I liked The Partly Cloud Patriot, but I loved Assassination Vacation. Vowell's pilgrimage to sites associated with the...moreSarah Vowell, will you marry me?
I liked The Partly Cloud Patriot, but I loved Assassination Vacation. Vowell's pilgrimage to sites associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley struck so many cords with me it is hard to know where to begin. First, I learned a ton. I knew a lot of what she mentioned about the Lincoln assassination (though by no means all of it), but really, does anybody know much about Garfield or McKinley? I knew McKinley's assassin was somehow associated with Emma Goldman, but that was about it. So the book is worth reading (or, in my case, listening to, because Vowell's story-telling style lends itself so well to audio book) just for the information it contains.
But it's so much more than that. It's also funny, and it's funny in a dorky way that I just adore. Vowell's ability to embrace her inner civics geek is commendable, especially for someone who was once a rock journalist. The fact that she is giddily interested in presidential assassinations and all manner of morbid and grotesque history is impressive, but what is more impressive is that she relishes this interest and is unapologetic about it. The story she tells connecting her Oneida tea pot to the Oneida cult/"intentional community" in upstate New York and then to Garfield's assassin is not only fascinating, it also seriously makes me want to marry her. Or at least be her best friend forever. I mean, who wouldn't love someone who could come out with that while pouring you a cup of tea?
It's not Vowell's relentless and uber-cute dorkiness that gets me the most, though, it's her honest devotion to and nearly spiritual belief in U.S. history, government, and myth. More than anything, the book made me want to take a trip to Washington D.C., to see if I'm as mesmerized by the Lincoln monument as Vowell is, to move through the Smithsonian at a snail's pace like I'm sure she does. As someone with a degree in American history and a lifelong interest in it's minutiae, I'm hardly a tough audience, but Vowell got me more excited about it than I have been in years, and excited about a whole different aspect of it (i.e. presidential history, which I've never cared for at all). Like Utah Phillips, her words convince you that the past is important, that it means something, and that it ought to be considered, honored, respected, and made fun of. I'm into that.(less)
I requested Ami McKay's The Birth House from the library at the recommendation of my friend Trudi, a Nova Scotian. The book takes place in Nova Scotia...moreI requested Ami McKay's The Birth House from the library at the recommendation of my friend Trudi, a Nova Scotian. The book takes place in Nova Scotia and is written by a Canadian radio journalist. Reportedly, McKay lives in a house that was formerly owned by a midwife, and her curiosity about and investigation into that woman's life led her to write the novel.
The Birth House takes place mostly during World War II (though it does travel back in time some and the final chapter takes place during World War II). It is the story of a shipbuilder's daughter, Dora Rare, who is taken under the wing of the town's Cajun midwife and taught her trade. The bulk of the book centers around the conflict between the new, hospital-driven male model of medical care for birthing women and the traditional, home and midwife-based female model, but it also branches into other conflicts between men and women, and the ways in which Dora and the rural women around her asserted their independence and agency. Issues including women's suffrage (in the U.S.), temperance, education, and spousal abuse are all addressed.
The book is a quick and interesting read (it took me two evenings). While it is probably not something I will go out of my way to force all of my friends to read, or read again, it is definitely worth reading and I enjoyed it very much.(less)
I love and admire Dorothy Allison. Both her non-fiction work (Skin, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure) and her fiction (Trash, Bastard out of Caroli...moreI love and admire Dorothy Allison. Both her non-fiction work (Skin, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure) and her fiction (Trash, Bastard out of Carolina) is extremely impressive on an intellectual level, as well as deeply moving on a gut level. So I expected no less from Cavedweller, her second novel. And I'm sure it is only because I went in to reading it with such very high expectations that it was disappointing.
Cavedweller is a very good book. It's just not as good a book as Allison's other books. The story, which follows the childhood of Cissy, who moves at a young age from Los Angeles to Cayro, Georgia with her mother, Delia, a recovering alcoholic and faded second-tier rock singer, doesn't hurt the way Bone's story in Bastard out of Carolina does. Though you are alternately in love with and pissed off by Delia, she doesn't spark the kind of pity and fury Bone's mother, Anney, does. Like in Bastard, the women in Cavedweller are strong and hard and more than a little bit crazy, and then men, both good and bad, are a little bit weak and simple. There is more room for forgiveness for that weakness and simplicity in Cavedweller, though, which may speak to Allison's greater maturity when she wrote it. The moral universe is not quite so black and white. But what it loses in clarity also makes it less compelling.
Bastard out of Carolina, is, to my mind, the kind of novel that someone writes only once. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it is the novel that takes the other novels out of you. Given that, I think it was brave of Allison to write Cavedweller at all. Still, it's a sophomore novel, and it reads like one (albeit a particularly good one). Farther, probably, from Allison's personal essays than any of her other fiction, it loses something as it moves away from her. The characters in it that seem the most familiar (the wild and pained Dede in particular) are the strongest elements.
Should you read Cavedweller? Absolutely. You should just read all of Allison's other work first.(less)
As a big fan of David Sedaris, let me just say that I am very very glad he has not been able to better emulate his writing heroes. Because for a very...moreAs a big fan of David Sedaris, let me just say that I am very very glad he has not been able to better emulate his writing heroes. Because for a very talented storyteller, the man has appalling taste in stories.
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules is a Sedaris-edited short story collection. Sedaris makes clear in the book's introduction that these are stories by authors he particularly loves, and that he aims to be as great as he thinks they are. Oh dear.
The version I listened to is abridged--quite abridged, actually. It only contains five of the 17 stories included in the print version. The first story, Patricia Highsmith's "Where the Door Is Always Open and the Welcome Mat Is Out" (read by Cherry Jones) is one of the dullest 45 minutes I have ever spent. A plodding account of a neurotic middle-aged woman preparing for a a visit from her judgmental sister, the story seems to be intended to be farcical, but it's just. not. funny. I ended up with no feeling for either of the two characters, no laughs, no thoughts, and mainly amazing relief when it was finally over.
On the other end of the book is "Cosmopolitan," by Akhil Sharma (read by the author), and it similarly dragged and irritated me. It's the story of a newly separated Indian-American man who falls in love with his neighbor, and again I felt nothing but distaste for the characters and there wasn't actually any plot with which to get involved. Bah.
The only high point of the audio collection was Mary-Louise Parker's reading of Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." A brief interlude into the life of a young woman watching her best friend die, the story is well-written and completely heartbreaking, and Parker's reading is excellent (better, even, than the reading Sedaris himself does of a silly story about a substitute teacher, "Gryphon," by Charles Baxter).
I like David Sedaris. I like short stories, especially in audio format. I was really, really excited about this little collection. So it's difficult to admit how much it sucked, but it really, really did. The print version may well be better (though it really seems to me that short stories are meant to be read aloud), as it includes some stories I know are of higher quality, including "The Girl with the Blackened Eye" by Joyce Carol Oates and "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor, as well as an afterward by Sarah Vowell. However, I was so put off by this sampling I probably won't pick it up to see.(less)
I'd read some, but not all, of these stories before, but listening to them was a whole different thing. The narrators of the audio book are fantastic,...moreI'd read some, but not all, of these stories before, but listening to them was a whole different thing. The narrators of the audio book are fantastic, with perfect, Western accented voices for the stories Proulx tells. The stories are, on the whole, incredibly depressing ("Brokeback Mountain" is, I swear, one of the happier stories in the book), but also really good. If you like Annie Proulx, I'd definitely recommend trying her short stories on audio book.(less)
This is an interesting little book about the post-Vatican II changes in the lives of American nuns, the ways in which many orders changed and wished t...moreThis is an interesting little book about the post-Vatican II changes in the lives of American nuns, the ways in which many orders changed and wished to change, and the barriers that were put in their way by Catholic officials. It's all very interesting stuff to me, as I know almost nothing about Catholicism. I wanted more information about the specifics of the nuns lives in and outside convents, but I suppose that would be already known by most people interested in this book. Another interesting thing it went into was the retirement problem American nuns are facing--there are not nearly enough young working nuns to support all of the elderly retired nuns. In part this is due to lack of interest in entering the convent in recent decades, and in part it's due to the pittance nuns have traditionally been paid for their work. I had never even considered how nuns are funded (or not funded, as seems to be the case), so that was really interesting. All in all, this is a quick and fascinating read.(less)
I usually have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to fiction. In television and movies, I can handle most anything and am not really bothered by vi...moreI usually have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to fiction. In television and movies, I can handle most anything and am not really bothered by violence, gore, or abuse. Because I don't see pictures when I read, this is even more the case with books than with visual media--give me the nasty stuff, I can take it.
Jon Cinch's Finn, however, bothered me. The book is not supremely graphic in its gore, but it does contain multiple murders, one of which includes body dismemberment, and the sexual abuse of both an adult and a child, and something about how these scenes were written stayed with me. So before I say anything else, take that to heart--it's violent, and the violence, for whatever reason, stuck with even my hardened heart.
That being said, it's a hell of a book. The task Cinch sets for himself is not an easy one. While remaining true to events and characters portrayed in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Cinch tells the story of Huck's ne'er do well alcoholic father, "Pap" Finn (who even in Cinch's book is never given a first name). Moving back and forth in time, Cinch weaves the threads of Finn's strange and horrific childhood, his early relationship with Mary, Huck's escaped/stolen slave mother, his loss of Huck to the Widow Douglas, Mary's murder, and eventually Finn's own untimely death.
It has been a long time (two decades, perhaps) since I've read Twain's books, so I don't remember all of the details surrounding Pap Finn, but it seems that Cinch works into his narrative explanations for things that go unexplained in Twain's own work, such as the discovery of Pap Finn's body in a whitewashed room with walls covered in bizarre charcoal drawings (these drawings are done by Finn himself as he descends into madness after murdering Mary). What he does not try to do, however, is take on Twain's tone (as Alexandria Ripley did--poorly--in her less successful Gone With the Wind sequel, Scarlett). Perhaps because he doesn't spend much time trying to write the same characters on which Twain focused (Huck in particular), Cinch has no need to imitate Twain's style of writing, and I think the book is better for it.
Cinch writes Pap Finn to be as bigoted, mean, and drunk as Twain's supporting character, but fleshes him out in his own voice, making him a real character with a past and reasons for his horrible actions, rather than just a foil for Huck. This (albeit limited) sympathy for Finn, as well as Cinch's original characters, is the strength of the novel. The places where Cinch overlaps with Twain (Judge Thatcher, Widow Douglas, etc.) are a bit weaker. It seems almost as if Cinch is too careful with these characters, perhaps afraid to upset Twain purists. Tellingly, Tom Sawyer doesn't appear at all, and most of Huck's appearances are at a younger age than when we first meet him in Twain.
Please do not think you'll love Finn if you loved Twain's books. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are children's characters, and though their adventures did get a little wild, and even a little political, their stories are nothing like Finn. Cinch's book is almost gothic, the cornerstones of its story are violence, alcoholism, and madness. There are no frolicking adventures here, and what humor there is has a very dark underbelly. Finn is every inch a contemporary adult novel, even if its basis is in children's literature from a previous century. However, it's a very good contemporary novel, and if read as such will likely stay with you in a way most contemporary novels don't. Cinch balances the horrific aspects of his story with just enough hope to keep your turning the pages, and at the end you are left feeling as if it was good that you read that, even if reading it was harder than you'd expected it to be. If you think you have the stomach for it, this is a book I would definitely recommend.(less)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a Sassy girl. Though I was a wee bit young for the demographic, being only nine or ten when the magazine started publish...morePerhaps unsurprisingly, I was a Sassy girl. Though I was a wee bit young for the demographic, being only nine or ten when the magazine started publishing and sixteen or so when it stopped, I loved my every issue of Sassy. It spoke to me. It taught me. It understood my freaky teen aged self.
And, according to Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, authors of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, I was very much not alone. They posit that there are a whole nation of us Sassy girls, including luminaries like Bitch founders Andi Zeisler and Lisa Jervis and Bust creator Debbie Stoller, all of whom credit Sassy as a major influence in their work. And the book, as much as being about Sassy, is about us.
As fair warning, this book is not an intellectual criticism of Sassy or the articles that ran in it. While there is certainly history here (Jesella and Meltzer talked to nearly everyone ever involved with the magazine), there is also a fair amount of nostalgia. And near hero-worship of Sassy's staff, particularly the indomitable Christina Kelly, who served first as Sassy's entertainment editor and then eventually as the managing editor. But the book never claims to be impartial--it says right in the title that it's a love letter--so I think that's OK.
Reading the book got me back into thinking about Sassy, and about how different it was to be a girl outside the mainstream in the late 80s and early 90s compared to now. Before Sassy, and the time period that spurred it (grunge and riot grrrl music, the advent of Generation X, etc.) there had for many years been very little commoditization of being "alternative", especially for girls. Sassy was, the book claims (and I agree), integral to making it hip to be weird by the mid-90s. And although that has certainly turned back on itself by now (emo?), I still think it was culturally positive. It certainly made it easier to be me going through high school.
When I did my undergrad thesis research on Ms. magazine in the 1970s, I was astounded at how much difference a magazine can make, especially to people in the middle of the country and outside cities, and especially before we all had the Internet to easily connect us to like-minded souls all over the place. Reading this book's account of Sassy readers, and remembering my own relationship with the magazine, I got the same feeling. Its major purpose wasn't entertaining me, or educating me, or introducing me to the cool new stuff, it was helping me realize that I wasn't alone.
Now that the Internet serves that purpose for many teens, I wonder if the heyday of magazines is really over? The book implies that it is, pointing out that the 90s zine revolution has been nearly completely replaced by blogs. Stupid as it may be, I'd never made this connection, but I think it's astute. And, again as the book points out, blogs are far more accessible to your average small town girl than zines, which had to be ordered through the postal service if you didn't have a hip local bookstore or coffee shop (which I certainly didn't). Which is good. But I still feel a pretty big pang of sadness to think of girls now not having the monthly mail thrill I got when my Sassy came.
So, if you are a teen magazine scholar of some sort, this book is probably going to bug you. However, if you're a nostalgic Sassy girl like me, you'll enjoy it. It's a quick easy read and gives a bit of behind-the-scenes dirt that is still exciting after all these years. And it will really make you wish you'd kept all those magazines, because you'll want to read them again and they are really expensive on Ebay.(less)
After reading Larry Colton's Counting Coup a couple of months ago, I became a little bit obsessed with women's and girl's basketball. In keeping with...moreAfter reading Larry Colton's Counting Coup a couple of months ago, I became a little bit obsessed with women's and girl's basketball. In keeping with that obsession, this book, In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle was repeatedly recommended to me. So, this past week, I read it.
It certainly begs comparison with Colton's book. Both books are about high school girl's basketball teams with big dreams in the early 1990s. But really, the similarities end there. To begin with, Colton's book is about poor girls in a lousy school on a Montana reservation. Blais' book is about upper-middle class girls at a good high school in Amherst, Massachusetts. The problems faced by Colton's subjects, white and (mostly) Native American, are quite different than those faced by Blais', who are largely white, with the exception of two Black girls and one Cuban. Sharon, the star of the high school team Colton follows, harbors a hope to go to a regional or community college (and she does not succeed). The stars of the team Blais follows go to Stanford and Dartmouth. Perhaps most importantly, Blais' team wins, and Colton's loses.
There are also striking differences in the authors themselves. Both Blais and Colton are journalists, but Blais is a "serious" journalist and a professor at the University of Massachusetts who says she's never played a team sport, while Colton is a former professional baseball player who writes about sports and heads up a Portland, Oregon non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of writing instruction in public schools. Maybe most importantly, Blais is a woman and a feminist reflecting on the importance of sports for women. She goes into detail about the mothers of the players she observes, how they weren't allowed to play the way their daughters are, and how they feel about that. She talks extensively about Title IX and what it has meant for women. She puts basketball in a larger context of teenage girls learning to respect themselves and their bodies and raise their voices. Colton is...not. He pays some homage to Title IX and to the importance of girls being respected as athletes, but his perspective as a middle-aged white man is by definition very different than Blais' as a woman of the same generation.
Blais' book is certainly more uplifting. The players Blais follows are headed to college. They have stable families and bright futures. If basketball doesn't work out for them, something else will. Colton's players have a much harder row to hoe. However, I still preferred Colton's book, with its focus on life on the res and the surviving vestiges of American Indian culture to Blais' look at a politically correct Massachusetts college town. Simply put, even if they aren't as talented, basketball seems to mean more to the girls with whom Colton interacts than to those in Blais' book. They need it more. Even though Blais addresses Title IX and the need for women's sports more directly, Colton's argument for it is stronger, and I care more about his players.
I would recommend both books, and I certainly think they are excellent to read together. Maybe now I'll be able to move on to another subject.(less)
In other news, I read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness this weekend. No fewer than a dozen people have recommended Le Guin to me over the...moreIn other news, I read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness this weekend. No fewer than a dozen people have recommended Le Guin to me over the past few years, and a couple of people whose tastes I generally trust recommended to me recently that I start with this particular book, so I picked it up at the library last week. And...I don't get it. I read the whole book, but I probably would have put it down less than halfway through if it hadn't been so highly recommended. To me, it seemed unnecessarily opaque and kind of poorly written. I had very little empathy for the characters, particularly the protagonist, Genly Ai, and spent most of the time I was reading it hoping it would be over soon. While I found the concepts very cool, the execution just didn't do a thing for me. So now I'm not sure if I should give up on Le Guin completely or try another of her novels. I had so hoped she would be a new author I could really get into.(less)
Last month, I posted about my irritation with the Bitch interview with Jennifer Baumgardner, the author of Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics. I was ve...moreLast month, I posted about my irritation with the Bitch interview with Jennifer Baumgardner, the author of Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics. I was very disappointed with the interview, but at that time said I'd still read the book, as maybe she had more to say than she'd let on.
Once again, I'm disappointed.
The book is just as bad, if not worse, than the interview was. Baumgardner honestly seems to see a special place for herself and other bisexuals (or at least bisexual women, she has very little to say about bisexual men) in the gay (specifically lesbian) community. Not only does she expect to be welcomed as queer, regardless of her partnership status, but she seems to think she's a really special kind of queer, even "queerer" than lesbians, or something. Which is both infuriating and kind of amazing in its narcissism.
Baumgardner's real talent, as far as I can tell, is in getting prominent women to agree to talk to her on the record. Much of the book focuses on interviews with bisexual feminists, or feminists who have had relationships with both men and women, including Alix Kates Shulman, Liza Featherstone, and Ani DiFranco (she also draws heavily on her own previous relationship with Amy Ray). And while I found her discussions with older feminists like Shulman, who don't and never have used the label bisexual, even though they had had relationships with both men and women, very interesting, the younger women, including Featherstone and DiFranco, seemed to serve only as quotes to back up the assertions Baumgardner makes about herself.
The book is also littered with stereotypes and myths about lesbians and particularly about bisexual women that I just don't understand the point of including if you aren't going to actually address them. Baumgardner has lots of joking asides about Smith College and LUGS (Lesbians Until Graduation), for example, but she doesn't make any attempt to reconcile this with actual bisexuality. To her, being bisexual, being a political lesbian, and having an experimental phase seem to be the same thing, more or less, and yet she still thinks the gay and lesbian community should accept bisexuals with open arms and even elevate them to a special status? I don't get it.
The single most infuriating thing about the book, though, is not Baumgardner's claims about bisexuality but her claims about feminism. In a way that reads to me as almost anti-feminist, Baumgardner seems to think that the real and important work of feminism was finished in the 1970s and we're just sort of refining things now and ought to be much more concerned with other social justice movements than with feminism. This doesn't speak to my reality at all, nor does it give any thought to the international position of women that third wavers, including Baumgardner herself, claim to be so concerned about in other writings.
Basically, the book is infuriating and disappointing. Baumgardner touches on what I'd consider the important and interesting things that could be said about being a bisexual feminist in contemporary America in about 10% of the book, the rest is either fluff about her personal life, celebrity gawking, holding up stereotypes, or just rambling about things that are really not that important. If you are looking for solid work on bisexuality, skip this one and keep searching. (less)
By the time I was introduced to Caroline Knapp's work in 2005, she had already been dead for several years. When I learned this, after reading and bei...moreBy the time I was introduced to Caroline Knapp's work in 2005, she had already been dead for several years. When I learned this, after reading and being astonished by her book, Pack of Two, I was heartbroken. I went on to read her other books, Drinking: A Love Story and Appetites: Why Women Want and found myself very sad that I couldn't read the newspaper column she refers to writing or any of her magazine articles.
The Merry Recluse fixes that problem, at least to some extent. Published several years after Knapp's death, the book is a collection of some of her most notable essays from her time at the Boston Phoenix and her magazine writing. For the most part, the subject matter is the same as that found in her books--her alcoholism, her anorexia, her relationship with her family, her relationship with her dog. One thing the essays get at that the books didn't as much, though, is Knapp's decision to live alone and to be what she terms a "merry recluse"--a person who is content and even happy with her solitude.
One of the reasons I was more impressed with Pack of Two than with Knapp's other books was that I had previously read intelligent discussions of alcoholism and anorexia, but I'd never read anything that took relationships with dogs so seriously or talked about them in such an intelligent way as Knapp does in Pack of Two. While reading the essays in The Merry Recluse that dealt with Knapp's living alone and being "reclusive," I felt the same way. The human need to be alone, and the desire of some of us to be alone much or most of the time, isn't something I've seen much discussion of anywhere, and Knapp discusses it with both humor and gravitas.
For someone who has not read Knapp's other books, reading some of the essays in The Merry Recluse is definitely a quick way to tell you if you'd enjoy her longer stuff or not, and which of her books you should start with. For me, most of it was not new, but it was still great to "hear" her voice again. Caroline, you are missed.(less)