**spoiler alert** I adore good monster stories. Wuthering Heights is one of the best. When I lived in Ukraine, I spent a stormy, tragic couple of week...more**spoiler alert** I adore good monster stories. Wuthering Heights is one of the best. When I lived in Ukraine, I spent a stormy, tragic couple of weeks gazing out over the snow-covered steppes of the East and reading Bram Stoker's Dracula. I became so absorbed in the drama and mystery of what happens when the British accidentally try to sell real estate to the undead that I didn't want to abandon that atmosphere even after I had finished Jonathan Harker's tale. Wuthering Heights, always beloved by me for its dark star-crossedness, was the obvious solution. Immediately as I started rereading the novel, however, I realized how similar Wuthering Heights is to Dracula, and that is how it became my favorite vampire story.
Initially, the structure of the two books inspired the comparison. A man, alone in a strange land, becomes trapped in the home of a sadistic and suspicious-looking host and writes a diary about the rumors of his host's history. Both journals seem deliciously tainted and unreliable, but somehow still able to uncover something resonant about the monstrosity of humans. Both demonic hosts are the victims of desire that cannot be quenched - desire that has grown murderous. Both hosts have female counterparts that are way more scary and evil than themselves. And (*spoiler*) both stories have suspiciously tidy endings that don't even come close to redeeming the ruination of most of the characters. So excellent! I am not arguing that Emily Bronte intended this story as a straightforward vampire tale. The essence, however, of any vampire story is an exploration of the need to live by the death of others. Bronte masterfully illustrates that as a fundamentally human flaw. In the ways that Heathcliff is more monstrous than Linton, he is also more human.
I'm not going to lie to you. What I really love about this book is not its narrative structure, deep message about the human condition, or window into 19th century life on the moors. I become absolutely weak-kneed at the moment in this story when Heathcliff overhears Catherine insulting him to Nelly and then takes off into the night. It is irony at its finest. I pretty much swoon when Heathcliff returns for the passionate moment before the birth of young Catherine. I am in love, for better or worse, with the doomed and unrealistic passion of Heathcliff and Catherine. I have loved this book for long enough that I think it's safe to say I will always feel that way.
I would probably not invite Catherine and Heathcliff to a quiet afternoon of poetry and wine tasting, but they would definitely get an e-vite from me to a rockin' New Years Eve. Those two and unsuspecting civilians - throw in some cheese and crackers and that's a party. I might e-vite Sarah Michelle Gellar, just in case things got out of hand, but I would definitely stick around to see what would happen next. A little sadistic hosting of my own. Bwahaha.
Usually, when I hear this story criticized, it is for how evil both Heathcliff and Catherine are. While I would never dispute that, it is exactly what I love about Wuthering Heights. They are monsters, but still somewhat sympathetic, and in some ways I want them to find satisfaction. Unquestionably, they deserve and even seek out all the torment they get, and though I don't wish that torment on them I am positively mesmerized by it. They are not merely silly and petty, like the lovers in so many books, they are villains. They are something more extreme than anti-heroes.(less)
Twilight follows what I think has become one of the great traditional plotlines: star-crossed vampire/human truelove. So, move aside, Jack London. In...moreTwilight follows what I think has become one of the great traditional plotlines: star-crossed vampire/human truelove. So, move aside, Jack London. In acknowledging my friend Ms. Meyer’s role in developing this new tradition, I feel like the first important thing to say is that Stephenie Meyer is not The Man. While most criticisms of the Twilight series are empirically true, it is nevertheless also true that this series is ubiquitously influential in culture right now, and I don’t think it’s influential in the same way as the War on Terror, or even Sarah Palin. The War and Palin are both The Man in ways that I refuse to believe Ms. Meyer is. I do concede, however, that Stephenie Meyer is a polished and packaged product of culture, and that she is the same package, in almost every way, as me. I don’t care about age or cynicism, I am the audience for this book. If you want to see my reaction summed up much more quickly than I plan to, I refer you to Paul Bryant’s Georgia . To introduce you more thoroughly to the audience for whom this book was written, I’ll start with a little summary of the story.
Bella arrives, at the opening of the story, in the small town of Forks, Washington, and she’s not thrilled. She’s like, A little town, oh, it's a quiet village - ev'ry day like the one before. Little town full of little people, waking up to say, bonjour!
She checks in at school, which is awkward because everyone’s staring and whatnot. They’re all, Look there she goes that girl is strange, no question, dazed and distracted, can't you tell? Never part of any crowd, 'cause her head's up on some cloud. No denying she's a funny girl that Bella.
Even her father doesn’t really get her and goes around thinking, Look there she goes that girl is so peculiar. I wonder if she's feeling well. With a dreamy far-off look and her nose stuck in a book, what a puzzle to the rest of us is Bella!
Even when she makes friends, they still just don’t understand that she’s an old soul – too old for dances and shit like that. Everyone still wants to be her friend, though, and they go around whispering, Look there she goes a girl who's strange but special, a most peculiar mad'moiselle. It's a pity and a sin, she doesn't quite fit in, 'cause she really is a funny girl – a beauty but a funny girl. She really is a funny girl – that Bella!
If, after that brief summary, you don’t have a very particular song (and maybe some dance moves that you made up to go with the song at one time or another in your life) stuck in your head, then you are not the designated audience for Twilight. I’m not even intending to be disrespectful or critical when I say that the resonance people feel with Twilight is the resonance of Disney. It is the dividing line between those who fall in love with this story, and those who can’t stand looking at the cover art. Interestingly, though, I think most of the people who cringe at the mention of The Twilight Saga would still go see a new Pixar movie or even Beauty and the Beast if it was re-released on the big screen. It’s got the candlestick and the teacup, right? Who doesn’t like to see inanimate objects sing and dance? It’s just awesome. Disney, however, is totally The Man. Disney is, like, whatever is above The Man telling The Man what to do. I would call it The Superman, but I don’t want it to get a big head.
Disney is smoother than Twilight because it knows that you can’t just present the story of a young, beautiful girl falling in love with a potential abuser without including a catchy tune and some dancing flatware. In that way, I guess it’s a mixed blessing that the movie version of Twilight is so freaking boring and awkward. It gives you time to reflect on whether it’s not a little convenient that our girl thinks it’s so groovy to have a vampire stalk her in her own bedroom. It lets you stop and think that undying for love might not be all it’s cracked up to be. The book version has lots of sparkles, though, and cars flying in every direction, so you don’t have to dwell on the unfortunate implications of the central relationship unless you’re inclined to. But, let’s face it, most of us have contemplated that at one time or another. If you haven’t, now’s your chance. What do you think about a cartoon that encourages little girls to stay in abusive relationships because underneath the gruff exterior of the abuser lies the heart of a prince? What do you think about a book that has women across the country swooning at a cadaverous stalker watching a teenage girl sleep?
I’ll tell you what I think: it totally doesn’t bother me. I mean, if those aren’t the implications that the storytellers were intending (and I don’t necessarily think they are), then oops!, but that’s the extent of my criticism. On the other hand, I think it’s equally possible that those are the implications that the storytellers intended, and, if so, they are both pretty effective in being persuasive and single-minded in their goals. The messages might be sugar-coated, but they’re still obvious. They’re not sneaky or underhanded. I don’t like it when I feel like an author is trying to sneak around with themes, but if I just disagree, it’s not so bad. I think they’re good stories, too, despite their unfortunate messages, and they are made all the better by their singing and sparkles. Whether we like it or not, stories that idealize stalking and teach girls to try reforming their abusers through patience and fancy dresses are deeply ingrained in (at least) Western culture. It seems possible that these stories are even products of a conflicted nature in humanity. Men want the virgin/whore; women want the beast/god. But, also, none of us really want those people because they’re freaky. We don’t know what we want.
(Arguably, the moral of Beauty and the Beast is that looks aren’t everything, and the moral of Twilight is that true love waits. I think those are less interesting messages within the stories, so I’m not going to address them. They are obviously there, though, so disagree as you wish.)
Maybe there is a little Harold Bloom in all of us, mentally applying for the role of literary gatekeeper every time we read a book we don’t like. I have read criticisms of Twilight that are both hilarious and poignant, and, like I say, this book has a very specific audience. When I hear criticisms, though, they usually just make me really sad. A girl I know is a mother of three young kids and lives out in the middle of nowhere. At the time she read Twilight she was mostly staying home (again, in the middle of nowhere) and being a mom. She hated the book and had two criticisms. First, she thought that the clothes were really dorky (and, it’s true, the clothes are distracting). Second, every time she looked at Stephenie Meyer’s picture on the back, it bugged her because she thought about how Meyer is “just a mom,” as though a mom shouldn’t have a valuable voice in literature.
I hate that on a lot of levels. I hate the idea of limiting literature to what I agree with, and I hate the idea of taking the voice of moms out of any part of culture. It also seems like a creepy excuse for nonparticipation to say that an entire group of people, to which you belong, shouldn’t be respected in the literary world. I’m not trying to say that Stephenie Meyer represents all moms, but I do think that a lot of criticism I have read of her writing either dismisses her as The Man or as a mom. It reflects the idea that literature should be a table at which only the cool kids sit – or at which the cool kids can’t sit. I don’t know who’s supposed to sit there.
There are a lot of totally valid reasons to dislike any book. I recognize this book’s faults, but I think that one of its greatest strengths is that it was written by a mom. I think it is a fun, hilarious, action-packed story. I think that Stephenie Meyer has story-telling skillz and that you can’t teach that. Henry James might have had a big vocabulary, but he couldn’t tell a story to save his life. Ms. Meyer could benefit from reading the dictionary once or twice, but she already has what you need if you find yourself sitting around a campfire. Possibly, she could use just a dash of self-awareness, but too much self-awareness can ruin any good story – just look at Dave Eggers. Honestly, I would rather be brave enough to write Twilight than smart enough to criticize it.
It’s funny to say, but this book actually inspired a real crisis of faith in my life. I’ve had some occasions where I’ve had major fallings out with God and then other occasions where I’m a big fan – like ya do. A crisis of faith is not unusual for me. There’s this thing that goes down in mainstream Christianity that is really annoying (I’m sure it happens in other religions, too, but I’m talking totally pop culture Christianity here so that my point makes sense). It’s this thing where people will frame a story as though the hero’s dreams are sure to fail, but then, suddenly, through the power of prayer, God swoops down and fixes everything in a magical money donation. Don’t get me wrong; magical money donations are the bomb. But does that mean that for those whose magical money didn’t come through, God’s showing that he’s angry with them? Does God speak in a reward/punishment system? I don’t think so, but I don’t really know anything about it. I know that in that situation, you’re supposed to say that God has a better plan, but that lacks something to me, also. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism that I’m making of religion in general, or even of Christianity in general, but of this Disneyland Christianity that is everywhere in America. It’s a religion of total convenience where everything has a vague, cliché explanation and, if it doesn’t, we don’t look at it. And the way people tell these stories is like they’re telling the plot of the newest movie about a down-and-out kid’s sports team. The stories are all informed by the plot development of Disney movies.
Like this Disney filter, Edward and Bella’s relationship is very convenient. Edward is immortal and can give immortality. He watches over Bella. His desire for Bella is consuming both physically and emotionally. Bella’s maturity alienates her from other humans. She is physically vulnerable. She is smart and values passion over care for her life. Edward is the Disney god and Bella his disciple. I really don’t mean to be disrespectful when I say I’ve heard God and His people described just this way many times. I don’t know why I hadn’t really thought about this before I read Twilight, but from thinking about the silly convenience of the Edward/Bella relationship, a lot of real things fall apart for me. Like, if we believe that God is really real (not just abstractly real) and we think that God is with us all the time like Edward is with Bella, why isn’t that creepy? I know I think it’s creepy with Edward, but why not with God? I think it’s because we believe God is there when we’re thinking about Him and not when we’re not. I think Jesus has become a sparkly, romantic immortal with super-strength who thinks you’re so awesome he can’t take his eyes off of you and gives you cars sometimes. This is obviously a problem, but I think any generation will interpret traditional writings through a contemporary cultural lens, so it’s not shocking. It’s just, perhaps, not the lens most of us would prefer.
On the other hand, if we think we’re completely alone when we aren’t with humans, no possibility for anything supernatural or spiritual, that seems limited and conveniently clean, too. I don’t have an answer, and it seems like it’s not really possible to have an answer that’s not annoyingly convenient on some level.
Also, I'm not saying this because I think Stephenie Meyer invented the Disney Jesus, but because I think it helps explain Twilight's resonance in society. I think Meyer expressed something very simple that both culture and religion have prepared people to receive.
It is probably important to say, again, that I’d be surprised to find out that Stephenie Meyer is part of a vast conspiracy to subdue Western civilization by reducing our worldview to clichés. Plus, I think that when someone’s worldview is a cliché, patronizing them out of it isn’t really the way to go (yeah, you know who you are. No, not you – you in the back. That’s right). Also, what do I know? Maybe, Jesus really is sparkly and has a warehouse full of new cars. It is just as legitimate to say that I don’t believe that because I don’t want to as that someone else believes it because they do want to. *sigh*
This may seem backwards, but I started reading Twilight in the mood for something fun and silly and not well written, and so I enjoyed (almost) every minute of the series. In a more anti-Disney mood, I probably I would have wanted to burn them for the weak and whiny heroine and glorification of stalking.
I think of these books like the show Friends, though. Everything works out well for everyone by the end of the episode, and so despite appalling personal choices and caricatured personalities, the stories are comforting. I don't know whether I think it's worse to be comforted by stories that present unhealthy worldviews, or to expect books to represent literal reality. Both seem suspicious, but the first seems more fun. I appreciate and think it's hilarious that Meyer loves her characters so much that she'll sacrifice anything in the plot to make things turn out well for them. I never feel like she is trying to impress me, but only writing what she wants have happen.
The main criticism I hear of these books is that the love story is completely unrealistic. This is absolutely true, but it is also a series about vegetarian vampire superheroes, so I think it's important to have a little perspective about realism. I hope that we are not so culturally bankrupt as to go to Friends for dating advice or vampire stories for authentic representations of love. Unfortunately, we actually might be that bankrupt, and I sadly acknowledge my own experience with teen girls and grown women taking these books VERY seriously. I am reluctant, however, to be angry with books I thought were so silly and fun only because of other people being silly in a not fun way.
To conclude, I’m planning to petition Tim Burton to do a song-and-dance version of the Twilight movie. It will be awesome. For the vampires, we will cast all professional dancers, and for the normals we’ll cast normals. I mean, we gots a meadow scene, fast cars, and a baseball scene in here! Not to insult the My Dinner With Andre version, but my version is going to kick ass. We’ll throw in a little irony, music up the melodrama, and show the haters what a story looks like. You’ll love it.(less)
I know a couple of things about love. I know that when you meet the truelove, you “just know” because it’s like you walked with that person once upon...moreI know a couple of things about love. I know that when you meet the truelove, you “just know” because it’s like you walked with that person once upon a dream. Out to dinner one time, I overheard a man at another table describing this perfectly:
“I was at a bar the other night," he said, "and I looked across the room and suddenly noticed this girl. I felt like I had seen her before, but I couldn’t think where I might have met her, so I thought I was probably in love. You know, like they say, ‘The first time I saw her, I felt like I had seen her before.’ Then, while I was looking at her, my mouth started to water. So, I thought that’s probably what it’s like when you fall in love – your body just reacts to the other person.
"Then, I realized that she’s the girl who serves me at Taco Bell.”
That’s pretty much the story of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan as they walk on the scene in New Moon. The problem is, to continue the Taco Bell metaphor, Edward and his family are, like, ravenous fans of Mexican food. They’re like high college kids. And Bella’s not the girl who serves the tacos, she is the taco. You can see how that would be a problem.
I also know that it’s statistically proven that once a girl falls in love, if she’s ever away from the boy she loves, she goes into a coma. Traditionally, this used to happen because of the evil fairy who put a spell on the girl. Nowadays, it happens because of psychology, but this all becomes an argument in semantics, and who wants to have the dark fairy/brain waves fight again? Not me. Some go with faith and some with evidence, but let’s still be friends.
What I’m trying to say is that New Moon is an American girl reinvention of Sleeping Beauty. (Not American Girl with a capital ‘G’ – that would be way too creepy for me. This is just a vampire/warewolf story, don’t worry.) It’s American girl in the sense that instead of helpful, matronly fairies (so retro-Euro) our heroine in New Moon finds some smokin’ hot Native American boys to keep her company while she’s away from her truelove. Also, instead of baking a silly cake, they build a motorcycle – less tasty, but way more badass (in theory, if not execution). Otherwise, the stories are basically the same. They are especially similar in that the villains, not the heroes, are the stars of the show. The Bellrora (Aurella?) character is stupid, jumping off cliffs with no cliff-jumping training and climbing all through the castle to prick her finger on the only spinning-wheel needle around. You have to want to slap this girl. The villains, on the other hand, have pizzazz. Maleficent is the reason to watch Sleeping Beauty just as the Volturi are the only thing that make New Moon readable. Actually, these stories are not just read/watchable, I even really like both of them because of the villains.
The major technical place where the Twilight Saga went wrong, to my mind, was in staying with the Edward/Bella love story, which was mostly drained of any blood (bah dum tsss) in the first book. The more I got to know these characters, the more I realized that I didn’t much care for them in the first place, which is too bad because I would rather think I like them. It would have been easier to do so if Bella had undied in the first book, and Meyer moved on to tell the love stories of the other vamps in the Cullen club in the rest of the books. The thing I like the most about Meyer, however, is that she’s not ever crafting a story, she’s always just telling you what happened to her bf’s in fantasy land. She is so in love with Bella and Edward that she had to continue with their story. This has its obvious downsides technically, but it also has the major upside that nothing seriously bad ever happens to a Meyer character. Drama, sure, but no real tragedy. I hope she continues with this M.O. in the future because if you know that’s the kind of story you’re getting into, it makes for a really relaxing read. And it comes as naturally to her as perpetual frustration does to Joss Whedon or gettin in ur revew an makin ur awgumentz does to an LOLcat. I can appreciate all of them. I really hate it when I feel that an author ruins a character’s life just to prove something to the literati, and because a sad ending would be so unnatural to Meyer, I hope she doesn’t sell out.
So, there are these things I know about love from Disney and Stephenie Meyer (to recap: love at first sight, coma), but there are other things I don’t understand about love. For example, I don’t know why what I know about love would sound like a good idea to anyone. This plays out within the New Moon story in a way that is beautiful and even slightly profound, though almost certainly unintentional. The Twilight Saga is all about addiction and abstinence. Edward was unborn into his addiction to blood. Most vampires are so consumed by their desire for blood that they lose all control over their bodies when they smell it. Meyer venerates the Cullens for resisting human blood, in contrast, and clearly endorses their abstinence. Everything about Bella’s passion for Edward, however, has the same markings of crazy as the vampires’ blood addiction. She even loses it when he kisses her in the same way Meyer describes the vampires frenzying for blood. Without Edward, Bella basically dies. Meyer does not characterize Bella’s obsession as the evil addiction that highlights the Cullens’ good abstinence, though.
She probably doesn’t make the open distinction because it is a genuine inconsistency in the theme of the story, but I think it is less revealing of a flaw in Meyer’s writing than a true contradiction in American values. Don’t do drugs, kids, but when you meet your soul mate you will know because of the intoxicated feeling, and the best thing you can do is give up everything and live happily ever after. Maybe the idea is that drugs are a bad substitution for the natural high of intimacy. I’m not even scare quoting “intimacy” because I really do think the idea I’m talking about is sharing everything, not just sex. It seems to me, though, that both drugs and intimacy are a bad substitute for being an actual person. I’ve had friends who successfully avoid themselves by being obsessed with weed, and I’ve had friends who avoid themselves by being obsessed with their significant other. It honestly doesn’t look that different to me, and both end up being at the same time extreme and boring to be around.
The “happily ever after” message admittedly creeps me out a little bit. I appreciate how awkwardly it works out in New Moon, though. I’m not going to claim that Meyer’s satirical skills are what make this series a pretty wonderful satire on American culture, but nevertheless I do think it is one. I actually think it is a more successful satire for its lack of self-awareness and defenses. People react in disproportionate anger to it because of what it reinforces in our values, not because of stilted dialog and the anachronistic use of the Discman. While many of us grew up with different ideas about spirituality or politics, most of us have the commonality of knowing from Disney, our true cultural parent, that a girl sleeps until her truelove battles through the traps of evil to find her and give her love’s true kiss. I don’t think it’s bad for that idea to be out there, and I think Meyer mixes it up in a nice way by having the girls save the day once this book actually starts to get good. I don’t like or agree with the idea, though, and I regret most of the ways that I have let ideas like that influence my own life. I don’t like the idea that these stories encourage kids to think that love should look like addiction, but I also hope that reading a story won’t force kids to become co-dependent.
I guess I feel about Disney, and The Saga as its awkward stepsister, like that quote Augustine is attributed with having said, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” It’s probably possible to say that of anything deeply cultural that we struggle with but ultimately feel connected to. It has that level of, “I can say what I want about my family, but you’d better watch your mouth,” but also an acknowledgment that we can honor our roots and disagree with them at the same time. Sleeping Beauty isn’t a future that I embrace, but it is a past that I feel tender about. There is something so certain and easy about true love’s kiss that it is comforting, even though ultimately I think I prefer the brutal unpredictability of life. Less anemic. I don’t like for books to imitate life, though. There’s enough of reality everywhere without books forcing it on us. I like for books to be action-packed, hilarious, and melodramatic. It is nice when books can achieve some kind of insight into life even if the story is far removed from reality, but I don’t need that. I’m happy with crazy villains and unintentional satire, but if I read this again I plan to skip the boring part where Bella is sleepwalking. Sleeping Beauty is a more successful story in that Aurora knew to find a bed with a nice canopy and leave the action to the other characters.(less)
After a couple of nightmare slogs, it's time for some comfort food.
My brother is moving to New York in a coup...moreAfter a couple of nightmare slogs, it's time for some comfort food.
My brother is moving to New York in a couple of weeks, and it breaks my heart more than a little. I totally love that guy, and New York will be lucky to have him. It’s really far away, though. I went to pick him up in Bend a few weeks back so that he could use my car for a weekend, and I got the audio version of this book at the library on my way there. I picked it up because I totally freaking love this book, even though none of the book makes that much sense if you think about it for, like, two seconds. I have even loved this audio experience, though it is just about the worst audio in the whole wide world, and the reader does maybe every single thing that bugs me. Anyway, there are some books I could read whenever: Wuthering Heights, Our Mutual Friend. I can’t defend myself about this, but I think The Host is in that group.
Meyer’s people all live in some kind of graphic novel, with their gaping, grimacing, hissing, eye bulging, and clenching of teeth. I know, no one hisses, do they? And then there is the problem about the first person narrator always being able, somehow, to see the nuances of people’s emotions through their eyes, no matter how far away the person is standing, or how little blocking sense that actually makes in a given room or tunnel or cave. And we won’t even talk about how awful the names are. I know about that, too. Whatever, haters, I don’t care. I totally freaking love this book.
The audio book is, and I’m not kidding, 23.5 hours long. I’m not even done with it. I’m actually still listening to it right now, but I know how it ends because I've read it before, so don't get up in my grill tautologically about the inherent worth in the work itself and my duties as an audience. Anyway, the reader of the audio book really savors every word. Very dramatic, you know. She totally kills me. I missed a lot of the first half because my brother listened to it over the weekend when he had the car. He came back gaping, grimacing, hissing, and generally making fun of it. His eyes really bulged and glinted with mirth, and all that. We listened to it together, driving back to Bend, and there was a lot more clenching of teeth from his side of the car.
I don’t know. We’ve all talked to death the problems with the Meyer writing and the Meyer love story and the Meyer world building. I realized, though, that in all honesty Meyer does write something that really touches me: families. I think her families are so comforting, even in their conscious mish-mashiness. True, her heroines want to kill themselves so you’ll be happy, and that’s weird. But in this book, for example, the heroine’s (heroines’?) love of her brother and her adopted family is something genuine and something that I totally dig.
I mean, obviously, this book is awesome because it has sweet, cuddly body snatchers, and that allows for a love triangle with only two bodies and then, later, a love quadrangle with only three bodies. No funny business, though. All PG here, gang. And, the love geometry stays pretty polite the whole time; no obnoxious LOST stuff going on. The other kind of cool thing about this book is that it passes the Bechtel test because there are, like, two girls stuck in one body and they chat about things. They’re not Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton hatching women’s suffrage, or anything, but I’m not too demanding.
Anyway, family. Don’t tell my brother, but I’m a little torn up about him moving away. Very excited for him, but a little torn up. It’s been nice to listen to all the descriptions of how much this girl loves her brother and her adopted family in these extreme situations, where she has to run through the desert and battle renegade cave-dwellers for them. Don't get me wrong, it's ultimately pretty tame, but it's extreme in a sentimental, hearth-and-home way. I don’t know; it’s comforting. I don’t really care that it’s ridiculous in so many ways or that it’s broken up with tedious descriptions of food and every other little thing. Sue me. I think this book is probably Meyer’s best so far, just in a technical sense. It stands alone, which is a relief, and none of the characters are supposed to be perfect. The main character is a little annoying, in a doormat kind of way, but I’m still okay with her.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to read it. You’d probably freaking hate it. I was just getting sentimental about family, and so was Stephenie Meyer, so I thought I’d come here and tell you about it. (less)
My sister saw The Glass Castle on my coffee table and said, “Oh, I read that. It’s kind of . . .” then she paused and we both were awkwardly silent fo...moreMy sister saw The Glass Castle on my coffee table and said, “Oh, I read that. It’s kind of . . .” then she paused and we both were awkwardly silent for a minute. “Well, I was going to say, it’s kind of like us, a little bit, but not –“
“Yeah,” I said. “I wasn’t going to say it – because not all of it – “
“Yeah, not all of it.”
We didn’t talk about it again.
When I first saw this book, I think I died a little inside because of the cover. I didn’t hate The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood like I hated The Mermaid Chair or (*shudder*) Bastard out of Carolina, but when there’s a little girl on the cover of a book, looking all innocent, it’s like a movie with the word “Education” in the title. You just know you’re in for a published trip to the psychiatrist’s couch. Kiddy-sex and soul-searching. I’m not saying people shouldn’t tell their stories (I mean, look at me, I’m all up in your website telling my stories), but I do think people should get a handle on what their story is before they try to tell it. Or at least before they make me read it. Sorry, that’s kind of asshole-ish of me to say, but I just think a lot of books with innocent little girls on the cover are really arrogant. They have this sense that since some man did something horrifying, everything that women do, including dancing around a fire with girlfriends or taking exotic lovers, is just part of the loving circle of nature’s healing. I am such a fan of women, and so I take it personally when we look like morons.
This book has absolutely nothing in common with its cover. I haven’t written a review of it before because I think it is a perfect book, and how do you review a perfect book? I’m like Wayne and Garth when they meet Alice Cooper. This book is my Alice Cooper. I’m sure it wouldn’t be everyone’s Alice Cooper, but to me this is exactly what a book should be. Everything about the book is simple, concise, and action-packed. It makes me laugh and it makes me cry. The people are incredible, but deep and smart and human. In some ways, I think this book is the Great American Story, but it’s the story none of us talk about and all of us live. In other ways, the book is so specific and personal to the Walls family that I never would have imagined the stories if I had not been told them.
Virginia Woolf and Rainer Maria Rilke, two of the wisest people I have read, both ask when and how women will be able to tell stories without being self-conscious that they are women. How can we write, or even live, not as reactions to men, but as separate masters of our own experiences? I don’t know where the genders are on the space/time continuum of respecting each other, and I think there are probably gender-related specifics to any story (maybe that’s just natural and not even bad), but there is something about this book that is just human and strong. It is compassionate and unflinching. Oh, I hate adjectives. Just, read the first chapter of this book, and if you don’t think it’s compelling, don’t keep reading because it’s probably not for you.
My family was nomadic, like Jeannette Walls’s family, but, like I say, all of her stories, and my stories, are unique. When I last lived with my parents, it struck me that we never really understand other people’s relationships with each other. I grew up, probably as many of us did, thinking that my parents never really got along and that my mom was a victim of my dad’s anger and wild scheming. But, later, I realized they probably both got something that I never understood out of their relationship. I think a lot of this book is about how we know the people we are close to and, also, never really do – how it is useless to hold other people to our own standards of what love or responsibility looks like. But, still, it is about holding each other responsible. Or, maybe the book is just about her family with no real moral lesson at all. Walls is so loyal to her stories in an almost scientific way. None of the adult outrage that contaminates so many stories of children creeps into Walls’s. She tells you what happened, and maybe how she felt about it at the time, but she doesn’t impose emotion on the reader. Here’s just a small part (well, actually, half . . . I couldn’t resist) of the first chapter to give you a little taste:
Mom was sitting at a booth, studying the menu, when I arrived. She’d made an effort to fix herself up. She wore a bulky gray sweater with only a few light stains, and black leather men’s shoes. She’d washed her face, but her neck and temples were still dark with grime.
She waved enthusiastically when she saw me. “It’s my baby girl!” she called out. I kissed her cheek. Mom had dumped all the plastic packets of soy sauce and duck sauce and hot-and-spicy mustard from the table into her purse. Now she emptied a wooden bowl of dried noodles into it as well. “A little snack for later on,” she explained.
We ordered. Mom chose the Seafood Delight. “You know how I love my seafood,” she said.
She started talking about Picasso. She’d seen a retrospective of his work and decided he was hugely overrated. All the cubist stuff was gimmicky, as far as she was concerned. He hadn’t really done anything worthwhile after his Rose Period.
“I’m worried about you,” I said. “Tell me what I can do to help.”
Her smile faded. “What makes you think I need your help?”
“I’m not rich,” I said. “But I have some money. Tell me what it is you need.”
She thought for a moment. “I could use an electrolysis treatment.”
“I am serious. If a woman looks good, she feels good.”
“Come on, Mom.” I felt my shoulders tightening up, the way they invariably did during these conversations. “I’m talking about something that could help you change your life, make it better.”
“You want to help me change my life?” Mom asked. “I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are all confused.”
“Mom, I saw you picking through trash in the East Village a few days ago.”
“Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It’s my way of recycling.” She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. “Why didn’t you say hello?”
“I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid.”
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. “You see?” she said. “Right there. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.”
“And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”
“Just tell the truth,” Mom said. “That’s simple enough.”
It’s been a while since I read this book, so a lot of the stories aren’t fresh in my mind, but some are so vivid to me that I think of them whenever I see a trash can or think of the desert. In high school, I thought that American history was the most boring topic imaginable. Then, in college, I took a class called the History of Women in the U.S., and I realized that I think the history of industry and conquest is mind-numbing, but the history of actual people is riveting. The Glass Castle is a real, honest history (or as honest as histories can be) of people in America. It is so close to me and so foreign in just the way this country is.
It is also, in a way, a tribute to family oral histories. My dad has a . . . loose . . . relationship with the truth, as I’ve probably mentioned on this site before. In the past couple of years, every time I see one of my siblings, we sit around and tell stories from my dad or about my dad, trying to weed out what actually happened, what got a nice polish in the story factory, and what is an outright lie. I get that same feeling from this book – of siblings sitting around and saying, “Do you remember . . .” and “You weren’t there this one time . . .” or “No, that’s just what Dad said happened, what actually happened was . . .” I’m sure someday, my siblings and I will put together a history of our own, since every one of us seems to have inherited the storytelling gene. Whatever I write will be in some way inspired by this book.(less)
I have been feeling sentimental for the past couple of weeks, and it made me think of Persuasion. I haven’t felt sentimental for quite some time, so i...moreI have been feeling sentimental for the past couple of weeks, and it made me think of Persuasion. I haven’t felt sentimental for quite some time, so it feels like a sort of stiff and creaky homecoming in some ways. The Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds movie of Persuasion has traditionally been my go-to movie for sick days, but I haven’t watched it in a couple of years because somehow I lost the feeling that let me sit through a beautiful love story. But, here I am, these past couple of weeks, mulling over sloppy bowls of soup, sliced mutton, intemperate sorbet, skin like macaroons, and some of the best marzipan in all of Bath. Actually, maybe I’m just hungry.
Just kidding, but I think there is something in the messy appreciation of food in the movie that speaks to my home-and-family-comfort sensibility. And, yes, this review is going to mostly be about the movie because I saw and loved it before I read the book, and even though I loved the book on its own, it is impossible for me to remember it on its own. So, the food and powder and grease and almost-tangible smells of the movie are going to be all up in this review because they were all up in my reading of the book and are my sense-memory of this story.
The real reason I’m feeling sentimental is because I lost some people I love a couple of weeks ago. They didn’t die, but you know how sometimes when you don’t fit into people’s lives anymore, it is a similar mourning to experiencing death? It is for me anyway. This past year, I worked with these four people, who are some of the best people I have met, and we have all been through a lot together. And I love them in that way, where when I see them, my heart jumps into my throat. My dear friends, like family. I am working on the fourth floor of my building now, where I was on the second, and sometimes that is enough to lose people. It is not bad, but mourning is hard.
Anne has that sense of not fitting into the lives around her, and I have always identified with that. In a lot of ways, I’ve identified with Anne, and I would say of all the Austen stories, Persuasion resonates with me the most, with the possible exception of Sense and Sensibility. Mostly, the idea of Wentworth coming back, and Anne and he still loving each other, seems to me like the most hopeful and meaningful story of romantic love that Austen tells. They love each other because they know each other, and that is beautiful. I love the cynical humor of Elizabeth and Darcy and the sad wisdom of Marrianne and Col. Brandon, but Anne and Wentworth is the most hopeful couple to me. In my view, if you can come back to love after heartbreak and years, then it was real and not based on inventing an ideal of another person.
But, Anne was always identifiable to me in this other way, in her lostness and sense of despising her family, but at the same time being their unappreciated servant. Maybe it is arrogant of me to say I identified with that, but it is true. One morning, after I returned from Peace Corps and was living with my parents to help them with their business, we were sitting on our porch eating breakfast. My dad started telling me not to give up hope about someday getting married because a guy working in our neighbor’s yard the day before had expressed some interest in me. Then, he started describing his trip to the coffee shop the weekend before.
“I was sitting and watching people walk by,” he explained, “and there are just so few really attractive women in the world. Sometimes, you’ll see one really attractive woman, and then after her, there will be twenty women who are just ugly. When I was at coffee that morning, I counted forty-six women in a row who weren’t worth looking at. But, it was a rainy morning, and not many women’s looks can hold up to that.”
I must have smiled for the rest of the day. It was so wonderful. Anne’s father from Persuasion:
He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty, frights; and once, as he had stood in the shop in Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them. It had been a frosty morning, to be sure, a sharp frost, which hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of.
And then, Anne has some culpability in her lostness. The story is sort of Anne’s journey to figuring out how to stand up to her ridiculous family. And, even though Wentworth is the venue through which she can ultimately escape them, I think through the story she does develop her own ability to live her life. And she proves that by choosing the man, for herself, whom she rejected in the past for other people.
I remember watching this movie over and over again, watching Anne’s hopelessness about escaping her family, and watching her stand up to them, separate from them, and stop letting herself be victimized, even while keeping her sense of humility and service. I think that development of her character happens related to Wentworth’s return, but also aside from the love story. I think I stopped watching this movie when I stopped being fascinated by that transformation, and it was when I had gone through that transformation myself, though admittedly in a more awkward, ham-fisted way.
So, I think this story is always going to be a part of me and maybe a symbol, even, of transformation, long-lasting love, and spiritual intimacy. It is high-falutin’ to use all of those phrases, but I think they apply here. Anne had to revisit her betrayal of Wentworth and develop the sense of self to allow her to reject Mr. Elliott and choose her own life. And even though my absolute favorite part of this story are Anne’s sister and father and the ludicrous stuff they say, the brave quiet around her transformation is the sentiment that brings me back to this story and makes it one of the most comforting I have heard.(less)
Who are your gods? Whom do you worship in actions, and whom in words? Charles Dickens waggles his finger in my face, the finger of a crone, of a maide...moreWho are your gods? Whom do you worship in actions, and whom in words? Charles Dickens waggles his finger in my face, the finger of a crone, of a maiden, of a businessman. The polished finger of a marquis, the calloused finger of a knitter. He makes his point with the appropriate number of adjectives and with enough humor to break through the polished shell of morality and reach something true. When you dress your Good up in robes and worship it, maybe what you truly worship is Death. And Dickens graciously bows his way out of the room.
It is confusing to talk about successes and failures in A Tale of Two Cities because what doesn’t really work for me actually does, and there’s something beyond what really does work that I can’t quite get at. Maybe on my fourth or fifth reading I will have nestled into what I can’t quite get, but until then, I will have to rely on something contrary to my instincts. The thing that puts me off, but then, ultimately, makes the story what it is, is this image of the shy, humble nuclear family – the blond girls named Lucy and the unassuming, faceless father. The easiest shorthand for goodness, the celestial, angels.
That is not my god, and even though I mistrust it, deeply – I mistrust it to whatever marrows up the marrow of my bones – it makes sense for what it is in this story. It is a symbol for something not grasping about humanity, a symbol for something that wishes happiness, not destruction, on people, and that does seem like a symbol of Good to me, even if its trappings are soaked in the suspicious. Where to me the Darnay-Manette family is code for abuse and for valuing security over integrity (the apologetic wife who so desperately craves her husband’s affection that she pretends helplessness; the husband who grovels to his father-in-law and otherwise has no remarkable personality traits), for Dickens it was not that. And I can see it and respect what he was doing here.
I don’t know, maybe I don’t think a hopeful family has been written, just like I haven’t seen a real-life family that would fit me right. But, where the girl action hero is a symbol of hope to me, I can see how Lucy Manette is a symbol of hope in reverse of that, but not in a bad way. She is a symbol of, “What if people were generous?” And she does not really have enough contrast to be an interesting character, but she, in herself, is a contrast. Because is this book about her or is about Madame Defarge? Really, it is about neither and the one is only a contrast to the other. Madame Defarge is more interesting to me, knitting revenge, but Lucy is still functional, and she still has meaning. She is the innocence that a person saves if we can.
But, back to our gods. The various choruses running through this book of sacrifice and resurrection, execution and revenge, wove together with the worship of the gods cleanly and in a way that resonated with me and made me think about how our actions reveal what gods we worship, if we, today, could call our gods by the helpful, honest names of the ancients – Wine, Beauty, Love, War, Freedom, Death, etc. The refrain of liberte, egalite, franternite, or death rings through the story like “my husband, my father, my brother, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, hush.” It is about the hopelessness of the death penalty, and it counts down from resurrection to death.
It questions all of our gods, with the goddess Liberty riding on a chair over a blood-soaked, rioting crowd; the sacrifice of Christ made by a dissipated drunkard; the British bank seeking execution, like the French aristocracy and serfs. None of us are safe; none of our hands are clean. In the words of the Biblical Christ, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Even honest tradesmen.
We know our gods, not by the names we attribute to them to make sure we have VIP access to the coolest back-stage events with our friends who call their gods by the same name. We know our gods by our own actions – how we act to ourselves and how we act to others. The revolutionaries in this book chant, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, or Death,” and Dickens makes it clear that the people worship “or Death” even while they name it Liberte. In that same way, when we destroy our bodies and souls in the name of love by starvation, mutilation, or cultivating mental illness, we are not worshiping Love, even if we name it that. Today, for example, girl who starves herself, and a man who wins on steroids, do not worship Beauty or Strength through those actions; they worship Self-Destruction, Death. Because when beauty and strength are gone, that is the monster, the god, who thrives on your sacrifice. Be the best version of yourself, this book pleads, and if you cultivate self-destruction, at least let your sacrifice be voluntary and for something noble, not blind and hungry. Know the god you worship. But, do we ever? And how can it be anything but sympathetic when we do not? Because this life is all of our crazy mess, with all of our gods wearing halloween masks of another god.
As with any Dickens, the best parts of this book are in the common people. Mr. Cruncher and his honest trade of resurrection, and the good Ms. Pross and her noble work as executioner, are the best moments. The good, rough English folk are where Dickens truly shines. But, the political commentary of this book is very strong, as well. The parallels of London and Paris; the executions in both cities, by the rich and the poor; the self-descriptions of Mr. Cruncher and Mr. Lorry as honest businessmen, honest tradesmen, are all powerful statements about thinking of any class of society as subhuman – the poor, the rich, criminals. Everyone is someone’s husband, brother, someone’s father, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, hush. We may talk about our wrongs as though they were the “only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown,” but they are ours, sown by what we have worshiped. Or so judges Dickens . . . and he is a just executioner.(less)
To the Lighthouse pours over me, takes me in, cools my spirit. I come to Virginia Woolf for sympathy and plunge myself into the waves of her world, co...moreTo the Lighthouse pours over me, takes me in, cools my spirit. I come to Virginia Woolf for sympathy and plunge myself into the waves of her world, conspiring with the blunders and satisfactions of her people, but only for a moment. Just as soon as the words touch me, they steam away, leaving behind only vaporous phantoms of a house, a garden, marriage, family, waves, and a lighthouse. I don’t remember them, only their outline. But actually, the story is reality, and I am the phantom. My writing is a pose; Woolf’s is a vision.
This is the most domestic of what I have read of Woolf, but complexly so, intimately so. It is not romantic, but it is comforting and sympathetic. It is about satisfactions and dissatisfactions. This is the third (second and a half?) time I’ve read To the Lighthouse, but the first time I saw its beauty. This type of Woolf story, in my experience, becomes more real with re-readings. I learn what glasses to put on when I take up the book, so that I can see into its waters and the stories and shapes beneath the surface. The rest is not about the book, but about what it brings to mind, what it means to me. Also, perhaps spoilers, or at least alert to my badly laying down here some of Woolf’s phrases because they are knocking around in my head.
My own Mrs. Ramsey, in her comforting, regal way congratulated me on my successes in law school recently. I must take the bar myself sometime, she joked. I’ll be able to pass it just from hearing Mr. Ramsey talk about the law. “And is there any special boy in law school?” she asked. No, I answered, no special boy. But there must be a special boy for the conversation to continue, she thought. And the conversation must continue. But not without a special boy. Then we could talk about the intimacies and foreignness of men, with their socks and cigars and silences. Iron sharpens iron, Mrs. Ramsey thought. Without the special boy, without the marriage, our irons become dull; we lose our best selves.
“James, you know,” my own Mrs. Ramsey said, “I think he has a girlfriend now. Though when I was visiting, he didn’t say for sure. He was always more sensitive than my other boys. He was always my delicate spirit.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” I said warmly with a smile. When their James was moving to Eugene, the Ramseys all approached me separately. “How old are you?” they would ask. After I replied, they said without a pause, “Have you met James?” Or in the middle of discussing some details of their James moving they would pause and turn to me, “How old are you?” they would ask again. On his first day in town, they took me to see a movie with them. They all sat in a row when I arrived, so that I had to climb gracelessly across all of them and sit next to James. We were sent on walks together. Because you must marry. Women shouldn’t argue, can’t write.
Then, later, on a tour bus – I’m not kidding, really, on a tour bus – a friend and I talked about Virginia Woolf. How beautiful she was. Was she the smartest person who ever lived? How could her writing be so opaque and then suddenly transparent, as though the change was in us, and we had been looking through it the whole time. And James said, “Bah! Virginia Woolf. She can’t write.” Who can then? we asked. “Emily Dickenson.” I said, I don’t typically care for poetry.
James’ brother, sitting across the aisle burst out, “You don’t care for poetry?! How is that possible?! Poetry is life!” I like some, I said, but not all. “Who do you like?” My favorite is Li-Young Lee. He stopped, still, and looked at me, suspicious. “Are you joking?” No. “But he’s my favorite.” Irises, I said. City in which I love you, he said. He thought I loved Li-Young Lee for him, at him. And a door in my head banged shut, but in my heart a window opened. I worried that it opened to him, but it didn’t. It opened to you, to tell you this story. Later, I said, “Do you like tattoos?” He said, “They can be hot on some girls, but not usually.” I smiled, having not thought to ask whether they were hot, but didn’t correct him.
But you must marry. Women can’t paint, can’t write.
“The wedding was beautiful and funky, just like them,” Mrs. Ramsey told me after congratulating me on my law school successes. We sat outside at a table, shaded from the sun by an umbrella. Kids played in the pool and threw frisbees on the lawn. I held my friend’s baby while she high-fived the patterns on the glass table. James’ brother married the weekend before. Because you must marry. While Mrs. Ramsey’s brother drove the newlyweds to their hotel, he sang Sunrise, Sunset, and the new bride cried to be welcomed into such a family. So it is a mercy it wasn’t me because I would have laughed inappropriately, unable to sympathize, and that’s no kind of wedding story.
Instead, I learn to move the tree to the middle. I try to balance the shapes of how I see the world, and I move the tree to the middle. I refrain from telling Mrs. Ramsey about a friend who bubbles over talking about finally being herself now, divorced. It shouldn’t mean more to me that someone is happy single than happy married. And it does not mean more. I can balance the shades of my vision of life without disrespect to the mother and child in the painting. They mean something to me as well. It all means something: the pattern on the table, the clippings from a magazine, the lighthouse, the waves, marriage, the flowers in the garden, the magic fish, the cost to repair a greenhouse, thinking to Z, the shawl hanging on a picture frame, children, handing someone tools to fix a car, milk, books, writing the last sentence of a review.(less)
I was visiting an old friend for the past few days, and she showed me this cover of Atlas Shrugged I made for her when we lived in Ukraine:
[image erro...moreI was visiting an old friend for the past few days, and she showed me this cover of Atlas Shrugged I made for her when we lived in Ukraine:
It was a necessary repair, but it pretty much proves I should be a cover designer. _____________________________________________
I think Francisco D’Aconia is absolutely a dream boat. This book’s like blah blah blah engineering, blah blah blah John Galt, blah blah blah no altruistic act, blah bla- HE-llo, Francisco D’Aconia, you growl and a half. Also, there’s a pirate. So, what’s everyone complaining about?
Okay, it’s not that I don’t get what everyone’s complaining about. I get that Rand is kind of loony tunes of the Glenn Beck variety, and some people (maybe?) use her to justify being assholes, but I just don’t like to throw the bathwater out with that baby. Warning: I think, to make my point, I have to refer to Dostoyevsky a lot, which I seem to always do because he really is some kind of touchstone to me. The point I’m trying to make with all this blabbering is that the debate over Atlas Shrugged brings out something that I might hate more than anything else (more than weddings and kitty litter even). It makes people say that ideas are dangerous. People on all sides of the spectrum do this about different stuff, and whatever the argument, I don’t like it. If an idea is wrong, say it’s wrong. But genocide doesn’t happen because people put forward too many ideas. It happens because people put forward too few ideas.
Anyway, back to the book:
First, story. The third part of this book is super weird. It’s definitely not the actual ending of the book, I’ve decided, but more of a choose-your-own-adventure suggestion. It’s kind of fun that way because any end that you, the reader, come up with will be better than the one Rand suggested. My favorite part of her ending is how John Galt gives the most boring speech possible, and it lasts for about a bazillion pages, and you have to skip it or die. Then, at the end, Rand’s like, “The entire world was listening, ears glued to the radios, because Galt’s speech was the most brilliant thing they had ever heard.” No. Nope. Nice try, liar. So, that’s super lame, I agree, and you should just skip the third part.
But people don’t get as mad about the epilogue in Crime and Punishment. Why? That’s the same situation, where it kills all fun, and you have to ignore that it happened. Is it just because it’s shorter, and it’s called “Epilogue”? Maybe that’s enough. But, on the other hand, maybe people didn’t read all the way to the end of Crime and Punishment. Maybe, because it was written by a crazy Russian man, not a crazy Russian woman, people think they’ll sound deep if they say they like it.
Second, writing. People complain about Rand’s writing, and I always think, “When was the last time you wrote a 1000 page book in a second language and pulled off a reasonably page-turning storyline?” The woman spoke Russian for crying out loud! It most certainly would have been a better choice for her to have written the books in Russian and had them translated, but, I mean, most native English speakers couldn’t be that entertaining. It’s at least A for effort. I’m not going to make excuses for the unpronounceable names she chooses for her characters, but I’ll just say Dostoyevsky again and leave it at that.
I know it made a huge difference in my reading of this book that I was living in a Soviet bloc apartment in Lozovaya, Ukraine at the time and had forgotten a little bit how to speak English. I’m sure a lot of weird phrasing didn’t sound weird to me because it makes sense in Russian. But, also, I feel like I’ve read a lot of translations of Dostoyevsky and other Russians that feel really weird in English. You know, everyone’s always having some kind of epileptic fit or whatever with Mr. D. But, we allow for the weirdness because we picture the stuff happening in Russia, where the weird stuff typically goes down anyway. I’ll tell you right now, Atlas Shrugged takes place in Russia. No joke. She might tell you they’re flying over the Rocky Mountains, or whatever, but this book is a Russian if there ever was one. Just so it’s clear, I LOVE that about it. That’s no insult, only compliment.
Third, philosophy. Maybe I told you this story already, so skip it if you already know it. When I lived in Ukraine, I had the same conversation with three or four people of the older generation who grew up in the Soviet Union. They would tell me, “Things were really wonderful in the Soviet Union, much better than they are now. We had free health care, free housing, and now we have nothing. I mean, every once in a while your neighbor would disappear, but it was completely worth it.” This was really disturbing to me, because it gave me this picture of the people around me – that they were the ones who ratted out the neighbors who wanted a different life. Sure, Rand’s vision is narrow and sometimes inhuman, but I think it is because she was really terrified of this equally narrow and, as far as I’m concerned, inhuman vision. I want a public health care option real bad, and my neighbor has some really annoying Chihuahuas, but if forced to choose between them, I’d probably still pick my neighbor.
Admittedly, the problem with this argument is that it sets up a dichotomy where our only choices are the prosperity gospel and Soilent Green. From what I know of Rand, though, she had seen her neighbors and family thrown out of Russia or killed for being rich. She was fighting something extreme by being extreme. Unfortunately, in America, this rhetoric turns into the idea that having public services = killing your neighbor. To me, this comes from people taking her arguments too seriously on both sides. Dostoyevsky has ghosts and devils coming out of every corner, and people take his stories for what they’re worth. We don’t think that liking his books makes us mystics and hating them makes us inquisitors. Why is it different with Rand?
Fourth, women. I’m not going to lie and tell you that there weren’t other badass female characters when Dagney Taggert came around. All I want to say about this is that the most valuable thing I got from this book was the idea that one person being unhappy doesn’t, and shouldn’t, make other people happy. I think, in this way, it was particularly important to me that the protagonist was a woman. I see a lot of women complain about their lives and families, but say it’s all worth it because they’ve been able to devote their lives to making their husbands or children happy. I’m paraphrasing, I guess. Anyway, that kind of hegemony really creeps me out.
When I read this book, I was just realizing that I had joined Peace Corps with a similarly misguided motivation. I wanted to go to the needy and unfortunate countries of the world and sacrifice myself to save them. It might sound more nasty than it really was when I say it like that, but I think it is a really arrogant attitude to have. We might have hot running water in America (for which I am forever grateful), but if somewhere doesn’t have that, it’s probably not because of a problem a silly, 23-year-old English major is going to solve. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Peace Corps, and it was maybe the best experience of my life so far. But I love it for the things that I got out of it, and if someone else benefited from my being in Ukraine, it was dumb luck.
I don’t know about other women, but I was raised to believe that the more selfless (read: unhappy) I was, the better off everyone else would be. I think it’s a pretty typical way that women talk themselves into staying in abusive situations – that their lives are worth less than the lives around them. This would be the Hank Rearden character in the novel. I love that Rand sets up characters who destroy this cycle of abuse. I love that her female protagonist lives completely outside of it.
So, not to undercut my noble feminist apologetics, but really Francisco’s just hawt, and I think that’s the reason I like this book. There are lots of other reasons to read Rand, but most of those get into the argument about her ideas being dangerous. I just don’t think they are, or should be. I think ignorance is dangerous, but I think it should be pretty easy to fill in the gaping holes in Rand’s logic. Yes, she conveniently ignores the very old, very young, and disabled to make a specific and extreme point. I don’t think her point is entirely without merit, though (in the sense that our lives are valuable, not in the sense of “kill the weak!”). I also think that if we give a “danger” label to every book that conveniently ignores significant portions of the population to make a point, we wouldn’t be left with much.
Anyway, read, discuss, agree, disagree. I’ll be making up some “Team John,” “Team Hank,” “Team Francisco” t-shirts later. I hear in the sequel there are werewolves. (less)
In high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he was...moreIn high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he was never going to use it.” Not that I had any problems with angst. Big fan. I just thought he failed at angst. He wasn’t the dreamy eyed poet, he was the kid in class who made everyone cringe by shooting his hand up to complain about the abstract unfairness of the school system (or universe. Whatever). I saw the beautiful words, but they only meant words, they didn’t mean anything. When I read the play again in college, the profound beauty and compassion for humanity devastated me, and I realized that it is not about angst of any variety. Hamlet still breaks my heart, probably more than any other story.
I saw a staged production of Hamlet for the first time last month. A live show is almost always a good experience, and this certainly was. I grew up living pretty near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I’ve gone to productions there as much as possible since high school. It’s a magical place (not so much in a ren-fest way, though a little. More in a professional-live-show-for-cheap way). It’s about three hours away from me now, so I took a couple of days, drove down, and stayed in a hostel across the street from the OSF. I’m assuming in this review that everyone has read or seen Hamlet, but if you haven’t (and this might drive some people nuts) I actually really like the Mel Gibson version. I’ve seen it a kagillion times, and I think it’s a solid version. Who better to play Ophelia than Helena Bonham Carter? (Other than Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows.) Anyway, like I say, seeing Hamlet in the wonderful Bowmer theater was a really good experience. I do, however, have a lot of problems with the production, all of which I will gladly share with you now.
A couple of things that don’t work in any production of a Shakespeare tragedy: hammy heroes, pyrotechnics, rapping and hip hop dancing, sign language that is not used for communication, extended martial arts scenes, and Kenneth Branagh. If I think of more, I’ll let you know. Mostly, when I see a play, I want to see the play, not the MTV version of the play. I find it insulting that directors seem to think I’ll understand Hamlet better if it’s MC Hammered at me. And I get that stage fighting is fun, but unfortunately TV fights look better. Maybe it makes it confusing that those things tend to work in the comedies, and directors get caught up in the comedy momentum. There’s some kind of self-reflexive irony framed by larger irony, though, when Polonius says, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and not only is Polonius a pompous old fool, but the entire production is also a pompous old fool.
So, in this version we didn’t have Kenneth Branagh or an extended martial arts scene, which is a mercy. They did, however, have everyone dressed like they were in an emo band. It worked at first, and then got really annoying. Also, there was this gimmick about the ghost speaking sign language, and that kind of kills me. And the play-within-the-play was a free-style hip-hop show. So painful. The thing is, it would be kind of cool to see Hamlet in all sign language with the words voiced over in the theater (or even subtitled). I would probably dig that. But, the way they did this was all wrong. The ghost said something in sign language, and then Hamlet, who apparently was the only character who spoke sign language, would say his lines. Then Hamlet would say his own lines. Fail. I’m not positive Hamlet was the only one who spoke sign language because there was a lot of exaggerated gesturing all around. Like when Hamlet mimed a shotgun to his head when he said, “To be or not to be.”
If Hamlet is not about hip hop and angst, then, what is it about? Hamlet is about being totally unprepared to face reality. Because what is more real than death? Hamlet is about the coolest kid in school (a prince, no less), not about a soulful nerd. Hamlet’s dad could beat up all the other dads; Hamlet has a beautiful girlfriend; Hamlet is spoiled, maybe even a little bit of an asshole, and then, suddenly, his father’s death forces him to recognize that the universe could be a hostile place. Don’t get me wrong – when the play starts he’s not the golden child he was the month before. He goes from being privileged and sheltered to having to face real loss, grief, and betrayal. He wants revenge, but also asks if life is really worth living in a world where those you love the most are the ones plotting against your life. But he didn’t start that way – it’s not just his nature to be melancholy. Fate cut him into shreds the minute before the play starts. Ophelia, too, (but during the play) loses the security of a happy ending, loses her love, loses her father. Both of these bright, advantaged, unprepared children wake up to the brutality of the world around them, and ultimately that awakening destroys them.
That type of tragedy profoundly resonates with me. I realized that both this play and the other favorite I saw in Ashland, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are about rich people who trust the world to bring only good and then are crushed by reality. Maybe it resonates because of my own personal experiences, but I think there is also something about Hamlet that both transcends cultures and is immediate to American culture. As Nahum says, "Hamlet will be Hamlet. An ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates, even today." It used to be that the people sheltered from the realities of death were princes, but now look at us, with our hot running water, packaged meat, and sanitized hospitals. Tragedy and death are not part of our everyday lives, and I think many of us are as unprepared to deal with a hostile universe as Hamlet and Ophelia are. When we see our own mortality, we are not eased into it, but caught unawares by a specter we never knew was following us. We are in many ways perpetual children, like Hamlet and Ophelia.
Even then, maybe Hamlet is not tragic. Is it more horrifying to be surprised by death or to live a childhood that causes you to expect it? Although it is not my experience, the latter was probably more common at the time the play was written and probably continues to be so today. Nevertheless, that experience of betrayal by life must, on some level, be universal, whether people experience it young or old, once or many times. There is something innocent and wise and deeply human about both Hamlet and Ophelia because of it.(less)
**spoiler alert** You know you’ve been in school too long when you write a vampire novel in which Dracula’s ultimate threat is to force his victims to...more**spoiler alert** You know you’ve been in school too long when you write a vampire novel in which Dracula’s ultimate threat is to force his victims to catalog his extensive library of antique books. On the other hand, after finishing The Historian, and its detailed Vlad the Impaler research, I’m willing to consider that threat as akin to impalement. If Kostova’s references to Henry James did not reveal her as an admirer of his, then its sprawling prose, vague plot, and sexually confused characters would have. While imitation of Henry James is not enough in itself to make me wish undeath on an author, it sucked the blood out of this adventure.
Kostova writes The Historian in epistolary form, primarily through letters from a father historian to a daughter (presumably) historian. The greater part of the book, however, focused not on this father-daughter team’s desperate search for family member(s) and Dracula, but on the obscure history of Vlad Tepes, the historical figure who inspired the legend of Dracula, and on the geography of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey during the Cold War. If the Travel Channel™ was ever looking for someone to host Istanbul on a Budget 1980 or Passport to Monasteries Behind the Iron Curtain, Kostova would be their woman. Whether the history and geography is true or not, the sheer volume of trivia padding this book and the work it had to have taken to put it all together is confounding.
Even with the impressive research, this story is Scooby Doo with no Scooby Snacks. Dracula would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky historians! Dracula and his henchman, the “evil librarian,” don’t plague society or cause panic. Rather, they make appearances in goofy disguises in libraries and cafes to give books and other clues to especially promising young historians, inspiring the recipients to begin insatiable quests to find out more about this Dracula fellow. Then, Dracula inevitably shows up again to slap people around a little, so that the historians will be too afraid to continue their research. Once, after giving a historian a book to start him on his vampire studies, Dracula disguises himself as “a stranger” and buys that historian a drink called, “whimsically, amnesia.” Bet you can’t guess what that does - all that research down the tubes! Stop the mind games, Dracula! Not to be deterred by Dracula’s or the Evil Librarian’s threats, the historians continue to stalk their prey until the reader would pity Dracula (if he weren’t annoying), because he is ultimately only trying to build a book collection and a gang of faithful research assistants.
In painful detail, Paul, the central historian/vampire slayer, as he tells his daughter the story of his search for Dracula, also tells of falling in love with her “mannish” mother, Helen. The consistent descriptions of our heroine as “manly” only hint at Paul’s sexual confusion, which becomes most apparent when he meets his rival, Helen’s ex-boyfriend, a Soviet spy. Paul describes this meeting to his daughter in chapter 38. “’What a pleasure to meet you,’ [ex-boyfriend] said, giving me a smile that illuminated his fine features. He was taller than I, with thick brown hair and the confident posture of a man who loves his own virility – he would have been magnificent on horseback, riding across the plains with herds of sheep, I thought.” Except for the word “virility,” I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading that description. If the author of the quote had been a man, I would encourage him to openly write gay characters rather than making his characters marry to hide their sexuality. From the author’s picture on the dust jacket, I see that she is Madame Bovary, so the description fits.
It is true that because of the vagueness of the plot and the epistolary structure, entire chapters and characters could be cut from this book without losing any story. Beyond its rambling descriptions, however, The Historian flounders as a vampire story. Psychological conflict adds complexity to most vampire stories, as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when Mina, formerly a protagonist, becomes bloodthirsty. Thirst is the most basic human experience, and all vampires started as humans. Theoretically, thirst (or, more broadly, desire) could become evil in anyone; and, therefore, of all monsters we most easily identify with vampires. In The Historian, however, I am left with the impression that if those historians left poor Dracula alone, he would have just kept collecting books. It was ultimately the research and study, not Dracula himself, that took the historians away from their loved ones and almost destroyed them. From where I’m reading, The Historian is solid evidence of what most high school kids could tell you: too much study is both boring and potentially bad for your health.(less)
This book is exceptionally okay. It is like really, really, really, really okay. I think it would be more good and not so much okay if it started out...moreThis book is exceptionally okay. It is like really, really, really, really okay. I think it would be more good and not so much okay if it started out less good in the beginning. As it is, I felt like it had a lot of promise it didn’t live up to. But, it didn’t exactly waste my time, either, so I can’t really say I disliked it or anything. It is just SUPER mediocre. Almost good, it’s so mediocre. Even, throughout, I would think things were going somewhere, but instead things would kind of stay the same. But, the expectation of things going somewhere kind of kept my attention.
This book is about a girl who has special powers. So, right there you’ve basically got me. I mean, there are still only about five books about girls with special powers, right? Female special powers automatically give this book has a bunch of points in its favor. But, after that there is not much to the whole story, so not a lot else going for it. But, speaking of that, let’s list the books with girls who have special powers.
I didn’t include Buffy because, even though the eighth season is written down, the bulk of the story is on TV. And then there is Twilight, where the super power is kind of appalling. And then you have sort of middle-ground books like Shiver, Uglies, Wicked Lovely, City of Bones, Wither, Darkfever, etc., where there is a girl, and she is the protagonist, and there are fantastical things, but the girl doesn’t really have a power, you know? Like, I don’t think falling in love with a dog or seeing fairies is really a power. If anything, it’s a lame power and more similar to the Twilight power. Also, it is scientifically proven that the ol’ magic vagina, or the wikimagvag, as it’s popularly called, is not a super power. And if we’re going for positive role models, I’d kind of rather see nothing fantastical than see super-creepy-mom power or super-child-prostitute power or super-animal-sex power keep cropping up all over the place.
So, that’s my take on the current state of girls with special powers. Actually, now that I think about it, even in my main-contenders list, only Daughter of Smoke and Bone actually has a girl with extra powers that are above the people around her. Even Katniss is just a girl who grew up tough and learned how to shoot stuff in the woods. Man. What is up with girls not getting super powers, huh? That’s kind of a bummer. I know about Kitty and the Midnight Hour and Anita Blake, but I have not read them. Do they actually have special powers, or is that the wikimagvag all over again? And feel free to tell me about any girls I should know about.
In A Great and Terrible Beauty, our girl Gemma has some magical powers, so that’s pretty cool. The thing is that the rest of it isn’t so exciting. There’s kind of a mystery and this group of girls kind of(view spoiler)[almost destroys, but conveniently saves the world (hide spoiler)]. And Libba Bray confronts anti-feminist messages pretty head on, but, I don’t know, sometimes the way she does that is so heavy handed that it almost seems useless to me. Like, everyone is walking around this book saying stuff like, “Well, my mother told me that ladies have to find a husband and can’t work.” It has this twenty-first-century directness that is a little tiresome to see in a nineteenth-century setting. And then the girls get together and sort of undermine that message by bonding in a magical cave (ummm, and there is actually a chance that is some kind of womb imagery, which is a little tiresome, too). But, at the same time, do they undermine the anti-feminist messages? Not really. The ending is pretty ambivalent about women’s control over our own lives, I think.
A lot of people have talked about how unlikeable the girls are in this story, and I have to agree with that. Some of it seemed deliberate, but that didn’t really make it better to me. They were all grasping for something in what seemed like a symbolic way – Felicity for power, Pippa for romance, Ann for beauty. And then Gemma, the chosen one, knew that people can only get what we desire if we go at it through seeking self-actualization. And all of this plays out in the tone of a fable and ended up as kind of another heavy-handed message that I don’t really disagree with, but that I felt myself resisting only for its heavy-handedness.
So, all of it left me with this really mediocre amount of interest. The story was okay, the action was okay, the friendships were okay, even the special power was very, very okay. I will say, though, that I listened to this on audio, and it is a beautiful audio. The reader has this exceptional pace and lovely voice. I definitely recommend the audio if you feel like picking this book up. And I wouldn’t even recommend against reading this book, I just hoped for so much more. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It is difficult for me to say why I found I Capture the Castle so personally meaningful, which may mean that I will be falling all over myself in this...moreIt is difficult for me to say why I found I Capture the Castle so personally meaningful, which may mean that I will be falling all over myself in this review. When I first started reading I was bored and feared that the poverty of the characters would become dirty and depressing for its own sake, as in Angela's Ashes. Instead, it's more like a lovely BBC movie where people are always chewing with their mouth open, but somehow it is only charming. At first I resisted liking anything about it, including Cassandra's repeated use of the word "capture", but now I find myself thinking about how to describe this or that and involuntarily using the word "capture" in my thoughts. The story is at times screwball and at times elegant but always delightful and completely won me over.
Perhaps part of the reason I resisted this book is that I came to it thinking it would be romance (because of the movie poster cover of the book, which says something like, "A well-loved classic that has become the most romantic movie of the year" - hate those movie poster covers), but it is actually, more than anything, a coming of age story. I say this because I think that whether you prefer coming-of-age or romance, it helps to know what you're getting into when you start a book. In my experience, romantic novels solve the problems of life by bringing characters together in true love. I Capture the Castle is written through Cassandra's eyes, so it does not rely on romantic satisfaction to tell the story, as, perhaps, it would have if it were told by another character in the same book. Rather, like any good coming of age story, develops through revelations of the unreliability of people around Cassandra and her discovery her own independence and capabilities.
I must confess that what first hooked me on this book was Simon's beard. I have said that I am a sucker for a good fish story, and it turns out that I think I am a sucker for a good beard story, too. I thought the girls' fascination and horror over his beard were both hilarious and correct. I wonder why I don't see beards in stories more often. Really, when anyone I have known has a beard, it comes up in conversation almost any time the person is mentioned - and rightly so. I once asked a friend of mine, who had a bushy beard before he met his fiance, why he would have chosen to grow it out like that. He said that the reason any man who can grow a big bushy beard should is that the bigger your beard, the more authority you have over people in general and specifically over other men. He said there is something almost magical about having a big bushy beard that makes other people have to do whatever you want. I told him that was absolutely silly. Then, about a week later I was at the grocery store deciding which line to go through, and one of the checkers, who was otherwise very ordinary looking, had an enormous, bushy beard. I instinctively went to his line, and then a second later was shocked to realized that I had only done that because of the beard. I don't know if that proves my friend's point, but it has to mean something. I wonder if the castle girls weren't experiencing something like this beard-hypnosis in the beginning of the novel.
To go ahead and beat this beard point to death: I also thought it was lovely how Dodie Smith developed the beard's story. I always see authors showing the physical changes love supposedly brings to women, but not men. The women are pale and thin until they fall in love, when suddenly they become healthy looking. In I Capture the Castle Simon looks suspiciously like Satan, until he falls in love and shaves the beard. Brilliant! Also, it has the self-serving overtones of Elizabeth Bennet's visit to Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice, when the mansion shows Mr. Darcy's manners in a different light. Beardless Simon makes even his actions when bearded much less sinister. Love it.
You may not believe me, if you have read this far, when I say that Simon's beard was not what was personally meaningful to me about this story. Not surprisingly, I think it was Cassandra herself who seemed so profound. In many ways I did not identify with her, but I loved her. I found myself crying at times, not necessarily because her growing pains revealed my own, but only in sympathy for this new friend I found, who I love so much. I loved how wise and kind and scrappy she was. I actually loved every character in this novel, though, as they all had some kind of magical and hilarious individuality. It is tempting to copy some of the most beautiful moments here, but instead I think you should just read the book. On the one hand, I am sad that I did not read this in high school, when I think it may have been a more cathartic experience, but I wonder if its honesty might have hurt my feelings then. As it is, I found it both refreshing and comforting.(less)
I think what I want the most this year is for everyone I know to read this book. I don’t really know what to say about it, except that it is exactly w...moreI think what I want the most this year is for everyone I know to read this book. I don’t really know what to say about it, except that it is exactly what it should be. It’s hard to even think for too long about how purposeful and smart Kristof and WuDunn were in structuring and presenting the information they included here because it obviously represents a lifetime of research and investigation, but it comes off as though they’re telling campfire stories. I don’t mean to be disrespectful in describing it that way, and they certainly weren’t. I just mean that all of the heroes in this book are very vivid to me, and I want to meet them all and do anything I can for them. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I care about human rights for women and girls more than anything else in the entire world. If nothing else, this book is a wonderful resource for information and direction on these issues, but it really is both a storybook and a guidebook.
The premise of the book is that the great human rights battle of the twenty-first century will be to make women equal around the world. The main problems Kristof and WuDunn focus on are child sex trafficking, lack of education for girls, fistulas, and maternal mortality. Ultimately, they say (**spoiler alert**) that the best ways to fight these injustices are through education, micro-finance loans to women entrepreneurs, and, surprisingly enough, getting TVs into rural areas of developing countries.
They note that typically the mistake activists make, when trying to motivate people, is overwhelming them with statistics by trying to present the big picture of how the cause affects the world. Kristof talks a little bit about this in his article Advice for Saving the World. There is some psychological study where the testers took two groups of people and told one group they could help a thousands of people by giving a dollar and told the other group they could help one person by giving a dollar and described that person’s situation. The test subjects were much more likely to help the one person than the huge number of people. This makes sense to me, because people want to feel successful in helping, not like they’re throwing a bunch of money and effort into something that is too big to be solved. WuDunn and Kristof managed this by discussing the problems in a very specific format. For each issue, they would present the story of one or two women who in some way exemplify the problem, then they would give background information on the problem historically and brief statistics, and then they would tell the story of someone who is successfully fighting the problem. Even though I know they were in some ways spoon-feeding me by being so purposeful, this was a very inspirational way to write the book. They weren’t patronizing, and in many ways it is such a substantial topic that I think I need to be spoon-fed.
All of my stories end up being about Ukraine, probably because the others tend to be boring and depressing. It is difficult to know what to write about Half the Sky, because I loved it so much, but it made me think of this little moment with my ninth-grade students. I used to make my classes write stories together to practice vocabulary, so on Valentine’s Day, I made them write a love story. I gave them a boy character and a girl character and asked them to describe them. They said the girl was tall and strong, had big muscles, short hair, and was very brave. The boy had beautiful hair, was graceful, small, and kind. I was impressed by them going against the usual gender stereotypes, which I found to be extreme in Ukraine. But, then, I thought, they were my favorite class, and always had a good political point or poignant question for me.
At some point, though, one of the students exclaimed, “No! No! Miss Holley! We are wrong. These words, ‘boy’ and ‘girl!’ We are wrong about these words! You must move them!” Then, there was a lot of yelling in Russian, and I laughed pretty hysterically for about 10 minutes at the mistake they had made. Obviously, I refused to switch the words, and we had a nice little lesson about how girls can be very brave and boys can be graceful. If the kids hadn’t been drilled from birth to stay in their seats come hell or high water, I’m sure one of them would have forcibly changed the words.
I guess I’m not telling this story to point out how silly it is that some kids think girls have to have long hair. Teaching moments are important; but, also, I think that really important humanitarian issues can be clouded by the idea that feminism exists because a girl got her feelings hurt. I am not married to the word ‘feminism,’ though I do love it. I think, though, there is almost no real way to discuss this topic using a phrase that doesn’t typically get disregarded as trivial. This book is not about girls opening their own car doors or boys having cooties. This book is about slavery and genocide, perpetrated against the female half of the population, which is globally considered subhuman.
The most difficult part for me about this entire topic is when women themselves don’t want to improve their own lives or the lives of other women. There is a small mention in this book about families who have very little food and allow the men to eat first. The boys in the family will be healthy and strong, and the girls will eventually be taken to hospitals, wasted and malnourished (if they are lucky). The mother of the house herself will eat, and the family gets fat on the starvation of the girls. This is not only a problem in developing nations. Women perpetuating the dehumanizing of other women occurs all over, from West Africa to West Hollywood. It bothers me when I meet men who really hate women or women who really hate men, but then I think the person probably had some kind of traumatic experience with the opposite gender and is over-stereotyping. It seems really disturbing and unnatural to me, however, when women hate other women. I don’t want that to exist.
Now to go uncomfortably personal on y’all. I finished this book last month, a couple of days after my mom died from an eight-year-long, horrible illness. By the end, her illness was sadder than her death, so I am not saying this for sympathy. My mom’s life just seems somehow connected to the topic of this book. I guess, with any discussion of women, our mothers’ lives, our own lives, and our relationships with our mothers are very present. My mother was a very unhappy person. She believed that men should provide and women should be fulfilled by motherhood. I don’t know if she was unhappy because life didn’t live up to that standard, or because she believed women should be unhappy, or maybe even because the universe conspired against her. My mom and I were very different and didn’t communicate very well. There are many things I don’t know about her. I do know, however, that there was more to her than the unhappy woman I grew up with. I believe there is more to any woman who dehumanizes herself, or other women, than only the hopelessness and resignation they show to the world.
I also think it is possible to create a world that is nurturing to both men and women. I don’t even think it should be as difficult as it seems. There are many things to be discouraged about in the fight to give women human rights; but, there are also people who stand up to oppression, helping women around them and women internationally. I do not feel discouraged by my mother’s disappointments, but I decided to go to law school partly because of them. I hope that when I get out I’ll be able to advocate for women and girls and help the heroes Kristof and WuDunn talk about in Half the Sky. In the meantime, you should read this book and do your part, too – even if your part is only hugging your mom and reminding her, if she needs a reminder, that she’s a worthwhile human being. (less)
One way to really get me pissed off is to tell me that the past was innocent and simple. What you really mean when you say that is that your childhood...moreOne way to really get me pissed off is to tell me that the past was innocent and simple. What you really mean when you say that is that your childhood was innocent and simple, which is probably also debatable, but at least seems fair from a nostalgic standpoint. The farther we look back to our childhoods, the more innocent life seems, and so things that happened before we were born must be the most innocent. No. Not true. People have always been just about as fucked up as we are now. I would say we’ve never been significantly better or significantly worse. That is why I love honest memoirs and biographies like this one. It is tough to even wrap my brain around the amazing and horrible things people have done and still do, and I want to hear about all of it.
As you probably know, Jeannette Walls wrote Half Broke Horses about her grandmother’s insane life. Talk about a real life superhero! The book starts out with a harrowing description of Lily, Walls’s grandmother, saving her little brother and sister from a flash flood by making them climb a cottonwood tree and cling there overnight while the flood subsided. She quizzed them on multiplication tables and trivia to keep them awake through the night so they didn’t fall out of the tree. In the morning, when the children limped home through the residual water from the flood, Walls describes their reunion with their parents:
Dad was on the porch, pacing back and forth in that uneven stride he had on account of his gimp leg. When he saw us, he let out a yelp of delight and started hobbling down the steps toward us. Mom came running out of the house. She sank to her knees, clasped her hands in front of her, and started praying up to the heavens, thinking the Lord for delivering her children from the flood.
It was she who saved us, she declared, by staying up all night praying. ‘You get down on your knees and thank your guardian angel,’ she said. ‘And you thank me, too.’
Helen and Buster got down and started praying with Mom, but I just stood there looking at them. The way I saw it, I was the one who’d saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel. No one was up in that cottonwood tree except the three of us. Dad came alongside me and put his arm around my shoulders.
‘There weren’t no guardian angel, Dad,’ I said. I started explaining how I’d gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them.
Dad squeezed my shoulder. ‘Well, darling,’ he said, ‘maybe the angel was you.’”
And the story basically just takes off from there. As a teenager, Lily rides her pony five hundred miles across Arizona to teach in a rural school. She moves to Chicago to experience love and heartbreak, and she basically dominates the entire time. The Chicago story is nuts, like every other story in this book. I love it all, and while I was reading it, I just thought, “I KNEW you assholes lived crazy lives. Why isn’t all of history THIS??” Because these are the people I care about – people like Lily Casey Smith who take life head on and drain every drop out of it. I love that. I want to hear about all of it.
I think a couple of things are going on here, though, with the fact that this book wasn’t as much of a hit as The Glass Castle. I think The Glass Castle actually, counter intuitively, benefitted from its off-putting child-molestation cover. It hit the Oprah audience square on with that cover, but then it was actually brilliant, so to the extent the anti-Oprah crowd could be convinced to try it, it was gritty enough for them.
We all came to Half Broke Horses, though, with that history and expectation. Like, we wanted to have that, “OMG SO MUCH BETTER THAN I EXPECTED” experience with this book, too. But, since we expected brilliance, it was kind of an impossible standard. So, I really, really loved this book. I think it was at least as good as The Glass Castle, and it presents this incredible American history that I have never known or imagined. Where The Glass Castle was me and my childhood and my life, this was the alien landscape of our past – of the weirdness, bravery, and cruelty of American genealogy. But, if I had expected that surprise of something genius wrapped in an off-putting cover, and if I had counted on that, I think I would have been a little disappointed, like a lot of people were. I was the opposite of disappointed. This book was spectacular.
I know a lot of people treat their own personal histories as though they are a social faux pas. We hesitate to say what makes us who we are and pretend that we magically dropped into our successes and failures, that we were never victims, that we were always proper and never broken. And, while I would never encourage self-indulgence, there is nothing more beautiful to me than personal histories. These stories of floods, horseback rides, men with backup families, backbreaking work, and fierce family loyalty are that magic to me. Those are the magic that dropped us here, and I want to know and understand it all.(less)