Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A vow and a review

Book: Tinderbox
Author: Lisa Gornick
Published: 2013 (Sarah Crichton Books)
Pages: 299

I am weak. I am a weak, weak bibliophile with too much access to the library’s New Arrivals blog posts and too much fun money left on my old debit card and too much time on my lunch break to avoid going on an Amazon book ordering spree of I’m not even going to tell you it’s embarrassing.

But! No more. I am taking a vow. A VOW, DAMMIT. The next South Carolina Book Festival is May 16 – 18, 2014. It's an excellent time of year to hunker down into personal writing and media-consuming projects, and I promise I won’t buy or library-borrow another volume until I am done with all of these by the first writing class that I never get to go to at the book festival because why are they all on Friday at times when I’m still in work and/or cost $35 extra?

Point being, this is a new addition to the pile, and it was pretty good. It’s ostensibly about this “crazy” refuge a lady takes in as a maid when her son and grandson and daughter-in-law come to live with her and wrecks their shit up. But really, those quotes are very well earned because the maid doesn’t seem crazy like, at all. She spontaneously talks about her bad childhood to the lady – who is a psychiatrist. She acts aloof to the son – when she finds his porn stash. Well, duh. Those seem like natural reactions to me. And those are cited as the biggest examples and are supposed to be the whole reason why she sets their house on fire. Yeah.
I think the problem is we get into everybody’s head except hers, and she’s the one that’s supposed to be the most volatile. The family is much more interesting, with the son who’s increasingly obsessed with his porn stash until it finally drives him to disastrous distraction from his kid, the daughter-in-law who fled her country intending to come back and make a difference but instead found herself tangled in feelings she can’t undo, the daughter who seems to love everyone and food better than herself (…I know, but it’s written way more nuanced than that, at least until she grieves herself skinny and finds her happy ending that they linger on just a touch too long).

The whole tinderbox metaphor is jammed in there too forcefully, too, but like I said, the family’s pretty interesting, and…sigh, I don’t know. It’s hard to admit defeat with a brand-new full-priced book. Maybe this time, though. Maybe.   

Exploring moods

Book: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
Author: Kay Redfield Jamison
Published: 1995 (Vintage)
Pages: 219

The thing about reading books on mental illnesses is that they all tend to get into the same groups of rhythms, which makes complete sense since that’s how you diagnose them in the first place – by recognizing a pattern of symptoms.

That doesn’t take away from each individual’s personal experience, but it does make sort of repetitive reading from all but the most nuanced writers, and Jamison very nearly qualifies for two reasons: she studies manic-depression, so she has like a whole extra dimension of expression that she can use, and she’s a poet, so she tends to pick the elegant stuff.

Hers is still an arc familiar enough to maybe be labeled a  trope by now: denial, ruin, discovery, recovery, relapse, repeat, finally catch. I mean I’m still really psyched for her, though, because no matter how many times I read the same general things about it, manic-depression sounds like absolute devastation.

I’m keeping this on my bookshelf because I don’t have a memoir of moods and madness yet unless you count the half-dozen books on writing and writers. 

MEAT BULLET (spoiler)

Book: A Death in Vienna
Author: Frank Tallis
Published: 2007 (Random House)
Page: 471

You know what I hate? When books set in the past have famous people either as minor characters or mentioned by the main (fictional) characters as a way of proving said fictional characters as ahead of their time. Like, “Oh, that Sigmund Freud, I bet one day the whole world will…” you get it. Then the stodgy old detective can be all, “Preposterous!” and prove that authority figures aren’t always right and in fact usually have their pipes stuck up their asses with having any character aspects of their own that actually proves it.

But that’s cheating! And you get that in this detective novel (I KNOW it’s been since like MIDDLE SCHOOL when we all used to eat Agatha Christie for lunch), but eh, sparingly enough to ignore for the larger mystery of who got the psychic lady pregnant and then killed her. Spoiler: I, uh, don’t remember. It was one of the dudes who went to her regular readings.

And okay but I do remember that they couldn’t find the bullet, and someone said it could’ve been made of ice, and I was all, “OH Y’ALL ARE GOING THERE, HUH?” but then they didn’t. Because it turns out the bullet was made of meat that just decayed with the rest of her. OF MEAT.

I was more focused on how this new-fangled Freud-follower was bugging his detective friend into figuring stuff out, and then getting confused himself over whether he really loved his new fiancé or not and what was the deal with his lady patient who was hysterical from getting raped at her old maid job but now that she was cured was studying blood and dude, he so had the hots for her BUT IT ENDED ON A SEX CLIFFHANGER. Or at least as much as one as a Victorian-set detective novel can.

What makes me want to keep the book is the nonfiction postscript about Freud and detective fiction because apparently he had a big influence over it and how forensic science was first portrayed. Apparently psychoanalysis was a precursor to physical forensics. Huh. Cool. So, bookshelf!

We've still got a long way to go, baby

Book: Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media
Author: Susan J. Douglas
Published: 1994 (Three Rivers Press)
Pages: 307

Oh man, you guys, this book had me humming the Shirelles for like a week, because it captures that fun  spirit of popular culture while dissecting it in a thorough, evenhanded, but personal way. It was just so damn catchy. “The mass media objectifies women” is so familiar that everyone can hum along, but do you really know what it means?

Well, probably, and if you’ve taken women’s or media sociology courses, you’ve written a few dozen papers on it, but Douglas lived it. She came of age right along with mass media and the women’s movement, grew up watching both collide and warp and try to evolve, and she’s got some nifty details that flesh out just exactly how many contradictions were bombarding women at a pace that got faster every time she changed the channel.

I especially loved her discussions of girl group pop and domestic-based sitcoms. On the surface, the music seems pretty modern, right, with girls singing about love and sex just as frankly as the fellas. But it’s still ultimately “pretty” music, steeped in lush orchestration and devoid of the really raw sounds of rock ‘n roll.

And then most of the sitcoms portray ladies who, okay, so they’re mostly housewives with the occasional Mary Tyler Moore thrown in. But they’re at least portrayed as being smarter than their husbands and thus secretly running everything, right? Well. Kind of, except they had to be granted impossible, other-worldly powers (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie) before they could be allowed to be seen as that powerful, or if they do have a job, be treated the same way by their male boss.

It was these little details and how they affected Douglas as a girl and how she brought this into a whole bigger picture that still is screwing us over today that made this an easy, fun read even when it was delving into exactly what needs to be changed about the portrayal of women. (A lot.) Bookshelf! But only after I lend it to a lady who makes cheesecakes and used to be a sports journalist.     

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The socioeconomics of looking after the children

Book: The Nanny Diaries

Authors: Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Published: 2002 (St. Martins)

Pages: 306

Yes, rich people are ridiculous. Yes, they spend way too much time thinking about their kids instead of being with them. Yes, they are superficial and if you take care of their offspring, you will get the brunt of their crazy, not enough pay, way too many emergency hours, and no thanks whatsoever.

But their children are usually still adorable, and if you can keep your own romance as a side plot and not the end-all be-all of your story, you’ll have a novel that far exceeds my expectations and puts a very big heart into satire that never goes cartoony. Bookshelf!

Not quite measuring up

Book: Nine Inches: Stories
Author: Tom Perrotta
Published: 2013

Here’s the thing: Perrotta writes like he’s tapping into this shared American consciousness, but he doesn’t tap – deep? Hard? I refuse to keep the penis jokes to a minimum on this blog – enough to get the depth of details he needs to make his characters or situations feel organic.

As it is, his high school slackers and overachievers and stressed-out parents and lonely teachers are just a couple finer strokes away from the finishing touches that would take them out of their arctypes.

Arctypes work for comics, genre fiction, or other media that depend on something other than character (visuals, plot, setting) to do 51% of more of the heavy lifting. But you can’t get away with that in realism literary fiction.

Having lectured, let me tell you how fun and poignant the title story is here: very. I went back to middle school dances and all the absurdity and importance and hormones through a teacher who’s experiencing all of it through his not-quite-unrequited crush on the art teacher and having to break apart a moony couple over a dumb rule he doesn’t want to enforce. That was great and made me tear up.

But everything else was surface level that took itself too seriously. Back to the library it goes.

Sweet, sweet research

Book: Candy Freak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

Author: Steve Almond

Published: 2004 (Algonquin)

Pages: 261

This has the heft and layout of one of those novelty books stacked near Barnes and Noble cash registers, but it’s so much more in depth up front about that author’s obsession with candy.

He tours a lot of the smaller U.S. candy factories, as Mars and Hershey wouldn’t even pretend that they’d give him inside information, but he saw a lot of general processes. And got a lot of free samples. These parts were like watching those videos that the mailman brought on Mr. Rogers, only a little giddier and editorialized with heavier emphasis on chocolate bars simply because those are the author’s favorite.

He explores his own obsession, too, which is basically that his dad expressed fatherly love through candy. Although the author wonders about the true health of that, he backs off from a path of existentialism that is starts to lead him down a couple times (“Is this why I can’t keep a real relationship…? Ooh, a new flavor of Twix.”) Which I appreciated, because I read the whole thing over the course of a disconcerting Sunday that needed no more overthinking, especially about relationships.

But one thing I did enjoy was when he talked to fellow freaks, the ones that had written books and started empires. Although the guy who had a massive collection spanning decades and a couple hundred thousand dollars had nothing polysyllabic to say about it. The author kept in all the journalism awkwardness of trying to get a good answer, which was a funny look behind his curtain and a sort of terrifying look behind the old man’s because apparently he did all that for basically no reason. It could’ve been beer cans.

Tasty stuff, so it stays on the shiny new book cart.



Book: An Evening Performance: New and Selected Stories

Author: George Garrett

Published: 1985 (Penguin)

Pages: 518

Where has this guy been hiding? Seriously, this book from the bargain bin of a used book store is the first time I’ve heard of him and it’s got like 100 short stories that are all at least good with quite a few that are transcendent.

He does best when pitting weirdos against a collected group (small town, usually) and they expect different things or levels of fulfillment. He also does really well with military stories, using false bravado to show the absurdity of war by exposing the gap between what a soldier does and how he feels about it and how he shows that.

The one place he stumbles is in the domestic sphere. Those stories feel like he’s trying to shoehorn too much meaning into too slight themes, and that makes it go melodramatic.

So but all of it’s worth reading. Bookshelf!



Book: Afterwards

Author: Rachel Seiffert

Published: 2007 (Pantheon)

Pages: 327

The most boring part of this story is the central romance that comes together as a sort of “meh, why not” and floats away because of much more interesting traumas. Not that either side knows about these actually interesting traumas, just that there’s something the other’s not saying. Boo fucking hoo, y’all.

But the guy was a British solider deployed to fight the IRA with a rage problem that’s mostly under control except when he lashed out and killed a man on his last patrol, and the girl has a weirdly close relationship with her grandfather for how much she resents him and his own military participation in the colonialism of Kenya.

I liked reading about those two bits, and they were spread out nice and gradually among the modern day piffles, so I think I still want to keep this, but it’ll be on the first to-weed list when I run out of room (again).