Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #20: THE UNSEEN by Katherine Webb

The Unseen by Katherine WebbIn the early 1900s, spiritualism was a popular religious movement in the United States and portions of Europe. Its adherents believed in spirits from another world that could appear and communicate with ours, if the conditions were right. Reports of seeing faeries and other non-human creatures appeared in magazines such as The Strand, and perhaps the most famous tale was the Cottingly Faeries, a series of five photos faked by two sisters in 1917 and 1920. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in their authenticity and wrote about them, and it wasn’t until decades later that the sisters admitted to using cardboard figures propped up with hat pins. People wanted to believe, and that made facts and doubts easier to ignore.

Katherine Webb’s 2012 novel, The Unseen, occurs primarily in 1911 England, about a decade before spiritualism’s decline in popularity. In it, the vicar, Albert Canning, and his wife, Hester, have just hired a new housemaid, Cat Morely. Cat is a small, sickly, and quiet young woman coming from a mysterious, questionable past. Hester — “Hetty” — tries to ask cat about why she was in prison, but Cat would rather not say, not at first. The Cannings view her employment as an act of charity.

(See the rest of my review at Persephone Magazine.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Reviews #16-19

Forgive me for a link dump, friends, but let me get caught up on where my book reviews have appeared lately…

ultimate-guide-prostate-pleasure-199x300Book #16: The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure by Charlie Glickman and Aislinn Emirzian

(Because sometimes review copies turn up in the mail, and I think, “Huh. Okay. We’ll give this a whirl.”)

My full review can be found at Persephone Magazine: “Feminist sex guides aimed at men: They exist, y’all.”

 

 

unchangeable-spots-leopards-jansmaBook #17: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

(As recommended by Pajiba’s own Joanna Robinson.)

My full review can be found at Glorified Love Letters:The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is not terribly long for a novel, which makes it all the more amazing that Kristopher Jansma is able to weave together so much simultaneous information and mystery. I loved it, and I will eagerly await any other books he may release in the future.”

pain-parties-work-plathBook #18: Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

My full review can be found at P-Mag: “If Pain, Parties, Work is supposed to be a commentary on the whole of standards applied to young women, then the followup interviews with her fellow guest editors make sense. We find out about how the magazine work informed the rest of their lives, and how the women handled it in different ways. If it’s supposed to be a book about how this time broke the “sunny” girl, then there’s not enough information. A major Sylvia Plath fan may still enjoy this book for whatever new facts they might glean, but for anyone else, one might be better off sticking to Plath’s actual work.”

suite-encounters-hotel-sex-busselBook #19: Suite Encounters edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

My full review can be found at Glorified Love Letters: “I can’t tell you your own desires, but I can tell you that I liked it. The hotel room is a fantastic setting around which to assemble a short stories (erotica or otherwise), and Suite Encounters (if you’ll forgive my word play here) provides above-and-beyond service.”

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #15: This Close: Stories by Jessica Francis Kane

This Close: Stories by Jessica Francis Kane (cover)Not many short story collections are entirely wonderful. One or two stories, while not necessarily un-enjoyable, usually feel like filler. And yet, Jessica Francis Kane’s new collection, This Close, is quite near perfect. It left me wishing for one more story, which likely means that the length of the book is exactly right. Twelve stories, some related and some standalone, navigate the yearning for connection and the complex interior lives that we all have.

 

(My full review appears on Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #14: Looking For The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco

Looking-For-The-Gulf-Motel-BlancoMy review of Looking For The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco recently appeared on The Rumpus. Here’s an excerpt:

Look, perhaps we should have more open lusting for poets, yeah? If that is someone’s gateway into a poet’s work, then so be it. We all need more poetry in our lives.

All right, now that I’ve got all that off my chest, can I also tell you that I really enjoy Looking for The Gulf Motel? Yes, I do. Truly. It hits all my thematic hot spots — love, lust, and loneliness. Blanco revels in memory and intimacy, and much like Tracy K. Smith’s poetry, his work makes me want to bed down and stay.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #13: Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho

manuscript-found-in-accra-coelhoPaulo Coelho is one of my literary gaps — I’d heard of him, meant to read him, yet never got around to him until now. Is Manuscript Found in Accra the best introduction to him? I don’t know, but this slim novel — if “novel” is the right word — gives me plenty to think about.

The basic premise behind Accra is that a manuscript dating back to roughly 1307 AD was discovered by English archaeologist Sir Walter Wilkinson in 1974 in Egypt, though it came from an area outside of the Egyptian territory and “therefore, no restrictions [were] on its removal from the country.” Our unnamed narrator acquired the text in 2011 from Sir Walter’s son, and what we read is the narrator’s transcription. The text itself has its own narrator and he says it is “the fourteenth of July, 1099.”

[…]

Judging by the quotes I’ve seen from some of Coelho’s other work, philosophical and mindful ways of living are his wheelhouse, and perhaps Manuscript in Accra is a condensed, more direct version of those ideas. I would have to read his other books to say so with any certainty, though perhaps it would be best to ask the man himself. He appears to be quite active on Twitter, which I like to see when it’s clear that the writer enjoys it. That the United Nations has named him a “Messenger of Peace” feels very apt. Maybe this book isn’t for everyone, but I liked it well enough to want to properly devour a full-on Coelho novel in the near future.

My full review can be found on Glorified Love Letters.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #12: Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
by Peter Hook

This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.

Rock bios used to be one of the main types of books I read and the first section of the bookstore I would visit. After awhile, I grew tired of the poorly-written ones — accounts that were either overly fawning without introspection, or maybe they were inaccurate, or perhaps they held too much of a grudge. One’s music taste is highly personal, and it bothers me to see someone do a poor job with material that I love. Still, there are great music-related books out there, and certain subject matter is always going to get my attention. For instance, Just Kids by Patti Smith goes above and beyond (though it’s not strictly about music), and I quite enjoyed Willie Nelson’s recent Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. It seems that the better music biographies are written by those who lived through their subject matter, but that’s not always a sure bet either. Music and memoir meet at a difficult intersection, is all I’m trying to say.

Rock from the North of England is one of those subjects that consistently holds my interest, which is no surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to my writing. Upon discovering Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, I knew it was a book I needed to read. Peter Hook, bassist for Joy Division and New Order, has produced a satisfying, insightful account of the formation of Joy Division up until singer Ian Curtis’ suicide. 33 years have passed since Curtis hanged himself, and perhaps those decades have provided an adequate amount of time to gain some perspective. Hook writes in a relatively grudge-free and informal way, and ghostwriters (if one is to read between the lines in the acknowledgments) further flesh out the timeline in italicized paragraphs between sections.

I am not begrudging the use of a ghostwriter or two, to be clear. Musicians are not always natural prose writers, but that shouldn’t prevent them from telling their story. It is merely the difference in writing styles that alerted me to an additional writing presence. Consider this paragraph:

On May 29, 1977, at the Electric Circus, the band played their first-ever gig, supporting Penetration and the Buzzcocks. Tony Wilson was in the audience, as well as Paul Morely, who by this time was writing for NME and was impressed by Warsaw’s “twinkling evil charm.” “The bass player had a moustache,” he later wrote. “I like them and will like them more in six months’ time.” Photographer Kevin Cummins was also there, as well as Steve Shy of local fanzine Shy Talk; John the Postman, who led the crowd in a rendition of “Louie Louie” at the end of the night; and punk poet John Cooper Clarke, who performed after Warsaw.

Warsaw, by the way, was one of Joy Division’s previous names, after they’d changed it from Stiff Kittens. Now, read the account of the same evening written by Peter Hook:

Anyway back to our first gig. Clueless or not, we got set up. The changing rooms were in the old projection rooms. (Not that we ever changed clothes as such — in fact, we used to look down on bands who did. I bet those bands on the Alex James program “change” … ) I remember we walked down the steps to the stage, and Ian saying, “We’re not Stiff Kittens. We’re Warsaw,” and that was it — we were off — and I can’t remember a thing more about it because I was so frightened. When we came off we felt we’d done okay and there was a lot of relief that we’d got through it, that first step of playing in front of people. Because it’s the weirdest sensation: I mean, I find it pretty weird even when I do it now, to be honest …

The writing styles are quite different, aren’t they? Most of the book is indeed in Hook’s voice, but I think it’s all right to include the information he can’t remember, rather than having him pretend that he can. We go on and on about honesty in memoir, so why not let another writer help you research? Yes, it’s a bit strange when it’s your own life, but compared to the absence of that information, can the reader really complain?

Another way the book provides additional detail is through press clippings and commentary from audience members who were present at some of the old shows, who now frequent joydiv.org‘s message board — a site whose layout looks unchanged from its 1998 origins. Still, fair play to the die-hards, and fair play for consulting with an unofficial site because there is something to be said for having an outside view.

There are some photos and artwork interspersed throughout the book, but the nearly 400 pages are text-heavy, which is great to see for a period of only a few years. The cover is also gorgeous — a black-on-black reproduction of the Unknown Pleasures album cover, fitted with a separate white band featuring a band photo and the book’s title. The page edges are also dyed black. The web-sized image I have embedded here does not quite do it justice. It’s just one more way that the book spends a lovely amount of attention to detail.

Okay, yes, yes — I’ve gone on about what the book looks like, who wrote it and other miscellany, but what of the actual content of the book itself? As I said before, 33 years have passed and have provided Hook with some perspective, and though he’s the first to admit that he could be a wild, laddish-type, he is not angry about the same things anymore. One of the highlights for me was Hook’s willingness to say, repeatedly, “He was right, and I was wrong.”

[Producer] Martin [Rushnet]’s big thing was still clarity. He always said that for a recording to have a lasting effect and impact it had to have clarity and seperation. Now, remember: me and Barney [guitarist Bernard Dickin] still didn’t like the sound of Unknown Pleasures. I mean, I suppose that by then we’d grudgingly accepted that it was a great album, and knew that part of that was due to the work Martin had done, but it still wasn’t how we heard Joy Division. We wanted a harder, harsher, more metallic sound, like a group playing in a garage with metal walls, like the Stooges or Velvet Underground. He wanted us to sound like — how did he describe it? — adult gothic music or something.

Well, he was right and we were wrong. Sorry, Martin, if you’re up there. But it didn’t stop us bitching at the time because he’d make us play the song then take it apart.

Barney went on to be in New Order too, and more than once, Hook references clashes of personality that they’ve had over the years, and how they’ve grown into different people. However, he does not belittle his former bandmate, nor does he go out of his way to speak poorly of him. There isn’t a sense of trying to “get back at him,” and things like teasing him about bringing a sleeping bag along or hogging the space heater in freezing rooms are the same sort of teasing one would probably do to any bandmate.

I point this out — and this is certainly an aside unrelated to Unknown Pleasures, but bear with me — because this perspective and even-handedness is certainly not present in Tony McCarroll’s book about his time in Oasis, in which he jabs at everything about Noel Gallagher, save his songwriting, while everyone else comes out mostly unscathed. There is a grudge, an attempt at trying to “prove” something, and reading this other Northern band account, I had to wonder, if we gave McCarroll another decade, would he not be quite so angry? Or am I comparing apples to oranges? Probably, but again, if you know my writing, everything music comes back to Noel Gallagher at some point — a quirk/narrow-focus of mine for which I make no apologies, but do openly acknowledge.

Perhaps death has a way of forcing perspective onto a person, even more so than time. Hook does an excellent job of talking about Ian’s growing problems — marriage troubles, epilepsy, fatherhood while near-broke — without speculating too much. Ian Curtis began frequently having seizures during gigs, yet would often come back on stage when he’d “recovered.” The saddest lines in the entire book are when Hook talks about why the band did not slow down:

Guess what? We brought him round, he said he was all right, and we carried on. I should call the book that, shouldn’t I? He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On.

How could they know what was coming? They couldn’t, of course, and their success, while slow-building at first, had transformed into a marathon sprint.

With hindsight you can look back and say that he wasn’t going to be right at any gig, whether in America or in outer space. Even so, the idea of canceling or rescheduling America never came up.

We were so excited about going, so wound up about it and desperate to do it. Ian, the fan of the Doors and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and Burroughs, especially. I don’t care what Genesis P-Orridge says, he was looking forward to going. I mean, we had so much going for us then. The word was getting out that we were a great group to see live. We had “Love Will Tear Us Apart” up our sleeve. We were on our way up.

That’s what always gets me about what he did. Sometimes you can see just why he did it, and it makes a kind of sense.

Other times, it just makes no fucking sense at all.

I’m not going to parrot Joy Division’s timeline or talk about the book in terms of a “plot.” As far as its place in the world of rock bios, I believe Peter Hook has written a book that is as honest as he can manage, and it’s also a fitting tribute to his departed friend. If you want to know more about Joy Division, from a man who was in it, about everything from the formation, the songwriting, and the silliness that was also present in the process, read Unknown Pleasures.

Full Disclosure: !t Books sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #11: Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch

DORA: A HEADCASE by Lidia Yuknavitch (cover)

Dora: A Headcase
by Lidia Yuknavitch
(Introduction by Chuck Palahniuk)

This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.


A Declaration: Lidia Yuknavitch has done more for “the body as art form” than anyone in recent memory. (Maybe that’s not accurate, but I feel that way, so let’s roll with it.) Her memoir, The Chronology of Water, is all about her own body, the brutal beauty in what can happen to a body, and her novel, Dora: A Headcase, explores similar sensations. She dedicates the book to “every teen who ever got treated like something was wrong with them when really they were opening the portal for all of us.” What we need, this books seems to say, is to feel like we are heard.

Dora is the story of Ida, a modern version of Sigmund Freud’s case study of a teenage girl. Ida Bauer was her real name, and Dora, her pseudonym. The controversial study was published in 1905. Yuknavitch takes the character of Ida/Dora and tells the story from her point-of-view. She wears a Dora the Explorer backpack, wishes her mother wasn’t so pharmacologically distant, that her father wasn’t sleeping with the neighbor, Mrs. K, and that Mr. K hadn’t hit on her when she was 14. Or maybe does like that he did, for the power she felt she had over him. She’s not entirely sure. But probably, she wishes he hadn’t.

You know what? Seventeen is no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like an old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock. You pierce your face or tattoo your skin — anything to feel something beyond the numb of home. You invent clothes other people think are garbage. You get high. You meddle with sexuality. You stuff your ears with earbuds blasting music so loud it’s beyond hearing, it’s just the throb and heat and slam and pound and scream of bodies on the edge of adult. You text your head off. You guerrilla film. We live through sound and light — through our technologies. With our parents’ zombie life dope arsenal at our fingertips.

I’m not a criminal.

I’m just a daughter. I’m not sick.

I.

Just.

Need.

Out.

Sometimes, Ida/Dora loses her voice. Even if she wanted it to, no sound comes. Her father sends her to a psychologist — “Sig” or “Siggy,” she calls him. “If anyone ever tells you that going to see a shrink is therapy? Tell them to suck a fart out of your sweet asshole. It’s not therapy,” she says. “It’s epic Greek drama. You gotta study up. You got to bring game.” She says a lot of things that are exaggerated, just to get him riled and scribbling more notes.

She has a group of close friends, and she’s constantly recording sounds (including Sig) and making video footage. She and her friends always have some project going, and they always have drugs to share. They are kind and steadfast to one another. “We share bodies. We make art attacks.” Mostly, she is face-hot-brain-melt-in-love with her friend Obsidian.

Obsidian with the blackest long hair in ever falling in lines over her right eye. My desire. I vibrate, but it isn’t my cellphone. 

Oh, and yours truly. Dora the Explorer. Pathetic virgin with a hot hard one for a girl with the name of a black glass stone.

Her main mother-figure in life, outside of her blood-related one, is Marlene, a woman who only works as a biological man, a TSA agent at the airport. Marlene has old books, knows four languages, and calls her “Lambskotelet.” “She laughs and laughs — a deep throaty Rwandan one,” Dora says. “If you’ve never heard a Rwandan laugh, you are missing something mega-cool.”

When Lidia Yuknavitch writes about women, queer characters, and other minorities and fringe people, I never feel like she’s doing it in a “Look how diverse I am!” self-congratulatory way. Dora and her friends, I know these people. They are of this world and stunning and interesting. They have so many plans, and they find their limiting circumstances irritating. They make do — they try to find the cracks in those “normal” foundations. They are also builders, and I love that.

I also love how Dora’s body is not skirted from view just because she is 17. Think about when you were 17. Your own desire, your roughness and your secrets were not hidden from your own view. And this, being Dora’s story, is not going to try and make that realness more palatable for your so-far-from-17 sensibilities. And it’s okay. Just because this is a young person and a real body that knows the relief of a good piss does not mean it’s all about sex. In fact, that’s part of the point. Sig tries to bring sexuality into everything, and Dora says to him, “Jeez Sig, can you even make a sentence without your own cock in it?”

I imagine that there are many references to Freud and Jung (yes, he makes an appearance too), the real ones, if I already knew more about them. I’m sure this book is quite fun for the psych student. However, with my basic knowledge of the two and very little about the real case itself, I absolutely loved this book. It’s one of those that I wanted to gobble up, and I read it quickly while on vacation in, of all places, Disney World. What would Freud and Jung make of that?

Read Dora, and if you haven’t already, read The Chronology of Water. Your brain and your heart will thank you.

Full Disclosure: Hawthorne Books provided this e-book for review. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #10: Before The Poison by Peter Robinson

Before The Poison by Peter Robinson (cover)

Before The Poison
by Peter Robinson

Over the past year or so, I’ve been sucked into non-American crime, spy, and mystery stories, though more in my Netflix-provided series binging, and a little less so in my reading. MI-5/SpooksPrime SuspectWallander (both Swedish and English versions), and a smattering of other similar shows have filled my time while I wait for new episodes of Doctor Who (March 30!). So even though my usual reading habits fall into that vaguely defined genre of “literary fiction,” I’ve decided to occasionally venture out into other word neighborhoods, this time with British mystery writer Peter Robinson.

Before The Poison is the story of Chris Lowndes, a well-off film score composer who has just returned to England after the death of his wife. He’s lived in the States for twenty-five years, and he feels like he needs a change and the space to work on some non-film related music. Just outside a small Yorkshire town, he buys an old mansion, Kilnsgate House. The remoteness of it feels both fitting and unsettling, even more so when he discovers that a man was supposedly murdered there fifty years before.

Grace Fox was tried and hanged for poisoning her doctor husband, Ernest, despite there being only circumstantial evidence for her guilt. This story, for a number of reasons, makes Chris curious about what really might have happened, and finding out becomes a project for him. Is it a distraction from his grief? Yes. Is he okay with that? For now. However, the strange feelings he’s having about Grace Fox’s case and his wife are leaving him unable to get a good night’s rest.

(The rest of my review can be found on Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #8: The Body’s Question by Tracy K. Smith

The Body's Question by Tracy K. Smith (cover)After reading Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars, I wondered if I would love her other work just as much. The answer? Yes, ecstatically so. Her first collection of poetry,The Body’s Question, published in 2003, is gorgeous. Smith writes poems I want to bed down into and stay. While Mars had a space and alienation theme, Question revels in the close-to-home and the sensation of lying beside one another. “The body is memory,” she writes in “Joy.”

(My full review appears on Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #9: The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo

The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo (cover)The subtitle is what drew my attention to The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece. I love knowing what goes into notable works of art, be they books, paintings, music, or any other creative endeavor. BecauseFrankenstein is one of those books that I have started reading at least three times and have never finished for one reason or another, I thought that maybe Roseanne Montillo’s book would inspire me to give this “masterpiece” another go.

Montillo does not only focus on Mary Godwin Shelley’s background and life around the time of writing her novel, but also on the scientific and political happenings occurring in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Her argument is that so many environmental factors go into an author’s work, whether they are conscious or not, and that Mary Shelley’s writing could have very well been different had it not been for several pivotal points in her history.

The rest of my review appears on Persephone Magazine.