Tag Archives: women writers

The Bog Girl

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Karen Russell, Author of “The Bog Girl”

The celebrated novelist, Karen Russell, of Swamplandia! fame, has also written a similarly swampy, short story, The Bog Girl, which was published in the June 20th issue of The New Yorker. It is the kind of story one would expect to read in The New Yorker: eloquent, articulate… even high-brow. Russell is fluent in the art of providing a comfort zone for the reader with everyday, likable characters and familiar yet vibrant, pulsating settings, then soon, delightfully switching the filter so that we are now in a surprisingly surreal realm.

Most horror writers are passive aggressive alarmists, and Karen Russell falls into this category but in the nicest possible way. When Cillian discovers his new girlfriend, completely intact, in the ethereal bog waters of a remote island off the coast of northern Europe, the other men as well as the authorities hardly flinch. They are just relieved that this wasn’t a recent murder victim. Granted, this is a far-flung locality, with a small town milieu; the locals maintain a private respect for the island’s mythic ancestors and their gods. In fact, the place is a creation born out of Russell’s imagination, a clever way of giving the story a sense of its own logic outside the normal rules of time or place.

 

          It’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit.

 

And this kind of droll humor softens the horror continually, rendering it safe, almost scientific. That which would normally seem grim is charmingly made-over into poetic beauty, shimmering with historical observation and an otherwise normal conversational tone. Amidst the shockingly morbid resides an underlying voice of calm speculation, as when the narrator explains what bogs are like.

 

          They are strange wombs where the dead do not decay – in that sense, too,

          like human memory.

 

Refreshingly, The Bog Girl is partly about acceptance and inclusion. Cillian, a reclusive fifteen-year-old, is finally accepted and even included now that he and his new girlfriend have each other. Indeed, he is more noticed and effortlessly integrated at high school with the Bog Girl on his arm. She is like a princess. The popular girls bring her clothes and jeweled barrettes for her hair. The way Cillian loves the Bog Girl incites awe and a little envy in the popular girls at school. They sigh over his devotion to her.

 

          The popular girls were starving for that kind of love.

 

Even Cillian’s uncle becomes an example of accepting someone who is rather intolerable. Uncle Sean is a big, ungainly presence; still he is tolerated, though he leaves something of a stench in the air.

          He smeared himself throughout their house… His words hung around, too,

          leaving their brain stain on the air.

 

Nevertheless, Cillian communes with Uncle Sean as they share a bong out on the patio, where Cillian listens to his uncle’s warped logic about girls and love. Uncle Sean argues with his lazy wit and a decidedly adult tongue-in-cheek attitude that Cillian hardly knows the Bog Girl, plus there’s a striking age-difference. Cillian is fifteen while the Bog Girl is two-thousand. Anyway, love is love, what can you do?

Gillian, Cillian’s mother, is the kind of mom that won’t get in her son’s way. She loves him too much. Also, she is insecure, harassed by her sisters and her own memories and mistakes. She gave birth to Cillian when she was seventeen. The slightest protest about the Bog Girl invites Cillian to argue with Gillian and bring up the past. “We have rhyming names, Ma,” he complains. At seventeen Gillian had found it endearing to give her baby son a name that rhymed with her own. “If he’d been a girl I’d have named her Lillian.”

Gillian, though apprehensive and qualmish by nature, is especially brave when Cillian whisks his girlfriend up to his bedroom and locks the door. Gillian’s mothering instincts cause her to worry herself into a stupor. She really has no one to talk to, as her sisters are the only ones who are all a-panic about this, strangely enough.

The most she can do to set down some rules is to say “everyone has to wear clothes, and no locking the door.”  Though she goes through the motions of accepting Cillian’s girlfriend, letting her sit at the dinner table and basically not putting her foot down and calling the authorities… or a museum, Gillian feels contempt for the girl. And all the while, the Bog Girl smiles-on serenely, her red/ iridescent hair glistening down her back. She is totally non-judgmental and the essence of acceptance.

 

          The Bog Girl smiled her gentle smile at the wall, her face reflected

          in the oval door of the washer-dryer. Against that sudsy turbulence,

          she looked especially still.”

 

Russell brings Cillian’s girlfriend, this Bog Girl, alive slowly. At first, giving her the possibility of poetic, Bog Girl thoughts:

 

          The bog crickets were doing a raspy ventriloquy of the stars;

          perhaps she recognized their tiny voices.

 

Cillian, in his love for her, creates these dreams and fantasies of what the Bog Girl should be – what their relationship should be. No betrayals… no broken promises. In his quiet conversations with her, she smiles agreeably.  He is convinced that he knows her very soul. But when she actually offers back the same kindness he gave to her, Cillian cannot receive it. The minute she looks him in the eye and loves him –  is when he changes. Of course, this messy development truly resembles an ordinary love-relationship. Someone is incapable of fully loving; in this case Cillian. Subsequently, he finally relies on his mother to step in and help him. And Gillian, who feels she knows her son better than he knows himself, has the answer.

 

In Karen Russell’s uncanny worlds, the beautiful and the monstrous assume blurred lines, just as the real and the fantastic flirt with our sense of truth. She does this in the most compelling way: with a blazing imagination and pure, story-telling talent.

 

The Bog Girl

 

 

 

 

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Reading The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

With her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt captivates, charms and mesmerizes with potent characters, richly textured settings, and turns-of-plot: from New York City to the strange, alien-like, suburbs of Las Vegas and its star-filled, drug addled nights, then back again. Tartt begins at the end – in an Amsterdam hotel room during Christmastime when Theo Decker is twenty-seven,

It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles.

then swings the story back around to the beginning, to Theo at thirteen, at the turning point just before the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A dying elderly man pushes a priceless, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, into Theo’s hands, the very painting by Carel Fabritius that Theo’s mom had been softly lecturing about, moments before the explosion,

“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” my mother said. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between the two of them – that clear pure daylight, you can see where Vermeer got his quality of light from,”

Feeling horrifically sorry for the dying man, Theo takes the painting out of a sense of duty – in dazed obedience – and the painting of the tethered bird follows Theo like an albatross, or a good luck charm, for the remainder of the story. For the truth is: the dying old man, Welty, pointed Theo in the direction of his future.

Published in 2013, the book takes place in our present day, post-911 world of home-grown terrorists, high security, iPhones and texting as the preferred mode of communication. The ethereal scenes where Theo exits the ruined, white-dust and ash-covered museum read like a movie; thus, movie proposals were in the offing as the presses were still churning. Theo climbs through the blinding debris, as if ascending certain realms of Purgatorio, into a rebirth – into chaos.

Counselors, teachers, and even the eccentric, Park Avenue Barbour family fails to get to the core of Theo. Enter Hobie: the one stabilizing, unlikely anchor of Theo’s life. As if coming home to a loving grandparent, a bit musty and given to “maunder on” – wistful yet eloquent, somehow refined, Hobie becomes the only person who can coax Theo into eating some food, for example, and to have a “normal conversation.” The initial meeting of Theo and Hobie in Hobie’s curiosity shop in the Village, like so much of Tartt’s prose, transfixes the reader with anticipation and resonates with such an underlying sadness – then swings around with a mirthful quip or observation.

The Las Vegas chapters are suffused with Boris, one of the most interesting and likable characters in the book. A boy who has traveled, Boris speaks Russian with an oddly incongruous, Australian accent. He is the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist. Boris, not surprisingly, admires Theo’s flashy yet untrustworthy dad, but anyone’s dad would be better than Boris’. Both Mr. Decker and his little firecracker, waitress girlfriend, Xandra, topple in and out of the house like an itinerant circus act – absent-minded, vacant, yet always entertaining. Still, Theo is often alone in the house when he is not ravaging himself on drugs with Boris.

I sat downstairs rigidly for an hour or so with War of The Worlds on but the sound off, listening to the crash of the icemaker and the rattle of wind in the patio umbrella.

Theo retains an habitual love of classic movies – another endearing thread that keeps him connected with his mother. He reads Poe and a lot of Russian literature, including The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Boris, still somewhat naive to American culture, echoes Theo’s obsession as if all American teenagers should love watching old movies and reading Russian novels.

The adolescent bond has been established and made genuine by a female writer who seems to have lived as a teenage boy in some other life. The terse dialogue, the philosophical rants, companionable silences, flashes of insight, fraternal punch-outs, sexual blurriness, they seem to love each other most when spitting the words fuck you!

When Theo returns to New York City, the streets are more Dickensian than ever, especially in the chapter where Theo glimpses Mr. Barbour ranting to himself in the gloaming, rush-hour mayhem near Central Park. Tartt’s cast-of-characters emerge and reappear out of the past. The grown-up Theo, in his twenties, replaces the teenage boy. If he carries a burden of self-absorption, as he carries the explosion “in his body,” then learning of the Barbours’ family tragedy brings Theo out of himself. He cares about Mrs. Barbour, though something of an ice-queen, she is at least steadfast, reliably cultured and ultimately human.

In the process of being whisked away to Amsterdam by Boris and drawn into the underworld of stolen, precious art, Theo has what he calls his Conversion. Much is resolved in Tartt’s generous, riveting prose, even though both Theo and Boris have been rendered colossal drug addicts.

Pippa, the girl who represents a connection to life when it had some semblance of normalcy, remains undeniably, the love of Theo’s life. What has been labeled obsessive and not possible is love: Theo’s pure love for Pippa. This is the wonderful force upon which all hope hinges. Because, though life is short and mostly a miserable chaos, more Of Human Bondage than The Catcher in the Rye, love and art have sustained this protagonist in strange and mystifying ways.

A Goldfinch Illustration

Image via New York TimesImage via Vanity Fair

Faces in Literature

donna tartt times photo
Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Goldfinch, in 2013. A Southern writer, she is originally from Greenwood Mississippi. The Goldfinch takes place, not in the American South, but in NYC, Las Vegas and Amsterdam ~ and it is an amazing story!

(Book review to follow.)

Photo via The Times UK

Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Short Stories Should Be Required Reading

Elizabeth Bowen is the kind of writer who teaches us how to write short stories. Born and raised in Ireland, when Bowen married, she moved to London where she lived and wrote before, during and after the Blitz. Her settings of half-bombed out homes of the aristocracy, small London flats and families getting by in their survivalist modes, still taking tea at four o’clock, in the suburbs and in the countryside merely indicate what has happened and what may take place at any tense moment around the clock. Her beautiful landscapes hardly evoke war but rather burst forth in light and color, nature, flowers, trees and life.

Bowen’s characters are very English. Their thoughts and dialogues rollick along in quick, cheeky cadences. These are often ordinary settings made rich with Bowen’s sumptuous depictions. Sunday Afternoon takes place in the Irish countryside outside Dublin. Henry is from London on a short visit after having lost his flat and everything in it to the Blitz. His aristocratic friends living in Ireland do not know quite how to feel about the bombings. In one of Bowen’s many Jamesian moments, out on some green, sloping lawn, one of the picnickers says, “Henry’s not sure… he looks pontifical.” The writer adds to the unsettling atmosphere by creating a beautifully turbulent milieu out of the landscape.

Another cold puff came through the lilac, soundlessly knocking the blooms together…
a breath of coldness fretted the edge of things.

Henry, slow to voice his quick thoughts, ruminates to himself: With nothing left but our brute courage, we will be nothing but brutes.

He seems duty-bound on returning to London. Bowen is a romantic; the strain of little romances electrifies nearly every story. Love does not stop for war. Hardly in an amorous frame of mind, will Henry be paired with Mrs. Vesey, who is older, or with the very pretty and spirited Maria, who is much younger and inexperienced? Maria thinks that London will be an adventure with heroes.
She looked secretively at her wristwatch. Henry wondered what the importance of time could be.
Mysterious Kor is said to be among Bowen’s very best short stories. Something of the supernatural enchants this tale, with its moon and its Mysterious Kor, a forsaken, possibly imaginary place, alluring the three main characters. On this night, the blackout is ineffectual, as there is a full, bright moon shining down on all of London.

London looked like the moon’s capital … from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whitened kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened islands would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.

From the Underground, a young couple emerges into the shadowed, moonlit streets, arm-in-arm. Arthur is a soldier and Pepita is his diminutive yet headstrong girlfriend. They seemed to have no other destination but each other.

The atmosphere of the quiet, illuminated night is heightened by small, singular acts, like a woman peeking out and calling her cat timidly, a clock striking midnight and resounding in the dazzling distance.

Pepita’s roommate, Callie, has not yet met Arthur and she anticipates him as if she were in love. She goes to bed, tired of waiting up for them, and the moonlight takes on a new significance. Diverse and brilliant light pervades Callie’s room. Searchlights protecting the city move across the spaces and crevices not covered by the blackout curtains, and moonlight shines-on invincible and powerful.

Before sunrise, Callie hears Arthur lighting a cigarette. She steps out of her room, still glowing, it seemed, from the moonlight that infused her as she slept. They have a quiet, friendly chat in the otherworldly shadows of her living room, and Arthur tells her about Mysterious Kor. Callie asks, “the core of what?” She has never heard of it. Arthur construes that Kor is where Pepita goes when she sleeps so soundly. When Callie tells him that Pepita does not always sleep so soundly, he remarks, “then she doesn’t always make it”. Their conversation eventually trails off, and Arthur asks Callie, “So, how’s your moon?” She marvels over the familiarity, ‘her moon.’

“Not so strong,” she says.

Yet, Callie’s naïve question to Arthur, “The core of what?” is meaningful. This mysterious place, Mysterious Kor, seems to be at the core of something large… as large as the human spirit or humanity. One interpretation suggests that Elizabeth Bowen’s three characters are actually in Purgatory working out the unfinished business of their previous lives when they were killed in the Blitz.

Other stories, not part of the War Years, are among my favorites: the precision of Ann Lee’s, the fearlessness of The Parrot, and The Storm, which is a bit of a ghost story about an English couple who travel to Rome. The story begins with some harsh bickering, a startling lover’s quarrel:

“Don’t come near me,” she said, turning sharply. “I hate you! Why do you keep on following me about?”

The husband takes this in stride. He is used to her minor explosions. However, their histrionics have been overheard by three Danish girls who sit by the fountain taking pictures of each other. Here the writer switches perspectives, first from the wife’s point of view, then the husband’s and finally from the perspective of the Danish travelers. “The English lady seemed to be finished scolding her husband.”

The couple is exploring a villa, and as they argue a wind seems to be following them through the many rooms, terraces and the chapel. She has become so annoyed by her husband that she tries to lose him, but then this wind harasses her. She is convinced that the wind is the ghosts of nuns. Then she panics when she realizes her husband is nowhere to be seen. It is a story of emotions, of power-struggles – who can win-over whom? And finally, of people who need each other despite resentments great and small.

Bowen uses powerful personification of windows, the sky, the air and rooms, not only to create a beautiful, spellbinding landscape but also to heighten suspense and intrigue.

The air was warm and tense, stretched so taut that it quivered… forms assumed a menacing distinctness, blade-like against the architecture of the clouds… the insistence of the fountains… the dark room within was attentive… little bald, square windows, lashless eyes staring out on to the darkening sky.

The writer’s best stories portray her connection with nature and landscapes, and her brilliance at conveying dialogue and the feelings of adults as well as of children. The stories about children, for example, Charity, The Jungle and The Visitor present extraordinary perception for both the inner and outer dramas that children experience along with their childish and also very mature responses.

The happiness that she had been waiting for all day seemed to have something to do with light behind the trees, the rooks, and the dry chintzy smell of the curtains when she leant back her head against them into the room. Also, there is something very heroic about dangling one’s legs at a height.

– from Charity

A Japanese Literary Masterpiece

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who served among the royal court in the tenth century Heian period in present day Kyoto. This fascinating tale, the length of Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ David Copperfield combined, is revered as the finest work of Japanese literature and indeed one of the world’s greatest novels. Written in the lyrical style exclusive to Japanese poetics and prose, The Tale Of Genji flows in its original form as uninterrupted poetry. English translation does alter the original with paragraph-breaks and punctuation, yet the tale was so well crafted that the integral feeling of beauty holds forth, delighting and inspiring us.

Murasaki Shikibu, who was brought into the royal court as a girl, wrote her story probably with a brush and ink in the exquisitely painted characters of the syllabary, or alphabet, which had been developed over time as intrinsically Japanese and therefore distinguishable from its derivative Chinese. The Tale of Genji was written at the height of Japanese literary excellence, when artistic brilliance was cherished throughout the country, and women in particular were known to be the greatest writers of poetry and prose. Moreover, to be gifted in poetics was revered as a supreme talent in the royal court and among society at large and remains so today.

Of Japanese poetry, the Japanese poet, Kino Tsurayuki, has said,

The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart.

The Tale Of Genji, a masterpiece of poetics, reads as something of a Siddhartha tale; although, Genji, unlike the young Buddha, experiences a number of pivotal romantic relationships on his journey rather than spiritual encounters: Siddhartha, the son of an emperor, chose to leave the sanctuary of the court and follow his own yearning to know the world and all of human suffering first hand. In Genji’s case, his father, the emperor, forces Genji out into the world to save his beloved son from the jealousies and intrigues of the court, where highly contentious political backbiting could, his father believed, kill a spirit of such divine charisma as Genji’s.

In the genre of courtly romance, the extraordinary infuses Genji’s environment even as a commoner living amidst a realm far from the royal court. Beauty and refinement are written into the flowers, trees and things of nature. Coming from a tradition of, not only Buddhism but, firstly, the Shinto religion, in which reverence for feminine nature-deities, as the sun, mountains and rivers, Murasaki draws from these nature-tropes to imbue her tale with a subtle, supernatural ambiance. Here, the various relationships of our chivalrous Genji include the poetry, symbolism and quiet eroticism of flowers. Cantillation, or the reading out loud of poems as declarations of love, describes Genji’s character while also exhibiting Murasaki’s rarified art of poetic verse. Genji learns through his adventures the poignancy and anguish of romantic love as well as that of death’s shadow.

The evening sky was serenely beautiful. The flowers below the veranda were withered, the songs of the insects were dying too, and autumn tints were coming over the maples. Looking out upon the scene, which might have been a painting, Ukon thought what a lovely asylum she had found herself. She wanted to avert her eyes at the thought of the house of the ‘evening faces.’ A pigeon called, somewhat discordantly, from a bamboo thicket. Remembering how the same call had frightened the girl in that deserted villa, Genji could see the little figure as if an apparition were there before him.

‘How old was she? She seemed so delicate, because she was not long for this world, I suppose.’

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled Evening Faces. Other chapter titles include: Lavender, The Sacred Tree, Wisteria Leaves, Evening Mist, The Wizard, Beneath the Oak, and The Drake Fly. Within these wilderness motifs, Genji embarks on his romantic adventures. As an Orpheus hero, the prodigy evinces the nobility of his ancestry, knows something of its effects, but disavows any show of rightful hubris.

Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a low ranking nobleman and was recognized as a gifted writer with superior potential and was thereby invited to serve in the salon of a royal consort. Shikibu’s father preferred the education of boys, but he too saw his daughter’s genius and so allowed her to live outside of her home, inside the opulence of courtly-life. It was here, in these most ideal surroundings, for classical education and writing, that a tenth-century Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel.

It has been observed that any English translation of The Tale of Genji loses much of the natural grace of the original, and this may be a metaphor for the Japanese culture at large: we as Westerners are captivated by its charm, find mystery and adoration in it’s artistry; yet, we can perhaps never fully appreciate the essential beauty of its enigmatic language.