24 June 2011

Two weeks later.

To Reign in Hell, Steven Brust: Street find, didn't finish. Answers the musical question, "Can you make the interminable middle books of Paradise Lost at all interesting?" with a resounding "Oh my gosh, not even close."

The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler: Thus I moved to a languid summery reread (I think I first read all the Philip Marlowe novels one summer in high school? except there are a LOT of oeuvres I think I first read over a summer in high school, and there weren't that many). I love noir--the 20th-century heir to the gothic, resurgence of the Greek tragic hero...and oh yeah, so well dressed. Here, read a poem.

Changeless, Gail Carriger: Second after Soulless in the Parasol Protectorate series...and of all things, another street find. The zesty writing and the cheek and the steampunky fashion continue to go down like petits fours and cucumber sammiches!  Oh, and my Word.A.Day email this morning taught me that her flamboyant vampire confidant Lord Akeldama derives his name from the potter's field bought with Judas' blood money! Neat!

Then I sank pretty much up to my neck in must-keep-reading bliss with George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. Like so many things, I knew I was bound to love it when my sister did (we share a certain vehemence and catholicity of taste). It is straight-up fantasy epic--intrigue and dragons!--and though the prose is workaday, I'm amazed by Martin's ability to create so many characters and have them all be three-dimensional and distinct...and so very pleased by the number of important female characters. As my sister puts it, too, they're not just Important Female Characters; they are characters, who are important, who happen to be ladies. A distinction with a difference.

I'd planned to borrow the first four books from Chris's brother, but he'd left Book 2 (A Clash of Kings) at work or something, and his daughter was born last Sunday, so yeah, pretty sure sussing out the tome for me is now Priority A Million. Luckily, WORD was there for my George R.R. Martin Emergency needs (and the Museum of Modern Art Bookstore offices, where I'm filling in for the assistant book buyer through July, are there for my Income For Books needs, which YAY). I am being good and dutiful, though, and switching off days between Clash and The Brothers Karamazov, the next-three-months pick for WORD's classics book club--and a surprise gift from a college friend after an "I'm-broke-can-I-borrow" appeal on Facebook. So far it is making me feel dumb and fidgety. BUT I WILL PERSEVERE

Film Noir (c.2005)

I could be the bad girl
lipstick like a stoplight
cigarette smoke exhaled in belly-dancer curves
flashing my garters as I open the suicide door
I would sit on your desk and swing my slingback heels
I would lead you astray

You could be the crooked cop
the gangster who wants out
the P.I. mourning his partner
You wouldn’t believe a word I said
but you’d take my money—and you’d know
that I was trouble the minute you saw me
but trouble is perhaps a chance for redemption
a chance for revenge
a chance for revelation

and they all would be against you
the police department City Hall the richest man in the Valley
you would be like America against the spectre of Communism
that is if you consent to be a symbol

You could be the hero in the shadows
cigar smoke exhaled like the breath from a gun
I would smell of jasmine and Pall Malls
drink whiskey like a man
hide a derringer in my bag to be
coolly pressed against your jugular “I’m sorry Sam
but I’ve got to have that bird”

I could get my just desserts:
“Goddamn it, Charlie, you sold me out”
my upper-class accents gone, back to
the guttersnipe I’ve always been

but no, you’d let me go
for whatever I did as the camera panned away—
this being the Forties that’s no small thing—
maybe I was just a pawn but more likely I was the power behind the plot
the jewel thief the madam the old man’s young wife

“It’s been fun, Phil, but I gotta be going”
with a wink, my false lashes like the vicious green fringe
on a Venus fly trap

10 June 2011

The other two books I read this week.

Two days over 90° this week; naught to do but sit in front of a fan in one's undies and read. Slightly higher-impact than just watching TV, I suppose, but saves on electric bills.

Embroideries, Marjane Satrapi: Satrapi is, of course, the Iranian-born graphic memoirist responsible for Persepolis; this is a similarly illustrated minor work dealing with the sexual lives of Iranian women--naive to debauched--trading stories around a samovar.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss: I feel like I should have loved this book? I "only" liked it. The intersecting tales of elderly Leo Gorsky and 14-year-old Alma Singer hinge on the eponymous book, written by a mysterious Polish immigrant to Chile. The writing is lovely and the final dovetailing all it should be. I couldn't shake off the specter of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close's Oskar (huh, books came out within a month of each other. Good season for precocious list-making narrators) floating around Alma's voice, which seemed awfully little-kid for a high school freshman. So: not a winner for me, though I can easily see how it would be for someone else--to that end, I'm passing it along to Housing Works Bookstore where I'll be volunteering starting Monday next.

Dystopia. Kittycats. Yeah, this is my blog all right.

I prefer to think of it as "consistent" rather than "predictable."

Wastelands, edited by John Joseph Adams: a terrific anthology from Night Shade Books, a sci-fi/fantasy publisher I really should seek out more often. Of course, any collection has high points; in this one, there's "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth," Cory Doctorow's exploration of the post-apocalyptic Internet, held together by a global nerd network; Octavia E. Butler's "Speech Sounds," which follows a harrowing event that wipes out most of humanity's ability to speak and understand language; and "The End of the World As We Know It," Dale Bailey's loving upending of the best after-the-catastrophe clich├ęs. My only disatisfactions came with stories that weren't long enough to really sock me in the gut--the provenance of the Armageddon narrative. Except when they're hilarious. The editor has also prepared a lovely list of further reading which I am going to scan and consult the next time I'm in the mood for some good eschatology. (P.S. It is really hard to come up with synonyms for "post-apocalyptic.")

Daughters of the North, Sarah Hall: Luckily this one's dystopian. And honestly, not very good at all. I read the whole thing only because it was short, and I thought maybe the climax might be interesting, but quite the opposite. The story, such as it is, is that of Sister, who flees her repressive town in a totalitarian future Britain to find Carhullan, a legendary farm populated only by women, in hopes that they can offer her a better life. She finds them, they have hard-workin' utopian lesbianism-dabblin' good times, and then they attack the town. The weirdest thing about the narrative is how little time Hall spends on, first, the actual urban dystopia, and the women's army's battle to take and hold it. The latter, in fact, is entirely elided, by the conceit that the whole book is made up of Sister's after-the-fact testimony to the authorities, and that the "data" is corrupted. We are told that they "took the town and held it for fifty-three days," but the account of how it was done--the blood--is left out. It's a choice that stymies me. The only other caesura in the novel also contains a fistfight, where one woman is left bleeding. Does Hall think she's making a point about violence? Or can she just not write it very well? So what is in the book? Lots and lots of subsistence farming. Entirely undeveloped stock characters: grumpy nurse with a heart of gold, hard-as-nails leader. The rugged scenery of Cumbria, which is mildly interesting if only because I don't know much about that part of England. But really: eminently skippable.

From there, KITTYCAT BOOK!!! And a great one, The Fur Person, by May Sarton. (Once again, I am indebted to the boy who picks up kittycat books off the street for me.) It's third-person cat-niscient, the charming tale of a Cat About Town who decides he wishes for a housekeeper and finds two in Sarton and her partner (Brusque Voice and Gentle Voice), who name him Tom Jones and (thankfully for my nagging conscience) have him altered, at which point he ceases being a Gentleman Cat and becomes a Cat of Peace. Though it's intended as a children's book, it's a children's book from 1957, so the vocab is above most modern eight-year-olds: but just right for a feline-lovin' lady like me. Best book about cats from an author who doesn't usually write about them since Doris Lessing's amazing On Cats, which I reviewed back in ancient times before this blog existed.

09 June 2011

Dipping a toe in the latest YA kerfuffle.

So here's my deal: there was this article, in which Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoans the proliferation of dark YA fiction, in which sexual assault, violence, and self-mutilation have become de rigueur. And there was a flood of dismissive responses, usually centered on two points: "this stuff really happens" and "reading about it may help a survivor." Well, of course it does, and of course it may. But I can also understand Gurdon's point of view, and echo some of her concerns.

For me it's larger than YA, though (e.g., here's Ryan Britt's terrific blog post wondering why the sci-fi books that become literary classics are all so darned depressing). We are in a fiction moment right now wherein two fallacies hold sway: 1. that literature must be realistic in order to be serious or worthwhile, and 2. that realism largely consists of trauma and despair. I am as cynical as the next unemployed manic-depressive with a busted rib and no air-conditioning, but even I am aware that this is simply not true, that there is room for happiness in books as in life, and that said happiness can be realistic...or if it isn't, well, it doesn't have to be. Because it's fiction, and even a child can tell the difference.

But happy endings, right now, are not the way to either critical darlinghood or bestselling status. Witness Stieg Larsson's blockbuster Millenium Trilogy, the plots of which are rife with the torture, sexual assault, and murder of women. Conversely, Emma Donoghue's Room, narrated by a five-year-old boy whose only experience of the world is the shed he and his mother has been confined to by her kidnapper and rapist. The first is wildly popular, the second shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And I am not interested in reading either one, thank you. As my astute friend Molly says, "I don't enjoy experiencing any more than the amount of pain or fear that my regular life entails." I don't think you're depraved or evil or sick for enjoying either of these books, or the sea of current YA fiction Gurdon finds so alarming, and I'm fine with them being published. But I don't feel in the least shallow or escapist for avoiding them. (N.B. How do I reconcile this with my taste for dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction? Uhm. I don't. Large, contain multitudes, etc.)

It's not just book criticism that suffers from this happiness-isn't-serious misconception, either. Here's the last sentence of an AV Club review of Beautiful Boy: "[The film]
offers the antithesis of escapism: a claustrophobic, punishingly intense, beautifully measured exploration of the depths of human despair." Honestly, who reads that and thinks, "Sign me up!!"

Again, I understand bristling at the idea that protecting your children from evil means pretending it doesn't exist (although I don't see Gurdon advocating for this anywhere. Guidance is not the same as constraint, and not buying a book is not the same as banning it). But I believe most parents' dearest wish is that they could protect their children from evil, and their deepest sadness that they cannot. We should not scoff at this, nor should we cast concern as bigotry, ignorance, or oppression.

Also, we should generate a list of awesome YA books with happy endings! Here are my contributions:

07 June 2011

Meth and peanut butter.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, Nick Reding: Reading this book about the meth epidemic in the rural Midwest, the word that kept coming to mind was "harrowing." And while of course I intend that in the figurative sense, the agricultural setting also made me think of the farm implement that connotation derives from (though I had to look up which big scary machine it was): essentially a mammoth rake dragged over plowed ground to break down and even the land. It's a fitting image for what this drug does to people and communities.

The information in this book is rich and often staggering. For example, while I'd made associations between recreational meth and the Benzedrine used by WWII pilots, I hadn't realized that methamphetamine was legally prescribed for conditions ranging from mild depression to hay fever (I guess because it's a bronchodilator?). The associations Reding draws out between the general decline of rural America and the corresponding rise of meth are illuminating as well--corporate consolidation of meatpacking, for example, cut wages and benefits for workers who found production of the drug to be a much easier way to make a living. His characterization of meth as a quintessentially American drug, due to its ability to artificially ramp up industriousness, is especially sharp.

That said--that it is a book worth reading--I wasn't crazy about Reding's style, which I shall reductively and snottily describe as "New Yorker essay." His intention to microcosm the story in the Iowa town of Oelwein was dashed by digressions--which were necessary, and wouldn't have been digressions at all if he hadn't insisted on its being the Story of Oelwein. And in general, I find it really irritating in journalistic writing when real people are introduced with physical descriptions and then conclusions about their character are drawn from said traits. The book would have been stronger had these tropes been reigned in.

As a counterpoint to all the tweaking and harrowing, I double-fisted Methland with James Kochalka's Peanutbutter & Jeremy's Best Book Ever, a comic book about a kittycat in a necktie (Peanutbutter) whose 50s-sitcom-dad-non-specific office job keeps being thwarted by the antics of a mischievous, hat-stealing crow (Jeremy). But will they become friends? Yes, of course they will! It's adorable, expressively though simply drawn, and appropriate for all ages. Highly recommended as a mood elevator. (By the same author, Pinky & Stinky, about two little pigs on a mission to Pluto who crash-land on the moon, is also charming and whimsical and all those critically devalued but important things. Team Charm & Whimsy, that's me.)

03 June 2011

Best street find to date.

I can only take credit for snatching this up insofar as I had the forward thinking to be dating the awesomest boy in Brooklyn, who brought it home for me. (He also writes this awesome webcomic, which you will pretty much have to read all of, promise.)

This book is a gold mine of 70s feminist humor--pieces by Anne Meara, Florence King, Gilda Radner, Fran Lebowitz, and the proverbial many more. There's a Brenda Starr parody by Dale Messick herself. There are pitch-perfect parodies of women's magazines from True Confessions to Ms. Great convention-flipping bits like "Who Was That Gentleman I Saw You With?" and "The Myth of the Male Orgasm." And pages and pages of comics, even. Tying it all together is the editors' (Deanne Stillman and Anne Beatts, the latter of whom was the first female editor of National Lampoon and worked on Saturday Night Live during its first and best years) amazing introduction, speaking to the somehow still-extant stereotype that women aren't funny. I could quote the whole, thing, really, but I'll just give you this:
Titters is a book of humor by women, all kinds of women, and that means most of the subjects it deals with are things women in general find interesting. As a result, the book might be slightly overburdened with jokes involving the word "cuticle." There are no jokes in Titters about the following: jock straps, beer, trains, mothers-in-law, dumb blondes, cars, boxing, the Navy, chemistry, physics, stamp catalogues, spelunking, pud-pulling, or poker.
Why not? Because those subjects concern men, and, as such, have received their fair share of chuckles elsewhere. Sure, we could have chosen to parody Field & Stream and John Updike instead of the Tampax instructions and Lillian Hellman--and maybe we will, someday.
If you aren't lucky enough to have a gentleman friend spy this book on the street, there are used copies online for pretty cheap. Really, though, some influential female comedian needs to lobby to bring it back into print. Does anyone know Tina Fey?
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