A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On Heirs and History

I am not yet tired of hearing about the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge, but I am tired of hearing people moan about how they don't want to hear about it.  It's been only two days, and I am already blisteringly weary of dismissals of the news: "Who cares?" and "Just another celebrity pregnancy media frenzy."  Sorry.  Tisn't.   

I will grant that many are far too wrapped up in the lives of celebrities, and the hysteria some Brits  show over the Royals can sometimes seem over-the-top and bewildering.  I hope (probably in vain) that the Duke and Duchess can live out her pregnancy in some kind of normalcy (and in health--that  the Duchess has been hospitalized for hyperemesis gravidarum is a cause for some concern), but there is no escaping the fact that she, her unborn child, and her husband are walking history.  That is a future monarch she is carrying there, and questions of the wisdom and feasibility of the continuation of a monarchy in Great Britain aside (that's a topic for another time), the pending birth of a future monarch is a big deal.  

Not as big a deal as it would have been four, or even one, hundred years ago, but a big deal still.  Whatever one's opinion about the royal family, there is no denying that who they are and what they do is considered to be top news by millions: it is estimated that some 300 million people watched Prince William and Catherine Middleton's wedding in April 2011, 1.2 million people lined the royal pageant route on Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee and 14.7 million watched the Diamond Jubilee Concert in June 2012, and 10 million people a year in Britain alone have tuned into the Queen's annual Christmas Speech in recent years).*  The members of the House of Windsor fascinate their subjects (even while they and the royal system which they embody may infuriate some of their subjects as well), and, if interviews with some of those who come out to line The Mall during celebrations such as Royal Weddings and Jubilees are any indication, their service to the Commonwealth engenders loyalty, admiration, and gratitude in many.  That being the case, the birth of a child who will change the line of succession and thus change the future face of the British monarchy is certainly newsworthy.    

But what is infinitely more compelling to me, what has me excited to hear about this pregnancy, is the sense of history that comes with this news.  So much of Britain's history rests on who sat on the throne and who could or could not produce a legitimate successor, and while the political ramifications of not producing an heir are less dire now than they have been in Britain's past, the event of Prince William's marriage and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge's, subsequent pregnancy connects us to that past.  I have always thought that the British seem to be more aware of their history during their day-to day lives than we are--a result, perhaps, of having a national figure who is a living, breathing link to hundreds of years of royal and political history.  The royal family we see today--Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Prince William, and, of course, all the rest of the Queen's children and grandchildren--are a result and a reminder of hundreds of years of history.  The current Queen's father gave a rousing speech at the start of WWII that helped unite a country under threat; her uncle was at the heart of a scandal that tested the relationship between the monarch and parliament; her grandfather ruled during WWI, her great-grandfather had a period named after him (Edwardian), her great-great grandmother, too (you might have heard of it).  When we watch The King's Speech and get swept up in the story of that man's life and the history he lived, is it not marvelous to realize that the dignified woman we see celebrating sixty years on the throne is his daughter?  Or to think, when we see that episode of Doctor Who with Queen Victoria that plays on the history of her family, that that story (in more realistic terms, perhaps) is still being told?      

Millions of people the world over can do this, too, can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years, can point to the historical events their families influenced or were a part of.  And history, after all, is made up not just of the names and deeds everyone knows but of the names and deeds no one knows.  But the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be the next step in a part of history that we can see, and that is just mind-bendingly brilliant.  To think that these children will be the direct descendents of people who stare at us out of black and white plates in our history books; to realize that the past isn't dead, that, in fact, it walks about, living, breathing, falling in love, having children; to be reminded of this is simply grand.  

And we Americans, who are so unfailingly interested in trying to pull the beliefs and attitudes of our founding fathers into the present, who are fascinated by the complex histories of our own important ruling familes (the Adamses, the Kennedys, the Bushes), and who have a history of the family Bible with its carefully filled out family tree at the center, should have no trouble at all understanding why the impending birth of the great-great-great-great-great grandchild of a figure of such national and international historical import would be breaking news.  

*The population of Britain in 2010 was
~62 million, meaning about 16% of the population watched the Queen's Christmas Speech.  By contrast, about 37.8 million people watched President Obama's 2011 State of the Union Speech, or about 12% of the US population. These comparisons are not strictly one-to-one (I don't mean to equate the President of the USA's State of the Union Address and the Queen's Christmas Speech; they do not serve the same function), but the point that people care about the royals is adequately made, I think.    

**Also, a nod to Jane Murray's The Kings and Queens of England, which is always my go-to for sorting who-came-after-who and who-was-who's-father.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

A fascinating novel, mostly made so by its intriguing structure and deft handling of many writing styles. Cloud Atlas consists of six different narratives, each taking place at a different time in history (and some in the future), dealing with different characters, and employing different styles and methods of narration. The novel begins with the narrative furthest back in time (call it Narrative A), continues with the next narrative in chronological succession (Narrative B), and keeps going through its several narratives until it arrives at Narrative F, then works back in time through each narrative once again. So the structure looks something like this: ABCDEFEDCBA. Eventually it becomes apparent that there are connections among these seemingly separate narratives, and Mitchell's skill in handling this structure becomes increasingly clear as he works his way back down his narrative ladder (on the EDCBA side, if you will). Working the hints of connections into the first half of the novel strikes me as something not overly difficult; backing out through the second half of the narrative and picking up all those disparate threads to make the whole create sense and answer questions seems like it must have been mind-bogglingly difficult. For manipulation of this structure, for making it work, I give Mitchell all the credit in the world. His skill at working so well within so many different styles is also remarkable. He succeeds, as well, in making the reader care about each of his narratives, about all of his characters, despite wrenching her away from each narrative just as it is getting really good and asking her to invest in yet another scenario.

I came away from Cloud Atlas impressed by Mitchell's writing and his ability to reel one into a story and wowed by his handle on structure. But in the end I was never sure what all of that structural whizzbang was for (beyond being an incredible feat in and of itself). I'm not entirely sure what the novel means to say about the interconnectedness of people and events or about our ability (or inability?) to recognize those connections. Without that understanding I was left a bit befuddled. Which is not to say that I think this isn't a book worth reading. I think it is. There's enough here that is satisfying to outweigh that discontent in the end. And the novel avoids feeling like an experiment which succeeds technically but fails to tap into the emotional life of the reader. The novel is an amazing achievement, if not a wholly satisfying one. But absolutely worth the read, even if only to marvel at how Mitchell works that ABCDEFEDCBA structure. Seriously.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tales from the Library Book Sale

The library I frequented the last time we lived in Roanoke is closed now.  The building still stands there, across from the post office, looking sad and empty and alone.  I will miss it--its fiction aisles were just the right width apart for proper browsing and none of the books were beyond my (admittedly short) reach.  The fiction collection was large enough for one to be assured of finding something good to read but not so big as to be overwhelming.  But!  There is a new (I think new) library not more than a few extra minutes' drive from our apartment (we are living now in effectively the same place we did before), and it is big without being impersonal and there's wood and lots of seating and many of the librarians from the old closed branch work there now.  I was happy to see those same faces again, though I will miss, too, seeing them go about their business in that old branch, which was small enough that it felt (pleasantly) as if the building really were their domain.  This new building sort of hovers over everyone; I think the librarians belong to it now, rather than the other way round.

I got a new library card in short order (much easier than getting a new driver's license, as it should be), picked up a volunteer form, and asked for the quick standing tour.  New books and DVDs behind you, Children's thataway.  Fiction, nonfiction, and quiet study upstairs.  Oh, and we're having the last day of our fall book sale down that hallway in the meeting room to your left.  

I had seen some notice of that book sale on the website, but thought I had missed it, thought it had ended at the weekend.  How serendipitous to have idled out to the library on just this day, on this day when I had planned to do nothing more than laundry (which, incidentally, languishes still).  I made my way to the sale, giving myself a stern talking-to as I went.  "You will be restrained," I insisted.  "Money is a little tight, and, anyway, you couldn't fit more than two or three more books into the apartment, and then only if you get the cats to teach you that thing they do with parallel dimensions."  As luck would have it, the sale was "fill a box for $3" on this last day, so the money problem was well in hand, and the books were so well-picked-over after five days of sales that taking home a box-full of books I actually had any interest in would have been a challenge.  But I did manage an impressive and exciting haul of five books, all in excellent shape.

The first treasure I found was a near-pristine paperback copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins from the seventies.  Not worth anything, I'm sure, but I almost invariably like better the covers of children's and young adult books from around the time I would have been the right age to read them than the covers they put on those same books today.  And somehow I've never managed to read Island of the Blue Dolphins, so I considered my book-sale foray a success within minutes of browsing its long tables of collapsing rows of still unwanted tomes.  Next I found The Red Tent, which I have almost taken home at full price from book shops several times and of which I am somewhat wary.  But people whose opinions I trust have recommended it to me, so I tucked it under my arm along with Island and carried on, figuring if there ever was going to be a time, at $3 a box, now was probably it.

Somewhere about a third of the way through the fiction, a nice-looking elderly gentleman browsing on the other side of the table from me tapped his fore-finger on the spine of a hard cover standing on its edge in the middle of the table.  "If you're looking for a good one, that one," he said.

I smiled.  It was a Jean M. Auel novel, a Clan of the Cave Bear installment from somewhere in the middle of the series.  I have Clan of the Cave Bear, and I've been told that it's best to stop with that one.

"It's a whole series," my new friend said, pulling the book up and handing it to me.  "Prehistoric stuff."    

"Oh?  How interesting," I said, or something similar, as I took the book and pretended to look through its opening pages.  I was caught off-guard by the recommendation and couldn't summon the words to express my lack of interest without coming off rude.

He turned away, but just as I was about to return the book to its row, he turned back.  I ruffled a few pages, trying to look intrigued.  "It's speculative, too.  Of course it would have to be, because no one knows what happened in prehistoric times." 

Was this a joke?  Some kind of religious remark?  Or just a statement of fact?  I smiled again, and gave a little laugh.  "Thanks," I said, probably at the wrong point in the exchange all together.  He smiled and nodded, and, this time, really did move on.  I scurried away to the nonfiction tables, leaving Clan of the Cave Bear IV behind.

I found there something called The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, which seems like it can't fail to be right up my street, and a Bill Bryson we somehow managed not to have yet, I'm a Stranger Here Myself.  I've peeked into this one already, shortly after I got home, and nearly choked on my afternoon snack laughing at a chapter called "Rules for Living."  ("11.  Any electronic clock or other timing device on which the time is set by holding down a  button and scrolling laboriously through the minutes and hours is illegal. . . . 19. In office buildings and retail premises in which entry is through double doors and one of those doors is locked for no reason, the door must bear a large sign saying: 'This door is locked for no reason.'")  And finally, just as I was about to pay for my finds and make tracks (upstairs to see the fiction and nonfiction stacks, where I found, my to my puzzlement, a copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy on the nonfiction shelves), I saw, in a sorry little heap of bedraggled, forlorn-looking nonfic with titles like "The Do-It Yourself Guide to Plumbing" and "Understanding Baby's Diseases Made Easy," a book called The Pencil, written by Henry Petroski, whose The Book on the Bookshelf I read with great delight a year or so back.  That someone could be so fascinated by this ingenious little writing utensil to write a whole book about it, and that some other someone could be so impressed by the first someone's enthusiasm to agree to publish the thing, makes me uncommonly happy.  And that it sat there, waiting, patiently, amongst such dismal fare, is one of the best arguments for a library book sale I can think of.  It is certainly my favorite find of the afternoon.

And so, only five books, and only three dollars spent!  Restraint, achieved, I say.  But now, where to put them?  So far I've had no luck at all convincing the cats to give up the secret to that thing they do with parallel dimensions. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

 Little House in the Big Woods

I recently read a review of the whole series of Little House books on the occasion of their being released in a two-volume set by the Library of America. These books were great favorites of mine as a child, but unlike many other childhood favorites, they have remained hidden away in the attic, unrevisited in my adult years. Reviewer Katherine A. Powers's discussion of the books' descriptions of frontier life and of the darkness inherent in it made me long to read these old favorites again. So I trotted off and snagged a few of them in paperback, my attic dwarf being unwilling to stand on her head and paw through boxes to find my childhood copies (which I once mutilated somewhat cruelly (by folding and crinkling the pages) in an effort to make the books look "old"; attic dwarf, in a slightly different role, was none too pleased with my efforts).

I remember that Little House in the Big Woods was not my favorite of the books (I think that was On the Banks of Plum Creek, but I won't be fully sure until I get to it), but gosh do I remember it well. I anticipated every incident, every illustration, even some turns of phrase. I started leafing ahead to see "How far til the stump that looked like a bear?" or "When do we get to the naughty boy and the bees?" Again, unlike other childhood favorites I have read again when grown up, I have little or no recollection of reading these, which makes me think I read them (or they were read to me) when I was so young that they just sort of became part of my own personal idiomythology (that's not a word, surely; surely it should be?). In any case, they were a delight to read now, and not just for the nostalgia. The prose is very simple, but there's often something poetic about it, and despite the episodic nature of the story (there's no plot beyond detailing how people stayed alive and happy in the big woods of Wisconsin in the 1870s), the book was practically a page-turner for me. Incidents that were mostly just adventures for me when I was a child now are tinged with a darkness that did not occur to me then. When Pa is away and Ma and Laura find a hungry bear inside the barn fence, what if the bear had killed Ma? What happens to a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a two-year old in the woods, alone, in winter with no way of contacting anyone? The reality of the thing is more real to me now, I suppose is a good way of putting it, and it engenders a respect for the courage of the people who lived these sorts of lives that just knowing that such a life was hard never could. This was fascinating reading, and I'm already well into the next one--or, the third one, really (I'm skipping Farmer Boy for now)--where I expect I may run headlong into some attitudes about native peoples which is going to challenge my fuzzy delight in rediscovering these books, but we shall see.

Little House on the Prairie

I didn't remember this one nearly as well as Little House in the Big Woods, but many of the incidents (and many of the illustrations) were familiar and welcome. I was struck in Big Woods by the ingenuity and courage of the settlers living on the frontiers in the 1870s; in Prairie I am no less impressed by those qualities, but the circumstances of the Ingalls family in this installment gives me the willies in a way that the realities of living in the Big Woods did not. Surely it is because I have always lived nestled among hills and under trees that the descriptions (and illustrations--maybe even especially the illustrations) of the wide open prairie and the notion of a house just plopped in the middle of all that space quite literally gives me the shivers. Do you know a person who must sit with his back to the wall in a restaurant because that open space behind him is discomfiting? That's how I feel about houses. They ought be backed up against the foot of a mountain or at the least tucked in a clearing with tall trees all around. I'm glad, I guess, that there are people who like that kind of open environment (both Pa and Laura in this book seem to take to the flat openness of the prairie particularly well) as not all of us can live at the foot of mountains--there just aren't enough of them. But I leave them to it.

The constant fear regarding encounters with restive Indians lent a sense of suspense to Prairie which was completely lacking in Big Woods. The fears I had about attitudes toward native peoples in this book were perhaps somewhat overblown. There is certainly othering going on here, and a fair amount of prejudice, but Laura (mostly) seems innocently fascinated by the Indians and Pa (though he definitely carries a nice load of white-settler-entitlement around with him) adopts a live-and-let-live attitude, talking his neighbors down from their fears on more than one occasion. Some passages made me squirm a bit, but keeping in mind the context in which the book was written and the time it recalls, and considering the perhaps more-enlightened-than-typical attitude of Pa, those passages weren't enough to ruin a series of childhood favorites. I would be fascinated, however, to read some articles delving into the portrayal of the native peoples in this book and providing some discussion of the political and historical situation. I'd particularly like to read some opinions on the scene where Laura becomes enchanted by an Indian baby with "hair . . . as black as a crow and its eyes . . . black as a night when no stars shine" and demands that Pa "get (her) that little Indian baby!" as well as on the fact that Pa's sense of morality when it comes to usurping the Indian land seems to stem directly from what the government says is okay. If Washington says the Indian Territory is open to the settlers then he's going to have his land and the Indians can go lump it. If they say not, then he'll move on. That the Indians are obviously living on the land and that they were clearly there first seems not to enter into it for him.

Pa, in fact (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Ma), has become one of the most interesting aspects of these books for me on these rereads. How does he know how to make a life on the prairie anyway? That he should be a competent frontiersman generally can be taken as a given since when we first meet him in Big Woods he's already been making a successful go at that kind of life for several years (at least). But how does he know what the specific dangers of the prairie are? And how to deal with them? As a child, I accepted Pa as the all-knowing performer of crafty miracles and protector of home and family (I knew men like that myself, after all), but as an adult I begin to want to see him as a real person and to question him and to suspect that sometimes his pioneer spirit endangers his family (a number of minor catastrophes in Prairie, which are presented as things from which Pa saves the day, are actually his fault). The question of what children know and what adults know and keep from the children, I think, is a central theme in this book, and one which probably sails right over the head of children readers (except for the few times when it is made explicit as part of the action). I count six instances in Prairie when the whole family is a hair's breadth away from a horrible death, and much of what is interesting to me here (beyond the details of the day-to-day business of staying alive, which is always fascinating) is how these two adults try to--and mostly succeed at--giving their children a happy life which is free from fear and dread.

These reviews originally appeared on my LibraryThing account here and here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Volume III

It's time for a new edition of "Packing for a Reading Retreat" (though I am a touch late), where I imagine which books I would take with me if I were heading to a reading retreat, where there would be no distractions and I would be free to do nothing but read for a week.  I imagine my packing in three categories: "New to Me," for books I've never read before; "Old Favorites," for past reads I'd like to revisit; and "Just in Case," for one book that can always be counted on to save me if one of the other selections turns out to be a dud.
New to Me 

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
I've had this one on hand for awhile now, but haven't cracked it open yet (though I have read Mitchell's Black Swan Green, which I gather is a very different sort of book, but which I enjoyed immensely).  I saw a preview for the movie version of Cloud Atlas and I quite literally wrinkled up my nose and said, "Cloud Atlas Cloud Atlas?  Like, David Mitchell?  Is that what that book is about?"  It was all science fiction-y-ish with the same actors playing different characters in different time periods.  I sort of knew that there was an element of souls appearing in different eras or reincarnation or something in Cloud Atlas, but the feel of the movie preview sort of shocked me in being not what I expected from that book.  But it looked like a movie I would like to see and it seems like a book I would definitely want to have read before seeing the movie, so it's been bumped up my mental list of books to read soon. 

Canada, Richard Ford
I recently saw a tiny snippet of an interview with Richard Ford which made me think I really ought to read something by him.  Canada is his latest, and I can't say that I picked it out of all his works for much more reason than because it is the most recent (and maybe because the story--a teenaged boy has to learn to fend for himself and avoid Child Services after his parents rob a bank--appealed to me).

The Time in Between, María Dueñas, trsl. Daniel Hahn
I have to confess that the cover and the first sentence ("A typewriter shattered my destiny.") are what drew me to this book and remain the chief reasons I want to read it.  Though the setting (WWII, Europe), as always, appeals.  I mean, who could resist that first line?

Old Favorites

 The Little House on the Prairie books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
This is the tiniest bit of a cheat, as I've already dipped in to these, but I am still very eager to carry on with them, so I call it fair.  A recent review of the Little House books highlighted the darkness and danger of living on the frontiers, and that prompted me to want to reread these childhood favorites.

Just in Case 

 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
A beloved childhood read about a young man who sets out to seek his fortune and runs afoul of a dastardly uncle, is kidnapped, and then must make his way home through the Scottish Highlands during the turmoil in the years after the '45.  A pretty solid adventure story with a fascinating setting and wonderful attention to historical and political detail.

Previous Editions of Packing for a Reading Retreat:

Volume II
Volume I

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: Salem Falls, Jodi Picoult

I've never read Picoult before because I am always wary of novels which seem to be About a Topic (capitals intentional there).  As in, this novel is About Autism.  This novel is About School Shootings.  This novel is About Child Abduction.  This wariness is a clear result of my thoughts on artful fiction, what it should do, and how it works.  I think fiction should arise from discovery and exploration, and little red flags go up for me when I see that a novel is about something specific that we could just as easily be reading in a news magazine.  A novel About Adultery seems to me like a very different thing than a novel with betrayal as a theme.  I suspect the first of being forcibly made into a story about one particular thing because it is topical; I believe the second has a better chance of arising through writerly discovery.  Either book could be terrible.  And either book might be very good, I suppose, which is why I decided to give Picoult a try.

I chose carefully, picking a novel I had heard nothing about and whose topic sounded interesting to me.  And I tried to read with an open mind.  What I found in Salem Falls was better than I expected it to be, but still left me pretty cold.

The novel is the story of Jack St. Bride, who spent eight months in jail as part of plea bargain when an infatuated sixteen-year-old girl on the soccer team he coached claimed they were having a sexual affair.  Jack is innocent, and we are never led to suspect otherwise.  When he arrives in Salem Falls just after being released from jail, he finds a job at a diner and tentatively begins a relationship with the diner's owner.  That Jack is a sexual offender makes its way around town, and a group of fathers in town make it their business to make it clear to Jack (through vandalism and personal violence) that Jack is not welcome.  Eventually Jack is accused of rape by one of the town's teenage girls, a girl who readers already know is mad at Jack (for failing to show a sexual interest in her), craves attention, and was almost certainly high at the time of the alleged rape.  The book then becomes a courtroom drama, with a lot of focus on gathering evidence and the presentation of the case in court.

Picoult writes pretty well.  Sentences are clear and coherent, the story pulls one along, there are few of the kinds of tics that suggest a writer is not taking care with the craft, and the aspects of the story which probably required research ring true enough.  But there is a tendency to overwrite and to over-sentimentalize.  Honest, every action doesn't require a simile describing it, especially not if those similes try to give the actions meaning they don't deserve.  And scars don't form in the shape of hearts on girls whose hearts have been trampled.  Come on.

There were a lot of moments like those, those moments where I thought, "This is manipulation.  I'm being told to feel something here, not being allowed to discover a truth along with the writer."  I have little patience for that sort of thing, but other problems I had with the novel were probably even more important.  These characters were cardboard; there was no complexity to them at all.  Not one of them did a single thing that furthered the reader's understanding of the character or of the situation they found themselves in.  Everyone behaved as expected; nothing ever asked the reader to stretch for meaning or growth.  And that is almost disturbing in a novel whose main focus is a man being destroyed by people who can't seem to conceive of things being not the way they appear. 

At about the two-thirds mark, I started asking myself what the the point of this book might be.  I'll admit to being fairly well engaged--I wanted to know what would happen, I wanted to see if the story would come out the way it should or if injustice would prevail.  And if making me want to turn the pages to find out What next? is all the novel was trying to do, well, then, I'd say it succeeds.  But the flap of Salem Falls claims that Picoult's novels demonstrate "'a firm grasp of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships.'"  That being the case, I would expect to discover something by reading the book.  The novel tells me (and even, maybe, in some instances, shows me) that teenage girls sometimes become infatuated with older men; that such infatuation can lead to trouble, not least because teenage girls often don't have the maturity to deal with their infatuation or understand the full ramifications of acting on them; that good people tend to believe the worst about people who have been labeled as "bad"; that fathers protect their daughters, sometimes to the point of blindness toward their daughters themselves.  Okay.  Agreed.  But I'd have agreed before I read word one of the novel; the story doesn't help me see anything new about any of this, doesn't help me understand any of it better or more fully.  And without an arrival at some better or fuller understanding, I sort of feel like Salem Falls is just rolling around in Statutory Rape and False Accusations and Witch Hunts in order to pick up the emotions already associated with those topics and pass them on without adding anything worthwhile to the mix.     

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Packing for a Reading Retreat: Volume II

It's time for a new edition of "Packing for a Reading Retreat," where I imagine which books I would take with me if I were heading to a reading retreat, where there would be no distractions and I would be free to do nothing but read for a week.  I imagine my packing in three categories: "New to Me," for books I've never read before; "Old Favorites," for past reads I'd like to revisit; and "Just in Case," for one book that can always be counted on to save me if one of the other selections turns out to be a dud.

New to Me

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
A retelling of The Iliad, as told by Patroclus.  Readers of the last installment of "Packing for a Reading Retreat" already know that I am a sucker for retellings.  The Ancient World and all the myths, legends, and epics that go with it have always been on the periphery of my imagination.  I know they are out there, and I know bits of the stories, but, despite being fairly intrigued by them, I've never really dived in.  Perhaps this retelling will inspire me to go to The Iliad itself.  Song has gotten a lot of good reviews (I started hearing good things on LibraryThing almost immediately after it was published), so I'm excited to read this one.

The Cove, Ron Rash
Set during WWI in the Appalachians of North Carolina, The Cove is both a stranger-comes-to-town story and a love story.  I've been meaning to read Ron Rash for a while, and I find myself drawn to stories set in or about the Appalachians since living in Tennessee and Virginia (though I have always lived in or near the Appalachian mountains).

Widdershins, Charles de Lint
I read a novel by de Lint a few years back, and, though I was ultimately somewhat disappointed with it, I was fascinated by de Lint's style, his used of both urban and fantastical settings, and his use of Hispanic mythology and mysticism.  I've been saying I would try another by him since, and the cover of this one drew me in.  De Lint is meant to be one of the masters of urban fantasy (and one of its pioneers), and I think he probably deserves a second go.

Old Favorites

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I read and enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in my early teens, but I've never reread it.  It was a bit of struggle for me at the time, and I know much of it went over my head then.  The setting of early 20th-century New York appeals to me, and I'd love to read this one again with adult eyes.

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I have a hardback, beautifully illustrated edition of The Secret Garden that was given to me when I was six or seven as a Christmas present by a great-aunt who had a reputation for giving perfect presents.  I know I read the story at least once, but my strongest memory of this book is just sitting and looking at the pictures, of reveling in the book as a beautiful object.  I haven't looked at the book beyond a quick glance since middle school, and I plan to sit down with it some day soon and turn every page with relish.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
I love Jane Eyre for the way she stands up for herself and doesn't let fear stop her from doing things.  My recent reading of The Flight of Gemma Hardy has rekindled a desire to read Jane Eyre again.  It's been too long anyway.

Just In Case

The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
The retelling of Arthurian legend from the point of view of the women in the story utterly engrossed me at sixteen.  It's still the best contemporary telling of the Arthur stories and would be the perfect book to have along in case of running out of other things to read.

Past Editions of "Packing for a Reading Retreat"

Volume I

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Not Until They're Twenty-Five

I'm engaging in a reread of the Harry Potter series this summer, something I enjoy doing every few years.  I read Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets in quick succession, and was struck, as I always am on these rereads, by how really brilliant HP1 is and how exciting it would be to read these books for the first time as a child.  I never had that experience--I was sixteen when the first Harry was published, seventeen before it was published in the US.  And I didn't read any of them until I was nearly twenty and didn't quite realize the appeal until twenty-three.  I suppose there might be an argument to be made that I came to Harry Potter at exactly the right time for me--during a summer in grad school when it was a thrill to rediscover how purely enjoyable reading can be.  But I still return to that feeling that reading them at the age they were intended for would have been such a treat.  Which inevitably leads me to a question: how might one share the Harry Potter books with children today?

One of the things I love about the Harry books is that they allow the children within them to grow and that the books themselves progressively "grow up" in vocabulary, style, and incident as Harry and co. get older themselves.  This was almost certainly a great thrill for those children lucky enough to be the right age to start Harry when he first came out and interested and/or readerly enough to stick with him through book seven.  An eight-year-old who started with Sorcerer in 1998 would have been just the same age as Harry himself when she read Deathly Hallows in 2007.  How cool is that?

But this very "growing up" of the series is what I fear would make giving Harry to children today problematic.  Suppose there is an eight-year-old of your acquaintance whom you think would enjoy these books.  If she is a strong reader, she should be able to read HP1 on her own; if not, she should be able to enjoy it thoroughly if read aloud to her.  Unless quite easily frightened, our eight-year-old (let's call her Rose) should be able to enjoy the small nastinesses, the sort-of scary monsters, and the kind-of creepy villain of Sorcerer's Stone without being upset by the book.  The same is probably true of Chamber of Secrets and maybe even Prisoner of Azkaban

But how many installments until you're afraid that the books are too old for Rose?  It won't take her ten years to get to Deathly Hallows without J.K. Rowling's writing pace to slow her down, especially if she is really caught up in the story.  How would you feel about little nine-year-old Rose reading about ethnic cleansing, children wiping their parents' memories to protect them, murder-by-snake, and kindly old men raising children so that they will be prepared to sacrifice themselves to save the world at seventeen?  Those are only a few of the things of which my nightmares were made after I read HP7  at twenty-six.  (M and I recently rewatched HP7: 1 & 2, and during the scene where Voldemort murders Charity Burbage, I muttered that any future children of ours would not be watching the movie until they were at least seventeen.  That age got revised upward as the evening progressed.)  I can't quite see letting Rose read Deathly Hallows before the teen years, but nor can I see telling Rose she can't read the rest of a story with which she has fallen in love.  One could try to steer Rose clear of Harry altogether until she is thirteen or fourteen, but Sorcerer's Stone is just too perfect for the eight-to-eleven set not to share it at that age.  And a thirteen-year-old might find the first two or three books too young for her, both in content and in style--and that might put her off the whole series.  What a shame that would be.  So, what to do?

I've heard the theory that one should let her children read whatever they want; that if they are old enough to comprehend a book, then they are old enough to deal with a book.  Maybe.  I've also read a good deal of theory about the prevalence of evil people, horrible situations, and tragedy in books written for older children and young adults--that dealing with such things in literature is an important part of children's development and their ability to deal with whatever is happening in their lives.  I'll buy that.  There's probably also something to be said for the notion that adults perceive horrors differently from children, that adults overestimate the effect unpleasantness in stories will have on kids.  I was an avid and strong reader from a very early age and have no recollections whatever of my parents forbidding me to read any particular books; nor can I remember being really, truly disturbed by anything I read as a kid.  I read a lot, I think, that was a bit beyond my comprehension and was unsettled by some of it, but struggling to find meaning in the books I didn't really understand was probably an integral part of my growing up.

All of which, I suppose, argues for letting Rose read the later Harry Potter books when she thinks she's ready for them.  She'd probably read them under a blanket with a flashlight if her parents forbade them anyway.  Better to be prepared, maybe, to know that your baby is going to show up at the side of your bed at three in the a.m. terrified of whatever twist her unconscious put on Dementors and Nagini and Killing Curses. 

And no one can protect Rose from growing up forever.  What a shame that would be.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: She's Come Undone, Wally Lamb

I'm not sure what made me pick up She's Come Undone and rip through it in less than two days, as I've always shied away from it before, thinking of it as one of those books about "Woman's Experience"--a topic which generally makes me cross (as if there could be such a thing).  But I enjoyed She's Come Undone more than I expected to--the narrator's voice is engaging and pulls one right along, and Lamb creates characters and scenes seemingly effortlessly.  The sentences read smoothly, and the novel is sophisticated in its movement.  The final pages made me smile with happy satisfaction at the outcome of Dolores's story. 

But something bothered me throughout my reading, and I'm still unsure of what, exactly, was the problem.  Perhaps it was the relentless parade of wretched human beings in the book, people who seemed uninterested in, or incapable of, love in any of its guises and who were wholly uninteresting except in the specific ways they affected Dolores.  Perhaps it was the wearying way nearly every man in the story was a misogynistic jerk.  Or the disconnect I felt between the experience of Dolores, born in 1952 in Rhode Island, and my mother, born in 1951 in Pennsylvania.  No reason, really, exists to think that two women of the same generation born in roughly the same part of the country would have similar experiences, but Dolores seemed to live in an entirely different world than the one my mother grew up in.  Where were the kinds of good, loving, strong characters who inhabited Mom's stories of growing up in the fifties and sixties?  Why was nearly every adult in Dolores's world so touched by and damaged by The Times In Which They Lived? 

Or perhaps it was that the events of the novel began to feel like a checklist of Bad Things That Happen to Women (I'm going to get a touch spoilery here).  Dolores witnesses verbal and physical abuse against her mother by her father; sees her parents go through a divorce caused in some part by her father's adultery; watches her mother have a nervous breakdown, spend time in a mental hospital, then come home and engage in an affair with a married man; flirts with a handsome neighbor and then is raped by him at thirteen and convinced by him that "their" indiscretion is her fault; becomes mentally depressed and morbidly obese; experiences the death of her mother in a horrible traffic accident; is maliciously and sexually teased by a boy at a college party who then calls her horrible names and destroys her property when she fights back; nearly commits suicide; spends four years in a mental institution; marries a man who threatens to leave her if she does not abort their child; has an abortion she does not want; gets a divorce; and eventually must give up on her dream of bearing children.  While Dolores does learn to stand up for herself and eventually finds happiness; loyal, loving friends; and a good man (and the moments when she has these breakthroughs are satisfying and exciting), this litany of misery began to feel a touch dishonest.  It is not that I disbelieve that all of these things could happen to one person (and I will say that Lamb deals with each one beautifully), but that I began to suspect that these events existed in the novel for reasons that had little to do with story.  And that put me off a bit.      

In the end, I was impressed by Lamb's handling of structure and sentences and, in some cases, character.  But despite the satisfaction I felt in Dolores's eventual triumphs, I also felt manipulated by the novel.  And that will always leave a sour taste in my mouth.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review: The Mirage, Matt Ruff

The Mirage begins in a world related to ours but very different. The United Arab States (UAS) is the dominate superpower in the world, and North America is divided into several nations, including The Evangelical Republic of Texas, the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories, and the Christian States of America (CSA). Israel is in Central Europe. The Gulf War was fought in the Gulf of Mexico. And on November 9, 2001, Christian fundamentalists hijacked four commercial airliners and flew two of the them into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, Iraq, touching off a War on Terror which saw UAS troops invade North America, capturing the city of Denver (where the World Christian Alliance, the group claiming responsibility for 11/9, was believed to have a base) and eventually establishing a provisional government in Washington, D.C.

The novel follows Mustafa, Amal, and Samir, agents for UAS Homeland Security, as they combat terrorism in Baghdad. They keep running across references to and seeming artifacts from a "mirage world" where a North American country called The United States of America is the dominate superpower who was attacked by Muslim terrorists on 9/11/2001. At first they dismiss that world and its artifacts as Christian legend and hoax, but as time and their investigations progress, they begin to think the mirage world may be the real world.

The Mirage is set up as a thoughtful thriller, and the first half of the book, where Ruff does most of his world-building in his alternate world and all of his set-up for the mystery part of the story, is clever and compelling. But the novel falls off in the back half, when the cause of the mirage is revealed (it is in keeping with the logic of the world Ruff has built, but is somehow anti-climactic) and Mustafa, Amal, and Samir attempt to stop organized crime lord Saddam Hussein from reversing the mirage (he believes that he will be a powerful king in the "real world").

I was hoping that The Mirage would offer insight into 9/11 by making it and its context just strange enough to see clearly. And it does do a fairly effective job of making an American, Christian reader "other" to herself by aligning the narrative's sympathies with those who some Americans consciously or unconsciously make "other" themselves. But as the novel goes on, the alternate reality Ruff has built begins to feel a little cardboard, a little too clever--and in ways which are not serving the story. One begins to question the pat "flip" of our world to this alternate world, one begins to long for an in-depth exploration of how the world got to have this "mirage" configuration. Clever parallels become annoying, begin to beg for further insight. Why, for instance, should there be a Law and Order: Halal in this world? Would the progression of popular culture, the reaction to and anticipation of popular taste, interest, and opinion in a UAS really so closely mirror that of the USA we know so as to develop the same television program? In other words, why should a superpower centered in the Arab world look anything at all like a superpower centered in North America?

The answer has to do with getting this story on the page, not with any careful consideration of another culture. (If the worlds did not parallel one another, Ruff's two realities would not be close enough to one another for Mustafa and others to begin to believe in the other, "real" world. And to be fair, the explanation for the creation of the mirage does address (though indirectly) why a UAS would parallel a USA in any way.) But if one can accept the parameters under which The Mirage operates, the novel does offer a striking glimpse of the USA from outside. Perhaps the best way to approach The Mirage is to think of it as akin to an animal fable, where, instead of human foibles being made clear to human readers by giving those foibles to animals, American foibles are made clear to American readers by presenting them from a different point of view. Perhaps The Mirage works best if one thinks of it as a book which asks not "What's up with the Middle East?" but rather "What's up with America?"

A fascinating book, if an unsatisfying one. It's biggest success may be in existing, in daring (and I do mean "daring") to suggest to the American public, even if only in fiction, that the Arab world may be the injured party in our world and that what we had best look at is ourselves. And I thank Matt Ruff for writing it, even if, as a story, it doesn't really work.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey

(For the most part, if you know the plot of Jane Eyre, you know the plot of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, but I get a bit spoilery in my fourth paragraph for events specific to Gemma Hardy.  The whole review will completely spoil Jane Eyre for you if you do not know it.)

I'm afraid that this retelling of Jane Eyre just doesn't quite work.  Livesey's sentence-level writing is clean and impressive, and she has a knack for writing the kind of crisp prose that can effortlessly pull a reader along. And taken alone, Gemma's story serves as a decent character study.  The problem is that Gemma's story cannot be taken alone.  This is Jane Eyre, moved to Scotland in the 50s and 60s, and given some minor make-overs to make the plot plausible in the mid-twentieth century (Gemma's employer with whom she falls in love has a secret, but it does not involve a mad women stashed away in an attic--who would believe such a thing of a businessman in the late sixties?  Or if one did believe it, the whole thing could not help but be a great deal more inescapably, irrevocably dark and sinister.)  But transplanted to a world that is familiar to the modern reader, much of the plot of Jane Eyre becomes incredible.  It is hard to imagine an aunt suddenly treating her niece as less than a servant among automobiles, telephones, jumpers, and boyhood dreams of playing soccer for England.  It is difficult to see how a school could treat its pupils so poorly in days so close to our own.  It is entirely possible that such things might have happened in this setting (the nineteenth century did not have a monopoly on cruelty, after all), but fiction does not hinge on what might be possible in the real world, but on what has been made to seem possible on the page.  And Livesey fails to overcome her source material in making these Gothic-infused plot elements seem possible in the pages of her fictional world. 

Jane's transition to Gemma encounters other obstacles as well.  Mr Sinclair, the employer with whom Gemma falls in love, contains none of the mysteriousness of Mr Rochester, none of the sense of danger and intrigue wrapped up in enigmatic moods and veiled personal history.  Blackbird Hall and the Orkney islands do not ooze with atmosphere and gloom as Thornfield Hall and the moors do.  Mr Sinclair's secret is not terribly damning, and while it is believable that its revelation would make Gemma think twice about marrying him, her flight from him comes over as foolish and over-dramatic; Jane's flight from Mr Rochester and his attempt to commit bigamy through deceit (and the subsequent effect Jane may well have thought this would have on her soul) seems almost rational in comparison.  This difficulty with suspension of disbelief is not helped by the fact that Gemma and Sinclair's love for one another reads like a result of the novel's paralleling Jane Eyre rather than a natural development springing from these characters themselves.

In fact, much of The Flight of Gemma Hardy appears to exist because it must do so in order to stay true to the source to which it is indebted.  Reading the novel was a bit like going down a Jane Eyre plot point checklist.  Confrontation with bratty older cousin? Check.  Locked in a frightening room?  Check.  Sent off to a miserable boarding school?  Check.  Make friends with a doomed pupil?  Check.  Get job teaching the ward of a rich, absentee landowner?  Check.  Unwittingly help employer on the road when he returns unexpectedly?  Check.  And so on.  While Livesey does infuse her telling with new elements, while she does, in many ways, make the story her own, her changes and updates to the tale often feel uninspired; they rarely made me think about Jane Eyre in new ways or provided much insight into how the story of a girl growing up with this particular set of disadvantages changed in one hundred years.  I thought for a while that perhaps that sense of things not having changed much was the point of the novel, but if so the illustration of that fact falls flat.  Having dismissed that notion, I considered the possibility that the novel was meant to illustrate how Jane Eyre, when looked at from a distance, becomes rather silly, how it might have seemed so to its contemporary readers, just as some of its plot elements seem unbelievable when placed in a (roughly) contemporary setting today.  But, no, the book does not suggest to me, in its unfolding, in it careful retracing of the plot of Jane Eyre, any sort of critique of the original novel. 

Except, perhaps, in the end.  Finally, finally, in the last fifty-or-so pages, The Flight of Gemma Hardy departs from its strict adherence to the plot of Jane Eyre.  Upon discovering that she may have family on her father's side still living, and in the aftermath of refusing a perhaps practical but certainly passionless proposal of marriage, Gemma (unlike Jane) goes in search of that family.  And here are some of my favorite parts of the book.  Gemma finds living relatives in Iceland and learns (as Jane does not), a fair amount about her childhood before coming to live with her aunt and uncle, about her family, about, as a result, herself.  And Mr Sinclair comes to find her, rather than her going back to him.  And they do not get married (though there's a strong intimation that they will, once Gemma comes to understand herself a little better).  This is the sort of thing I was hoping the whole book would do--put a spin on the familiar story, show how Jane Eyre would be if she'd been born in the aftermath of World War II.  And in some ways I suppose it does do that, but I never really felt that the novel was fully reimagining the original story.       

I did so want to love The Flight of Gemma HardyJane Eyre is one of my favorite novels, and I thought a retelling of it had a lot of potential.  Unfortunately, Livesey doesn't quite tap into that potential--I spent much of the novel wishing she (or someone) had reimagined Jane Eyre in its original setting, taking up the story from some crucial point in the original narrative and exploring what might have happened if Jane had made different choices.  Alas.  But I do give mad props to Livesey for trying, and on the strength of her prose, I will be looking out for some of her previous novels.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Packing for a Reading Retreat

I've never been on a Reading Retreat, but I've heard of them.  Comfy accommodation in some secluded, scenic spot; meals provided; evening gatherings of other retreat attendees to discuss bookish things.  No television, no phone, no obligations--nothing to do for a week but read, read, read.  I've no immediate plans to go on such a retreat either, as paying handsomely to do something I can just about get away with at home with some forward planning always seems just a little too extravagant.  But gosh, I'd like to.  And sometimes I imagine what it would be like, and what books I'd take.  Thus, about once every four months (I'll shoot for around 1 April, 1 July, 1 October, and 1 January), I'll share what I would pack for a reading retreat if I were lucky enough to be heading out to one soon.

I've done my share of packing for regular vacations, of course.  And I always take too many books.  It's just so hard to choose, and I'd hate to get there and realize that the book that I really want to read, the book that would be just perfect, is the book I left behind.  The knowledge that I will almost surely be someplace where I can get another book, or borrow a book from a friend, has no effect on my overpacking.  The books I pack tend to fall into one of three categories: something I've never read, or books that are new to me; books I've read before and would like to visit again, or old favorites; and one or two books that catch my eye after I thought I'd finished packing, or those that are just in case.  So in each "Packing for a Reading Retreat" post, I'll pick three books that are new to me, three old favorites, and one just in case--and I'll say a little about each one.  That's may still be too many books for a week, but who could choose?

New to Me

The Mirage, by Matt Ruff
From the front flap: "11/9/2001: Christian fundamentalists hijack four jetliners.  They fly two into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh.  The fourth plane, believed to be bound for Mecca, is brought down by its passengers."  Chilling.  And tantalizing.  I have steered clear of, or been disappointed by, books I've read that center around 9/11, but this one intrigues me.  Perhaps it is a suspicion that reading about those events turned on their head will be easier to stand, while still providing some insight.  Perhaps it is just that I am fascinated by speculative fiction, with things that posit "but what if it were just this way?"  Either way, I've heard good things, and this is the first 9/11 novel I've really wanted to read, rather than just thought I probably ought to.  Here's hoping. 

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey
Gemma Hardy loses her parents and then a kind guardian and is left in the care of a mean aunt.  She subsequently goes away to school, hoping for a better life, only to find the conditions living there little better than staying with her aunt.  Eventually she takes a job as an au pair, and finds herself intrigued by her employer.  Yar, it's Jane Eyre, and consciously so.  If there's anything that fascinates me more than speculative fiction, it's a retelling.  And Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books, not only because I loved reading it, but because it was one of the few classics I read as a teenager entirely because I wanted to.  It wasn't for school, it wasn't suggested by my mother, it wasn't to help me pass any kind of test.  I'm a little wary of Gemma Hardy for that reason, but I've heard really good things about this one, too.

Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, translated by John. E. Woods
I had to read Death in Venice for one of my comps a few years ago, and I expected it to be a slog.  Au contraire!  I loved it.  Since then I've been picking up John E. Woods's translations of Mann's major works, but I've yet to sit down and read one of them.  The Magic Mountain always seems like a too-intellectual introduction to Mann in long form, and I shy away from Doctor Faustus fearing it may wreck me somehow.  Buddenbrooks strikes me as the least intimidating.  And such a long novel would be the perfect thing for a weekend of uninterrupted reading. 

Old Favorites 

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Yes, yes, I hear many of you crying foul, claiming this is too obvious, demanding I pick something else.  But this is no knee-jerk, I-always-want-to-read-Rings-again kind of a choice.  M just reread The Hobbit the other week, and we've been dipping into the films of an evening here lately.  And I've realized that it's been quite a while since I've read Rings in its entirety.  There are always new things to discover in Tolkien, no matter how many times you've read him, and I always think that Rings suffers greatly from being read in snatches.  One should really sit down with it for hours at a time and let oneself settle comfortably into Tolkien's style, let oneself get caught up in Middle Earth.

The Sound of Summer Voices, by Helen Tucker
My mother read the first chapter of The Sound of Summer Voices to me when I was home sick from middle school.  (It was probably a nasty headache, otherwise I likely would have read it myself.)  The story has a mystery to it, though it is not a mystery story, and I remember calling out what I thought were deeply important clues as she read.  The story involves a pre-adolescent boy who decides that one of his aunts must actually be his mother, and follows him as he tries to find out the truth.  Tucker has a knack for capturing small town life and the characters who live in them.  And the plot is fun.  I've been meaning to read this one again for a long time.

Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier 
You gotta take along one slightly creepy book in case of thunderstorms.  Rebecca is probably my favorite "slightly creepy" read.  The atmosphere DuMaurier creates is tangible, and the mysterious goings on at Manderley hold up brilliantly even when you already know what all the fuss is about.

Just in Case

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen 
I can practically recite Pride and Prejudice without looking at the pages.  And that's largely why it's here.  It's an old, comfortable favorite, and will serve splendidly in cases of homesickness, duds, or freak-outs caused by The Mirage.  Austen's language is so smooth that her sentences have a kind of soothing, inevitable rightness to them.  And the characters are just delicious, the plot just twisty enough, and the humor just delightfully pointed.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Are you from the PAST?

I was born in the early eighties into a family with a mother who worked in an office, one grandmother who was the vice-president of a local bank, and another grandmother who was responsible for the bookkeeping and all money matters for her church.  Our houses were filled with books, and you were generally more likely to walk into a room of people reading than of people watching television.  Abortions and hormonal birth control have been legal all of my life.  That a woman should have professional responsibilities outside of the home, that she should have control over the reproductive functions of her body, that she should read whatever struck her fancy, were all such normal, self-evident ideas that it didn't occur to me even to think about them until I was somewhere in my teens.  And I can honestly say that I have never thought that my femaleness--its very fact alone--has ever been a cause for others to dislike me or behave condescendingly toward me or form any opinions about me at all.  Until now.

I am not naive enough to think that this experience was universal for women my age, or even for those born a little later, a little more solidly into the post-Roe-v.-Wade era.  And I know that the fight for women's equality--in popular culture, in politics, in the job sphere--have been going on all my life.  And once I started to emerge a bit from the shelter of family life, I certainly saw it.  But suddenly I feel it.  Suddenly I feel like there are people out there who will think a certain way about me because I am a woman, and not because they have met me, or read what I've had to say, and come to a thinking conclusion.  And some of those people appear to be the same people who think they ought to be the President of the United States.  The president.  The face of the nation.  The singular embodiment of our country and the democratic ideals for which it stands.  When Rush Limbaugh called an accomplished, intelligent young woman a slut before a national audience because he didn't like her politics, Mitt Romney, one of the forerunners for the Republican nomination for president, responded to the incident by saying that Limbaugh's words "were not the language [he] would have used."  That Limbaugh would say something so distasteful, nasty, controversial, and off-point does not surprise me in the least.  That so many people are trying to defend his statement, that a potential presidential candidate would so obviously fail to condemn it, saddens me, frightens me, and, frankly, makes me feel like shit.   

And this is what I thought we had moved past as a society, this putting down of women, this shaming of women through their sexuality, this infantilizing of women, consciously or unconsciously, solely because they are women.  That there is work still to be done in our culture if we want men and women truly to stand on equal ground, I have always known.  But certain entrenched attitudes which reveal themselves in language, in jokes, in "glass ceilings," cannot help but take time to work themselves out, and while I don't like these things, I rarely see any maleficence, any nastiness, in them.  They are unfortunate, and have great potential to harm, and should be worked against.  But unintentional, culturally ingrained misogyny, while destructive and potentially insidious, is a far cry from hateful, shaming speech; from denial of access to health care; from removal of autonomy over one's body. 

At first I thought that the nastiness of Limbaugh's invective was just an isolated incident--something that was exacerbated by the Republican Primaries and was blown out of proportion by the real (potentially not-nasty) concerns that some have over the question of whether birth control should be required to be covered by health insurance plans.  But since the Limbaugh storm, it seems that every day I read about some similar (if not quite so shockingly blatant) attack on the strides women's equality has made.  A new proposed bill in Arizona would allow employers to request to see women's prescriptions for contraceptives so they can determine whether women are using the pills for birth control or other medical reasons.  Because of Arizona's employment laws, employers would be within their rights to fire women using the pill for contraception.  Eat your heart out, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

But, the bill almost certainly won't pass, right?  And there will always be some people whose beliefs are out of sync with prevailing national attitudes, right?  Well, how about this New York Times article about the re-release of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which is touted as erotic?  The article made me increasingly cranky the more I read.  It suggests that the book is something to "pass around" in womenly spaces like exercise classes and school groups, that the book is teaching mothers how to be sexual again, that there is something slightly shameful in reading about sex, that more women may be reading erotica now because they can "hide" their reading on e-readers, that it has taken a book of this sort to get women reading.  All these suggestions paint a picture of a culture that feels like something out of Marilyn French's The Women's Room.  I don't know about you, but my world is not defined by a series of circles of women, I never stopped reading, and I don't need to pass around a dirty book in secret with my girlfriends to feel fulfilled at home with my husband.  What is this, 1955?

All I can say is, "Push back."  Don't let people get away with conflating their political views with misogyny.  Don't let them treat you like children or some kind of second class citizen.  If you start to feel shameful or dirty or bad because of what some people are saying, stamp those feelings out.  There is no denying that being a woman will have some bearing on how your life unfolds and how others interact with you, but what you think, how you behave, are so much more important than what's between your legs.  As for what you do with that, it's between you and, well, you.  No government officials or media pundits need apply.  And if you have a father or a grandfather or a brother or an uncle or a boyfriend or a husband or a son who has always treated you as a thinking, feeling, competent human being because it never occurred to them to treat you any other way, take a moment to give thanks for the positive influence they had on the person you have become. 

The title for this blog post comes from The IT Crowd.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why I Can't Watch Horror Movies

Recently M and I tried to watch The League of Gentlemen.  I say we "tried" to watch it not because it isn't good but rather because it does what it does so well that M and I are so discomfited by its blend of comedy, tragedy, and horror that we can hardly stand to watch.  At the end of episode two, M picked up the remote and said, "Well?  Carry on?  Or no?"

"Uuuhh," I said, the very picture of eloquence.  "It's like I want to know, but I don't want to see."

That is how I often feel about horror, or at least about horror that professes to have something to it other than being just a fright-fest or a bloodbath.  Things like Psycho and The Shining hold a certain fascination for me, though I will not watch them, while the Saw films, for instance, do not interest me in the slightest.  About Psycho, I think maybe I would like to know, provided I do not have to see.  I do not even want to know when it comes to Saw.

Because, you see, I am missing whatever gene or synaptic pathway or cultural proclivity it is that makes so many people like horror movies.  I have heard the theories: that they release tensions.  That they allow us to experience fears safely.  Sounds good, I guess.  I can buy that this is true for some people.  I can even understand a certain amount of gleeful delight in the gruesome.  But here's the thing: I don't like to be scared.  I don't like anticipating being scared.  I don't like the moment the scare happens.  And I really don't like trying to fall asleep the night after the scare when I can't get the scary image out of my head.  Horror movies don't release any tension for me; they create new tensions, tensions that pop into my mind unlooked for in the night, days, weeks, sometimes years, later.  A friend and I mainlined the first season of Supernatural on DVD a few years ago.  I was wary of the effect all those ghosts and monsters and demons would have on me, but there was so much good stuff going on there aside from the horror and I wanted to know.  I should have known better.  I still have nightmares.

Part of the problem is that I respond to the wrong bits.  Or that I respond to the right bits wrongly.  An early scene in The League of Gentlemen sees a young hiker wander into a shop in the village of Royston Vasey and there be accosted by the shop owners' xenophobia and general creepy wackiness.  And the scene is hilarious.  (Two catch phrases stemming from this scene--"Are you local?" and "Don't touch the precious things!"--have become part of our household lexicon, despite our giving up on the show.)  But the scene ends ominously, and we discover later that the shop owners have killed the hiker and burned his body.  (My brain insists that they've also eaten him, but I don't think there's actually anything in the episode to suggest this).  Aside from being fairly well creeped out by this revelation (I think that was probably intended), I'm also let down that a character who was introduced early and seemed important has been dispensed with so summarily.  I was settling in with him, dammit!  I was preparing to get to know him, and now he's just gone.  This sort of reaction I am not at all sure was intended.  And it is this desire to see the show do things I do not think the show has any interest in doing that disinclines me toward watching it, more than the creepiness.  I am uneasy that I will become invested in characters who will never see resolution, that I will see things that require a catharsis that the show will never offer.  This is almost certainly an unfair judgement of a show of which I have seen only two episodes, but the fear of these outcomes is enough to make me wary of watching any more.  

Something we have been successfully watching is Northern Exposure, which the Netflix sleeve for The League of Gentlemen (un)helpfully compares to LoG.  (Who writes those Netflix sleeves anyway?  They seem always to be comically wrong or hopelessly inane.) If I squint, I can see a vague kinship between the two (both involve an isolated town with zany local residents who have unusual attitudes toward the macabre, and both are comedic), but their tones are so resoundingly different.  While watching The League of Gentlemen, I began to feel like I could lose my grip on reality at any moment, and that if I did, I would find myself in a dark chaos, perhaps in the company of an evil clown.  Northern Exposure often provides the same sense of reality coming unglued, but with NE I feel that if I were to let it, what I would find would be enlightenment, or perhaps the face of God.

I suppose the bottom line is that if I'm going to be led into darkness, I want to be able to trust that I'm going to be led out again.  And because so much of the method of horror involves violating trust (a horror film is always trying to "get ya," by making you jump, by making you scream, by grossing you out), I just can't find a way to enjoy movies which employ it.  But I can't help feeling, sometimes, that I'm missing out on some really cool things because of it. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: The Lost Art of Reading, David L. Ulin

Ulin's long essay in book form (I'll estimate it's about 40,000 words) makes some good points about reading in the age of Twitter and texting and the pull of near-constant connectedness, and I certainly agree with his claim that what one might call "traditional" reading (that done with a paper book, not a device that can "do things," like look up words, log on to Facebook, or check e-mail) is important for the ways it cultivates and develops deep thinking and long attention spans. I was heartened that he does not cast the internet and e-readers and all things digital as the Devil, as some of conservative mind on this subject do, because I think doing so is unconscionably shortsighted and unhelpful. In one of the most interesting parts of the essay, Ulin references studies that show how internet usage actually changes our brains and discusses the likelihood that the initial rise of reading did so as well. There's no question that we're living at a cusp; we're changing ourselves, and we know we're doing it.

But for all of the good points and the interesting bits, The Lost Art of Reading is somehow unsatisfying in the end. I often felt as if Ulin were wandering away from his thesis, and while wandering can often be quite fruitful in an essay, sometimes he just didn't quite get anywhere useful. And while there were many moments in the text where I nodded and made little checks of agreement in the margin, there were also many places he didn't go that I thought the essay begged to get to. For example, he talks about how distracting hyperlinks can be to a reader of a digital text and discusses how this fragments one's reading but treats this as if it were a new experience in the digital age without making any reference to the long-familiar and (to my mind anyway) quite similar experience of reading a paper book that is densely footnoted. I also would have liked to have seen a fuller discussion of how "traditional" reading does that which other activities cannot do. Ulin calls literature a "voice of pure expression" (25), and makes a case for the act of reading as training for the kind of critical thinking necessary for anyone who hopes to engage in or understand political discourse. He seems to imply that that these things require "traditional" reading, but does not really explore why. Perhaps I am asking too much of this essay, perhaps I am asking it to do things it did not set out to do. But Ulin has jumped into turbulent waters here, and, while I agree with his conclusions, I'm not sure he's done enough to keep them afloat.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: The Vesuvius Club, Mark Gatiss

If Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle somehow had a baby, and then sent it off to be raised by Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, it might have grown up to be Lucifer Box, the hero of Mark Gatiss's The Vesuvius Club.   Box is an Edwardian-era secret agent, who, when he's not off saving the Realm, is a painter and a much- sought-after guest at all the best parties.  Box narrates his own story, and the result is irreverent, witty, knowing, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.  Many reviews of the novel toss around the word "pastiche," and that's fair--it's impossible not to think of James Bond, of Sherlock Holmes, even of Bertie Wooster and maybe Edward Gorey while reading--but Gatiss is doing something of his own, too.  Box is unapologetically bisexual and from there stems some of what is most interesting about the book; in their review of The Vesuvius Club, The Times Literary Supplement says that Box is "revealed to be bisexual" at the midpoint of the story.  I'd say rather that, if you've been paying attention, he is gleefully affirmed to be bisexual at the midpoint of the story.  Only a few of the other characters in the book know this about Box (it is early twentieth century England, after all), but between Box-as-narrator and the reader, his bisexuality is treated as a perhaps slightly-shocking-fact at first, but never as something shameful, dirty, or prurient (or at least not any more prurient than anything else--the whole book is delightfully nudge-nudge-wink-wink).  It is then taken as given, and Box's sexual interest in valet Charlie is treated as no more remarkable than his sexual interest in drawing-student Bella.  And that, itself, I think, is remarkable, even (especially?) today.  The novel is not about Box's bisexuality, and in not being about that, somehow it becomes about just that.  And I love it for it.

I suppose I should say something about the plot--the novel is a mystery story, and the plot does trip along.  Lots of fairly ridiculous incidents, competently written action, and it all hangs together well enough in the end.  But really it's about the humor, the wit, and the pastiche.  And a certain amount of (somewhat surprising) heart.  It's clear that Gatiss had a brilliant time writing this, and if you are in any way inclined toward liking The Vesuvius Club that delight will pass over into your reading experience.  That being said, this book is probably not for everyone.  There's an element of the send-up here, of going over-the-top, of taking something to such heights of badness that it becomes irresistibly good, and if that's not your thing, this may read flat.  But.  If you like that sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing you will like.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.