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.