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.