How to Tell If You’re In a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

In the spirit of The Toast’s “How to Tell If You’re in a _____________ Novel” series, I present:

How to Tell If You’re in a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

Your name, when translated, actually means “revenge.”

A ghost wants you to do him a favor.

You have had sex with someone totally wrong for you—like your husband or your stepmother.

You have a personal relationship with a skull.

No one around you has decent night vision or the ability to see through disguises.

You have caused a string of accidental casualties this week.

You haven’t realized that there is always someone behind the tapestry.

You are a woman who is either a mother, or old enough to be somebody’s mother. Therefore you are an unprincipled wanton.

You are in an Italian city-state. Or Denmark. Or Spain. But definitely not England. Nope. Nothing English about this place.

You are eating or drinking something. It is poisoned.

You find yourself at a court where incest is pretty much de rigueur.

Your wildest fantasies involve an orgy of violence. And possibly cannibalism.

Your brother believes he is a wolf.

You are busy setting up a play or masque that will prove your nemesis is evil. You already know he is evil, and no one will understand the implications of your play, except your stoic best friend and/or brother.

Your hobbies include reading and feigning madness.

You are a woman. One of your male relatives is spying on you, obsessed with the condition of your hymen and/or womb. You will end up mad or dead or both.

Whenever someone writes a letter, someone else dies.

You are a woman. You marry the man you love. You find that this is a mistake.

If you are likeable, you prefer to kill people by stabbing them or poisoning them, in that order. If you are unlikeable, reverse the order.

You are in a room with everyone you hate (who isn’t already dead) and everyone you love (who isn’t already dead). You are all going to die, with one exception.

You are not the exception.

Review: The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

photo (24)Chances are that by now you’ve run across Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up; it’s a big bestseller, and I know my Instagram feed has definitely featured before and after pictures of friends’ clothing collections.

In brief: Ms. Kondo, who is a celebrity in her native Japan thanks to her wildly successful books, shares her prescription for tidy living. It is a one-time process (though it may take weeks or months to finish) that involves sorting through every item one owns, according to categories (clothes, books, papers, etc.) and relinquishing those that do not “spark joy.” In her experience, clients who try her system not only find themselves in a tidy, clean space (very important in Japan, where housing is smaller and even more expensive, than, say, Boston, ahem), but also find myriad other benefits to living a tidy life.

As Molly Young writes for The Cut,

Kondo doesn’t nag. Instead, she urges a kind of animistic tenderness toward everyday belongings. Socks “take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet,” she writes. “The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.” Purses merit similar reverence: “Being packed all the time, even when not in use, must feel something like going to bed on an empty stomach.” Kondo’s thesis—that the world is filled with worthy recipients of mercy, including lightweight-microfiber ones—is as lovely as it is alien. It’s empathy as an extreme sport.

I wanted to read this book because I love organizing. I loathe doing the dishes and try to make existential jokes whenever I’m forced to vacuum, but show me a closet in need of sorting, and I am there for you.My son (nearly 4) has seen me organizing with glee often enough that he requests it at least once or twice a month (6:30a.m.: “Mama, Daddy! Today we or-nize my dressah!”). Ms. Kondo advocates folding clothes in squares, to be lined upright in drawers, which is a method I saw on Pinterest quite a while ago, and friends, it is awesome and I had a marvelous time folding laundry during that happy week.

But this is a serial sort of organization, never truly finished, that Ms. Kondo claims will be unnecessary once her method goes into effect. I believe her, and so I’m a little afraid to try it and lose an activity that I find both calming and absorbing.

The other reasons I’m wary of the Konmari method, as she calls it, can be found in this excellent essay by Lisa Miller (also in The Cut). I don’t really believe, in my heart of hearts, that if I’m without something, that I’ll always be able to run out and replace it. First, there’s the simple convenience factor; I much prefer having a pair of stockings in the drawer for the one time a year I’ll wear them—though they decidedly do not spark joy—than finding out 30 minutes before the wedding or party that I’ll have to run to Target. Second, I’m prone to anxiety, and that anxiety extends to the possibilities of layoffs and apocalypses, and if either of those things happens, I’d like to have backups of backups of things already in our apartment.

Then there’s the chapter on books. I leave you to contemplate the possibility that I will put all 1000-odd books I own on the floor, touch each one, and discard a great many before replacing the ones I truly love on the shelves.

[Sidebar: Coming later this year is my Theory of the Personal Library.]

Anyway, I think this book could be very helpful for people who do want to engage in major cleaning and tidying projects, since it’s not a self-perpetuating system and does not involve the investment of thousands of dollars in Elfa products. I also like some of Ms. Kondo’s strategies for letting go of objects with sentimental value, though don’t ask me how I’m faring with that. It’s also fascinating in terms of its tidbits about Japanese culture (shrines and charms get their own section, for instance) and about Ms. Kondo’s own life; she’s very honest about the reasons she thinks she became so interested in organizing.

And then, of course, you could ignore the spirit of the book and pick and choose some of her organizational strategies. Not that I did that with my socks, or anything.

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“a narrow plot of sand”: Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson” from Domestic Work

photo (23)Domestic Work is the first collection of poems by Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United Sates from 2012 to 2014 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The collection won the inaugural Cave Canem Prize (an annual prize for the best first collection of poems by an African American poet), selected by Rita Dove. In both free verse and gorgeous formal poetry, these poems tell the stories of working-class African American people, focusing on men and women in the South in the twentieth century.

In her introduction to the book, Rita Dove writes, “With a steely grace reminiscent of those eight washerwomen [in the poem “Three Photographs”], she tells the hard facts of lives pursued on the margins, lived out under oppression and in scripted oblivion, with fear and a tremulous hope” (xi-xii).

It’s the tremulous hope that shines brightest in Domestic Work, but it’s a hope that flutters on the edges of a terrible past and an uncertain present. Take, for instance, “History Lesson.” At first, Trethewey describes a picture of herself as a small girl in a flowered bikini, toes curling in the sand “on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,” painting in vivid words the sense of the photo, and the bright sun of the day.

Then, at precisely the poem’s midpoint, the turn: “I am alone / except for my grandmother, other side.”

Now the focus shifts to the “history lesson” of the poem’s title, as Trethewey takes us back in time in two jumps. We learn that the poet’s grandmother is taking the picture in 1970—just “two years after they opened / the rest of this beach to us,” a chilling reminder of the cruelties of Jim Crow South; who could deny the pleasures of this beach, with its sun and its minnows, to a child?

And then the end of the poem completes the structure Trethewey has set up: it’s forty years since her grandmother (to whom the second half of the poem belongs)

stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,

her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.

The “meal-sack dress”  on is the visual counterpoint to the bikini Trethewey’s child-self wears, which seems like symbol of progress (out of poverty, and with only the beach behind it, not the dreadful sign). But then we remember that the picture of the poet is only two years past the end of the beach’s segregation, and progress—from “narrow plot” to “wide strip”—seems a fragile, fragile thing.

A Book in Need of a Book Club: Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

photo 2 (4)I found Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau* to be well-written, intriguingly structured, and deeply frustrating.

This last characteristic is a measure of the skill Ms. Essbaum, who is a very well-regarded poet, brings to her characterization of Anna, the eponymous hausfrau.

Anna is an American who’s lived in Switzerland for many years, but who’s never felt at home in her adopted country. Outwardly, her life seems orderly and comfortable. She is married to a handsome and successful banker, has three beautiful children, and lives in a charming suburb of one of the world’s best cities.

Inwardly, Anna is a mess. She has trouble making friends, her husband is emotionally distant, and she doesn’t speak the Swiss variant of German, so she feels constantly isolated, even from herself. It’s difficult for her to understand her own feelings and impulses. To combat her isolation, Anna starts Jungian analysis (one of the best parts of the book, I thought), German classes, and ill-fated affairs.

As I said, Hausfrau is very well written—calibrated to elicit the reader’s undivided attention and inability to look away from Anna’s increasingly disastrous life. The narrative arc covers only a few months in time, but each chapter reaches back to past events and is molded by Anna’s conversations with her analyst, an interesting strategy that I came to admire as I adjusted to it.

Anna is very much alive, but reading about her was exhausting; I often felt overwhelmed by the details of her thoughts and experiences. And this is why I think this book screams for a book club: some readers are going to hate her, others are going to be entranced by the full psychological portrait, and some are going to feel both ways at once (yes, that’s me).

Spoilers ensue. 


If I were part of a real-life book club, here are some things I’d want to talk about.

photo 1 (3)1. The heroine’s name is Anna, she’s adulterous, and the first chapter involves trains. Anna Karenina much? We all knew what was coming, right?

2. If Anna is so unhappy because Bruno is so emotionally distant (and prone to violence, though it’s not clear how far that goes before the last episode), why doesn’t Anna get a divorce? Why not even talk about it or think about it? I thought this was unrealistic. Marriage certainly didn’t define Anna to such an extent that she’d be adrift without it. She’d be adrift no matter what.

3. Anna’s failure to recognize her privilege annoyed the hell out of me. She does not need to worry about money at all (this is a complaint I have about a great many novels, as I discuss in this review), but doesn’t seem to appreciate this gift.

And while being the at-home parent is challenging (believe me, I know), she is not juggling working from home at the same time, her children are healthy, and she has so much help! Her mother-in-law is available to her almost at-will (and at no cost), freeing Anna up to take German classes and have sex with various accented men. She sends a text and Ursula magically picks up her sons from school. She calls Ursula and suddenly she has a night free to spend with her husband. Ta-da!

I’m all for at-home parents taking all the help they can get, but as someone who doesn’t have in-home help, or daycare, or my child in school, I cannot believe that Anna doesn’t take better advantage of her free time—which she’s had for years. I can imagine a person in the heady rush of child-free time taking a few weeks to adjust and figure out what to do with themselves, but years? No. Honestly, it drove me crazy that Anna devoted so much time to navel-gazing and destructive behavior instead of learning the local language, reading a book, writing a novel, volunteering, getting another degree, going to a museum, or for heaven’s sake, just taking a nap. 

On the other hand: Am I being too harsh? Is Anna in the grip of profound mental illness–depression seems the most likely–that somehow accounts for her myriad irresponsible choices and inability to appreciate the good parts of her life (particularly her children)?

4. I found it weird that I’m reading a novel in 2015 that punishes a woman for having sex, even adulterous sex. Very nineteenth-century novel.


End of spoilers.

Anyway, I recommend this book for its writing and because people are going to be talking about it, and if you read it, you will definitely have something to say.

I’m off to find a collection of Ms. Essbaum’s poetry, because I’m guessing it’s amazing.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Writer to Watch: Diana Souhami

photo (19)Diana Souhami is a debut novelist, but her twelve previously published works of nonfiction arrived to critical acclaim (she has won both the Whitbread Biography Award and the Lambda Literary Award). Given the talent and ambition she shows in her first novel, Gwendolen*, I suspect we’ll be seeing more of Ms. Souhami’s fiction.

First, the ambition: Gwendolen is a re-telling and expansion of George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda (as you can see in the very clever cover design, the original nineteenth-century cover has been altered). It’s quite a task to take on the formidable Eliot, but Daniel Deronda is perhaps ripe for such interpretations; some critics of the novel thought it could do without Gwendolen Harleth, and some thought that Gwendolen was worthy of her own novel.

That’s what Ms. Souhami gives us. The first two-thirds of Gwendolen recount the events of Daniel Deronda from Gwendolen’s intimate perspective, in the form of a very long letter written to Deronda, but never sent. Gwendolen is beautiful, but self-centered and insensible to the ways of the world:

And so it began: life-changing decisions made by sudden inclinations, vanity, and rash daring. [ … ] I did not stop to consider what it meant truly to know another person or myself. I knew nothing of the world beyond the drawing rooms of Pennicote and the bewildering nowhere places of my childhood travels: nothing of the war in America, the struggles of the suffragists, the suffering of the workhouse, the customs and mores of other societies. And nothing whatsoever of the motivations of men or of the qualities that might matter, beyond chandeliers, paddocks, and diamonds, when choosing a husband. (50)

Gwendolen explains the dire financial straits and over-reliance on her considerable beauty  that led her to marry Grandcourt, a rich but cruel man whom she did not love and whom she knew to be involved with another woman (a longtime mistress with four children). The moral depredations of Grandcourt that Daniel Deronda hints at are fully revealed in Gwendolen.

The remaining chapters of the novel explore what Gwendolen’s life is like after the events of Daniel Deronda, and it is here that Ms. Souhami’s talents are put to best use. While the first two parts of the book are close in spirit to Eliot’s work, they are not satisfyingly different enough from the original. However, when exploring the changes in Gwendolen’s material circumstances and emotional states in her new life, I found myself eager to learn more about Ms. Souhami’s new characters, like the circus performer Julian/Juliette, the painter Paul LeRoy (based on a real person), and the group of suffragists Gwendolen befriends.

I was thrown off by the inclusion of Mrs. Lewes (George Eliot) as a character known to Gwendolen; it didn’t quite work, especially since Eliot’s uncanny knowledge about Gwendolen’s private affairs is never explained. And the notes about real people slipped into the tone of biography, instead of remaining in Gwendolen’s distinctive voice. I wanted the novel to explore Gwendolen’s relationship with her four stepsisters in greater depth instead.

Alas, this last section is far too brief, and doesn’t bloom as it could have, had the proportions of the plot been reversed. However, Ms. Souhami’s talent for sketching lively characters and period settings and her way of framing classic literature to allow readers to think about the social systems of the present ensures my willingness to read her next novel when it appears.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller

photo (20)I first learned of Claire Fuller’s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days* from Naomi’s review on Consumed by Ink. Once I picked up the book, I couldn’t put it down.

In reading Our Endless Numbered Days, I stepped  outside of my comfort zone; my reading (and viewing, for that matter) bête noir is child endangerment, and Peggy Hillcoat is in danger for quite a lot of the novel.

In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father, a survivalist, packs up supplies and Peggy and leads her deep into a German forest, to “die Hutte,” where the two will live for the next nine years. Peggy’s experiences in wild living are juxtaposed with chapters about her life after she rejoins her mother, Ute, a noted concert pianist, in London nine years later (and this was what allowed me to read the book: knowing that she would come home alive, if not unscathed).

Peggy’s father tells her that they are the only two people left in the world, and decides to stop keeping track of time:

“We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes any more,” he said. When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.”
I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.
“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.” He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. “Our days will be endless.”

So Peggy—or Punzel, as she takes to calling herself and being called—settles into a routine of hunting and gathering and playing one piece on a piano that doesn’t make a sound—until one day she sees a pair of boots in the woods and begins to understand that all is not as her father told her.

Given the lies that James and Ute tell themselves, their daughter, and each other, Peggy isn’t the most reliable narrator—except where matters of practical living are concerned. The details of Peggy and James’s survival strategies are fascinating, particularly considering just how much effort it takes to learn how to live primitively (I just read a NYT story on a woman who walked 10,000 miles in three years, so I guess I’m on a bit of a kick). Their struggles do not recommend the outdoor lifestyle (though maybe I’m biased, since my favorite magnet says “I love not camping.”)

Ms. Fuller’s writing is strong and assured, her words gliding gracefully; I finished the book in two sittings. She skillfully builds tension as the novel’s twin mysteries unravel: How (and why) did Peggy escape the wilderness? And why did her father leave with her in the first place?

Once you pick up Our Endless Numbered Days, these questions will draw you into Peggy’s world, and it’s difficult to leave.

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: “The Kingfisher” and The Kingfisher, by Amy Clampitt

IThe Kingfisher on the couch picked up Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher at a used bookstore in Central Square sometime in January. It’s a gorgeous book in more ways than one; originally published in 1983, my copy is from the eighth printing in 1989, and it’s pristine. Heavy, unyellowed paper, gorgeous design. Well done, Knopf.

I came to the book knowing nothing about Amy Clampitt, but it was an utterly delectable reading experience; Clampitt’s facility with aural language reminded me of the fun I had reading Hailey Leithauser’s Swoop last year. (More on the language in a moment.)

As I read, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard more about this wonderful poet, and once I did a bit of research, I started to see why: born in 1920, Amy Clampitt died in 1994. The Kingfisher was her first major book, and remains her most famous.

My favorite poems in the book are those that appear first, largely set along the rocky Maine coastline (of which I am quite fond), but all six of the book’s wide-ranging sections are spectacular. The poems are erudite without being condescending (the poet provides notes after the text), controlled but bursting with language’s multitudinous possibilities. In these pages whales are “basking reservoirs of fuel” (116) and a poem about the Dakota hotel finds the speaker telling us “Grief / is original, but it / repeats itself: there’s nothing / more original it can do.”

Here are some lines from “The Cove”:

Where at low tide the rocks, like the
back of an old sheepdog or spaniel, are
rugg’d with wet seaweed, the cove
embays a pavement of ocean, at times
wrinkling like tinfoil, at others
all isinglass flakes, or sun-pounded
gritty glitter of mica; or hanging
intact, a curtain wall just frescoed
indigo, so immense a hue, a blue
of such majesty it can’t be looked at,
at whose apex there pulses, even
in daylight, a lighthouse, lightpierced
like a needle’s eye.

Stunning, yes?

The only other writer I’ve come across in the last half decade with Amy Clampitt’s command of English vocabulary is A.S. Byatt (who, by the way, Clampitt mentions in this fascinating interview with the Paris Review, which I highly recommend; unsurprisingly, she had great taste in poetry and fiction—she names Alice Munro as her favorite contemporary fiction writer 20 years before Ms. Munro won the Nobel). If (and I hope when) you pick up The Kingfisher, you’ll want a dictionary close at hand for words like these:

  • repoussé
  • pannicled
  • plissé
  • chrysoprase
  • grisaille
  • bizarrerie
  • catalpa
  • peplos
  • aconite
  • sozzled
  • gasconades
  • traghetto
  • curveting
  • loess
  • clepsydra
  • maguey

I could go on. At length.

I was enchanted by The Kingfisheryou can read the title poem here—and I hope you’ll let me know if you read it so we can compare notes, and maybe word lists.