Although my favorite thing to read is a novel, I also love linked collections of short stories. The forgiving nature of a series of discrete narratives doesn’t make me feel guilty when my schoolwork prevents me from reading a novel straight through.
Sometimes these collections are linked by place; there are many of these. Others are linked by characters, such as Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neill. By an object: Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Some by concept: Her Infinite Variety by Pamela Rafael Berkman. Sometimes by theme: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer.
And sometimes a collection is linked by all of these.
Printz Award-winning Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick contains seven linked stories which travel backward in time on a remote and unusual island near the top of the world. They explore the themes of love and sacrifice in the myriad ways that love and sacrifice impress themselves on our lives, sometimes obvious and sometimes not. But the writing is never obvious, never predictable. Sedgwick’s work is often, I think, categorized as YA, but even if you don’t usually read in that category, give this one a try.
Eric and Merle are two characters who orbit each other in time, meeting each other in different ways. Sometimes in love, sometimes bound by a family relationship, sometimes tossed together by external forces, their interactions show the breadth of love and sacrifice. The writing is lush without overpowering the reader. The stories are based on an actual historical painting, Midvinterblot, but everything else in the novel comes from Sedgwick’s own imagination.
Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book that won’t give too much of the story away. Aside from the writing being enjoyable even down to the level of the sentence, I love the structure, how each story is illuminated by a subsequent one, how the orbit comes around in such a satisfying way, how the island itself is a character, how the names of the characters evolve, how the dragon flowers on the island and the image of the hare anchor the narrative. There is a hint of the fantastical in this book, but I wouldn’t call it fantasy; magic realism is more its purview.
This novel-in-stories accomplishes what the 1994 film Being Human tried to do but couldn’t. Midwinterblood captures two important facets of the immensity of human experience with crystalline clarity. And like a faceted prism, this story reveals a depth of possibility in every interaction, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. That love and sacrifice cannot be contained. It asks the question, is life truly this rich?
This week’s review comes to us from Terri Nixon, who has chosen to respond to Saskia Sarginson’s novel The Twins.
Terri’s bio and more information about the Women Writers Wednesday series can be found at the end of this post.
I won a copy of this book in a Twitter contest. I had no knowledge of the writer or her work, so went into the story with no expectations whatsoever, and emerged some considerable time later blinking and, it’s fair to say, a little bit not-of-this-world, for a while.
It’s hard to describe, or to pare down, what it was about The Twins that had such an impact on me, especially without giving away any spoilers. The writing itself is first-class, so we can dispense with that question, and I was reading it, as I tend to do these days, as a writer rather than as a reader, so I was being annoyingly picky – still couldn’t fault it.
We know these girls share a terrible secret from their childhood, and all the way through it seems to point one way … until it suddenly doesn’t. It’s either a master-class in misdirection, or I just went right up to the wrong tree and started barking. Either way, it’s not in any way predictable; it’s pacy, complex, dark and satisfying.
I think what really struck me in the beginning was the depth of detail. I’ve recently read some reviews for this book on Amazon, and I was astonished by the number of people who not only didn’t enjoy it, but also found the level of detail an irritant rather than an anchor to the story and the characters. For me it was these touches that brought my own childhood so vividly back to life; these girls, brought up in almost feral conditions by their flighty but well-meaning mother, running wild in the countryside during the 1970s and ’80s, taking their enjoyment where they found it. I grew up at the same time, in the same era, and spent an awful lot of time running around the moors in Cornwall, doing exactly the same kind of things (to a point!). I usually have little patience and tend to skip paragraphs that are description-heavy, but there was something about the way it was done in this book that kept me there. It was probably the senses that Sarginson uses to describe: some of it visual, but more to do with smell and touch. It awakens the memories of youth and connects you to the girls in a way nothing else could do.
The characters themselves are introduced in the present day; problems and conflicts are hinted at, their two vastly different lives highlighted, and then we are taken back to find the sources of those conflicts. We meet their mother; we quickly come to understand that she is not a bad person, she just lives her life in a kind of haze, still happily locked into the Hippie era, where she herself had flourished, and wanting the same for her daughters. It would have been easy to paint the mother as the villain, and the twins as victims, but that is not the case here; none of the characters can be labelled as wholly good or wholly wicked.
The girls are not unloved or mis-treated, but as they’re left to their own devices we see them begin to take on the personalities we’ve seen hinted at from the present-day segments. The storyline starts to smooth out, and we learn the secret that they have kept and begin to understand why they dealt with it in different ways.
As far as the ending goes, it seems to be quite a divisive topic, but I come down firmly on the ‘perfect’ side. I don’t want to give anything away, but having raced, breathless, through the final pages, I was left thinking, “Well, that was the only way it could have ended.” Many readers were left unsatisfied, but I closed the book with a real sense of inevitability realised.
This is a book I would recommend without hesitation, and I would recommend the paperback version as there do seem (from the reviews) to be some formatting errors in the Kindle edition. Not the author’s fault, and not in her control to correct, but it does seem that some of the lower-starred reviews have taken these errors into consideration, which is a shame.
Terri Nixon was born in Plymouth in 1965. At the age of nine she moved with her family to Cornwall, to a small village on the edge of Bodmin Moor, where she discovered a love of writing that has stayed with her ever since. She also discovered apple-scrumping, and how to jump out of a hayloft without breaking any bones, but no-one’s ever offered to pay her for doing those.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.
By now you now that this week, my newest publication, Finis., launched. I’ve tried not to overwhelm the Interwebz with announcements of it, but I admit that Tuesday, Launch Day, I was online most of the day just trying to keep up with the traffic and buzz about it and reactions to it. It was a great day, and I’m so grateful to those of you who’ve already bought the book, read it, and given me reviews. I’m glad you’re enjoying it so far! (Links to places where Finis. is currently on sale appear at the end of this post.)
This Sunday is our official launch party, and if you’re in Houston that day, please feel free to drop by! It will be at The Black Labrador from 4:00-6:00 p.m. in their Churchill Room.
Finis. is an ebook only at this time, due to its length, but there will be copies of an anthology I was recently published in, The Milk of Female Kindness — An Anthology of Honest Motherhood, for sale at the launch party. This wonderful international project brought together authors from all over the world; the book contains poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, and artwork around the theme of motherhood and offers a wide variety of perspectives. (It also contains two of my essays and three of my poems.)
Here is a list of some of the reviews that have come in so far for The Milk of Female Kindness. (I wrote “some” because I know there are other reviews out there that I don’t have listed here.)
I was so grateful to be included in this anthology; it really is an excellent publication. Kudos to Kasia James, the contributing editor whose brainchild it was, and to all the other authors and artists in it!
As promised, here are links to buy Finis. More retailers will be coming available soon, and when they are, I’ll be sure to let you know!
Finis. is also available through Apple’s iBooks store, but be sure you get the title that has my name attached to it, or you might end up with some very different literature you weren’t necessarily looking for!
Just being around Fady Joudah causes my brain to operate in lyric, to think in snatches of poetry as ephemeral as they are light.
Simple phrases formulating in my head about the most ordinary things become filaments of verse, appearing in my mind’s eye as I think them and then disintegrating to make way for the next fragment at such a rapid pace I can’t even stop long enough to write them down. Suddenly a simple self-command such as “park the car on that side of the street” becomes a metaphor: the busy downtown street is now a rainy gulf teeming with waves of traffic, my car a tiny craft pitching forward to a parking meter that in my imagination faintly resembles a dock strewn with fallen flowers.
Sometimes I wonder, if this is the effect he has on other people, what must it be like to live inside his brain?
Fady’s Textu (published by Copper Canyon Press) is a collection of short form poetry launched only as an e-book, in part due to the nature of the genesis of the form: the poems in this collection conform to the length of a text message, exactly 160 characters, each poem determined in part by character count. The first thing I thought when I began reading them was, My students will love this. So many of them feel intimidated when I ask them to write a poem. For so many of them, the stormy chasm between poetry and their comfort with and understanding of it might as well be filled with basilisks. But ask them to write a text message with an unusual image in it? That, they can do.
Enter Textu, and suddenly poetry becomes more accessible because it feels familiar. The e-book format is also inviting, since on an e-reader, every book is just a file of words, a novel is the same size and weight as a mechanical engineering tome, the same as a novella, the same as a short story, the same as a collection of verse. There is nothing unfamiliar about e-book files because — despite the obvious differences in formatting once you get into them — they are all alike subconsciously, and therefore – take this leap with me — one does not feel the Otherness of poetry in an environment where poetry is not read enough.
I asked Fady once about how he came up with the idea for the Textu form, which plays on the words “text you” and “haiku.” He said it came from noticing how much time people spend texting.
“I found myself playing with the language while sending texts to friends, and then it dawned on me, as one of them quipped about my poetic texts, why not harness my anxiety about not being able to write longer poems, due to time constraints, clinic and home, into the art of the short poem through the medium of text message.” (He then developed this idea into a meter for stanza length to use in some of the longer poems in the collection.)
Time constraints? Anxiety about not being able to spend enough time on one’s manuscripts? I can relate. I began writing what I call “short form debriefs” because of this very problem. It’s been helpful. Rather than strive to craft a longer poem about Lots Of Big And Important Ideas, take a single moment and fill it with highly developed imagery and a single specific idea. I shared this method with my students, too. The response? This is good, this is satisfying.
This is accessible.
I love the way so many of these poems play. Is it commonplace to say that a poet plays with language? Of course. Does that make it any less true? No. Consider one of the first entries in the collection, “Descending Tongue”:
. I am a fig of your imagination
. fig meant for it
. you’ll care a fig
. give a fig bleach it
. my flesh is red my milk white
. my skin is honey sweat
Focusing on the entertainment of the evolving antique expression and pun distracts me from the real sensuality of the poem, so that when I arrive at the last couplet I feel surprised. I remember the title of the poem. I remember that I love figs. I bring a myriad of associations to the experience of reading the poem, some innocent and tender from hours spent playing under and harvesting from the fig tree as tall as my childhood home in the corner of our backyard, to the chapter of fig recipes in an aphrodisiac cookbook on my kitchen bookshelf. The poem invites me to play.
In his poem “Eurydice,” he eliminates the myth from the Greek story, thereby humanizing what might have been a distant, academic anecdote.
. Low visibility midsummer fog
. you are deaf cold your eyes
. a grasshopper statute
. of limitations on return
. Now you are declassified
. it is about to snow
I love to teach this poem, along with Seamus Heaney’s “The Underground,” as an example of the myth poem. What could feel more heartbreaking than the inaccessibility of one person – lover, parent, child, moody BFF – to another? And who doesn’t understand that? The myth has been made personal, just as the Textu form has made poetry personal to an audience so far removed from “Dover Beach” and “Dulce et decorum est” that verse had become anathema. Fady similarly re-introduces Ariadne, Penelope, Scheherezade, Zeus, Abraham.
The poems in this collection touch on more than love, of course. There are politics, medicine, the struggle for an understanding of how our systems of government and the labels we use for them confound us, thoughtful questions on the nature of poetry itself, open text messages to old masters of letters – explorations which, for me at least, cannot be separated from the poet who writes about them. Fady incorporates the modern vernacular of an age both scientific and technological into stunning images as light and ephemeral as the filaments of poetry I can’t help but think and yet not fully grasp when I am around him.
And then, after a series of poems which feel both grounded and esoteric, a very concrete foray into the most recognizable “When the Grandmother Dies”:
. it’ll be kept secret
. from her four daughters
. who’ll be flying in
. from three different countries
. after years of absence
. reunion ends
. When the grandmother dies
. it’ll ruin summertime
. for the grandkids who
. in their mothers’ grief will eat
. okra each day
. fresh & leftover
. till it tastes like ash
. When the grandmother dies
. the groundskeeper will beg for cash
. he comforts her he’ll say
. & the sisters
. will reply
. Were it not for you
. the dead would have died
Love occurs in Textu in so many different ways. Near the beginning and end of the collection we have poems of romantic love, as if suggesting that such a thing can envelop a person, can ground one in both reality and lyric. This, like the accessibility of the form to people who are terrified of writing poetry themselves, comforts and energizes the reader/writer/student poet.
Anyone who knows me or who has read my responses to other poets’ work knows how much I’ve struggled with being a poet, a teacher of poetry, a reader of it. It’s such a subjective genre and one so misunderstood and maligned, sometimes even subconsciously or apologetically by others who love literature. How often have you heard someone say they would love poetry if they understood it? Or if they’d been taught any interesting poems in school? Or if they felt confident enough to tackle it? (Forget for a moment that these excuses at times shuck one’s own responsibility for reading and thinking.)
The familiarity of the form Fady has codified makes poetry a real thing, an integral thing, a seemingly easy thing to attempt, while the poems in Textu are yet finely wrought. I challenge you to read this collection and then not feel moved to compose one yourself.
Start small. You have 160 characters. Don’t worry about punctuation. Play.
N.b. In this review I refer to the poet by his first name because he is a personal friend of mine, and because I don’t call him by his last name. This may count as a disclaimer for my endorsement of the book, if you like, if that matters to you, but understand that even if I didn’t know him, I wouldn’t change any portion of my opinions here. Textu is a lovely and worthwhile addition to any personal library. The poems and quote I’ve used here have been used with Fady’s permission.
When I was in high school, one of my classmates and I found ourselves mildly obsessed with the poetry of Sara Teasdale. We found a copy of her collected works in the school library and took turns checking it out, over and over again, until it never spent any time in the stacks anymore. We loved that book.
Even if I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward her verse now, Teasdale sparked something important in me: she helped me get past my hatred of poetry.
A while back, SJ over at Snobbery won a contest here on Sappho’s Torque, and her reward was to have a guest blogger spot. This week we’re featuring her post, a book review of a novel my rising-9th-grade niece is currently enjoying. I hope you enjoy her review! Be sure to check SJ out on her blog and on Twitter and on Facebook. Super delightful stuff.
And just as a quick reminder, you still have four days left to enter the Chindogu Challenge.
Look, I loved the IDEA behind this book, but I felt it was a little lacking in execution. I was expecting something of a faerie tale version of Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always(which I have read and re-read because it succeeds where I think this book fails) – a book for younger readers (if I MUST pin a YA label on it, I will) that parents and adults can enjoy as well.
What I found, though, was a book that read as if it were geared towards adults either attempting to regain that childlike sense of whimsy, or reminisce about those fantastic books they read as children.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot about this book that I think was done right – but I can’t imagine any children I know being particularly interested in it. I know (for example) that if I handed this book to my almost 13-year-old (who loves faerie stories, btw – he’s my son, after all), he would probably read about 10 pages before handing it back to me and saying, “Nah. Can I go read some more Barsoom?” …or A Series of Unfortunate Events, or The Looking Glass Wars, or whatever else it is that he’s into at that point in time.
This is a book that is marketed as being for children, but when I read it, it seemed like it was clearly written for adults.
That bothered me, and is why I have to append the “ish” to my answer of whether I liked it or not.
What did I love?
Well, that’s a lot more fun to talk about!
First of all, there are some absolutely delightful illustrations by Spanish artist Ana Juan, they were a lot of fun to come across, and each one made me smile.
The fantastic characters we meet in Fairyland were wonderfully realized. I cared about them all, especially the Wyverary.
What’s a Wyverary? Simple! It’s a wyvern whose father was a library!
I appreciated the slightly dense/flowery prose, but that’s another reason I think younger readers might have problems with it. It really read like it was a faerie story I would have enjoyed when I was younger, but it was a little…more, I think. Like I said – some adults will squeal over it, but children will probably just stare blankly.
Final verdict? If you’re an adult that still loves faerie tales, this book will probably scratch an itch you didn’t even know you had. If you’re not…you should probably skip it, as you’ll likely find it a bit too twee.