Friday, October 3, 2008

The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Oh my god, y'all, I cried. I cried so hard. I'm not going to tell you why, because I don't want to spoil it for those of you haven't read it. (Want spoilers? I think you're an asshole for not spending the time to read the actual book, but fine--go here.)

I want to write about feminist/gender-busting characters, artistic youth, fathers, and childhood tragedy, but I can't even get into this right now, I'm so heartbroken.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Career Books

Besides the YA novels, I've also been reading career books non-stop. I was interviewing for (and got!) a job with a lot more responsibility, including managing people. Here's a sample of what I've read:

One Minute Manager
I cannot describe the stupidity of how this book is set up. I was embarrassed to read it. Good tips, yes, but I don't need to be told this crap in the form of a "fable."

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything
I'm not sure how useful this will actually be. I picked it up because I wanted to a) influence possible employers to hire me and b) be a better fundraiser. It doesn't really help me with either, but as someone who works in public health (as a fundraiser) the discussion about we change people's behavior is still interesting.

The Girl's Guide to Being a Boss (Without Being a Bitch)
Obviously the title is terrible. I know I can be a boss without being a bitch, but I still want to know how to be a good boss. The vocabulary is demeaning ("chick-in charge"? Fuck you), but it does have useful information. It just constantly reminds you that you're female, as if you'd forget.

Do What You Are
Have you ever taken the Briggs-Myers personality test? I vaguely remember doing so in Junior English and scoring the same as the weirdo who sat next to me--I'm still convinced that he cheated off me. Anyway, I am an ISFJ. Although in high school we took the test to get an idea of what we would do when we grew up (my possible career path: shoe salesperson. Why shoes?), now I just wanted to be clearer on how to work with different personalities and how to express what my personality needs at a job. My current job is very influenced by certain personalities and I was recently criticized for not having that kind of a personality (trying to protect the innocent with my garbled desciption), and I have to say that having this book made me feel better about it. Not like I can't learn to do or act in a certain way, but I can confidently say now that I focus on work duties, not my coworkers personal lives, and that's fine. I know that with my new job, I can start out with this kind of confidence.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Young Adult Novels

I've was going through YA novels lately at a pretty past clip--about one book a day. Much too quickly to write about them as I went along, so here are a few short hits:

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Peterson
Oh, I loved this book. It could have so easily turned into a book of maxims about being anti-social and not loving your family, but it didn't--Louise's problems are always taken seriously and we aren't persuaded to moralize over her. Obviously, some readers find this a bit disturbing. Really, I'm not sure it's good for kids--we're such moralists when we're young--but at 29 I think it's one of the best books I've read for a long time.

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
Ellen's favorite YA book. I've heard the plot so many times (and Ellen's alternative endings) that there were no real surprises. One might think that a story of a young Jewish girl who falls in love with a Nazi would not be on the right side of history. However, the issues of fascism, racism, and anti-semitism are much more complex in the novel. Of course, Greene herself was accused of anti-semitism. Although Patty's parents are awful, they are not caricatures of awful Jews--her grandparents are wonderful, caring people who are Jews too. You're persuaded to really think
about hatred and prejudice, something we aren't really used to doing.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konisberg How is it I only read this now? I was always talking about running away as a child.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Another runaway. Only this one skins animals, makes stew, and builds her house out of ice. The end is heartbreaking

All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Food-obsessed little children and a stupid love story tacked onto it. A favorite of
East Village Inky's Ayun Halliday.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
I bought this for my cousin Tess several years ago, but only read it now. I'm glad I got it for her, but I hope she doesn't think that I support slavery.

Judy Blume:
Forever, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Then Again Maybe I Won't, Deenie
Compared to most of the books above, Judy Blume's stories are kind of boring. Just dumb Jersey kids doing normal, dumb kid stuff. But, they are actually dealing with pretty deep issues--disability, sexuality, class, family relations, the legacy of the Holocaust. No wonder kids love Blume. She takes them seriously, whether they're waiting for their periods, fighting with their friends, or trying to figure out how the world works.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

I started reading this at the beginning of August, as a way to escape my real life. Obviously, that's part of why we read in general, but in this case, my desire was to enter the artistic, academic, passionate, disturbing relationship of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. I could not finish the book, exactly for the reason that I picked it up in the first place.

I am not a knee-jerk anti-Hughes feminist, although there were obviously better-behaved husbands in the world. I am not even terribly upset by his mythmaking around his wife, because I get it--he wanted Plath to be remembered as an artist, not someone who struggled with being a woman and an artist. Plath may have wanted to be remembered that way too. Expecting an ex-husband (or partner or child or parent) to remember a person as s/he actually was is, perhaps, asking too much. So if Hughes remembers Plath as a flighty, artistic bird, a candle that burnt bright but not long, I know that he is being condescending, sexist, etc., but I can't hate him for that. I only pity him.

The poetry itself is good, but so saturated in Plath, that I wanted to constantly run to her diaries or Ariel to compare. Feminist Americans will never be able to appreciate Hughes on his own--he is overwhelmed by the shadow of his ex-wife.

Jane Sexes It Up

I have to write another post about this book for a book club and am feeling very resentful of it. There are a myriad of reasons for this, that I won't go into on this semi-anonymous forum, but if this post is especially sketchy, you will know that it is because I am working on something more professional, less personal about the same damn book.

First off, this book was published about ten years ago and feels incredibly dated. Remember when radical feminists defended Bridget Jones' Diary? Yeah, it was before we had to hear about how "fat" Renee Zellweger for for the movie role. And before Carrie married Big (sorry for the spoiler, but seriously? If you cared, you knew). It was a golden era before reality shows co-opted bisexuality and teenagers weren't getting their nether-regions plucked by professionals. When being aggressively sexy, even to the point of being paid for it, seemed transgressive. Now, frankly, I'm tired of it. Is it our pornified culture? My own (further) experience with sexual exploitation? Have I had too many sex workers assume that I'm repressed because I have a "straight" job? Yeah, pretty much. But frankly, even that bores me. If I can be a little cranky about third wave feminism for awhile (this is not common): ladies, are we planning on DOING anything? Or are we going to stay in our cocoon of theory and our own experience? Will we reach out to people with different experiences or just "be aware" of them?

That said, the intro chapter was extremely difficult for me, because it hit very close to home. I don't want to read on because I feel like I'm confronted by my radical (naive) 20 year old self. The one who didn't see the problem with being independent and being in love, who was unabashedly sexual (in public), who lived--and thrived--in contradictions. I am too tired for that anymore.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell

The last course I took as a graduate student was on 18th century women's literature and was first introduced to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who is one of those historical women who makes you feel like you are definitely doing something wrong in your modern life. At a time when elite women's education meant dancing lessons and maybe some French, Lady Mary was an esteemed poet, travel writer, and champion of the smallpox innoculation. Even after her own experience with smallpox, which severely scarred the famous beauty, she continued to have a varied and controversial public career.

So, in short, the reason I picked up this book was Lady Mary. However, I was not aware that it would focus so exclusively on her. I was looking for something a bit more inclusive, although Carrell also focuses on Zabdiel Boylston, another innoculation champion from across the pond in Boston. Lady Mary and Boylston meet eventually, of course, and become friends. And that right there, is the problem with the book. I thought I was picking up a history book, but this is a weird marriage between history and historical novel. It's too dramatized for me to take entirely seriously as history (although most conversations are backed up by letters, contemporary journalism, and other documents), but it's not dramatized enough to be compelling as novel. Add in the precious references to Alexander Pope, Ben Franklin, and an infant Samuel Adams and you have a serious mess on your hands. An interesting mess, perhaps, but not one I can recommend.

Also, it should be noted that if you are afflicted with a delicate stomach, this is not the book for you. Smallpox is a horrific disease and Carrell's descriptions are detailed. I was fine reading at home, but nearly passed out during a particularly gruesome passage while I was reading on the subway.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Miss Marple again. I don't think I'm going to post anything else from my Agatha Christie readings. I don't really have that much to say, I think. This book was especially interesting, however, in how little Miss Marple was featured. She comes in more than halfway through and solves the crime almost completely off-stage (if you will).

The story begins with a scourge of dirty, accusing, false letters being sent around a small village. We don't get to read too many of them, because Christie is nothing if not decorous about nastiness. Of course, suicide and murder follow. A newcomer, recovering from an accident, gets tangled up in it and does a bit of bumbling/sleuthing. Village oddballs abound, as they always do. A love story is shoehorned in as well.

Why did I start reading it at all? Because I found that I couldn't read about smallpox on the train without getting sick.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Female Thing by Laura Kipnis

I didn't read Kipnis' earlier book, Against Love, but I know her as a polemicist. So I was not surprised that she doesn't really hold back too many punches in The Female Thing. That is not to say that these literary punches aren't warranted or even, frankly, unusual--a third wave feminist critiquing Andrea Dworkin and Naomi Wolf? No!

However, Kipnis can be a bit flip about some of her subjects, like say, sex with minors. (Sorry, I thought it was part of the social contract that adult women should refrain from fucking 12 year old boys. I managed to do so my whole life and plan on going to the grave without indulging. And there is a very clear difference between a professor having an affair her/his 18+ student and an adult fucking a pre-teen.) And she leads us down some interesting paths, but then blocks the path with a joke, rather than insight. The book is, in her words, "an account of the female psyche at the twenty-first century mark..." (vii) and, true to form, is sometimes meandering, interesting, exhausting, and judgmental. It is The Feminine Mystique for femininity that is no longer only tied to family and home. But the thing is, although Kipnis does focus on the female psyche, there are hints at this being a much bigger "thing," that men are experiencing, say, dissatisfaction, and that it's not just about gender roles:

"Living in a society so cavalier about the basic needs of the majority does create a certain amount of emotional fallout. If only the polity of complaining women and fleeing men were issuing more ultimatums about the deteriorating conditions of collective social life, instead of confining them to the insufficiencies of the opposite sex." (33)


But is Kipnis' "female thing" or "thing about being female" my thing? Weeelll...kinda. Obviously every pysche is different (like snowflakes), but there are overarching cultural similarities. I definitely feel like I am missing "something" from my life (a state to which Kipnis assigns women), but I also fear being trapped--by a job, a family, a home (a state to which Kipnis assigns men). I am constantly upset by my partner's "dirtiness" and inattention to housewifery (mine and his), but my standards are much lower than my mother's and I am pretty happy in my dirty home. Am I sexually disatisfied? Can be. Whose fault is it? Mine, for not speaking up. And I am very nervous about vulnerability, but Kipnis does not mention the non-political pleasure of being vulnerable--being with someone you trust not to judge your for your vague jealousies, filthiness, and unassertiveness.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Babbit by Sinclair Lewis

So I used to have this job--I'll keep the details to a minimum to protect the innocent--and the boss at this job was a royal pain in my ass. He wasn't a sexual harrasser or anything (although he allowed that kind of thing to go on), but he thought he was this really amazing, really generous guy for paying me $12/hour to take care of his invoicing and run the office, etc. Looking back, I feel bad for him, because he really loved everything about his business except the running-the-business part, and that happens to a lot of folks.

Working with him was my first recognition of Babbitry.

I knew "Babbit" because Auntie Mame talks about him all the time. It is only now, four years after I left this job, that I actually read the book.

Is there a lot of Boss X in the original Babbit? Boy howdy! Is there a lot of my parents and the rest of my family? Well, yes. And of me? Hmmm.... I do wish that one could learn how to play a musical instrument well without practising. But I think that means that I'm lazy, not necessarily because I am a soulless consumer.

But Babbit isn't exactly the kind of book that inspires this kind of reflection or sympathy for the blowhard. He is a rude, horrible man whose horrible personal misdeeds contribute to the overall horribleness of the U.S. in 1920. He is anti-intellectual, misogynist, racist, elitist, and absent of any sensitivity to people, beauty, or art. His logic is relentlessly circular and self-serving (hey, this remind you of any national leaders yet?). Here's my favorite part (so far):

"A good labor union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labor agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn't be any unions allowed at all; and as its the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers'-association and to the Chamber of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to." (41-42)

The notes in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition are geared towards idiots, so we are told that Warren G. Harding was an American president, that "receipt" means "recipe," and what "bobbed hair" looks like. I'm sure Babbit would approve of making the book easier for nitwits to understand.

[Also, how awesome is that cover? The edition I read was much more boring.]

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I fucking love this book. Have you read Drown? No? Really? Visit this link. NOW. Now move on to this one.

Drown was big when I was in college, partly due to politically-correct multiculturalism that dictated that your reading list reflect a little-bit-of-everyone paradise. But it was also fucking good. And, as I was in a number of writing workshops, it was especially exciting to read good stories, stories my professors liked too, written by someone young and hip (well, hip for a fiction author). Diaz's writing is lively, fun, and Oscar Wao is like spending a long week the kind of guy who is going to break your heart, but will tell you a good story while he does it.

I've written before that writing about a book you like is hard (writing about one you hate is fun) and I am feeling again a creeping inarticulateness (wait, is that a word?) and a need to fit all my thoughts into parentheticals. So I'm going to cut it short and let you decide why this book is amazing, why it deserved the Pulitzer.

Junot Diaz on Newshour--double dork delight!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Meaning of Wife (part 2)

Because The Meaning of Wife deals with the mainstream cultural constructions of "wife," it is very much focused on white, middle- to upper-class, educated, straight wives. And that's a shame. Because, as the author points out, real wives (and their partners) are creating their own ways of being married that may be independent of these cultural scripts and I would think that looking at wives who have historically or currently fighting for their right to be a wife would be really interesting. What does it mean to be an African-American wife, for instance, in a culture that rarely represents African-American marriage? And when you're contending with stereotypes like "the mammy," "the bossy black bitch," and "deadbeat black father"? These wives--their factual and cultural realities--do not appear in this book. Nor do lesbian wives, whose right to marry is challenged because marriage is seen to exist only between a "husband" and a "wife." And what about pressure to marry (or to want to marry) in the gay community?

All of this is perhaps outside of Kingston's thesis (although I would argue that her chapter on single women was extraneous as well), but I am getting a little tired of folks writing about "culture" in a way that keeps us thinking only about those with the privilege to be the "default."

Oh also, I might be amending my "no-nup" agreement soon based on some of these horror stories.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston

I decided in college that I would not marry, ever. I mentioned to my mother and she just said "Well, you're allowed to change your mind." (Note: most people do change their minds about marriage. Usually, when they're in one.) Years later, I told my recently-divorced boss that I did not ever want to get married and had not wanted to do so for a long time--"And you had the wisdom to make this decision at 19?" she jokingly asked. She married her first husband at 19.

My decision to not get married is the product of many things, not least of which is that I don't want to be a wife. My mother is a wonderful mother and wife, and generally happy with both roles. But I saw the way that my father relied on her in ways that she could not rely on him. She took care of the home, of my brother and me, fed everyone regularly, walked the dog, and participated in the financial support of the family. My father worked and mowed the lawn. This isn't to indict my parents for anything, it is just to say that I figured out pretty early on that I did not want my relationships to look like theirs. I would not want my partner's job/time/energy to be considered more important than mine and, if I had children, I wanted him to be more involved with them than my father was or was able to be.

It's semantics, but I see the crux of the problem to be the definition of "wife." Ellen, who does want to get married someday, says that she sees the same problems, but wants to reform "wife" to mean a full and equal partner, not a mere helpmate. I see the term as beyond reform, that we have to create new paradigms of relationships (heterosexual and homosexual) to achieve true equality.

That said, I am in a relationship now that is not a marriage and both of us agree that we do not want it to become a marriage. And yet...I am his wife. When I moved in to his place, I felt time and again (and still do, although to a lesser extent) that I needed to make him happy at the expense of my own happiness. My partner does not encourage my passive abegnation, but we all know that it's a good deal to have a wife, and he is as happy as anyone to not have to take out the garbage or clean the kitty litter.

So what does that mean for this book? Well, it means that it forces you to reflect on your own decisions and "wife"-related status. Which can kind of suck, you know?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Books that Changed Your Life

The Fountainhead? Really? You're willing to have that published on the internets?

You can't be judgmental when someone publishes a list like this--he is asking you to judge him and assumes that he comes off well. I'm always curious what is going through someone's mind when they write such a list. Did these books really change his life? Or are they just his absolute favorites, the type of book he returns to time and time again? Because those are the books that I was thinking about when pondering this question. But I cannot serious say that Pride and Prejudice changed my life, except that I re-read it a lot and will annoyingly refer to "fine eyes" and truths universally known. So what are the books that really impacted the way I thought about myself and the outside world?

Not surprisingly, I refer back to adolescence and childhood for the most part. (I am far too crusty and opinionated now to allow a book to change my thought processes.)

* Little House on the Prarie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (series): Ah, protestant work ethic and the pioneer DIY spirit. And the detail of Mary's buttons and Laura's bonnets. This book is why I need therapy once a week.

* The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: I still want a plot of earth all to my own. I think I liked Mary best when she was bossing around Colin and making him jealous about Dickon. But I liked the three of them together, a secret, motley crew of agriculturally-minded weirdos. This book is why I got into punk.

* Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation ed. Barbara Findlen: This was the first feminist book I ever had. It given to me by my Republican uncle, who disagreed with my taste but wanted to get me a gift I would appreciate--in other words, trusting a young woman to make her own decision, an act I wish his political brethren would imitate. I considered myself a feminist before (duh, I put the book on my christmas wish list), but I had little exposure to a feminist community or women who were active in feminist activism. I learned about the multiple oppressions that face women from a variety of backgrounds, about teen motherhood, about feminist reasons NOT to have a (medical) abortion, about issues that never faced me in my sheltered, white, suburban life. This book is why I'm still excited to be a feminist.

* Fear of Flying by Erica Jong: I must have been 16 or 17 when I read this, so it's somewhat surprising that it impacted me as much as it did. After all, I wasn't married, didn't have any sexual experience, didn't find farting and dirty toes sexy. And yet, I constantly struggled with the idea of being an independent, intelligent young woman and being sexually and romantically fulfilled. I didn't know how to do it. It seemed like relationships at that age demanded that you be a clingy girlfriend, withholding or "giving up" sex as part of a complex system of power and control, not pleasure. I can't say that Fear of Flying showed me how to have a healthy relationship (, but it did let me know that I was not a freak for wanting a healthy balance between intelligence and sex. This book is why I own a vibrator (or 3). It's also why I'm fascinated by book covers that undermine the content of the book (I still have the infamous body bag/naked torso cover pictured).

Okay, judge away. I just hope my grandmother never finds this post...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Great Man by Kate Christensen (part 2)

So I finished and I still hate it. The end of the book reads: "Abigail Feldman, the late Maxine Feldman, and Teddy St. Cloud emerge in both biographies as fascinating subjects in their own right, so fascinating that this female reviewer couldn't help wishing Mr. Feldman had moved over and given his real-life women a little more room" (305). Yes, these women should be fascinating, but even after spending over 300 pages with them, they have not proven that yet. There's little depth to their characters, but they have all the possibilities for depth. They devolve from interesting possibilities to a crappy sitcom characters pretty damn quickly. I like that older women in fiction are still getting laid, but there are touches of The Golden Girls here, that I appreciate in TV Land, not so much in a novel.

The book is frequently referred to as a "comedy of manners," which would explain the lack of depth in the characters, but frankly, I don't see it. I am close enough to this social class to "get the joke," but they are few and far between. And some of the social observations are plain stereotypes, as with the educated, effete, black biographer and the harried, sex-starved, adulterous non-black biographer.

I have had years of fiction workshops and several more of literature classes, and do not see where the artistry lies in this book. If anything, this book proves to me that all you need to be a successful fiction writer these days is an overinflated ego, a word processor, and desperate critics.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Great Man by Kate Christensen

What is up with award winners? Is fiction really such in dire straits? And if so, why did that bitch dissuade me from fiction writing by saying that I am "not a genius," if clearly you only need a word processor in order to win a PEN/Faulkner?

Okay, that is a bit harsh... But seriously, is this as good as we can get? A rather facile story of one man's women? Somewhat like The Women, it is a mostly female story about a man and the women who fight over his sorry ass. To be fair, I'm not sure how much I hate the book and how much I hate the story--a distinction that is really only needed in a book review or a writing workshop.

And do I hate the characters or how they are characterized? Teddy with Sancerre (my favorite wine and therefore, perhaps a source of my annoyance) and fancy food; Abigail with Zabars. I get it, consumer choices expose personality (especially in superficial New York), but in this book, it comes off as showing off and/or laziness. Even Bret Easton Ellis knows you can't build an entire character on his consumer choices.

So what is the big picture here? That the women are more fascinating than the Great Man. That love is complicated. That relationships are complicated. That biographers have an agenda. That death and talking about the recently departed brings up a lot of complicated feelings, including our resentment of this person and then guilt about that resentment. I don't think that all good books need to surprise me with philosophical revelations more deep than these, but they can reveal them in a way that makes them surprising, refreshing, not that remind me of my "deep thoughts" as a college freshman.

The Short Life... (pt 2)

Despite my not-particularly-compelling current job situation, I completely forgot to post about this book again. There's syphilis! I'll update this post again soon (hopefully) with more details.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, the First Domestic Goddess by Kathryn Hughes

Oh, I love a biography about a forgotten famous woman! The great thing about this biography is that it doesn't stop at Mrs. Beeton's life and career (which was short--Isabella died at 28), but that it expands to look at how her book, Beeton's Book of Household Management, lived on well after her death. Isabella Beeton (nee Mayson) didn't really have a particularly interesting life (at least not yet, I'm only on pg 148), but Hughes manages to make the rather ordinariness of her life compelling. After all, who hasn't been annoyed with a loved one? Whose loved one doesn't hate your family? These are not fascinating events, but that they befall a purveyor of domestic bliss is, at least, touching.
And I am totally over-identifying with Mrs. Beeton's coping mechanisms--if only I make a list and "get organized" everything will fall into place (memo: this doesn't work). This is also why I love self-help and behavior guides (somewhat ironically); they break living down to a science, boring and predictable and incredibly soothing...

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (part 2)

So as I wrote before, Poirot is kind of annoying. Let's just say he makes me appreciate The Pink Panther all the more. But the nice thing about Christie's mysteries is that generally you don't see the detective work--Poirot and Miss Marple are putting clues together while the narrator is making polite conversation with the person who will turn out to be the serial killer. That is also nice because the ending is more of a surprise. Generally, I don't figure out who the killer is until pretty near the end of the book, although I might have guessed it and then talked myself out of it earlier. This twist ending, however, is actually a twist ending. It hit me pretty much out of left field, although the "Apologia" was kind of lame.

Interestingly, Pierre Bayard wrote a book positing that the killer was actually Caroline and that her brother was just covering for her. So the woman is to blame, after all.

Fuck you, Agatha Christie

Nothing ruins one's day quite like some throw-away anti-Semitism (and anti-Scots):

"They [*] are usually Scotch gentlemen, but I suspect a Semitic strain in their ancestry." (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 168)

The character who says this is, at this point of the book, supposed to be the mild-mannered, everyday sort of chap. The woman to whom he is speaking (who is being hounded by the Semitic Scotsmen) is a dithering, greedy idiot.

So fuck you from the bottom of my partially-Scotch and completely Semite-friendly heart.

* "They" are presumably loan sharks but are only referred to as "Scotch gentlemen."

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I only started reading Agatha Christie this spring because the Hong Kong airport had a special 3 for $10 (or the equivalent in HK$). I figured I could handle a mystery story on the neverending flight, which I began with my brain already mushy. And thus it began. I think The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is now the 10th Christie novel I've read (although only the second Poirot--I did Miss Marple).
So it turns out that The Murder is considered one of Christie's masterpieces. I'm hesitant to share too much of the plot (it is a mystery after all), but I am interested in the way it presages some of the Marple elements--gossipy spinsters who are smarter than the professionals, small towns are all the same, etc. Poirot is a bit annoying (not as lovably weird as I remember from The Mysterious Affair at Styles), but everyone else is delightfully stuffy. Christie seems to enjoy her female characters and making them kind of tough...but they are usually killers....

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

So I started reading this, but I doubt I will finish it. I am probably being unfair, but right now I'm just not feeling it. My friend Erin once said that she's bigoted and just doesn't care about boys' experiences and generally, I'm inclined to agree. Also, it's (partially) about Nam. Now, I've visited Viet Nam, but this is Nam--the place of my father's nightmares, where he never actually went, but had dead friends return. I've read my Tim O'Brien (and wrote a paper on his female characters, natch), so I don't exactly feel like I haven't gotten the white American male point of view of the war, you know what I mean? And 600+ pages is an awful lot to get through if I'm not already enjoying it. So I'll return to it (because Jesus' Son was too awesome not to want to read every damn thing Denis Johnson ever wrote), but maybe when I've broken my leg and already finished Proust.

The Gathering by Anne Enright (part 2)

Dorothy Parker's criticism of books she hated was always better, far better, than that of books she liked. It is, I suppose, natural to be somewhat articulate about a book that touches us emotionally, as most of us (even writers) are pretty inarticulate with our emotions. So I feel a little flummoxed about what to say here and have been putting off writing this post for a few days. What I can I say about it? It's really, really, really good, y'all.

At a metaphysical level, the book is about memory--those memories we forget (and yet know we forgot them), the ones we carry with us daily, and those we make up. Words, especially written words, usually fail us when trying to confront and compare our memories with reality (or others' perceived realities). But the characters and the book don't roll on the floor with anguish over this situation, they generally just get on with it, because what else are you going to do? Really. You just try to ignore everything, drink a bit too much, talk to ghosts, and leave your family, trying to avoid suicide. This may not be honorable and truth-seeking, but it's how we do, no?

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

I usually don't just read books that win fancy prizes, but it looks like that's how the library reserve list is working lately--I just finished On Chesil Beach (Galaxy Book of the Year); I will read Tree of Smoke (National Book Award); and am about halfway through The Gathering (Man Booker Prize).
I'm enjoying The Gathering more than On Chesil Beach. I know that we're all supposed to love Ian McEwan, but honestly, not so much. He's good, but I'm not really blown away. I get really tired of the limited perspective of his characters (which, okay, is the point, I know) and the miscommunication with each other (ditto). It's not that these situations don't ring true, it's that I don't care about the conventional characters or the everyday plot.
To counterpoint, here is Enright (not writing about McEwan, natch):
"I can twist them as far as you like, here on the page; make them endure all kinds of protraction, bliss, mindlessness, abjection, release. I can bend and reconfigure them in the rudest possible ways, but my heart fails me, there is something so banal about things that happen behind closed doors, these terrible transgressions that are just sex after all." (139-40)
It's just sex, just alcoholism, just grief, just suicide. These things are all very important when they happen to us, individually or as families or communities, but let's not pretend that they are unusual. We may be caught in our own minds and in our own ways of understanding the world, but that doesn't mean that we are unaware of the world outside of our skins.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

So I read Atonement last winter, right when the movie came out (the book was sitting on my shelf for years, but once I had the chance to groan at Keira Knightly in another literary adaptation, I finally got around to it). I was talking to my friend Ellen about it and she asked if I had read On Chesil Beach--"Atonement is like being beaten with a sack full of feathers, but On Chesil Beach is like being beaten with a sack full of rocks," she said gleefully.

Her comment is oddly accurate. The fight on the beach between the two main characters is dead-on, painful and disturbingly real. The tension between the two (and between what they want and what they say to each other) is excrutiating.

I read it in two days flat.