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.

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.