut himself you see, no big deal, but he’s bleeding a lot and it’s probably best if he were to go to the emergency room.

And so it begins. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book so relentlessly focused on physical suffering and pain. I’ll just say it: the reason I kept reading this book was because I wanted to know exactly why and how Jude was suffering. I even skipped ahead at times just to get it over with. It was the same morbid fascination I felt as a pre-teen, thumbing through my mother’s copy of Reviving Ophelia and wondering what “bulimia” meant. So yeah, that is the book’s main narrative drive: Jude’s life, his secrets, and his relentless, never-ending trips to the bathroom to reach for razor blades. This entire book would make the trigger-warning community of tumblr run screaming hysterically to the hills and hunker down in bunkers.

And god, the things that are unbelievable about this book! (I’m going to get very spoiler-heavy now…) In the first fifteen years of Jude’s life, he is basically raped by EVERYBODY. Virtually everyone he encounters is a violent pedophile. Is this an exaggeration? An overblown metaphor so that Jude becomes an embodied symbol for people who have to live with trauma, for those who have survived the unsurvivable? “Not having sex,” Jude thinks at one point, during one of the novel’s most devastating moments: “it was one of the best things about being an adult.” (303) When the book’s title is uttered by basically the worst of characters, it’s cause to throw your hands up in the air and give up on everything and everyone that’s good in the world. “You have to show a little life,” Jude’s pimp says (Jude is twelve years old at this point). “They’re paying to be with you… you have to show them you’re enjoying it.” (415) And trust me… this is not even the worst part of the book. I promise. Oh, there’s a lot more in store for you after that!!

Fortunately, for the rest of Jude’s adult life (with two big exceptions… you’ll know what they are), things go extremely well. It’s almost comically unrealistic–to put it simply, this whole book is relentlessly melodramatic, deliberately exaggerated. Everything is either HORRIBLE or WONDERFUL. During the WONDERFUL phase, Jude becomes an astonishingly successful lawyer. His friends win Oscars, start firms, get exhibitions at MOMA. He’s adopted by a father figure. Everyone loves and wants to look after Jude, though I actually found myself wondering (and feeling guilty for doing so), what’s so great about Jude? Why does everybody want to be his friend? I don’t really see what’s THAT appealing about him. I guess there were a few scenes in which he showed he was, like, a good listener. And he was also very intelligent. At one point he sings a German lied that pretty much defines his character: “I have become lost to the world / In which I otherwise wasted so much time.” (108) At another point he thinks of himself as “a blank, faceless prairie under whose yellow surface earthworms and beetles wriggled through the black soil, and chips of bone calcified slowly into stone.” (121) (How mental is that simile?!) At yet another point, he compares himself to the nasty walls of his apartment,  “walls that had been painted over so many times that you could feel ridges and blisters where moths and bugs had been entombed in its layers.” (317) Everything about Jude is initially buried, hidden–the novel’s opening even places him at the margins of the group, but as the others fade he emerges as the primary narrator, the main focus.

In terms of theme and content, this book reminded me of Like the Red Panda (another book I greatly admired but could never bring myself to reread), or if All My Puny Sorrows was unfunny and deeply melodramatic. I also thought at times of Poor People by William t. Vollmann. Why go on? this book asks. What’s the point? What if you just plain don’t want to show “a little life”? Isn’t that your right? Big, painful, intense questions. “So much time,” Jude thinks, “was spent trying to repair something unfixable, something that should have wound up in charred bits on a slag heap years ago. And for what? His mind, he supposed.” (140) But then there’s the moment that occurs early on in the novel, when Willem tells Jude I’ve got you, standing on the fire escape, holding onto Jude as he opens the window of the apartment they are locked out of, “and Willem held on to him so tightly that he could feel the knuckles of Jude’s spine through his sweater, could feel his stomach sink and rise as he breathed, (78) and after Willem crawls in first he then helps Jude, “careful to avoid his bandages.” (78)

God, I thought after I read that. Isn’t that what life is? Isn’t that what we all want? Someone to hold on to us and not let go and say “I’ve got you” and help us not to fall? Someone who is careful and respectful of our bandages but recognizes that they’re there? Friendship is definitely represented as the great “love” arch of this book and is probably the #2 theme after pain. As Jude himself wonders at one point,

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. (223)

The other amazing thing this book does is turn Jude into an embodied symbol for suffering and pain, the “billions” of people (think traumatized Syrian refugees, Colombian desplazados, etc) for whom life is arguably hardcore suffering… This is best exemplified by the following two quotes, occurring late in the book:

When he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace. (619)

[Jude] had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon, that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible–he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened, or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer? (686)

Life is basically suffering, says the Buddha, and that’s what this book deals with. Relentlessly. Mental and physical. Or as the book puts it, “the terrifying largeness, the impossibility of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days. (498) By the time this sentence on the last page arrived, I was in tears: “And so I try to be kind to everything I see.” (718) Because what else can ya do?

This book made me think about the students I used to work with at the elementary school and Boys & Girls Club, which is maybe another reason it broke my heart. It’s gloriously imperfect, and it achieves what it sets out to do in a powerful, unforgettable fashion. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read it again.

(P.S. I highly recommend the following article by the author, in which she talks about the different photographs and images that inspired the novel.)

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Medellín Fiesta del Libro / Book Festival

Thanks to a grant from my beloved host graduate school institution I got to spend the past three weeks in COLOMBIA, tierra de mi alma y corazón. I fly back tomorrow via Madrid... at least I won't have a 12-hour layover this time (!). I still have 40% of

Thanks to a grant from my beloved host graduate school institution I’ve had the opportunity to spend the past three weeks in COLOMBIA, tierra de mi alma y corazón, specifically in Medellín.

Fortunately some things in Colombia never change, like the Tintin sundae at Crepes and Waffles (beloved restaurant chain of many childhood birthday celebrations).

Fortunately some things in Colombia never change, like the Tintín sundae at Crepes and Waffles (beloved restaurant chain of many childhood birthday celebrations).

These Mr. Bean advertisements were definitely new for me though. AY QUE RICO indeed.

These Mr. Bean advertisements were definitely new for me though. AY QUE RICO indeed.

Besides eating ice cream and drinking Mr. Bean-endorsed tintos, my main purpose in Medellín was the following: to be present at a talk with Mexican writer Jorge F. Hernández about borders and short stories.

Besides eating ice cream and drinking Mr. Bean-endorsed tintos, my main purpose in Medellín was the following: to give a talk alongside Mexican writer Jorge F. Hernández about borders and short stories, for the Medellín Fiesta del Libro y Cultural (Book & Culture Festival).

This was an amazing event and I highly recommend for anybody to attend should they ever be in Medellín in September. There were talks by Colombian authors Evelio Rosero, Hector Abad and Pablo Montoya (among others), as well as Anne Mcclean (whose translations of Rosero I've enjoyed very much).

This was an amazing, extremely well-organized event. If you are ever in Medellín in September I highly recommend that you atttend. There were talks by authors like Evelio Rosero, Hector Abad and Pablo Montoya (among many, many others), as well as Anne Mclean (whose translations of Rosero I’ve enjoyed very much).

Best of all there were book stands set up EVERYWHERE. Comics books, used books, art books, Random House books, Penguin books, independent publisher books... this vampire-priest one in particular caught my eye ;)

Best of all there were book stands set up EVERYWHERE. Comics books, used books, art books, Random House books, Penguin books, independent publisher books… this vampire-priest one in particular caught my eye ;)

There was also great artwork and poster displays set up, which my terrible photography skills have completely failed to properly capture. Cortázar! Cervantes! García Márquez! All of the great ones and more! My sister got me a Franz Kafka mug which is basically, like, the best present for me that anybody could ever possibly get. I got a Borges bookmark for myself.

There were also tons of great artwork and poster displays set up, which my terrible photography skills have completely failed to properly capture. Cortázar! Cervantes! García Márquez! My sister got me a Franz Kafka mug which is basically, like, the best present for me that anybody could ever possibly get. I also treated myself to a Borges bookmark.

These displays were particularly striking: selected passages from Colombian novels, illustrated by artists in a glass display case. This one is of Evelio Rosero's Los Ejércitos (

These displays were particularly striking: selected passages from Colombian novels, illustrated by artists in a glass display case. This one is of Evelio Rosero’s Los Ejércitos (“The Armies,” a book that truly deserves its own post on this blog someday soon).

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I was also very moved by these displays, scenes of Colombian citizens confronting the legacy of the armed conflict. I believe these photographs were affiliated with Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum of exhibits dealing with the civil war.

The talk itself went very well IMHO... :) As a Virgo on the introvert-extrovert spectrum I am not and never will be a huge fan of talking in front of large groups of people, but fortunately the atmosphere was very informal, which I very much appreciated. It was especially great to meet Jorge F. Hernández and the talk convener, Octavio Escobar. Really, really cool guys. Jorge especially had the audience in stitches :D Google 'em!

The talk itself went very well IMHO… :) As a Virgo on the introvert-extrovert spectrum I am not and never will be a huge fan of talking in front of large groups of people, but fortunately the atmosphere was very informal, which I very much appreciated. It was especially great to meet Jorge F. Hernández and the talk convener, Octavio Escobar. Really, really cool guys. Jorge especially had the audience in stitches :D Google ’em!

And now it's back to England tomorrow. Why does time go by so fast? Why does it go by so slow?

And now it’s back to England tomorrow, sadly without this copy of La broma infinita… I fly via Madrid… but at least I won’t have a 12-hour layover there this time, a truly godforsaken experience that I do not recommend. I also still have 40% of My Struggle: Volume 1 to finish on my kindle, and have just purchased A Little Life as backup, just in case.

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Tips for reading ‘A Place of Greater Safety’

This is one heck of a book. The cast of characters list at the beginning is six pages long. The author’s note promises that “anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.” 749 pages.

These are the main tips I have for reading this book:

  • Keep notes! You will be SO THANKFUL. If a character appears and you are not sure who they are, check the list at the beginning and write down the page number she/he appears on. Distinguishing characteristics are also helpful. This is by FAR one of the most helpful things you can do to help keep track of everybody–if it weren’t for the notes my sister had made, I don’t know what on earth I would have done. Here are some examples:
  • Give in to the wikipedia temptation. At first I tried to avoid it because I didn’t want any “spoilers” (I know nothing of French history, had never heard of Danton or Camille Desmoulins and thus had no idea what was going to happen to them). But it’s inevitable. You’re going to need it, especially when you can’t remember what/who the Girondists are.
  • Antoine Fouquier-Tinville and Antoine Saint-Just are both cousins of Camille, they’re both ominous jerks, and they are TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. I spent the entire book thinking they were one and the same until they finally confront each other, forty pages from the end. “WHAT?” I shrieked out loud, causing my sister’s cat to turn towards me in alarm. “They’re two different people??” Yes. Yes, they are. Do not make the same mistake. Refer to page 57 in particular if you need a reminder: Antoine Fouquier-Tinville is a lawyer rumored to have murdered his wife, Antoine Saint-Just is a failed poet. They are both extremely Bad News.
  • René Hébert (described as “a theatre box office clerk”) will play a BIG role in Part Five so don’t forget about him–his newspaper in particular will cause a lot of trouble.
  • Stanislas Fréron (the childhood friend called Rabbit) doesn’t play as big of a part in the book as you’d expect him to. He’s mostly just kind of… there. Lafayette (a war hero from the American Revolution) is similarly mentioned a lot early on and then just disappears (but no worries, there’s plenty of new characters to focus on!).
  • Pay attention to the neighbors’ daughters. Especially little Louise in the case of Danton, and Babette in the case of Robespierre. This in particular is an excellent example of how Mantel uses fiction in a way that straightforward history cannot: by making something up that likely has little historical evidence (as far as I know), she nevertheless illuminates one of the book’s biggest themes, that of how the personal is the political.
  • You better remember that Maitre Perrin is Camille’s former boss, as the sketchy rumors about their illicit relationship will play a big part throughout the book.
  • Brissot is one of the few characters listed twice in the character list (Part Two and Part Five). Don’t let this confuse you!! They are indeed the same person. The most helpful note to put next to his name is “Danton’s political rival.”
  • Cordeliers is the name of a neighborhood where Danton lives, and will later be the name of his political party.

In many ways reading this book was more way more difficult than reading A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the most comparable experience I can think of. In ASOIAF, characters are restricted to their point-of-view chapters (so you don’t ever have to worry about someone from Arya’s world popping up in Daenerys’, for example). In this book, however, characters can appear pretty much anywhere at anytime (which the exception of the Royal family, who rarely appear and are appropriately very much contained to their own little universe). So you better have a pen next to you when you’re reading this cuz there’s no time for fucking around.

All in all, despite the length and complexity I read this book FAST, binge-style. The first 200-300 pages describing the characters’ early lives (of which apparently very little is officially recorded in history) are particularly gripping, and as for the last 200, well forget about doing anything else with your time. Mantel does an excellent job of setting up tiny clues and little hints for big pay-offs, like when Danton befriends an actor who teaches him deep-breathing techniques for public speaking:

“You breath from here”–he stabbed at himself–“you can go on for hours.”

“I can’t think why I’d need to,” Danton said.” (31)

Or this exchange between Camille and Robespierre:

“What is the point of combating the tyrants of Europe if we behave like tyrants ourselves? What is the point of any of it?”

“Camille, this isn’t tyranny–these powers we are taking, we may never need to use them, or not for more than a few months. It’s for our self-preservation, our survival as a nation.” (589)

Oh, the delicious irony of these early foreshadowing scenes! Even knowing nothing about these characters’ lives (with the exception of Robespierre, thanks to 10th-grade World History class), I could tell that they were being set up for something big.

Unfortunately with a book this ambitious, some things ended up getting lost for me. Namely Camille’s relationship with his father–it’s made clear to us that Camille never gets his approval, is never good enough for him, etc. And yet with everything else happening in the novel this theme never felt as fully developed as it could have been. Instead it just felt like a convenient trope. But heck, who am I to complain? Mantel apparently started writing this book when she was TWENTY-TWO, and had to complete all the research before moving to Botswana with her husband (pre-Internet days, at that!). It was then promptly rejected by agents and publishers and didn’t end up getting published till twenty years later. An encouraging tale of perseverance and how to not judge your own self-worth based on the market, indeed.

So many things to praise about this book… The modern-sounding dialogue (the majority of the book by far is conversational exchanges, which plays a huge role in making it so gripping to read. No boring exposition here). The focus on women. The way that big events often happen “off-screen” (with the exception of a few big ‘uns, the focus is mainly on the events’ after-effects, when the characters are back in their living rooms with their families, shaky and panting). The pathos of the ending as it all comes crumbling down. The gleeful walk-on cameos by Marat and Buonaparte. It’s also gloriously fun to learn unexpected facts–for example, did you know that the author of Dangerous Liasons plays a teeny-tiny minor role in the Revolution?

There are so many characters in this book with artistic intentions: actors, poets, writers… Camille himself often anguishes over his failure to write (his stutter is also used to great metaphorical effect), and journalists and pamphleteers (especially in the second half of the book) wield an important power. Beware the written word, this book almost seems to be saying. It can do things. It can make things happen. It’s almost nostalgically uncynical, at least until everything starts to crumble. Despite its incredible sense of order, in a way this is a very punk-rock book. The three main characters propel through it with the energy and enthusiasms of teenagers (sex for Camille, money + goodies for Danton, and idealistic visions of a more just society for Robbespierre). You could totally write modern day fan fiction about these three being friends and causing a ruckus on an East Coast liberal arts campus, going to anti Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter protests. More than anything else, it’s the depiction of the friendship, relationships and interactions between these three central figures that make the book worth reading.

God, how fun it is to read a book this rich and absorbing, to completely disappear into a world you otherwise knew nothing about, to get lost in it! How glorious! The sheer amount of research and effort that went into this! How wonderful it is to use your brain when you read; to be forced to be attentive! How overwhelming; how marvelous! What an achievement, what a story, what a novel.

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