BOOK REVIEWS

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

As the title itself suggests this book is about undocumented Americans. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio never treats the people she is writing of as passive ‘subjects’, or worst still ‘objects’, her gaze is neither voyeuristic nor impersonal. She does not give the impression that she is filtering their experiences and stories, even if she admits early on that due to privacy she may or may not have altered names and specific/recognisable details. In the interactions she has with those who are undocumented she isn’t a stoic journalist or interviewer, she doesn’t only ask questions. She shares her own thoughts, feelings, and circumstances with them, and often seems to form a bond with them. Which is what sets apart The Undocumented Americans from other works that wish to elevate the voices of those who are so often silenced.

Villavicencio isn’t interested in relating stories of those deemed ‘exceptions’, as exceptionalism ignores narratives that are not deemed ‘extraordinary’. Throughout the course of 6 chapters, moving across America—Staten Island, Miami, Cleveland, Flint, New Haven—Villavicencio reveals the complex lives, identities, and histories of undocumented immigrants. The voices she ‘collects’ in these chapters belong to day labourers, housekeepers, family members who have been separated from their loved ones, those who have lost loved ones because they do not have medical insurance, those who have been or are still being affected by the Flint water crisis, and the first responders to 9/11.
The people Villavicencio connects with do not want our sympathy or pity. They share their experiences with her hoping perhaps that their stories will reach those in need, those who perhaps like them are being or have been exploited by a country that treats them as ‘illegal’ and ‘aliens’. Even in the UK there is this stereotype of immigrants as lazy when the exact opposite is true. Chances are they work harder and for much less than the ‘natives’, whilst being subjected to all sorts of injustices. Villavicencio challenges this view of immigrants as criminals, lazy, welfare cheats, ‘less than’. She also confronts the myth of the ‘American Dream’ as she comes across people who do nothing but work, yet, no matter their hard work they risk being deported or are forced to turn to ineffective herbal remedies in order to cure serious illnesses or health problems they probably have developed while working physically and emotionally draining jobs and/or in dangerous environments.

Villavicencio speaks frankly and readers will feel her anger and sadness. She confronts the realities of being an immigrant, of working unfathomable hours for little or no money, of being treated unfairly, of experiencing health issues and being unable to seek treatment. However sobering their stories are, the people she writes demonstrate commendable qualities. They are multi-faceted individuals and their stories will undoubtedly resonate with many.
Villavicencio is an empathetic writer, who shares her own experiences and feelings throughout the course of this work. While this is a read that will both incense and depress you, it will also (hopefully) make you want to do something about it.

Although I live outside of America, immigrants do not face an easier life here in Europe. There are “immigration removal centres” (who thought that the word ‘removal’ would be okay when speaking of HUMAN BEINGS?), governments which are willing to let people drown rather than reach their shores (and at times orchestrate these shipwrecks), collude with other governments in order to stop people from leaving their countries….the list of horrors go on. I urge you, if you are in a position to donate to charities such as ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’ (these are UK based) to do so.

The Undocumented Americans is a heart-breaking, urgent, thoughtful work. Villavicencio is a talented writer whose prose is both eloquent and raw. I will definitely read whatever she publishes next.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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Nothing Like I Imagined by Mindy Kaling

Nothing Like I Imagined is collection of lighthearted essays by Mindy Kaling. Being quite a fan of Kaling and her shows I knew that these essays would be fun. If you like Kaling’s humour chances are you will also like her essays. In ‘Kind of Hindu’ she writes about not feeling Hindu enough, in ‘Help Is on the Way’ Kaling hires a baby nurse in spite of her initial reluctance, and in quite a few essays she recounts awkward/funny episodes set in the Hollywood world. She writes about herself in an honest and lightly self-deprecating way. I had a fun time with these. While they certainly weren’t in-depth essays they make for some entertaining reading material.


MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf — book review

7119MpKPEZL.jpgThroughout the course of my undergraduate degree I consistently and persistently avoided Virginia Woolf’s body of work as on the best of days I have little patience for stream of consciousness (especially of the Joycean variety) and modernist literature. When my lecturers mentioned Woolf they always seemed to confirm my impression of her being a pretentious snob so I didn’t feel particularly inclined to pick up her impenetrably introspective novels.

As of late, I’ve been wanting to read more essays and, for some reason or other, I ended up reading Woolf’s The Common Reader…and I’m glad I did. Yes, her worldview betrays a certain elitism but given her time period I don’t feel particularly slighted by her notion of ‘common reader’ or by the way in which she refers to cultures outside of Britain (once again Italians are referred to as a vaguely uncivilised ‘Southern race’).

Woolf’s essays are far more accessible than I’d imagined them to be. Unlike her fiction, here Woolf’s prose does not stray into the obscure, and needlessly confounding, territories of the English language. Here her lexicon is not only crystal clear but simply captivating. She writes with such eloquence and vitality, demonstrating her extensive knowledge of her subjects without giving herself airs. In fact, these essays never seem to reveal Woolf’s presence as she does not write as an “I” but as a “we”. While in clumsier hands I would have found the “we” to be patronising, Woolf’s essays are anything but. She includes us with ease, making us feel as if we were active participants in her analysis. Her subjects too are not passive figures easily relegated to the past. Her evocative descriptions have an immediacy that makes us momentarily forget that these authors are long-dead. Woolf does not waste time in recounting the entire careers and lives of her biographees. With a few carefully articulated phrases she hones in on the essence of these writers and their work. Woolf whisks away by asking us to ‘imagine’ alongside her these authors in their everyday lives, by speaking of their household, their country, and their world, with such familiarity as to convince us that she knew each one of them.

Her essays certainly demonstrate a wealth of knowledge. Woolf creates a myriad of connections, drawing upon history and philosophy in an engaging and enlightening manner. Certain historical facts went over my head, but that is probably due to my non-British schooling. Nevertheless, even when I wasn’t sure of whom she was writing about or the significance of one of her references, I still felt very much involved by what I was reading.

Woolf’s examination of the interplay between critics, readers, and writers becomes the central leitmotif of this collection. Time and again Woolf interrogates the way in which a writer is influenced by their readers and critics, and of the way in which this knowledge of a future readership shapes their writing. Woolf surveys different types of authors: fiction (such as Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë), essayists (such as Montaigne), poets, playwrights, and those historical figures who escape definition (such as the incomparable Margaret Cavendish).
In ‘On not knowing Greek’ and ‘The Russian Point of View’ Woolf turns to language and translation while in ‘Modern Fiction’, ‘The Modern Essay’, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’, and ‘How Should One Read a Book’ she considers the many faces of writing and the differences between classic and contemporary fiction/authors.

Even in those instances in which our interpretations differed, I recognised that her arguments were informative and persuasive. It is perhaps Woolf’s dialogic wit that makes her suppositions all the more compelling.

More impressive still is Woolf’s description of one of my least favourite literary styles in her much quoted essay titled ‘Modern Fiction’. Here her authorial presence is more felt as she expresses a wish to read fiction that reflects the continuous and incongruous flow of our thoughts.

I thoroughly recommend this to bibliophiles of all sorts. Whether you consider yourself a common reader or not Woolf’s essays have a lot to offer.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop — book review

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“Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves.”

Although The Anna Karenina Fix is certainly written in an engaging style, Viv Groskop’s humour, which mostly consists in her resorting to a forced comedic ‘light’ tone when discussing serious subjects, lessened my overall reading experience.
In her introduction Groskop writes that:

“But first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. […] Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again.”

…which is fair enough. However I don’t entirely agree with her claim that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. Of course different people will have different opinions or impressions of a book’s subjects and themes but the way she phrases struck me as both vaguely patronising and equivocal.
Groskop interweaves her own personal experiences when discussing her chosen authors and their work. The parallels she draws between herself and these writers seemed for the most part fitting. She doesn’t paint herself as the hero or heroine of the anecdotes she writes of, and uses a self-deprecating sort of humour to make light of her struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that is not her own. By drawing on her time as a student in Russia and by examining her relationship to the Russian language, Russian traditions, and Russian people, Groskop does present us with an intimate and compelling depiction of this country.
Complementing her ‘outsider’ perspective of Russia are the biographies of various Russian authors. While she sprinkles quite a few fun anecdotes from their lives, she seems to focus on their individual relationships to Russian and the values that emerge from their works (which as she remarks can go at odds to their own way of life).
Readers who have only read a few of these Russian authors (for example I’ve only read Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky) might find The Anna Karenina Fix more entertaining than those who are already well acquainted with these classics of the Russian literature. Had I been better versed in the works and lives of these writers I’m not sure I would have found The Anna Karenina Fix very informative or insightful. As it is, Groskop did spark my interest in the works of Gogol, Akhmatova, and Turgenev.
Part of me wishes that Groskop had not revolved her analysis/discussions of these books on these novel’s alleged ‘life lessons’. The ‘self-help’ aspect of The Anna Karenina Fix seemed a bit unnecessary. In a certain way Groskop seems to be moralising these books in a way that almost goes against her initial claims (that these books can be appreciated without attributing to them clever messages and such things).
The ‘life lessons’ themselves were rather obvious:
Anna Karenina = “life is, essentially, unknowable”
Eugene Onegin = “Avoid hubris. Stay humble. Keep an eye out for self-defeating behaviours. Don’t duel.”
From chapter six she also begins to talk in terms of hedgehogs and foxes (from Isaiah Berlin’s essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox) which didn’t strike me as being an incredibly profound analogy and she returns to this hedgehog/fox problem time and again…
Groskop’s humour was very hit or miss. At times her digressions, which usually appeared in brackets, were spot on funny. For the most part however these asides seemed out of place and forced (“I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard […] Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.”). Also this happens to be the second self-proclaimed work of ‘light’ unpretentious criticism that mentions popular culture one too many times (I am so sick and tired of the Kardashians).
At times she seems to play into this role of ‘amateur’ critic when in actuality she happens to have two university degrees in Russian and can speak fluent Russian. Lastly her constant digs against Nabokov were childish. We get it, the man was punctilious and big headed…can we move on?
All in all I would recommend this only to those who are thinking of reading more Russian literature but have yet to read the classics as The Anna Karenina Fix makes for a readable and quick introduction to prominent Russian authors.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

BOOK REVIEWS

Coventry by Rachel Cusk — review

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I have rather mixed thoughts about Rachel Cusk’s Coventry: Essays. Maybe I’m just not the right ‘reader’ for her work…I previously read, and was rather underwhelmed by, Outline…a book that has won quite a few literary awards and is thought of by many as a modern classic.

This collection by Cusk is divided in three sections: the first consists of autobiographical essays (“Driving as Metaphor”,“Coventry”, “On Rudeness”, “Making Home”, “Lions on Leashes”, “Aftermath”) in which she makes various speculations regarding notions of motherhood, home, and agency, often using her personal history—for example with divorce—as a springing board for later suppositions. The other two sections include essays in which she mainly speaks of artists and authors (a few being “Louise Bourgeois: Suites on Fabric”, “Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence”, “Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy”, “Eat, Pray, Love”, “Never Let Me Go”, “On Natalia Ginzburg”).
I much preferred the essays included in these last two sections of this collections. Even if I didn’t entirely agree with some of her readings I thought that Cusk’s ‘critical’ essays were well articulated and interesting. Sadly, I found her autobiographical essays to be rather obnoxious.

At times I had the distinctive impression that the Cusk that emerges from these autobiographical essays seems to have undergone a processes of self-fashioning. Cusk presents herself as a sphinx-like figure, a seer of sorts, capable of discerning the universal truths from personal experiences and opinions. The weight she seems to give to her own mental meanderings seems rather unjustified.
I was also discomfited by the impassive manner in which she would methodically dissect the people around her, coldly pointing out their flaws without ever rendering with clarity a sense of their personality or their shared history with her.
This reticence to let ‘us in’ that manifests itself throughout her biographical essays was detrimental to my reading experience. She seems unconcerned by ideas of privacy as she speaks of very personal subject matters (her divorce for example) yet provides so little context when describing certain episodes and events in her life that made it difficult it for me to relate to her experiences or viewpoint. For example in “Coventry”, the essay which has become the title of this whole collection and therefore one might assume that it has some importance, she doesn’t really make it clear to her readers why her parents “send her to coventry” or what is the exact nature of their relationship. In another essay she examines the way in which divorce has changed the reality and shape of her family in a rather metaphysical way, so that it seems almost as if she wasn’t writing of her own personal experiences presenting her personal experience as some sort of universal one.
She skirts around the edges of possibly complex and fraught relationships without ever delving into the ‘thick of it’
. Because of this, the comments she made about the people in her life struck me as somewhat callous and even uncalled for as I wasn’t made privy to the reason behind her words.
I acknowledge that autobiographical essays are a tricky feat but there are many writers who manage to give an outline of their relationships with their family without revealing everything about them (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage). If an essay examines something that is specifically connected to a certain episode or person from its author’s life one might expect a ‘personal’ element to supplement this exploration of this certain event/individual. For instance, in an essay in which Cusk writes of being repeatedly “send her to coventry” by her parents would, in theory, give us at least a vague impression of the dynamics between them (it doesn’t).
In her philosophising Cusk shows a tendency for issuing rather banal dictums (cars=people, airports=places of transport, children=extension of their parents, homes=reflecting those who inhabit them). At times these rather predictable statements could lead into more profound observations, such as when Cusk expands her vision of airports as places of convergence or how a visit to a clothing shop leads into a discussion regarding the falsity of the customer service industry.

Cusk also demonstrated a propensity for unfortunate analogies: she is “a self-hating transvestite” because she earned the money in her household and did her share of the house-chores . She and her husband were “two transvestites, a transvestite couple” because he was a stay at home dad. She also compares her changing notions “of a woman’s beauty” to “an immigrant’s notion of home”, that is “theoretical”: “My mother may have been my place of birth, but my adopted nationality was my father’s”. This seemed a somewhat dramatic comparison…then again she goes to equate being ignored to being at war so yes, Cusk has a tendency to dramatise some of her so-called ‘struggles’. After her divorce she feels that “my children and I […] we are like a Gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary” . Another clumsy comparison she makes is that of feminist to alcoholics: feminists stay away from “the kitchen, the maternity ward – like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Some alcoholics have a fantasy of modest social drinking: they just haven’t been through enough cycles of failure yet. The woman who thinks she can choose femininity, can toy with it like the social drinker toys with wine”.
Speaking of feminism, I didn’t entirely agree, or cared to agree, with her vision of feminisms which seems to present feminism at its most radical: “ The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation” and “what I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed me – the cross-dressing values of my father, and the anti-feminine values of my mother ”. For Cusk a feminist “does not propitiate: she objects. She’s a woman turned inside out”. Feminists hate feminine values and notions of domesticity…and some sure do but isn’t a bit of a generalisation to imply that all feminists will inadvertently fall into this trap of hating other women?
Cusk’s notion of male and female values seemed outdated. In each of this autobiographical essays she seems a bit too concerned with bringing different episodes or topics back to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, definitions of womanhood and manhood which weren’t as ‘mind-blowing’ as the author herself seemed to think. Cusk’s speculations seemed to clearly stem from the mind of someone…shall I say intellectual? Of a certain class? Because of this she seems unaware of making quite a few unfortunate analogies that made me wonder whether a reality check was needed.
Yet, in spite of my criticism towards Cusk’s essays I still thought that does manage to make some interesting speculations regarding things such as rudeness and her portrayal of the polarisation in post-Brexit Britain ‘hits’ right on the nail as she shrewdly describes her country’s current political climate.
Woven throughout Cusk’s essays are a set of theories and concepts such as “suspension of disbelief” and “story vs. reality” yet, in spite of her assertion that as a writer she is values “objectivity” she shows a predilection for self-dramatisation and for conflating notions of subjectivity and objectivity.
However I also have to concede that one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to relate to Cusk’s autobiographical essays might be due to generational, if not cultural, differences. My mother, unlike me, seems to have appreciated most of these essays and doesn’t seem to think that Cusk’s speculations about feminism and domesticity are quite as obsolete as I claim they are.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, arid underneath our sofa, and on. top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a delightful and uplifting ode to bibliophiles.
Anne Fadiman’s collection of charmingly written essays examine the way in which much of her life was (and is still) shaped by books.
Fadiman pays attention to the physical spaces they occupy. For example, in her first essay,“Marrying Libraries”, she tells us of how she and her husband became truly married when they almost reluctantly ‘merged’ their collections). In “Never Do That to a Book” she presents us with the many ways books are and can be handled (there are those who *ahem* like me *ahem* are somewhat strict about the ‘correct’ handling of their books….and there are the scribblers and benders of spines, such as Fadiman’s brother and father, who will happily leave their books laying open or facedown). Fadiman also details the seemingly invisible ways in which books can influence us, our worldview, our sense of self, and the relationships we have with other people (books play a dominant role in Fadiman’s marriage and family) becoming something akin to a language or a means of communication.

This love letter to books is written in a diverting prose. Fadiman’s style is amusingly anachronistic, and offers a wide range of humour that can swiftly switch from cheerful to ironic.
Fadiman’s witty observations combined with her knowledge and enthusiasm for her subjects (books, bibliophilia, grammar), make for a very interesting book on books, one that I would happily read again.

“This model of readers as consumers—one I have abetted in many a book review myself—neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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LET ME TELL YOU: BOOK REVIEW

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Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson
★★★★✰ 4 of 5 stars

I thought I was insane, and would write about how the only sane people are the ones who are condemned as mad, and how the whole world is cruel and foolish and afraid of people who are different. That was when I was still in high school.

Shirley Jackson is such a fantastic writer and Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings showcases the wide range of her writing: from domestic —and relatively fictionalised— accounts of her daily life with her four children to unnerving short stories that are imbued with anxiety and paranoia.
Her sense of humour and her particular brand of surreality make their way in each one of her stories, regardless of the genre. Jackson handles ordinary occurrences in an extraordinary manner. It is often this fantastic mode that allows her to examine the darker side of human nature. Jackson exposes those vicious and malicious sentiments that hide beneath the surface of ‘respectability’; it is often those conservative and upright individuals that are capable of evil and violence. Jackson’s portrayal of violence is all the more disturbing because it often is so sedate: individuals can be ostracised and erased on the basis of a few whispered words or a look.
The short stories might not be Jackson’s best but they do explore those themes and images that appear in her full novels.
Jackson’s essays on writing are very insightful, especially when Jackson discusses certain techniques she uses in The Haunting of Hill House. Two of Jackson’s children provide a moving afterword.

My review of: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson 

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THINGS I DON’T WANT TO KNOW : BOOK REVIEW

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Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing
by Deborah Levy
★★★✰✰ 3 of 5 stars

In Things I Don’t Want to Know Deborah Levy revists her childhood in South Africa in order to better understand her place in the present. She herself admits that her writing favours form > matter and so in this short book she focuses more on the sound of certain phrases rather than providing a more clear cut depiction of her personal life. Levy conveys the kind of thoughts that children have but her writing jumps too quickly between different subjects that I often lost the trail of her discussion or reflection.
Nothing groundbreaking or deeply affecting but in such a short format Levy had a ‘restricted’ space for all those topics she wanted to handle.

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