While my annotations for The Idiot by Elif Batuman were thick underlines, stars, and hearts, my annotations for Either/Or by Elif Batuman were mostly questions.
These questions left me feeling slightly distressed, and, at times, the ambiguity in Batuman's seemingly simple writing made me want to pull my hair out.
And yet, I am indebted to this book.
Batuman writes in a sotto voce way, as if not to be heard by anyone who isn't reading her story. She writes as if this novel was her journal. It is private, quiet, and often speculative.
But there is more to it.
If Batuman only wrote the novel as if it was her journal, I don't think I would've been as captivated.
By the end of the book, it dawned on me that I could better understand Batuman's writing if I saw it through the lens of a new version of Afro-Surrealism.
Before I explain why, this book, of course, is NOT an Afro-Surrealist work. Elif Batuman is not Black.
Either/Or does not fall into the same category as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Ark of Bones and Other Stories by Henry Dumas, the show Atlanta produced by Donald Glover (and others), etc.
Still, I cannot help but draw on ideas from Afro-Surrealism to better analyze this novel.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was the author of Afro-Surreal Manifesto by D. Scot Miller who said, "Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it."
And, in this sense, if Afro-Surrrealism presumes an invisible world that only Black people experience and thus uncover, there must be other types of surrealisms that exist for people with other marginalized identities.
These different surrealisms wouldn't produce the same invisible worlds, but these surrealisms may produce worlds for people with marginalized identities that are "mystical and metaphorical" rather than "empirical."
As a woman who often wonders if I am actually non-binary, and as a lesbian, I certainly feel some sort of Queer-Surrealism play out in my life.
And for the main character Selin, it seems that her Turkish-American and/or American-Turkish identity, as well as her identify as a woman, molds the novel into a cultural-surrealist work intertwined with themes of orientalism and sexism.
This cultural-surrealism affects what Selin sees in the world, and what the world sees in Selin:
"It had, I realized, been a real disappointment to get to Turkey and to discover that my name and appearance still required constant explanation---maybe even more so in America. People heard my accent, and saw what I was wearing, and doing, and it didn't make sense, or fit with my ID card" (pg. 330).
The beautiful thing about this book is that as Selin uncovers more of her "invisible world," and embraces that she sees the world differently because of her positionality, whether that means her privilege, her Turkish heritage, or her gender identity, she becomes more honest with herself.
And from this honesty, I believe she becomes more conscious of who she is.
In the beginning of the book, she is flinging her thoughts around, and most of them are hard for the reader to catch. There is not much pause on one thought.
She seems to question, then focus her attention back to her environment. Question, then focus her attention back to her environment.
But as time goes on, it seems to me that Selin begins to turn inwards to ask herself why she is having the thoughts that she is having, and to what extent are they her, and to what extent are they her environment?
It was one of my core beliefs that real worth was independent of what some Europeans or American people happened to have heard of. And yet...what was value, if it wasn't conferred by some people? A daunting thought: How would I eventually root out from my mind all the beliefs that I hated?" (pg. 292)
Selin doesn't want to be eurocentric. She doesn't want to hold onto white-supremacist ideals. And yet, she is not shielded from the everyday consumption of these ideals, which have thus still left an imprint on her frame of thinking.
And she knows this. Luckily, you will see that Selin's mind and frame of thinking are not rigid. She may not be able to control what she consumes, but she can control who she decides to be.
Before I start to write my review, I am cautious to not over analyze this story, for I know that is not what Isabel Allende would want.
Allende wrote with intuition and nostalgia, and I suppose that she would want her readers to reflect upon this book with intuition and nostalgia as well. Summoning in their minds forgotten family stories, people, events, and loved ones.
So as I write the rest of my review, I write this remembering not to take it too seriously. The rest of this review is written this way because what I critique is what is on my mind the most.
Isabel Allende is a gifted and powerful storyteller, no doubt.
While I rank this story as one of the best I have ever read, I can not succumb to idealizing Isabel Allende and her novel.
While Allende will remain legendary for the rest of her life, and most rightfully so, she is human. And therefore, like me, she will not know which words will soon be considered outdated. Which parts of the story people will frown upon.
The House of The Spirits has vocabulary that I believe is offensive, scenes depicted through an Orientalist lens, and descriptions of indigenous people that one can not justify. Now, I understand that Allende is writing from this particular epoch, completely submitting herself to how her characters view the world. But I am convinced that some of this “outdated” writing is here because Allende had an ounce of these perspectives herself.
I believe that when analyzing an art, the artist can not be separated from the analysis, because what has infiltrated the artist’s mind has infiltrated the art. And what has infiltrated the art may thwart the art from reaching full potential.
The House of The Spirits, while an unforgettable, truly magical book, to me, did not reach its entire potential. But by that standard, reaching entire potential seems to be a nearly impossible task. Because to do so, the author would listen to what each reader wants for the story, rather than what the author wants. This might ruin the story.
A story is not supposed to be perfect, not supposed to be entirely exemplar or pure.
And that’s the beauty of it. It is, indeed, the rawest expression of the human mind.
And to read the raw expression from Allende’s mind? Well, that is an honor. An honor! To read her stories! To read the people that have been brewing in her mind for years!
And, if I am wrong that Allende held these perspectives, well, then I am glad I'm wrong. I may very well be wrong. But, this is what I have to write, and this is what I have to focus on, because these perspectives stuck with me.
Finally, Clara the clairvoyant will always be my absolute favorite character. Thank you, Allende, for writing characters from your heart, and a story from your soul.
I'm excited to read more of Allende's stories.
"for you, a thousand times over."
One of the reasons why this book is a "5 star" rating on goodreads is because for all of the parts of the book that were devastating, there was an element of profound innocence or vulnerability that gave room for the reader's heart to swell with not just pain, but love.
Love for the characters, love especially for Hassan and Sohrab.
Love for Amir, pain and love when he read Rahim Khan's letter.
I think the part of Amir screaming in the bathroom at the sight of Sohrab was so well done, but I don't know if what followed that scream was needed, because the novel was already wrapped up in the conflict about Sohrab's adoption.
What happened next was in replacement of the adoption conflict being solved, and I wish that instead there was a depiction of Sohrab coming to America.
But this book is a new favorite. So well done. So personable.
A joy and a pain to read.
I just finished this book, and I want to start from "Sth" all over again.
This is the second book I've read by Toni Morrison, (the first was Song of Solomon), and I hope that I can read every book she has published in my lifetime.
This one took me a while to finish, and that's because I had to be paying close attention. The narrators change, and I admit that I needed to google who the last narrator was lol.
While I at times I had to work hard to grasp the narration, I am so glad this book was written in this manner. To know that people, and life, are complex is to know that there will always be multiple perceptions.
Violet. Violet--Violent---Violet. My absolute favorite character. And that's saying a lot because in the end, after Joe interacted with Felice, I came to really love Joe.
But Violet. I will never forget her. She reminds me a tad bit of Pilate from Song of Solomon.
I think it's because she carries the same message---that craziness is subjective. And, Violet knows, that she is more than the stereotypes that are casted upon her.
She doesn't care what people think of her. And she's honest to the core.
I'll be re-reading this, but hopefully in a couple of years, because I need to take time to process the first read.
THIS IS A MIGHTY INCREDIBLE BOOK.
Everyone can relate to this book in different ways, and no doubt to different degrees.
Helga Crane lives in Naxos, (a place in the US South), then Harlem, NY, then Copenhagen, Denmark, then again in Harlem, NY, then finally in Alabama.
Helga Crane is a Black woman who lived in the 1920s milieu...
Her mother was Danish, her father, was from the Caribbean----her parents' race and life/families is significant---but, don't want to spoil.
There are SO MANY LESSONS this book has to offer, and there are multiple interpretations.
As I am still processing this book, I'm still grappling with what the book taught about desire, and particularly why Helga Crane needed to escape from her present condition(s) so often.
I think that the progression of new, potential marriage partners and/or love interests is to show that the source of desire is NOT through sexuality, and/or men!! But this is still one tiny fraction of the lesson(s).
Helga Crane experiences both internalized racism and Black pride, and IMMENSE PAIN. There is SO MUCH TO UNPACK IN THE LAST 10 PAGES!!
SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT, AND EACH PAGE IS SO DEEP!!!!!
I will probably be back to edit this review!!
this book is truly amazing. A gift. A rare find. Or is it? I'm sure there are many stories like this one, and I just haven't come across them. All the same, no one but Nella Larsen can tell Helga Crane's story.
Suleika Jaouad's writing leaves a signature mark; her writing comes together seamlessly, whether it is about the most mundane or the most profound.
This book is split into two parts, the first documenting who she was before her leukemia diagnosis and her life as an extremely sick young person.
Part two unravels her life after hospitalization, ranging from her relationships to her 15,000 mile cross-country road trip. During this road trip, she meets and stays with the people who wrote to her while she was in the hospital.
A beautiful aspect of this book is that Jaouad's writing is bound to her self expression---her writing is her art.
“We were learning that sometimes the only way to endure suffering is to transform it into art.” (pg. 157)
And, while her writing is pulled from her inner self, this 'inner self' writing is complemented by writing that is a product of listening to the people around her.
Jaouad is a deeply observant listener.
"Gazing at the boulder, Katherine's face is radiant with grief. "He had an extraordinarily powerful mind that was equally powerful in illness," she says, as tears streak her cheeks."
Lessons from Jaouad:
It is possible to write about nausea in a poetic way.
Be present. Endure the heartbreak.
Understand when pain is valuable.
Live in the in-between space---embrace the uncertainty, accept possible limitations.