Friday, December 28, 2012

Guys, this is totally chick lit

Books: Good in Bed and Certain Girls

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Published 2001 and 2008 (Washington Square Press)

Pages: 375 and 384

I want Jennifer Weiner to give herself good material to back up her excellent arguments about the state of literature. She’s such an articulate defender of “Hey, guys? You know, how about we don’t worry about calling stuff ‘chick lit’ and just have fiction for everybody?” on her website and in her interviews and press.

But honestly? Her novels are her own worst enemies in that argument.

They try hard for substance with a light touch, like when her protagonist Candice Shapiro learns that her ex-boyfriend Bruce wrote a column in a national magazine about loving a larger woman. Which would be Cannie. Awesome premise, ridiculous enough to be authentically funny but still recognized as mortifying and a good start on a journey of self-discovery.  

Not a good premise: having the premature baby from the end of Good in Bed grow up into a teenager with health issues who wanders aimlessly through reading her mom’s old scandalous book and wondering about her biological dad and halfway thinking about planning her bat mitzvah and tracking down her long-lost grandpa. And then – spoiler alert – her stepdad dies. DIES. DROPS DEAD OF A HEART ATTACK WITH NO FUCKING HINT.

I turned the next few pages of Certain Girls looking for the joke or the awakening from the nightmare, but NO. That actually HAPPENS.

A bigger problem than that truly random plot twist, though, is that the protagonist in each novel is not nearly as persecuted as she declares herself to be. For every one person who does her wrong (Bruce), she’s got friends and a supportive family and a dog and even strangers to reassure her that she’s awesome and will get through this. 

I love Cannie as a person, though. Not really as a character, because for all the stuff she goes through she doesn’t really change, but if she were real I feel like I’d want to eat fatty food and talk about pop culture and boys and help her try to get her dog to answer to a different name and compare writing ambitions with her.

That’s why I kept reading these books, and that’s why they ended up disappointing me. Donate. Sigh.

The writer lived down in Georgia

Book: Everything That Rises Must Converge

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Published: 1956 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Pages: 269

Pro tip: don’t read Flannery O’Connor to cheer yourself up. I might’ve mentioned that before, but it’s a damn good thing to remember. This book has nine stories; body count = 10. Only one of which is of natural causes.

Don’t go thinking you’ll need a hankie to mop up all the melodrama, though, because it’s the opposite. She writes so matter-of-factly in such deftly tuned dialects that backwoods psychopaths sound like the normal, sane majority of the world and then you creep yourself out when you realize you’re nodding along to the reasons a jealous grandpa is beating his granddaughter. (For being pure Pitts, of course, just like the no-good daddy who leads her into the woods with angry scowls and his belt while she claims she never let anybody beat her in her life.)

“Parker’s Back” was my favorite, about this tattooed guy who’s been careful to keep his back clear until one day he doesn’t know how to make up with his super-religious wife (or even why he wants to make up with her in the first place) so he gets Jesus tattooed on his one clean space and she hates it and calls him a blasphemer and the last scene is her watching him have a breakdown under their yew tree.

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is good, too, a neat little dissection of ironic hatred twisting in on itself as a son takes great glee in watching his prejudice mother discover that she’s wearing the same hat as a black lady while they’re riding the bus (to the mother’s “reducing” class at the Y, which isn’t super important but is a detail I love). He takes way too much pleasure in watching her squirm and trying to strike up friendships with black people on the bus and then gets to watch her collapse of a heart attack when they get off.

Each story is creepy in its own take on the theme of the quiet horror and ugliness that runs through people and how believably and easily it fits into their lives. Bookshelf, of course. O’Connor is one of my writing role models in that she writes incredibly simply to make complex emotions clear without pulling any of their power. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Changing lives since 1963

Book: It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement

Author: Betty Friedan

Published: 1976 (collection; Random House)
Pages: 388

It’s a little worrying how relevant these writings still seem today in this space-age year of 2012. We still have wage issues, and dammit-they’re-our-own-bodies issues, and nobody’s even come close to working out how to put together a strong career and raising kids without compromising severe amounts of sleep.

Considering all that, these are smart writings by the lady who started it all. She tells you exactly how she started it all, and exactly where it started to get away from her, and at some point when she was discussing how the movement is (was, in 1975) fracturing, I wanted to tell her, “Lady, lesbians have feelings too.”

She puts these essays, news reports, NOW meeting notes, and interviews in rough chronological order, which is logical, but they’re each written for a slightly different audience, so there’s a lot of overlap. 
Especially when she gets to her McCall’s columns; those were written for a mass audience who didn’t know what feminism was actually meant to mean, so she tends to condescend and sentimentalize so Mrs. Still-a-Housewife won’t keep thinking that “equal rights for women” equals “bra-burning ladynazis who don’t need men.” She’s superadiment about still liking men, y’all, and I agree with her insistence on bringing men on board and making everybody equal instead of insisting that women are more awesome than men, but by the end she’s focusing way too much on why the new NOW leadership is too radical than what’s the next thing she can do about breaking the glass ceiling.

With intros sometimes as long as a piece itself, these writings get repetitive when read straight through. (My boyfriend says The Feminine Mystique is like that too. I wonder what she would think about that, about how equally we’ve shared the work of reading her writings.) BUT it’s an excellent collection with a piece for every audience, so it will go on my bookshelf.

Y’all, I’m trying to remember where I got this book. I honestly have no idea. It was free, though, and as such was worth it and more.