Rhapsodizing Blue

Book review: Bluets, by Maggie Nelson (Amazon / Book Depository)

Last night I wept in a way I haven’t wept for some time. I wept until I aged myself. I watched it happen in the mirror. I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill.

I fell in love with Maggie Nelson reading The Red Parts, a lyrical memoir/true crime/family story with other genre-bending topics jumbled together. I recommend it unhesitatingly.

I also liked Jane: A Murderher book of poetry/essays that preceded The Red Parts but dealt similarly with her aunt’s life and death. I love her beautiful writing, her enviable smarts, her ability to weave together a million different topics and have it all make some glorious sense like it was meant to come together this way in the first place. Suffice to say I picked up Bluets with high expectations.

It consists of 240 mini-essays styled like lyric poetry, each a meditation on something sometimes faintly, impressionistically, connected with the color blue and its connotations. Knowing Nelson’s style, that simple topic would branch into countless unexpected but thoughtful, emotional, and literarily rich directions. Not to mention it has stellar Goodreads ratings, which seems significant – if a book has thousands of ratings and is still well over 4 stars there, my interest is especially piqued.

That’s all to preface that I’m firmly in the minority, but I was disappointed, even annoyed, with this book. It’s a melding of literary, poetic, philosophical, reflective musings, interspersed by some totally out of place, out of the – blue, shall I say – lines of explicit sexual analogies or descriptions.

It clusters around certain themes besides meditations on blue. One is a confessional, painful, letter-style address to a lost but still-mourned love. Another is the story of a close friend who survived a terrible accident, leaving her body broken and in severe pain. Nelson helps to care for her. Grief, depression, heartbreak and pains both physical and mental are explored with some linkage, overtly tangible or intellectual, to blue. It’s padded with philosophical musings and quotes from artists and thinkers and musicians, including Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday and Emmylou Harris, and their artistic connections to blue.

As for the random explosions of sex and sexual body parts, it reminded me of what I would’ve thought was edgy and artsy and in-your-face when I was in college. I’m not uncomfortable reading it or against it for any reason, but I do think some things, and some body parts, are better left to the imagination. And being coarse in the guise of honesty or laying it all bare has been done to infinity and doesn’t shock, titillate, or interest me. The only reason it stood out was because an explicit line would appear alongside a meandering, philosophical thought – the sexual interjection overly descriptive with a coarseness that feels out of place in a text that has such a polished, but sometimes ostentatious, literary tone.

Some of the odes to blue were eye-rollingly melodramatic. And the use of “fucking” as a verb was so frequent that especially in such a short book, the repetition is exhausting. There are a lot of thematic elements that might’ve worked, like they harmoniously did in The Red Parts, especially considering Nelson’s singular way with words, but just didn’t.

Despite a lot of negatives in my view, sometimes anecdotes impressively held so much detail in a concise telling. I liked this one:

I hated that time and I hated that apartment and soon after I painted everything yellow I moved out. I looked at dozens of apartments and when I entered the hallway of the one I moved into next I knew I could live there because it was cheap and the hallway was baby blue. My friends all told me it smelled as bad there as it did in the last one but I found a heads-up penny on the threshold and anyway I don’t live there anymore.

And there are some interesting factoids sprinkled throughout: I learned that a side effect of Viagra is that vision might become tinged with blue.

“I just don’t feel like you’re trying hard enough,” one friend says to me. How can I tell her that not trying has become the whole point, the whole plan?
That is to say: I have been trying to go limp in the face of my heartache, as another friend says he does in the face of his anxiety. Think of it as an act of civil disobedience, he says. Let the police peel you up.

I do kind of love that image. Bluets has its moments. I think younger me would’ve appreciated it more. As it is, it felt melodramatic, pretentious without meaning to be, and disjointed. It’s beloved though; I’m interested in hearing why from others who read it differently.

by Maggie Nelson
published October 1, 2009 by Wave Books

Amazon / Book Depository

26 thoughts on “Rhapsodizing Blue

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  1. Thank you for reminding me I need to read The Red Parts! As you know I agree completely with your take on Bluets. I thought there was so much genuine depth and insight to The Argonauts and in contrast Bluets felt rather hollow to me.

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      1. We are definitely in the minority!! I loved your observation that a lot of the more vulgar passages seemed to be there for shock value alone. The Argonauts also veered into the vulgar quite a few times but in that case I really felt like it served a purpose as Nelson had some really insightful commentary to go along with it. Bluets lacked a similar kind of depth, I thought. But, I think The Red Parts has the potential to be my favorite of hers, so I’m excited!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I so hope you like it and that I haven’t talked it up too much!! It’s been awhile since I’ve read it now but if I remember correctly it also had some explicitly sexual elements but like you said, serving some purpose. This one felt so filmy and underdeveloped overall, without that kind of insightful commentary you mention, that they just made for such weird reading without any greater purpose. Although I would argue that it’s hard to make any purpose for including someone’s description of their a-hole…

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      3. SO real – some statements are just provocative for the sake of being provocative and that kind of explicit content just bores me. And I’m SURE I’ll like The Red Parts, that’s the one whose summary appeals to me the most anyway! It’s definitely one I’ll get to soon.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Exactly, I felt so bored with it. Like maybe I’d be wowed and shocked if I’d read it in high school or early in college, you know? Now it’s just boring. I’m so excited for you to read The Red Parts!! It impressed me so deeply.


  2. You’ve really pinpointed the problems I had with this book. The frequent references to sex and the work of other thinkers/artists didn’t do anything for me; I felt like they were only there to distract from how little substance there was to the book. The parts about Nelson helping her friend were moving sometimes, but the parts about her ex lover often had me rolling my eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a relief to hear that, I felt at times like I’d read an entirely different book than other people. Like what was I missing here? And agreed, it really did feel like including so many established ideas/bits of philosophy with stream-of-consciousness commentary, not saying anything fresh or particularly compelling, was a space-filling technique. Or just underdeveloped, maybe.

      I lost count of how often I rolled my eyes – that one line about how she couldn’t imagine a worse fate than to not be able to see the color blue was a particular irksome offender.

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  3. I have never read Nelson but from what you’ve written it does sound like this work is significantly different in tone from the others you’ve read. I’ve heard such praise for her but just have never felt the urge to pick up one of her books.

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    1. I’m beginning to wonder if she’s one of those love/hate writers where as a reader there’s just no middle ground. I felt so strongly about Red Parts and then polar opposite here, and everything I hear about The Argonauts is either effusively praising or else groaning about it. I would say if you’re not interested in any of the synopses than better not to pick up one of her books because they just tend to invoke such a strong reaction.

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  4. I also found myself underwhelmed by Bluets, but enjoyed the (perhaps much more explicit) The Argonauts immensely. I can understand why you mean about the artsiness though, I think it is a very fine line between beauty and over-done and perhaps Nelson just strayed over here. Still, parts of it were very lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, it’s a very fine line indeed and I think it’s easy to lose sight of it when a writer feels so passionate about a project. I’m still undecided on The Argonauts, I’ve gotten some glowing recommendations for it but haven’t liked the excerpts I’ve read. I just loved her style in The Red Parts and Jane was really interesting conceptually and had some lovely language too.


    1. I really can’t recommend this one but I felt it was important to mention in the review that I’m definitely in the minority opinion about it. Jane was really interesting, especially as it was conceptual, and she feels very natural as a poet. It just worked well for me and complemented The Red Parts well too.


    1. Esoteric is the perfect word for it! I just felt like I should mention how much other people love this book because I really feel in the minority opinion about it but it just didn’t do it for me. The Red Parts is truly fascinating and had some gorgeous writing, one of those unique books that stands out because you’ve never read something quite like it. She blends genres really well. Definitely check it out if you come across it 🙂

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    1. I’m really starting to think she’s one of those either love her or hate her types. I absolutely loved The Red Parts but I didn’t much care for this one and didn’t like the excerpts I read of The Argonauts, although that one seems to be her most popular book, people really love it. I would say try to read any excerpt, the quotes in goodreads or page through it in a bookstore and you’ll get an idea of her voice and style and should be able to tell if it’s for you. I wholeheartedly recommend The Red Parts though!

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  5. I’ve definitely read books where I felt the author was trying too hard to be edgy, where I wasn’t shocked, but closer to bored by the transparent effort of it all. I’ll definitely pay attention to your experience and look to this author’s earlier books if I want to give her books a try 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly it, I just was bored by it. And it feels so done before, it’s nowhere near the first book that’s made me feel like that. Knowing what kind of writing she’s capable of made it extra disappointing. I really think The Red Parts is a worthwhile read though!


  6. At the risk of sounding like a creepy stalker, I do love your blog and find it such a valuable resource! Wish I had read your review of Bluets just after I had read it. All I can remember is I liked the cover. I expect The New York Times will call me now to ask me to be their top book critic. I seem to remember my feeling is that Nelson is the sort of writer who can write about anything and make it fascinating. I liked The Red Parts. Keep meaning to read The Argonauts. Oddly, I am currently reading Blue A Memoir by a UK police officer (which is why I was searching your blog for “blue”) and that is the polar opposite to Nelson’s writing: he manages to write about dramatic events and make them actually quite dull because of his matter of fact style. Interesting how personality and career can make such differences.

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    1. That just makes me so happy to hear, I’m glad it can be such a useful resource for you!!! Covers can really influence you though, in all seriousness, and I think the same about titles. We have to look past both if we don’t like them but they still can affect how you react to a book to some degree.

      I totally agree, Nelson is that kind of writer who can make anything fascinating. Bluets just didn’t do it for me but I thought The Red Parts was something really unique. I hear opinions on The Argonauts that are so split on either end of the spectrum, either wildly love it or dislike it. I just couldn’t quite muster up the desire to read it based on the synopsis, it never quite appealed to me.

      What a shame about the police officer’s memoir you’re reading, that seems like it would take a special talent to make such dramatic events dull. Sometimes a matter of fact style is ok with me when I just want to be informed about a book’s topic but I always find it odd in a memoir. The Black and the Blue by Matthew Horace is one police memoir I’ve had on my radar for awhile, but I think it’s less personal memoir and more about confronting racial biases in US policing. It’s supposed to be excellent though, if you’re interested in the topic!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I can only guess that the kind of person who is cool and calm in a policing crisis is not the artsy dramatic type. Thanks for mentioning The Black and Blue, had not heard of that. I have got a UK book by a black police officer on race and policing called Kill The Black One First on my list. Do you know Eric of the Lonesome Reader? He has it on his best books of 2019 so far list.
    Are you on Instagram and is your account public? I would like to follow you, and also to tag you when I next put a book I have read on Instagram, to let other people know where to get great non-fiction book recommendations, I will mention your blog in any case.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard of the book or of Lonesome Reader but will check out both! Although just that title alone, wow. You always have such interesting recommendations and you read so eclectically! My Instagram is public (renneliza) BUT it’s not really book-related, just so you know. I know some people only prefer book-centric ones. I sometimes post a story of what I’m reading but that’s about it…because I usually read ebooks they don’t make for nice instagrams! But would be nice to connect with you there!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great, see you on Insta! By the way, just finished a satisfyingly gruesome book Blitzed; Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler. I seem to recall you are bilingual English -German – you could read it in the original German. Though it sounds rather sensationalist, it’s actually a carefully researched look at the Nazis’ use of pharmaceuticals to enhance military performance as well as Hitler’s dodgy doctor and his “vitamin” shots.


      2. I’ve heard so much about that book! It does sound fascinating. I’m sure I couldn’t read it in the original though, it would still probably be too complex for me or would take forever. My translating work is all in business, communications, finance, legal, etc. so my regular German is so bad in comparison to my work areas, it’s so sad! But I may have to check out the translated version, I like the sound of “satisfyingly gruesome”!


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