seven years by Alyssa Harmon | Book Review

Author: Alyssa Harmon

Publisher: Self-Published

Published: October 11, 2022

Genres: Poetry, Relationships, Self-Help

Pages: 121

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“notice the labyrinth you feel… open your eyes.” – Alyssa Harmon

Love is not an exact science. To call love a science at all seems paradoxically counterproductive to the matters in the right hemisphere of our brain. Our second brain, the heart, attempts to make sense of emotions, searches for meaning between lines that were crossed. Justifications and expectations become muddled in the journey of the heart if one does not learn how to love themselves and the necessity of change. Love of another, unrequited love, and wanting to be loved a certain way have the potential to descend into selfish cases of bitterness. Reading the debut poetry collection seven years by Alyssa Harmon shows that heartbreak contends with healing in a conquest for change and consistency.

The title refers to the interval of time in which human cells are replaced. The poems are collected into corresponding years, each with their own mix of emotions. As a nonlinear narrative, the theme of change being the only constant is felt. The trauma of memory is accounted for in “some things never change” and “dog tag.” The first a longing for what was good or promising, and the latter a symbol, an albatross, of a militant background or pensiveness without being spurious. Similarly, “memorial day” deals with memory and history, what was and what is left behind. Harmon succeeds at capturing how one can easily overthink (sugarcoat or soil) the bad and good memories, the hindsight and foresight.

Imagery about heartbreak lends itself to cliché too often, however. In “tsundoku,” the idea of not letting go or returning to the same story is conveyed with a literal metaphor of books. Again, in “cereal boxes” love for the prize inside would be sincere if it was not compared to a toy one could play with. Unless they are strictly showing the hurt that can corrupt a person amidst heartbreak, comparisons like these are missed opportunities to show more of what an idea has to offer. Call a person the same old story, but what about the people who are books in the world that is a library? Ideas stop in the middle of development for what seems to be confessional pity parties. Heartbreak (cold, justifiable, yet hypocritically passive-aggressive in tone) obstructs the healing within most of the poems. Brevity as wit comes off as lack and explanation as clarity instead lingers in some cases throughout the years.

Much of it leads to confusion, a feeling one with heartbreak would come across, but it rarely evolves or explores that confusion. Some poems settle for obvious imagery that are familiar and nostalgic at the risk of being juvenile. Being stuck in the past becomes too repetitive, self-involved, and self-referential for healing to take place. Is it a necessary phase in the healing process? Granted growth happens after hesitancy, denial, and leaving ego at the door, there is still a stage that has not been reached or held onto: acceptance. Accepting the fact that everything and everyone is a work in progress, seven years is a mixed bag still making its way out of the bag.

Final Rating:

Red/Blue Pill

Unplug. In-Power. Recreate: Transformative Poetry by A*K² | Book Review

Author: Archana “A*K²” Karthikeyan

Publisher: Self-Published

Published: May 4, 2022

Genres: Poetry, Self-Help, Philosophy, Nonfiction

Pages: 245

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“Here I fit, in my slot, / A tiny but irreplaceable puzzle piece…” – A*K²

Poetry collections are apt at capturing a running theme only to set it free to follow its every move ad infinitum. Opposite to cat-and-mouse antics, poetry delivers a message that belongs to someone and everyone. With poetry, a message becomes the message, which in turn becomes Message. Each message can change interpretation or ideation with each new reading. Upon reading Unplug. In-Power. Recreate: Transformative Poetry by Archana Karthikeyan (A*K²), the invitation for change is painted with a broad brush.

Truths are shared, images are presented, but they suffer from association and a lack of correlation. Relationships between truth and image to establish any metaphor with far-reaching consequence is replaced with pithy platitudes. The mortal sin of writing is to tell and to tell too much. The damnation of that sin is the curse of knowledge; the assumption that a student knows and experiences knowledge the way a teacher does. For example, the poem “Smoke & Mirrors” sets up two promising pictures that could serve concrete meanings but ends in an obvious if-then, cause-and-effect pay-off.

Poetry should teach not just through telling, but showing. In equal measure, although with partial leaning towards showing as a rule of thumb, explanation should clarify while pictorial language should simplify. Poetry is not meant to be a counselor. Poetry is not meant to be an advice column. However, one can find counsel from a poem without it being too didactic, generic, or redundant. The poetry in Unplug takes on conversational and confessional tones, as if the speaker has been the recipient of response poems and written response poems from a place of respite and resolve.

A*K² makes good on this in “I Don’t Fit In” where being accepted and accepting yourself are ideas in conflict with each other. It uses a problem and solution text structure that gets its advice across concretely and abstractly, but this form is relied on and recycled often in this collection, giving a hollow ring to truths. The father-to-son advice from “If—” by Rudyard Kipling balances the well-meaning (sentimental) with the discerning (practical) that begins broad (truth) and paces that truth in considerate, specific circumstances (imagery) reflective of its subject, theme, and audience. Stating the truth without exploring the truth leaves the truth starving in a devolved, stagnant, mitigated, and less meaningful state. Unplug unfortunately undermines its truths in a long string of advice sans enough practical examples that would meet its calls to action.

Final Rating:

$2 Bill

Step Lively: New York City Tales of Love and Change by Sherri Moshman-Paganos | Book Review

Author: Sherri Moshman-Paganos

Publisher: Self-Published

Published: May 12, 2022

Genres: Memoir, Historical Fiction

Pages: 148

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“I would give you all of my heart if you loved me!” – Sherri Moshman-Paganos

New York City is a hotbed of possibilities. Many have made it a tourist destination, an indulgent escape for entertainment, and a tamed overgrowth of expressionism performed with modest and courageous finesse. Others find the mythologized Concrete Jungle to be just that: hurdles of concrete and habit-forming jungle. Sporadic, sultry, serpentine, seedy, qualities that seem inescapable in The City That Never Sleeps. It is easy to feel wayward in a bustling place that people somehow call home. Step Lively: New York City Tales of Love and Change challenges and romanticizes the chase of living your dream through vicarious and pernicious vacillation in an idyllic and robust cityscape.

Told in vignettes, Sherri Moshman-Paganos presents a sidestep to the “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” trope of countless New York iterations. Jill, an artistic, ESL teacher, and Alex, a tidy, punctual lawyer, are the young New York couple who serve as the novel’s through line. Outside these vignette’s fuzzy edges, Jill and Alex experience the archetype characters, street vendors, store clerks, bums, and idiosyncratic apartment dwellers. The love in the stories can be categorized into want and need. The latter is missing and is overshadowed by the former. Diametrically opposed, Jill and Alex gripe and bemoan more than they give love and attention. Their relationship puts the “opposites attract” bid to rest in unceremonious ways; rather than understand each other and celebrate their differences (a love of need) they try to change each other indirectly and sarcastically (a love of want). When events happen to them, it comes from a passive and woe-is-me frame of mind. When they cause events to happen, it feels ordinary, obvious, and overbearingly referential to the point of cliché. References to New York are made, but they do not change the characters. New York anachronisms more or less solidify them.

Step Lively is written with the lens of a 1980s zeitgeist, its title referring to the exclamation of conductors for passenger pushers to board passengers onto subway transit. The phrase was introduced in 1904, then changed to “press forward” in 1908; either way, the experience described is linguistically pleasant rather than hurriedly unpleasant for Jill. Granted a trip down memory lane may always be the same, sometimes memory lane goes through bittersweet changes. The watershed moment of John Lennon’s death was used to good effect, presenting a metaphor of a good thing dying, innocence being lost, and the mixed, turbulent feelings of the characters at that time. Lackadaisical moments are far more prevalent however, trapping characters in the past. Grandmother Sadye haphazardly remembers her experiences growing up as an immigrant from Ellis Island and in New York. What is unbelievable and too convenient is Sadye’s lack of memory of a particular French tower. The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France and the Eiffel Tower is also from France; even someone uneducated, a European immigrant, no less, could recognize this world famous landmark, either mentioned in passing or by image alone, after all this time. It is as if characters are so innocent that they are excused from consequences. A great deal of time is spent on emotional appeals and the logical side of things are safely overanalyzed, lambasted, and tucked away in a classroom. The times change, but the characters do not; if they do change, it is in minute, inconsequential ways.

Memory may not be reliable, but the angst and admiration it stirs cannot be ignored or idolized, only experienced. Step Lively holds the belief, to paraphrase Søren Kierkegaard, that it is better to experience reality rather than to solve its volatility. Margaret Atwood said we all become stories in the end, and as an addendum, memory will continue and change our stories for better or for worse. Step Lively shares that memory better to the detriment of reality.

Final Rating:

Red/Blue Pill

Crushing by Sophie Burrows | Book Review

Author / Illustrator: Sophie Burrows

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Published: January 2022

Genres: Graphic Novel / Young Adult

Pages: 160

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Somewhere in the hustle and bustle of a British city, two unnamed protagonists, a modest man and woman, toil through with a wistful longing for connection and understanding. Social norms and societal pressures pervade their conscience, leaving subliminal cues they cannot fulfill. Modern romance and relationships become a hapless hunt for happiness. Sweet and innocent curiosities are soured by the invasion of indiscriminate idiosyncrasies, the hallmarks of human nature, that taint the experience of being with and knowing someone. Complications ebb and flow between the need to connect and the want to be alone. Their activities explore the mundane and humdrum facets of life, the vast chances and possibilities in a crowd of doubt, and the moments of loneliness and love that cripple and create our will to rise again.

Sophie Burrows gives her Crushing the silent film treatment. Each page is a vignette told in a muted colored, Etch A Sketch frame of mind. The fading hues of black and grey make the touches of red an interesting motif in motion. Life is subdued, painful, worrisome, but measured and malleable, momentary and momentous. The characters can feel existence expanding and shrinking as they have their awkward encounters. The man, perhaps a penciled Ed Sheeran, performs odd jobs and errands that require small talk and scripted dialogue which drains him. He is at once unassuming but emasculated and challenged by his masculinity, attempting to find some deeper, meaningful purpose. The woman, perhaps a penciled Mara Wilson, is a café waitress who is challenged by her femininity but is not unaware of her grace. She feels safe belonging in certain venues that celebrate personality rather than idolize superficiality. Subtle glances, strong advances, and a surreptitious sundry of steep satisfaction sully and spoil sexuality and anything sultry for silly and serious reasons. Both creatures of habit are homebodies by heart and are made to think that they are a problem rather than a solution. Although, them being a solution to a problem is not too farfetched and not too feasible either.

Crushing feels superstitious in tone, as if being in a relationship is this forbidden yet fortuitous stage to stand on. However, the performance is nothing one can chalk up to a Disney movie or romantic comedy. Relationships are not this fantasy to live in, they are made tenable to be made fantastic. What is more, relationships do not have to become a fantasy; there is something to be cherished in the ordinary. Expectations should be real, not overblown or done without. Sometimes those expectations are corroborated, calibrated, or even discovered later unexpectedly until they become shared values. There is no easy way to desire, establish, or keep a relationship. Small acts of kindness are enough to be like a relationship, ever so briefly, even if a relationship does not begin, continue, and develop from them. Burrows expresses this, the caveats, and necessity of a relationship in one’s life: to find the person that compliments, not complicates, life or the relationship. Isolation is not always the best answer, being alone can be better, but togetherness can be the thing that saves you.

Final Rating:

It’s Lit!

Egg Marks the Spot (Skunk and Badger #2) by Amy Timberlake | Book Review

Author: Amy Timberlake

Illustrator: Jon Klassen

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Published: September 2021

Genres: Children’s Fiction  

Pages: 160

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“One minute everything is dark, and you are sure the worst possible end is coming. And then – suddenly! – a spot of blue sky.”

– Amy Timberlake, Skunk and Badger #2

The desultory duo from North Twist return with their staple sense of comedy and camaraderie, this time on a rock-finding expedition. Badger, the austere geologist, is conducting important rock work when Skunk, the goading happy-go-lucky chef, notices a rock missing from his Wall of Rocks: agate. Badger’s cousin, Fisher, a treasure dealer, purloined the rock that started Badger’s sedimentary hobby and career. In Egg Marks the Spot, Skunk and Badger seek to complete the collection before enjoying the Sunday New Yak Times Book Review over breakfast. With familiar and new faces, extended backstories, and a lesson or two met with mystery, the series continues to make strides for all ages.

A year later and this sequel has not dulled the original’s rustic panache. It maintains the hyperbolic world of the animal kingdom Amy Timberlake and Jon Klassen have cleverly depicted. Throughout this tale, themes of greed and glory take precedent in subtle and solemn ways. Skunk overprepares, overpacks, and overwhelms Badger with his towering backpack in slapstick fashion. At one point, Badger worries so much that he forgoes nourishment from one of Skunk’s fantastic meals. Moments where actions speak louder than words and where words are measured twice and cut deeply are laudable. The only exception to this is perhaps in the exposition. It felt Skunk and Badger’s time in the woods was short-lived, despite the foretold danger of bears and the secrecy behind the chicken’s Quantum Leap powers, which has a bittersweet payoff. The pacing is convenient and simple, yet curious and expectant, but never cheap or forced. More unexpected turns as well as more background into Skunk’s personal history would have been welcome leading up to a promising albeit jam-packed ending.

Final Rating:

Green Rose

Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle | Book Review

Flat JacketAuthor: Jill McCorkle

Illustrator: Steve Godwin

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Published: July 2020

Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Pages: 320

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“A story is easier to fall into than your own life…”

– Jill McCorkle, Hieroglyphics


Memory and history share a disingenuous and diverting crossroads, much of which becomes a diluted and dilatable personal history. Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle, recounts the elder couple, Frank and Lil (look to the past), the first a history professor and the latter a dance instructor, from Boston, Massachusetts. They possess an unsaid understanding communicated on the visage of blunt and esoteric notes that last into their retirement in North Carolina. The younger couple, Shelley and Brent (look to the present), a stenographer and car mechanic, have an unofficial divorce, leaving this mother and wife to rear her unenlightened and impressionable son, Harvey, in North Carolina. Frank has unfinished business with his past and to complete it, he must visit Shelley’s home, his childhood home.

Two tragical epochs, Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942 and the Rennert, North Carolina train wreck of 1943, challenge these tragical couples as they overlap each other in a time-bending way through mementos, keepsakes, notes, and personal effects. Much of Hieroglyphics is headspace work, a tedium that promises and processes mundanity. In this sense, memory is made a personal history where the past catches up with the present and vice versa. The innate truth (the absence of identity) and the adaptive truth (the loss of innocence) create a transformative internal conflict. The value of Lil’s hording tendencies and her hair-splitting plurality is not without its sincere reasons, as notional as they often are. Frank is a believable history buff, lost in times not his own as he comes to terms with a rocky childhood and an avalanching adulthood. Similarly, Shelley’s and Harvey’s inappropriate but wholesomely exaggerated use of escapism leave the mother and son stilted and siphoned as a family unit.

McCorkle’s novel succeeds in its sparsity or narrowness but also suffers from it. Circuitous paths lead to an ineffability, one that poses memory, however unreliable or indelible, as akin to living beyond any timeline’s marker. The bottleneck then, and a necessary one, is knowing what to part with and what to hold onto. The trouble is knowing and remembering the fragility and mystery of words said or written and unsaid or unwritten. Deciding between meaning and meanings, death’s forgetfulness and life’s displacement or life’s forgetfulness and death’s displacement, for posterity. Hieroglyphics leaves more unsaid than said through memory as history, leaves the pieces behind to be picked up again by the impromptu historians, and runs out of track long before the train has left the station.

Final Rating:

PillRate

Red/Blue Pill

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele | Book Review

Eisele_LightestObject_PB_HR_rgbAuthor: Kimi Eisele

Illustrator: Pete Garceau, Steve Godwin

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Published: June 2020

Genres: Fiction, Sci-Fi

Pages: 352

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                       “Everything returns to its origin… Ready for repurposing.”                                            – Kimi Eisele, The Lightest Object in the Universe


Nothing is everything and everything is nothing in the grassroots, post-apocalyptic world of The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele. Similar to Jose Saramago’s Blindness, with a world that looks but does not see disparity past one’s nose, and unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its bleak sparsity and savagery, here Eisele presents human nature at a crossroads with nature. The global economy and digital grid society depends on have failed; no more internet, American government, military, big pharma, corporations, transportation systems. Bartering is the new currency and modern medicine, an outbreak of the common flu (pre-COVID-19) ravages populations, wagons replace cars, and the only means for communication is a pack of cyclists, a rumored cross-country mailing service. Out of this blackout comes a return to basics with activists ready for revolution, teachers holding on to the past and reaching out to the future, friends and strangers made familiar and new, and star-crossed lovers defying the hard times from separate coasts.

The Lightest Object in the Universe has vulnerable and likeable characters, more tolerable than despicable too. Even the more suspicious faces, like a self-proclaimed preacher toting salvation, are not without reasonable persuasion. South American civil activist, Beatrix Banks, and Carson Waller, a Pennsylvanian high school history teacher, create a liminal backdrop for a seemingly dystopian end. It is only after the couple lose contact that their true nature withstands their fears and complacency. Headstrong as she is, Beatrix learns she cannot fight the good fight alone, so she joins and fosters a community in her neighborhood. Carson Waller chooses to leave his city and travel west to document the global collapse and to be with Beatrix. While there is no single antagonist in Eisele’s debut novel (the occasional uncivilized gang or slightly unhinged lost soul), minor and tame as they are, she does offer one sure villain at the end of the sidewalk: unpredictable, sometimes unpreventable, loss.

The loss of normalcy and the self that society could never define before and possibly never had a grasp of. The loss of things and people taken for granted and overlooked. Our scatterbrained and slapdash answers to loss, in the form of grief, self-importance, commercialized distractions, flag-waving, or simply suggesting the “right” suggestion or solution, makes another inadvertent and possibly irreversible consequence, an unnecessary heaviness. In these moments, the destruction becomes a form of creation, a new page to write and rewrite upon. Small gestures of kindness, love, and good deeds are challenged and welcomed in these times of uncertainty, which ultimately gives more connections than disconnections, an unexpected lightness. Eisele has wonderful pacing, adding time and awareness where it has been lost, savoring the ordinary and laying it bare. The journey breathes through its remarkable and endearing encounters, short-lived but never gratuitous, and chokes at its destinations. More than a timely precautionary and predictive tale, The Lightest Object in the Universe demystifies the rarely seen, too often mythologized and heavily advertised, subtlety in humanity with waves of ease and vigor.

Final Rating:

GreenRoseRate

Green Rose

Prairie Fever by Michael Parker | Book Review

Parker_PrairieFever_pbk_HRAuthor: Michael Parker

Illustrator: TK

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Published: May 2019

Genres: Fiction, Western

Pages: 320

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“Words written are said to mean more than words spoken.”

– Michael Parker, Prairie Fever

Literature about the late 18th and early 19th century American West attempts to capture a rustic yet robust era and culture in transition. A place too that lived beyond dictation and was possessed by the fortitude to expand the western frontier through ideas, some bad, others better, and few good. In Prairie Fever by Michael Parker, a boundless charisma conjoins two sisters from Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, head-in-the-clouds Elise Stewart and nose-to-the-grindstone Lorena Stewart, until a reported murder in the Kiowa County News and their retentive and inscrutable schoolteacher, Gus McQueen, jeopardizes their sisterhood. Elise is the younger sister who arguably never learns, turning facts into fantasy while personifying the family horse, Sandy, and its escapades. Lorena being older has no time to bend words, always precise in her speech and actions, as part of her wont to be prude. At the schoolhouse, Mr. McQueen is the outsider from Hibriten, North Carolina inexperienced in the teaching profession, numbing his sociability and sensibilities. The natural coercion between these three creates an inescapable, at times humorous, fractious trust and distrust in each other. They slowly realize their natures are both a fixed and fluid transitivity of love and cruel-to-be-kindness.

Three parts make up this pastoral and pictorial novel, each with a sense of depth equally distributed to both exteriority and interiority. Parker elevates the losses and denigrates the ego to consider the trepidations and triumphs in the landscape of life’s choices. He does this best in the enigmatic word choices, careful and deliberate as they are, hinting at the tumult and temperance of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era respectively. A confidence in communication and information also bodes translucent beliefs and disbeliefs in a tone as lilting as it is loud. Prairie Fever also does well to cast respites and rebukes with a multiperspectivity reminiscent of Small Island by Andrea Levy. Every word is held onto with conviction and gumption before they are challenged by and float away in the elements that change them and rarely return them. Words distort and sculpt, deviate and delineate, betray and justify actions. Those actions, those supposed scripted choices, easily meet an erasure and redrafting against the stubborn and spellbound hand’s desires. Prairie Fever is an oxymoronic trip, imbibed with dread-tinged hope, through the voice of time, seemingly invisible and slightly audible, that relays an ever transmuting historiography of human error, erudition, and efficacy.

Final Rating:

BookFireRate

It’s Lit!

The Best of Greg Egan by Greg Egan | Book Review

TBoGEAuthor: Greg Egan

Illustrator: David Ho

Publisher: Subterranean Press

Published: October 2019

Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy

Pages: 736

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“The wormhole makes tangible the most basic truths of existence. You cannot see the future. You cannot change the past. All of life consists of running into darkness. This is why I’m here.”

     – Greg Egan, “Into Darkness” in The Best of Greg Egan

Science fiction fans will be happy to note that there is no such thing as “the best.” This is the appropriate irony of this collection, as it unwittingly, clumsily, and carefully challenges the idea of an idea of an idea into infinity and beyond any foreseeable, preventable, diagnosable end. Time, existentialism, number theory, artificial intelligence, naturalism, simulated reality, metaphysics, human consciousness, religion (consistently battered, bruised, and bullied into a biased, likeable unlikelihood), quantum mechanics, and the existence of frontiers without the capability of definition, except through jerry-rigged laws and yet-to-be-believed theories in their place and paces, make up these thirty years of hard science fiction. Between the seasoned fact-checkers and mathematical zealots to the lighthearted space opera goers and speculative enthusiasts, there stands a haughty anomalist who comes from the nineteen-nineties (it would be criminal and oxymoronic to call him an Australian science fiction writer at this point) Greg Egan who has a hunch for what his best (so far) is, and what a hunchback he has (or not, since keeping up appearances is not his thing, and neither is Google).

From Subterranean Press, The Best of Greg Egan collects cybernetic think pieces with remarkable haptic situations. His depth of field is diverse and perverse, foreboding and familiar, experimental yet elastic. Although these stories manage a clarity that confounds itself as it grows more curious, a lot is still to be questioned despite the seeming disconnects threaded and plot holes filled. Characters are painfully aware and disturbingly made unaware of their second class citizenship and the capitalist and commercialist gains forced onto them in stories like “Learning to Be Me” and “Closer.” The willful ignorance and digital dire straits following the forgone autonomy for transhumanist robot bodies and plastic replicas, the literal turning over of the human brain and body to technology is all cause for concern, but never in time to admit the mindless reliance placed on these drawn-and-quartered alternatives. Before any digital dust kicks up, there are some novella-length companion pieces that bid for the noninvasive engineering of the human spirit. “Oracle” and “Singleton” share a skewed timeline between worlds not too foreign from one another that both raise the question posed by Alan Turing of whether or not a computer can think. That and if a computer can impersonate human behavior, social cues, and desires that may or may not be able to alter the visible and invisible universe, like in transcendental and nature-bending tales, “Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies” and “Chaff” or “Luminous” and “Dark Integers.”

A few one-off stories also hold their own merit in this short story collection, bringing a singular, personal lens to the unnatural made natural. From a man’s brain being kept alive via blood from his wife’s uterine walls to the cultish outbreak of a dermatological disease worse than leprosy that burns the underside of the entire body’s skin, to the acts of faith put to work for an ocean-cultured boy placed on dry land and a chemical engineer and Iranian, Muslim girl inventing a breakthrough her country never knew it could have, it is etymologically more than possible Egan is a lionized substrate of a tin man made human rather the opposite way around. The guesswork is cleaned and polished yet still gets its nose gritted by the grindstone. The outlandishly unorthodox remedies to change the fallible into the infallible, the overwhelming indecision and limitations of physicality are these stories bread and butter or quarks and neutrinos. Whether he be man, machine, both, or none of the above, readers can be certain, and linguists can determine, that Egan is not without the remnant of a heart.

Final Rating:

PillRate

Red/Blue Pill

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf | Book Review

51uTxSbMjDL                                                                                                       Author: Virginia Woolf

Illustrator: Liz Demeter

Publisher: Mariner

Published: 1927, 1955 (renewed), 1981 (foreword)

Genres: Modernism

Pages: 209

 

“She was trying to get these tiresome stockings finished to send to Sorley’s little boy tomorrow, said Mrs. Ramsay. There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly. How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.” – Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse 

Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse left me aimless and uncertain of what the novel was intending. The first fifty pages were a slow climb but the intimate knowledge her characters have and think they have about one another and themselves kept my interest. Each character is dynamic and belongs to a hive mind, making the narrator seemingly uninvolved because of the seamless thoughts and actions that are capable of narrating themselves. Knowing that the novel’s purpose is something of a transitory timepiece made the experience more fulfilling in the end as well. Woolf’s goal of writing realist fiction instead of realism shows; her novel stands to reason that any novel does not need the conventions of plot or ordered chronology that have provided a basis and a rhythm for writers to be a complete novel; it only needs Time. To the Lighthouse uses the past of its characters to define their present and, to an extent, their futures. Mr. Ramsay for example does not know what to make of his academic endeavors in relation to the great writers of before, namely Shakespeare and his relevance over time. Much of the novel is it at the dismay of Mr. Ramsay who keeps the family from visiting the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay is the family’s saving grace and the center of their universe, quite literally in time and space. The dinner scene is the momentous occasion for readers to witness a “discrepancy” that allows Mrs. Ramsay to “[see] things truly…” (Woolf 83).

Whether it is Mr. Ramsay’s stubbornness to understand the void of fame or Mrs. Ramsay’s surreal beauty with unassuming simplicity and attentive reasoning, Woolf is mentally and emotively aware of the social interactions and expectations of human affairs. Her essays “Modern Fiction” and “The Mark on the Wall” are personal examples of how she avoids realism (the subjective) and approaches realist fiction (the objective). Charles Dickens understood that a book is a profitable commodity and his books were entertaining, but he had the eye and detail of a journalist to show readers the wallow of poor living in blacking factories and workhouses. Woolf similarly aims for the objective but does not let the subjective be solely entertainment or a third person omniscient narration. Her book is not a commodity in the traditional sense for readers. Its aims are not subjective means to an objective ends. To the Lighthouse only emphasizes the subjective means commercially taken to reach objective ends that defines reality for people. This definition of reality in Woolf’s view is perfunctory and not true, and is more rather a definition of realism. Reality for her is speculative and not something anyone, even a narrator, would ever or could ever fully know backwards and forwards. Modern fiction has no solitary or right “method” but, as Woolf argues, “every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express… that brings us closer to… what we prepared to call life itself [and] suggest how much of life is excluded or ignored [convincing us] that there are not only other aspects of life, but more important ones into the bargain” (“Modern Fiction” par. 6). Without harboring on the irony of having to rely on subjective means here, that is our reality, and as writers and readers too. Woolf does not shy away from but does not completely enjoy this subjective process to understand the objective world.

In “The Mark on the Wall,” the subjective is unknown but is filled with possibilities, which the history of the mark on the wall and Woolf’s inferences highlights. The objective is known but is finite closure, an end to speculation, an end to reality’s definition. The true definition of reality is not all-knowing but all-flowing for Woolf, which makes the conventions of realism in art, literature, and fiction unreliable representations of the objective world. She then relies on appearance over representation to expunge the historical and temporal distractions that become our false definition of reality; the same way abstract art only relies on the three factors of significant form: lines, color, and form. Woolf does not want us to see a book as a square fold of leaves. She wants us to see past the boundaries of a page, a word, a taut canvas. This struggle and strain of the subjective world in order to reach the objective world is in the same vein as Lily, a guest at the Ramsay summer house, and her painting of Mrs. Ramsay and her service and support as a mother, wife, and friend. The vanity of it all is also prevalent as Time, the true narrator of the novel as suggested in the foreword by Eudora Welty, is the intangible secret of life kept from us. Time is an important theme in relation to reality since no one can foretell where or when one will be or what one will become. Realism tells us we cannot tell ourselves this. Much like a game is not a game anymore, it has to be about winning, it has to be the objective reason for playing: winning. It is the meaning of winning that counts, not the completion of the act itself. That is, without speculation or imagination in fiction, without the subjective process, the objective world or life becomes an intangible vanity game rather than a multiplicative mantra with meaning.

Virginia Woolf is not only a realist writer, but a proteiform writer, one whose writing presents not a means to an end, but many ends to many means. Lily is one of the guests at the Ramsay house who paints a picture explaining the liminal process between the subjective and the objective world. Woolf also shows the discrepancy in the act of painting and the painting itself. To the Lighthouse delineates discrepancies of time by using mental detours to propagate a path of a choice, not convention. There are “other aspects of life” left unsaid and they are just as important as the ones said, which is why significant form works, not because it is monotonous but because it is multiplicative, like in parodies; it gives us a new association not yet explored and not yet completely explored (“Modern Fiction” par. 6). Lily cannot decide what to make of her painting but knows she wants it to be an exact whole but also an amalgamation of abstract pieces. John Milton does the same in Book I of Paradise Lost, where he compares Satan’s size and spear to human things knowing that Satan and his spear are unfathomably too large or too small to comprehend with the human mind (1.284-287, 1.292-294). The struggle in Woolf’s writing is between the finite (objective) and infinite (subjective). To know or attain the objectivity in the world is not desirable if what is known has only a singular meaning; knowledge can in this moment feel disappointing or even unenlightening. To think or to speculate in subjectivity gives many associations and opportunities but not necessarily a complete meaning. Time is relative to whoever experiences it, just as it is relative to whoever reads Woolf’s timepiece.

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