Review: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

40539185Verdict: I don’t even know.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster, February 12th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

An arresting memoir equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art that follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and her subsequent quest to find her.

Born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father, Shalmiyev was raised in the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). An imbalance of power and the prevalence of antisemitism in her homeland led her father to steal Shalmiyev away, emigrating to America, abandoning her estranged mother, Elena. At age eleven, Shalmiyev found herself on a plane headed west, motherless and terrified of the new world unfolding before her.

Now a mother herself, in Mother Winter Shalmiyev depicts in urgent vignettes her emotional journeys as an immigrant, an artist, and a woman raised without her mother. She tells of her early days in St. Petersburg, a land unkind to women, wayward or otherwise; her tumultuous pit-stop in Italy as a refugee on her way to America; the life she built for herself in the Pacific Northwest, raising two children of her own; and ultimately, her cathartic voyage back to Russia as an adult, where she searched endlessly for the alcoholic mother she never knew. Braided into her physical journey is a metaphorical exploration of the many surrogate mothers Shalmiyev sought out in place of her own—whether in books, art, lovers, or other lost souls banded together by their misfortunes.

By all accounts, I should have loved this book as it ticks all my boxes; I generally enjoy memoirs written by women and those that focus a mother-daughter relationship particularly, I love memoirs that are told mostly unchronologically and academically, hell, I adored the first sentences (“Russian sentences begin backwards. When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction.”) but somehow this did not translate into me getting on with the book.

Sophia Shalmiyev tells of her relationship with her mother, or rather of her relationship of the hole that her mother left in her life. Drawing on literature and theory and many things in between she attempts to paint a picture of that fundamental loss in her life. Born in Soviet era Leningrad to an abusive father and alcoholic mother, Sophia struggles with the sense of loss incurred by her father kicking out her mother and then later emigrating to the US without her.

I did find her language clumsy but not in a way that improved my reading experience (which odd sentence structure sometimes can do for me as it makes me read slowly and carefully); now, I am not a native speaker so this might very well be a fault with me rather than with the book. For a book this abstract and intensely introspective, I would have liked the language to be sharper and more precise though (something that Maggie Nelson – whose work this has been compared to – does without a fail). There was also an abundance of metaphors here that did not work for me at all and usually took me out of the reading flow (for example: “The decade is a bronze disease patina – the green paste – on a doorbell that rings when you show up, and you do not show up very often.”). In the end, while I am not usually somebody who judges books on a sentence to sentence basis, I seem to have done so with this book, which lost me early with its vagueness in prose and never recaptured my interest.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

18369376Verdict: Absolutely wonderful.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars.

Published by Hachette, 2010.

Genre: Biography

Find it on Goodreads.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

This was incredible. The depth in which Stacy Schiff took her book is incredible, both in scope as well as in narrative prowess. She takes a story that has been told countless times and meticulously shows how that picture we all have of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen, has been influenced and changed over the centuries and what might be the truth underneath all the propaganda. And she does it with wry wit and a wonderful sense of pacing.

I obviously knew the bare bones of the story going in (Cleopatra smuggling herself into Caesar’s camp, having a child with him, Caesar being killed [Et tu, Brute?], her having children with Marc Antony, Civil War between Marc Antony and Octavian, her death by snake venom) but Stacy Schiff showed me how large the holes in my knowledge are in fact. I am in absolute awe of this achievement in research and in story telling. Sometimes the details got a little bit overwhelming but overall Schiff manages to comprise this crucial part of history into a narrative that left me engaged until the very end.

What struck me most while listening to this book was how very different the Romans were – my history teachers always emphasized the Roman Empire as the birth place of Europe as we know it but Schiff shows exactly how different Roman culture if from my own. The actions some of these men took make literally no sense from a modern viewpoint – and Schiff makes no attempt to give them other reasonings except for the ones written down by the actors themselves. Marc Antony in particular often acts in a way that seems highly illogical but obviously makes sense in the cultural framework. I have a lot to think about now, about the way in which I view the world mostly.

I also take away from this book a whole new appreciation of Cleopatra – she is my hero; she was clever and shrewed and witty and apparently so charismatic that men promised her the world. I just wish we had more things she had written herself because even though this is her story it is also always framed by the men in her life – and many of them did not appreciate her in the slightest.

Mini-Review: Be With Me Always by Randon Billings Noble

40168047Verdict: Readable, interesting, nothing completely incredible.

My rating: 3,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Creative Non-Fiction

Published by University of Nebraska Press, March 1st, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

“Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Thus does Heathcliff beg his dead Cathy in Wuthering Heights. He wants to be haunted–he insists on it. Randon Billings Noble does too. Instead of exorcising the ghosts of her past, she hopes for their cold hands to knock at the window and to linger. Be with Me Always is a collection of essays that explore hauntedness by considering how the ghosts of our pasts cling to us.

In a way, all good essays are about the things that haunt us until we have somehow embraced or understood them. Here, Noble considers the ways she has been haunted–by a near-death experience, the gaze of a nude model, thoughts of widowhood, Anne Boleyn’s violent death, a book she can’t stop reading, a past lover who shadows her thoughts–in essays both pleasant and bitter, traditional and lyrical, and persistently evocative and unforgettable.

I’ll be honest here: I requested this solely because of the cover. I am a huge fan of anatomical hearts on covers and something about this cover and the title just spoke to me. Thankfully, this was absolutely worth reading.

The essays in this collection are for the most part wonderfully constructed. The author uses literature and other works of art to draw comparisons to her own life. This is something I particularly enjoy when it is well done and I thought it worked really well here.

The essay that worked best for me is the title essay – drawing on themes of Wuthering Height, a book I personally really appreciate, Noble carefully presents her own thoughts. I appreciated the way she mixes the personal with the literary to form a cohesive whole.

I have to admit that I did not find this collection spectacular and I am not sure it will particularly stick with me, but I will definitely check out whatever the author does next.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and University of Nebraska Press in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

35958295Verdict: Harrowing.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: General Fiction

Published by Quercus Books/ riverrun, March 7th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

When Sarah falls for Matthew, she falls hard.

So it doesn’t matter that he’s twenty years older. That he sees her only in secret. That, slowly but surely, she’s sacrificing everything else in her life to be with him.

Sarah’s friends are worried. Her father can’t understand how she could allow herself to be used like this. And she’s on the verge of losing her job.

But Sarah can’t help it. She is addicted to being desired by Matthew.

And love is supposed to hurt.

Isn’t it?

This book broke me, quite literally. I have rarely had such a visceral reaction to a book as I had this time and I am quite unsure how to talk about it. For this very reason, I feel the need to start this review with a disclaimer: I saw so much of myself in the main character and her experiences and behaviours that I cannot be objective about the literally merit of this book but I can say with absolutely certainty that the emotional core of this book was intense.

Told in two timelines, then and now, this book traces Sarah’s twenties. The past is told in first-person and tells of her increasingly destructive relationship to Matthew Brennan, a man many years her senior who treats her abysmally. The present is told in third person, Sarah is in a new relationship but still as ever self-hating and increasingly horrible to everybody around her. We closely follow Sarah, who is in no way an easy person to spend time with, and are always privy to her self-destructive thoughts and tendencies in a way that I found highly effective and extremely claustrophobic. Sarah is, for lack of a better term, a mess. For me the past narrative work better; the intimate first person narration made it a difficult but rewarding experience; present day did not quite hold my interest at all times but managed to show just how broken Sarah is in a way that made my heart hurt.

Louise O’Neill shines an unflinching light on why a person might stay in a toxic situation way longer than they would have ever thought beforehand. Matthew is a horribly disinterested in Sarah as a person except for brief interludes when he wants sex. The sex scenes are uncomfortable to no end, Matthew showing less than zero interest in making the experience pleasurable for Sarah who does not feel like she can tell him to stop. He belittles her and makes her feel bad for being the person she is. These scenes hit me incredibly hard: In my second and third year of uni, I dated this gorgeous, brilliant, funny Norwegian with the most beautiful accent when he spoke German with me – and who never let me forget that I am not the kind of person he wants to spend the rest of his life with (too feminist, too vegetarian, too not blond enough, too abrasive, too not feminine enough and so on) or maybe I never let him forget that he was not the person I wanted to grow old with (this might very well be true as well, relationships are rarely as one-sided as I would like to make this one seem). O’Neill captures the particular heartbreak that comes from a relationship like this incredibly well. While this made for a very difficult reading experience for me, it also impressed me to no end. I am so very glad to have read this.

I received an DRC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Quercus Books in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Outcast Hours ed. by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

40680026Verdict: Some brilliant stories but also many that did not work for me.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Anthology

Published by Rebellion, February 22nd, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Bold new anthology from the acclaimed editors of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

We live our lives in the daylight. Our stories take place under the sun: bright, clear, unafraid.

This is not a book of those stories.

These are the stories of people who live at night; under neon and starlight, and never the light of day.

These are the stories of poets and police; writers and waiters; gamers and goddesses; tourists and traders; the hidden and the forbidden; the lonely and the lovers.

These are their lives. These are their stories. And this is their time:

The Outcast Hours.

I adored the first anthology by the editor duo so much that I did not hesitate for a single second before requesting this one and immediately starting to read it. Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin do have a great way of building anthologies and even though I did not love this one as much, I will still be on the lookout for more work by these two.

These stories all take place at night, in the liminal spaces that entails, and span a wide array of genres. For me, the first half of the anthology was by far the stronger one with some absolutely stunning stories that make me excited to check these authors out. The second half and the micro-stories by China Miéville who are interspersed throughout did not work for me, however. Here I found myself skim-reading and often not caring at all.

The anthology starts very strong with a quiet horror story by Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes, and Dale Halvorsen: The Book Will Find You. I adored this story about grief and anger and supernatural beings, and the brilliant way it climaxes. I have been eyeing Lauren Beukes’ books for ages and really need to check her stuff out. I found Will Hill’s It Was A Different Time incredibly angering and wonderfully constructed. My personal favourites of the bunch were Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Sleep Walker and Frances Hardinge’s Blind Eye, both authors whose work I have wanted to read for ages. I should really get on with it.

I appreciate how varied this anthology was and how widely different in tone and style the stories were allowed to be. For me that is always a positive in an anthology because it gives me the opportunity to read outside my comfort zone without having to spend hours reading things I am not enjoying that much.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

36112638Verdict: In parts brilliant, in parts unsubtle

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: General fiction

Published by Penguin, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

Again it feels like I am the last person to have read a book – and again I am so glad to have finally gotten to it. I adored Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You and while I don’t think this book was quite as strong, it was still brilliant enough that I will be reading every single thing she ever publishes.

At its heart, this is a book about mothers and their relationship to their children. It follows to very different women, free-spirited Mia and perfect Mrs Richardson and their children while at the same time being more of a pastiche depicting a small towns inhabitants. I really enjoyed the rambling nature of the narrative and was happily along for the ride. I thought Ng took incredible care with most of her characters and her command of language in describing these everyday scenes was wonderful.

For me the book got weaker as it neared the ending, when the story became less subtle and it became more clear what Ng wanted the reader to think. I thought this did a disservice to the wonderfully complex moral conundrum at the heart of this novel. There were no easy answers her and for me it felt like the novel pretended as if there were. I found the two women at the centre became less real and more archetypical towards the ending and as such lost power.

On the other end of the spectrum, I adored the way Ng handled the younger generation. All the teenagers felt real and believable and their relationships with each other made my heart ache with its earnesty. Especially the three women had my hearts and I wanted them to be happy; Izzy with her prickliness, Lexie with her strong moral compass that just so happens to not always include her own actions, and Pearl who just wanted to belong. Ng just really has a way of constructing believable characters that make me very excited for whatever she writes next.

Wrap Up: January 2019 or I am bingereading.

January was tough, work wise. I had a ridiculous amount of stuff to do – and I did not feel like reading anything that challenged me in my free time. What also suffered from my month of hell was blogging in general – I have neither written very many blog posts nor have I read very many of other people’s (which is something I am truly sorry for but which cannot be helped at the moment. I really am drowning in work.).

Books I read in January:

 

  1. The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden: 5 out of 5 stars (Review)
  2. Visions of Heat (Psy-Changeling #2) by Nalini Singh: 2 out of 5 stars
  3. Caressed by Ice (Psy-Changeling #3) by Nalini Singh: 3,5 out of 5 stars
  4. Mine to Possess (Psy-Changeling #4) by Nalini Singh: 3 out of 5 stars
  5. Hostage to Pleasure (Psy-Changeling #5) by Nalini Singh: 2,5 out of 5 stars
  6. Branded by Fire (Psy-Changeling #6) by Nalini Singh: 4 out of 5 stars
  7. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: 4 out of 5 stars (Review)
  8. Blaze of Memory (Psy-Changeling #7) by Nalini Singh: 2 out of 5 stars
  9. Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom: 4 out of 5 stars (Mini-Review)
  10. 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso: 3 out of 5 stars (Mini-Review)
  11. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: 4 out of 5 stars
  12. Bonds of Justice (Psy-Changeling #8): 3 out of 5 stars
  13. Play of Passion (Psy-Changeling #9): 4 out of 5 stars

Favourite of the Month:

The Winter of the Witch was an absolutely stunning conclusion to a series I have loved immensely. I cannot wait to read everything Katherine Arden comes up with next.

I also really enjoyed binge-reading the a large chunk of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series. There is something about her writing and her world-building that I particularly enjoy. The whole is also better than the sum of its parts and I don’t see myself stopping reading this series anytime soon.

Continue reading “Wrap Up: January 2019 or I am bingereading.”