Crush by Richard Siken

41prd9tiqel-_sy344_bo1204203200_I haven’t been able to read anything since I finished this collection of poetry. As soon as I finished I just wanted to go back and read it all over again.

In her introduction Louise Gluck quotes Emliy Dickenson, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”  This is a bold quotation to use but I thoroughly agree with it.  I never expected Crush to excite me this much when I picked it up on a whim but I’m so very glad I did.

Richard Siken was the winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize in 2004 and Crush is an intimate and devastating account of queerness, violence and romance.  I didn’t know poetry could be written like this, Siken writes long breathless lines that are effortless to read yet can hit you like a punch in the gut and speed towards the margins like a car falling downhill.

           The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater

because he is trying to kill you,

                    and you deserve it, you do, and you know this,

                                        and you are ready to die in this swimming pool

          because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means

                                                                                your life is over anyway.

Siken is so emotive that sometimes I would read a poem on my commute and then stare gormlessly out the window unable to handle the rush.

and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless

                                                  he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you

                                                                                                              didn’t do,

There are a whole range of poems in this collection, the one thing they have in common is the ability to drown the reader, to drag them under into Siken’s universe. This is a beautiful train crash and heartbreak of a book. I have never enjoyed being made to experience despair, claustrophobia and desperation so much. Not only can Siken emote like a master but he also is an artist with language itself, using it to paint beautiful fiery images in the air.

Chemical names, bird names, names of fire

and flight and snow, baby names, paint names,

delicate names like bones in the body,

Rumplestiltskin names that are always changing,

names that no one’s ever able to figure out.

 

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

51kATslPmRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Despite scouring the bookshelves for something to read after Tipping the Velvet and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit it has taken me this long to read this lesbian pulp fiction classic simply because before the posters of the film adaptation appeared all over London I had no idea it existed.

Carol or The Price of Salt as it used to be named is unusual especially for its time due to the fact in contrast to other Queer classics it does not have a tragic ending. Highsmith finished it after her bestseller Strangers on a Train and was driven to publish it under a pseudonym where it sold more than a million copies. The post-war novel centres around 19 year old Therese Belevit, a set designer who pays the bills by working in a department store. One day a married woman comes into the store to buy a doll for her daughter and the attraction between them is instant.

The first meeting is electric. Breathtaking. It’s one of those moments where even if I didn’t already know that the author based it on a real incident I would have guessed.  I read it twice over and grew tense and hot just like Therese did. What is so especially poignant about this first ache of attraction is that the protagonist doesn’t acknowledge or even know what it is.

Highsmith’s mastery of the thriller genre is obvious even in a love story. The book is infused with anxiety mostly due to the taboo subject matter but this makes the small domestic moments between Therese and Carol even more sweet. The 50s era illustrated in this book is dark and seedy and delicious with New York shown through elegant scenes of delicatessens and coffee shops. The characters themselves also represent the repressed sexual tension of the era with the characters showing their desire in small yet intense actions.

She got something out of her handbag, a lipstick and compact, and Therese looked at her lipstick case – golden like a jewel, and shaped like a sea chest. She wanted to look at the women’s mouth, but the grey eyes so close drove her away, flickering over her like fire.

The impression I got first was that Carol is purposely cruel but the conflict in her character becomes more apparent when we realise how much she has to lose compared to Therese whose attitude towards her fiancé borders on the apathetic. Carol’s husband looms in the background as an overbearing figure. He has hardly any scenes but his influence is there even when he is not.

Why is it some lesbian novels disappoint you so because they’re full of women you wouldn’t fall in love with? This had me smitten from the first meeting maybe because I seem to share Therese’s taste in women. I felt protective of her and completely empathised with her too. Highsmith perfectly illustrates that emotion where you feel so much and so intensely that you can hardly speak. Their conversation is stilted and awkward but the attraction burns and its portrayed here better than I’ve seen it written before.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

passionThe Passion, Jeanette Winterson 1987, Random House 2001

Oh what a glorious book. It is set during Napoleon’s futile attempt to invade England in 1805 and the catastrophic march into Russia in 1812. Winterson paints a historical scene in the same way Van Gogh painted the world around him. It’s like stepping into The Starry Night where all of nature is illustrated to us through the prism of the artists mind. Jeanette Winterson pulls us through the looking glass to a time that happened and did not happen.

The story is in four parts. The first protagonist is Henri, a man who leaves home to fight for Napoleon. Driven by intense loyalty, Winterson illustrates the first of many shapes that passion can be made of. We never see much of Napoleon just learn of his appetite for chicken through Henri being recruited as an army cook. Henri’s love for Napoleon and his vision is his talisman against the harsh conditions, the brutality and the dead around him.

Without him, during nights and days when affairs of state took him back to Paris, our nights and days were different only in the amount of light they let in. For myself, with no one to love, a hedgehog spirit seemed best and I hid my heart in the leaves.

We then meet Villanelle, daughter of a Venetian boatman, and watch her roam the decadent chaotic city of Venice. This part of the story is more sensual and mysterious as she explores the casinos and dresses like a man and falls in love with a married lady. It felt so liberating to read about somebody who was such a strong heroine and freely loved life.

Despite being technically a historical novel this book felt extremely contemporary for me in the best way. Winterson weaves love, tragedy, idealism and gender into a macabre and beautiful tale of history. Sometimes when you read a book, the story plays out in your head so vivid you can see it like you’ve walked into the author’s dream. Winterson writes so well that I can still see the world she created when I close my eyes.

This is the third book I have read by Jeanette Winterson and my favourite so far. The language was gorgeous, the story rich and strange and the characters, especially Villanelle, leapt right out of the normal roles in historical fiction and fairytales and into weird and wonderful people.

Review: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

booksThe Cutting Room is a beautiful hybrid of literary fiction and a crime novel. A tight and gripping plot, suspense, murder, a doggedly persistent protagonist and handed to us in lyrically crooked prose.

An ageing auctioneer Rilke discovers some disturbing photographs in a client’s house and goes on a dangerous journey in finding the fate of the people in them.

Rilke is a character that really surprised me. His seedy and caustic perspective and dour pessimistic view of himself tricks you at first into thinking that is all there is to him but as the story progresses we see past his voice to the bleeding heart underneath. Despite his sour words his actions prove him to be one of life’s optimists when it comes to humanity.

The story flickers through shades of an overcast sky and Welsh illustrates again and again the petty cruelties Rilke and his circle do and have done and how it is nothing compared to the evil some human beings are capable of.

Glasgow is filtered through every part of this book enough to be a character in its own right. Welsh has strewn the dark, the seedy glamour and the desperation of its underbelly throughout the story. It is so visual I could see the characters in the dark rainy weather. Welsh paints physical appearance so vividly I could see them instantly. The boy too young for Rilke that he is infatuated with, the detective inspector, the old lady with the house full of treasures and Rose, Rilke’s partner in the auction house.

Later that evening I stretched myself across Rose’s Emperor-size bed, playing with the glass of wine she had given me, holding it up to the light, watching the flame through the ruby filter and beyond it Rose’s reflection, bathed in the dim glow of the trembling offertory candles.

“So good for the complexion.”

It was restful watching Rose metamorphose into herself. She sat at her dressing table shrine, slightly flushed from her bath, her damp hair piled high on her head. I was conscious of a pride that heterosexual men must feel. I was going out on the town with a beautiful woman. It was just a shame about where we were going.

The only criticism I have is the quotes that introduce each chapter. The book didn’t need them and although I like the snippets from Blake, Poe, Rimbaud and others I felt they made the novel seem like it was trying to be something it wasn’t.

I want to see more of Rilke. I think he’s a strong enough protagonist to carry a string of crime novels. Louise Welsh has made me greedy for more literary crime. I will definitely be reading her other books (my reading list is now way too long).

Review: The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson

An e-writer called Ali or Alix will write to order anything you like, provided that you are prepared to enter the story as yourself and take the risk of leaving it as someone else. You can be the hero of your own life. You can have freedom just for one night. But there is a price to pay.

This book irritated me but not because it wasn’t good.

Parts of it were so hauntingly lovely that I wanted to melt right into the page. Winterson is a master of creating lyrical stories within stories. One of my favourites that I immediately went back to read after just finishing it was in the opening of the book:

In the sixteenth century the first tulip was imported to Holland from Turkey. I know- I carried it myself.

By 1634 the Dutch were so crazy for this fish-mouthed flower that one collector exchanged a thousand pounds of cheese, four oxen, eight pigs, twelve sheep, a bed and a suit of clothes for a single bulb.

What’s so special about a tulip?

Put it this way…When is a tulip not a tulip? When it’s a Parrot or a Bizarre. When it’s variegated or dwarf. When it comes called Beauty’s Reward or Heart’s Reviver. When it comes called Key of Pleasure or Lover’s Dream…

The different stories, then, were adventurous and moving and heartfelt and played with boundaries of gender, time and reality. The parts which disappointed me greatly seemed to be autobiographical and jarred with the book. The writing suffered and was overly sentimental and just didn’t make me empathise at all or even appreciate the beauty of Winterson’s talent which is so apparent in parts of this novel.

I recommend you read this book. The beauty of her language will burn itself into your brain. The indulgent scenes will make you cringe but I defy you to read this and not crave another Jeanette Winterson book.