The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Penguin’s Little Black Classic version of The Yellow Wall-Paper contains three Charlotte Perkins Gilman short stories: the highly influential “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” along with “The Rocking-Chair,” and “Old Water.”

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is told through an unnamed woman’s perspective. She is ill with what her physician husband and brother diagnosed as “temporary nervous depression.” She is “absolutely forbidden to work until [she is] well again.”

To accelerate her health, husband John rents a beautiful colonial mansion for the summer so his wife can rest. And rest. And rest some more.

Against her wishes, our narrator’s bedroom is placed in an old nursery with hideous yellow wallpaper she finds objectionable. Left with nothing to do, however, the wallpaper starts to consume her life. She begins to imagine a trapped woman behind those yellow walls, trying to break free. She becomes obsessed, convinced that she must try to rescue this imprisoned woman.

In many respects, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is an excellent short story, deserving of its classic status. The text is rich and dense, encompassing many themes. Published in 1982, it is far ahead of its time. It’s a feminist manifesto, a horror yarn, an observation on mental health struggles, all at once. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is hailed as a seminal feminist text and is widely taught as such. I am more intrigued by the theme of mental health in this story; I think it particularly timely.

Much ink has been spilled over “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and I’d like to devote some more Internet space to an analysis of the themes of feminism and mental health as part of booksandstripsFemme Friday project. Some points are really worth discussing, I think. For now, I’ll talk about “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as a horror story and its pacing.

The first section of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” gave me the chills. Its horrors are tangible, palpable. It’s very easy to slip into our narrator’s skin and watch our every opinion disregarded, our wishes scoffed at.

And isn’t that a basic human fear? To have no agency. To feel smothered by the people around you. To feel as though you don’t matter.

Unfortunately, the second half lost its pacing. The narrator’s descent to madness happened too quickly. I would have appreciated a slower setting and more detailed, atmospheric description. This is one short story I wish were a novella to give it justice.

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“The Rocking-Chair” is the lone dud of the three Gilman stories. A standard, reasonably well-written, and entirely forgettable Gothic horror.

Best friends Maurice and Hal are looking for rooms to rent when they halt at a shabby guesthouse, enchanted by the golden hair of a strange and beautiful girl in a rocking chair. The men pay for the rooms and supernatural events begin to happen. The rocking chair moves. The golden-haired girl shows from afar and disappears up close like a mirage. Both men grow obsessed with the girl, gradually destroying their relationship in the process as they accuse each other of rocking with her on the chair.

Like “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the pacing of this short story’s second half is a bit off. The disintegration of Maurice and Hal’s relationship is a bit abrupt, which renders it unbelievable.

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I feel like “Old Water” is a story many won’t appreciate because I can see a lot of people finding it dull and pointless, but I really enjoyed its themes. The story itself has a slight subtle feel I admired.

“Old Water” follows the exploits of a mother, her daughter, and a poet. Mother and daughter are night and day. The mother is romantic and cultured, her daughter is athletic and sensible. When she was young, the mother was married off to a man with a stable job and good prospects. But she longed and longed for romantic passion – and now desires to give her daughter what she never had by foisting a young handsome poet to her daughter. Some supernatural happenings infuse the short story, but the tone of “Old Water” is quite comic.

Essentially, “Old Water” is a story about a mother’s love. A mother’s flawed love. Ignore the poet. He is as one note as they come. He doesn’t matter. It’s the mother-daughter relationship that does.

Despite its light touch, I found “Old Water” rather tragic. The mother wants her daughter to have what she never had, yet the tragedy here is that her daughter doesn’t want what her mother never had. She is happy with the status quo. The tragedy is: love needs to be supported by listening and understanding. We may love fiercely, but sometimes we forget the gentleness to stop and listen.

I found it hilarious that the comic-tragic aspect of the mother’s love bled into the daughter’s relationship with the poet. Is there a relationship more tragicomic? I don’t know who is more persistent, the mother or the poet. Or who is more dense, for that matter.

***

Bottom line: “The Yellow Wall-Paper” deserves its status in the literary canon. Yet I also understand why critics rarely rate Gilman’s other stories. “The Rocking-Chair” is as average as they come and while I really, really liked “Old Water,” I don’t think it is for everyone.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is readily available to read for free online. Here’s an example link. “Old Water” is, unfortunately, more difficult to come across.

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Pulang (Home) by Leila S. Chudori

What was that old chestnut? “Second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience.” Yeah, that’s the one.

Forgive me for trotting out that dead horse, but the quote perfectly encapsulates my relationship with Leila S. Chudori. This was a third marriage, even, since I have read two of Chudori’s past books, the short story collections Malam Terakhir (Final Night) and 9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira). I always enjoy the clarity of Chudori’s prose but was never truly blown away by her fiction. Both collections I would rate 3 stars on goodreads.

So when I found myself purchasing her latest work and first novel Pulang, the rational part of my brain sighed ‘What, what, what are you doing?’ Taking advantage of book discounts, of course, I answered back.

It turns out, sometimes irrationality pays off. In Pulang, Chudori realized all her writerly potential. She was always a great writer, but her short story collections either lacked that special something or just never gelled together.

I smiled when I shut Pulang’s final page. It’s been a while since I read an Indonesian novel this good, which in turn, makes me extra happy and patriotic to recommend Pulang.

***

Pulang is one of those epic novels that is multigenerational and spans multiple countries, with a backdrop of important historical dates and events. While the scope is large, Pulang also feels intimate because Chudori focuses more on family relations and lovers and friendships.

The novel is split into three major sections, each told from the point of view of different characters. Dimas Suryo, displaced and declared persona non grata by his own homeland, begins our novel. He was a journalist who mixed with a leftist crowd. Unfortunately, despite having neutral values, he chose the wrong time to make friends with liberals. The year is 1965 and his connections make him suspect. Suryo was lucky to have escaped with his head, fortuitously attending a foreign news conference with close coworkers. However, Suryo and his friends are now political exiles, moving swiftly from country to country until settling in Paris, France. Suryo falls in love with a Frenchwoman, marries, has a child, but can never escape his roots.

Lintang Utara, Suryo’s daughter with Frenchwoman Vivienne Deveraux, is struggling with her final uni project, a documentary. Her chosen topic, says her advisor, is exhausted. Why not film something about Indonesia? Your roots are there and people don’t talk much about Indonesia. Doubtful at first, Utara ends up agreeing and packing her bags for Jakarta. Meanwhile, in our final segment, Segara Alam, son of a persecuted 1965 man, heavily dreads the arrival of the half-French/half-Indonesian girl, expecting her to be slightly spoiled and very clueless. The year is 1998, which marks another earthquake, quite dark, in Indonesian history.

***

Pulang focuses on intellectuals and there are many references to literary writers, highfalutin artists, and their ideas and works. Don’t be fooled, though. This isn’t an abstract, experimental treatise. Part of the reason why I loved Pulang so much is its nimble plot, old-fashioned storytelling, and healthy dose of drama. There’s the terminal father, the love triangles, the rapturous swooning at first sight. Pulang feels classic in a slightly Dickensian way.

As always, Chudori’s prose is beautifully fluid, clear, and readable – and she always picks the most intriguing metaphors, which makes Pulang, despite its ambition to be dense, actually a page-turner.

Pulang isn’t a perfect novel though (is there a perfect novel?). Everyone’s POV sort of blends together. It doesn’t help that they all like and reference the same authors and philosophers. I did giggle, because in my subjective opinion, it perfectly describes the clique-like hive mind of some intellectual groups. It’s a bit unlikely though, because I got the feeling from her previous collections that Chudori is actually quite worshipful of academic types.

Kudos to Leila though. Pulang is far better nuanced than her previous writing. Not all intellectuals are holy martyrs and not all those in the establishment are cruel despots – in Pulang, Chudori fully acknowledges that people are gray and unsure.

But some of my quibbles remain the same. This is not the first time a woman who (shock! unbelievable!) has a healthy appetite is considered so revolutionary. Oh, and women who love shopping have nothing in their silly little heads, donchaknow?

I really wished these sentiments weren’t repeated in Pulang. It’s 2016, people! Women can love fashion and makeup and still be very intelligent. Ugh!

***

While I think it’s fair to note their issues, I still recommend Pulang wholeheartedly. The storytelling is great, it’s a page-turner, it’s well-researched, and it is the culmination of Chudori’s powers as a fiction writer. Pulang is a great Indonesian novel. Heck, Pulang is a great novel full stop.

Has an English translation published by Deep Vellum Publishing, for which I have a small rant.

I’m not sure why the blurb at the back has to mention the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing just because both works focus on the 1965 events in Indonesia. I mean, I get it. Indonesia is a largely invisible country and the copywriter probably wanted to orient readers to the historical backdrop of Pulang (Home). But it has the unfortunate effect of making it sound like Pulang has to piggyback off The Act of Killing when Pulang is an excellent novel that stands on its own. I hope I don’t sound like a nasty paranoid for finding this annoying.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

“The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling”

Jane Austen on her own novel Pride and Prejudice

Austen’s oft-quoted line above perfectly describes how I feel about Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It’s happy and bubbly, frothy almost, and it gladdens the heart.

Miss Pettigrew is a drab, nondescript governess on the edge of destitution and homelessness. A final chance at employment takes her to the abode of nightclub singer Miss LaFosse. No unruly children in sight here. Instead, Miss Pettigrew is pleaded to assist Miss LaFosse’s romantic entanglements. Beautiful, glamorous, and frantic, Miss LaFosse is juggling three boyfriends and it is all up to Miss Pettigrew’s wits to keep LaFosse’s men clueless and separate from each other.

The action whirs from the start and whizzes continuously. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day spans a day and follows our eponymous heroine as she is introduced to LaFosse’s world of beauty makeovers, captivating characters, theater figures, and jazz clubs – gradually, Miss Pettigrew learns to be merry, learns to live.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the novel that put Persephone Books on the map and I can see why. It has been a while since a novel calls to me every time I had to put it down. I just couldn’t wait to pick it up and continue reading, which is a bit silly since Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is essentially a Cinderella story; there’s no extra points for guessing a happy ending. But the journey is such an entertaining and playful romp I couldn’t help but race through the pages.

The preface of this novel described Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as “closer to a Fred Astaire film than anything else I can think of.” Now, I have never seen a Fred Astaire film, but Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day certainly has an old-fashioned comic charm. It feels slightly fantastic, its settings glamorous, and its mood playful, light-hearted, mischievous, and just pure fun.

Now, it is important to note that despite being stuffed with some delightfully subversive views (“A woman’s got to sow her wild oats”), Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is most definitely a product of its time. Which means, there are extremely dated sentiments that may be considered odious to a contemporary eye. Here’s an example:

[…] I wouldn’t advise marrying him. I don’t like to jump to conclusions but I think there was a little Jew in him. He wasn’t quite English. And, well, I do think when it comes to marriage, it’s safer to stick to your own nationality.

Readers fall into two camps when it comes to retrograde viewpoints in fiction: those who shrug and reason that reading about, say, sexist diatribes doesn’t automatically turn them sexists and those who cannot abide hateful ideas and will refuse to support such ideology by not purchasing the novel. If you fall into the second camp, perhaps best to stay away.

Complaints on obsolete attitudes aside, shutting the final page of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day fills sweet positivity to my heart. Sometimes books don’t need flash and flourish. Sometimes books just need to make you happy.

Living with a Black Dog: His Name Is Depression by Matthew Johnstone

What was that about April being the cruelest month? Certainly furthest from the truth for this girl. April has been a lovely month of abundant gifts so far. This slim picture is another unsolicited present.

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I was slightly skeptical, at first. A picture book (of such short length too!) on the complex subject of depression can’t help but be simplistic. But I adored the cover illustration. Its clear lines couldn’t help but remind me of my beloved Tintin series’ signature ligne claire style. And there’s nothing wrong with refreshing the basics for yourself.

As suspected, Living with a Black Dog is incredibly quick to digest; I think I finished it in less than fifteen minutes and I’m a slow reader. But it was much better than I expected. I was right, it is indeed simple. Yet its brevity makes depression ring no less true to this sufferer and is a helpful tool as “a visual articulation” of the condition is like.

Some of my favorite images:

I’m happy to report that the self-care thoughts I’ve had lately are in line with Johnstone’s suggestions: controlling stress, simplifying life, writing. I just have to be more consistent in implementing these steps.

When reading, I thought Living with a Black Dog’s clarity would help those living with someone depressed understand what their loved one is going through. Living with a Black Dog is an easy, digestible compendium on what it is like inside someone with depression.

Lo and behold! Johnstone has indeed written and illustrated another picture book tailor-made for those caring for someone with depression: what to say, what not to say, what to do, and concrete steps that can help.

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Happily you can experience both picture books for free on youtube, courtesy of Matthew Johnstone’s collaboration with the World Health Organization to promote mental health. Here is the link for Living with a Black Dog: His Name Is Depression and here is the link for Living with a Black Dog: How to Take Care of Someone with Depression While Looking after Yourself.

April Persephones, the Joy of Receiving, and Self-Care

I wanted to kick off April with my March book haul but it’s already April 10 here. It feels a bit late and my notes for the aborted draft ballooned to insane length. I shall spare you that baggy monster and give you something shorter. Still about new books, but in gift form aka I don’t have to record my own gross consumerism.

Someone lovely spent March in London and asked me if I would like a book. I didn’t even have to think; I almost screamed “PERSEPHONE!”

Greenery Street and Heat Lightning

My love for Persephone Books is welldocumented on this blog. Plus, I thought, most books I can order online.

(Actually, you can order Persephone books from their website and they will ship it to you, even internationally. What? You expect me to be logical when it comes to books?)

And so to the Persephone website I went for “research.” There are always Persephone books I kind-of-want. Miss Buncle’s Book, for one. The Victorian Chaise-longue is another. I dithered between Little Boy Lost and High Wages too. I just really love Persephone, okay?

Eventually, I settled on Heat Lightning by Helen Hull, a relatively new Persephone reissue –or number 101 from their current list of 115 books. The plot follows Amy Norton, who returns to her Michigan hometown to escape her family problems in New York only to find her home is no longer an idyll. The moral seems to be: don’t run away from your problems, face it. Heat Lightning’s blurb really hits home. On the spectrum of fight vs. flee vs. accept, I definitely flee. No wonder I have crippling anxiety. And so Heat Lightning became my pick, bypassing Miss Buncle’s Book and the other Persephones I sort-of-wanted.

But wait! I knew Persephone sometimes runs out of a specific title and takes a while to restock. So I needed a back-up option. I relied on this wonderful list of recommendations by the equally wonderful bookssnob. She lauded Greenery Street as a splendid, joyous, positive gem about a happy marriage. A dear friend and I lamented the dearth of enduring loves in literary fiction. It must be so much easier to sound “deep” when your subject material is 100% depressed and dysfunctional. On to the back-up choice Greenery Street went. I gave specific word that Greenery Street was to be purchased only and only if Heat Lightning was unavailable.

Imagine my surprise when the lovely one sent a message late March saying “I have your books.”

Books? As in plural? I cautiously replied, “Books? But I only asked for one.”

Reply: “I got them both.”

Happiness can be such a simple thing. I found it so easy to smile that day.

I met my lovely benefactress last week to pick up Heat Lightning and Greenery Street. Of course I told her I would transfer money for them but she would have none of it. She went on a ten-minute tangent on the ‘joy of receiving’ and how important it is for healing and a well-rounded life. Being so grateful, I was at full attention for eight minutes but nodded off the final two minutes.

(Actually, that probably was her master plan. To bore me into not asking for her account number. Gambit successful, madam!)

And yet, I find myself mulling over the ‘joy of receiving’ a lot. When I was younger, my philosophy was ‘Expect nothing from others. You are the only variable you can control in life, everything else is unreliable.’ I’m beginning to think that I was arrogant and presumptuous, that having faith takes a lot of bravery. I also suspect my anxiety was caused by burnout or overcompensation. Maybe. Could be. I don’t know yet.

I’ve been thinking of self-care a lot too. Being productive and meeting deadlines is self-care because it keeps anxiety and depression at bay in the long run. Pleasure reading is self-care as no other leisure activity makes me happier and teaches me to be a better writer. Writing every day is self-care. I am my worst critic and defeat myself if I ever so much as write a mediocre sentence. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, I need to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite again. But I love writing so much. If I stop often, I’ll never the good writer I aim to be.

I’m currently in the middle of six books and I’ve lost passion for all of them. The one book I really want to read right now is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I’ve been saving it for, well, something. I always save Persephones for special reading occasions, most likely because it’s not easy for me to get ahold of them. But my books are not more special than I am. I think I’ll take out Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day from my shelf. I’ve been doing well at my new job and rewarding myself with a good book is also self-care.