Friday, November 28, 2014

Men Explain Things to Me

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (2014)

One day I was killing time in a bookstore when I came across - and could not resist opening - a book entitled Men Explain Things to Me. The title essay describes, in hilarious detail, the author's encounter at a party with a smug man who doesn't want to believe she has written a well-respected book on a serious topic. He asks, "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?" As if there were two books on the very same niche topic published at almost the same time.

And so begins Solnit's short book of essays about women, gender, power, and communication. I later got a library copy to read in its entirety. Solnit writes about domestic abuse, sexual assault - and specifically about the IMF head who raped a hotel maid - marriage equality, the disappearance of women in (and from) history, Virginia Woolf, and the trajectory of the women's movement. A lot is covered, so I'm just going to relate a few bits that stood out to me.

In "The Longest War" she writes about rape and abuse, and includes some pretty eye-opening statistics. One in five women will be raped in her lifetime, which I knew already, but I didn't know that for Native Americans that number is one in three. Another point she makes about rape is that the emphasis is always on how women can protect themselves. Obviously this is important and the only part of it that we, as individuals can control, but what about focusing some attention on teaching men not to rape? She urges us to consider these not as separate crimes existing in a vacuum, but part of an overall huge problem. When she lays out all of these statistics, it really does seem like an epidemic that should be earning far more of our attention. Another infuriating fact? In 31 states, rapists who impregnate their victims have parental rights. Let that sink in for a minute.

When analyzing violent crimes in general, we talk a lot about things like race and guns and mental illness, but ignore gender. The fact is that almost all violent crime is committed by men. Of the 62 mass shootings in the last thirty years, only one was by a woman. One statistic that stood out to me was this: "Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined."

Another excellent essay is called "In Praise of the Threat" and gracefully articulates what I've been trying to say for years. Opponents of same-sex marriage frequently decry it as a threat to traditional marriage, and Solnit asks why that's a bad thing. Traditionally, marriage has meant the subjugation of women and loss of their rights, so why would we want to preserve that? She feels that "marriage equality" is an apt phrase as it describes not just same-sex marriage, but equality in all marriages, something she says has been increasingly brought about by the legitimization of marriages between people of the same genders.

Although I got a bit bogged down in the Virginia Woolf essay, in general I found this collection eye-opening and it really got my blood boiling in the very best way. (I do enjoy a good feminist rant! Just ask my coworker Jenny.) The only complaint I had while reading is that Solnit presented quite a few statistics and facts without citations. It turns out that in the acknowledgement she says the citations are available in the online versions of the essays. She didn't include them here because it tends to interrupt the flow of writing, which is understandable. But I would have appreciated that note at the beginning of the book, not the end.

I probably will check some of the citations online, not because I don't believe her but because I want to read more about these issues. For instance, she mentions a huge backlog of untested rape kits and I'm very curious, and somewhat horrified, about why that has happened.

There aren't enough books about women in society that are written in such an accessible, and even humorous, way. I'd love to get my hands on more books like this. I'm considering trying Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, another recent one. Other books I've read in this vein in the last few years include Bossypants, Lean In, and How To Be a Woman. Do you have any recommendations for non-scholarly writings on feminist topics? Post them in the comments!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

100 Sideways Miles

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith (2014)

Among the characteristics that make Finn Easton special are his heterochromatic eyes, his epilepsy, and his penchant for expressing time in miles rather than minutes. Eternally frustrating is the feeling that he is not himself, but a character from his father's cult book The Lazarus Door. But along with his crazy best friend Cade Hernandez and his first girlfriend, Julia Bishop, Finn begins to really find out who he is for real.

As with Andrew Smith's other books, the summary can't do it justice because what makes his books special are the way he tells the stories. On the weirdness scale, this one is between Winger and Grasshopper Jungle. There's nothing otherworldly or science fiction-y, but it's full of quirk. I mean, the most defining event from Finn's childhood is when a dead horse fell on him.

Finn is just as sympathetic a protagonist as I would expect from Smith, and while his constant mile-counting got maybe a tad tiresome, I found it authentically adolescent. Finn's friend Cade was kind of a jerk but having a friend like that added both realism and entertainment value. I didn't get to know Julie as much as I would have liked to, but I thought she was really cool. I mean, the first time she really met Finn, he was in his underwear having a seizure and pissed himself. Not only did she help him clean up, but she started dating him. And I loved her birthday present for him so much!

I loved the whole plot about Finn's dad's book The Lazarus Door. I kind of love books about fictional books, like Amazing Amy from Gone Girl or An Imperial Affliction from The Fault in Our Stars. It's especially great when, like here, they achieve pop culture fame. In The Lazarus Door, visitors from outer space arrive on Earth through the simultaneous opening of microscopic doors all over the place, and these visitors have wings like angels and heterochromatic eyes. Finn is always running into people who are intimately familiar with the book, and who suspiciously eye the scars on his back and his two different colored eyes, putting two and two together to conclude that he is not of this world. Until he self-consciously explains that his father wrote that book. (By the way, I wish this book existed. It sounds creepy and weird and Andrew Smith could totally pull it off.)

As an extra bonus, there's a road trip. I always love a good road trip. You just know something significant will happen and they won't make it to their destination and it won't even matter.

I thought Finn was a bit too level-headed at times, especially in his relationship with Julia. Teenagers are extremely passionate and dramatic and they feel all the feelings intensely, and though at first I thought "Way to be mature, Finn!" I wondered later how realistic it was. It really didn't detract from the experience, it's just something I thought about. It's entirely possible that some teenagers are just more sensible than I was.

Overall, I really liked 100 Sideways Miles. When I initially read the description on Goodreads it didn't sound super-compelling, but having read two books by Andrew Smith already I knew that didn't mean anything. For many books, it's not the plot that's important, it's the other stuff - the stuff that's hard to summarize in a nutshell - and this is one of those books. Luckily, we won't have to wait long for another. According to Edelweiss, Andrew Smith has another weird one coming out in March. Hooray!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006), narrated by Ann Marie Lee

When a pre-teen girl is murdered in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, journalist Camille Preaker heads out from Chicago to investigate. A similar murder occurred the previous year, and though the town is reluctant to receive the sort of notoriety serial murders will bring, Camille is determined to get her story. But returning to Wind Gap dredges up ghosts in her own past, particularly that of her sister Marion who died at around the same age as these girls.

That's enough to put anyone on an emotional roller-coaster, but Camille is also battling her own self-destructive impulses. Ever since her sister died so many years ago, she has cut words into her body, now a veritable tapestry of scars. Since her stay in a psychiatric hospital, Camille has stopped cutting but it's a tenuous recovery, and she seems to have replaced that behavior with heavy drinking. It doesn't help that during her investigation she has to stay with her mother, step-father, and 13-year-old younger half-sister Amma, who she barely knows. All of this is a recipe for a story rife with dysfunction and dark, dark secrets.

Gillian Flynn's earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are more gritty than the more well-known Gone Girl. Everything is unpleasant. Characters are not likable, houses are rundown and dirty, the weather is oppressive, the town's main business is an industrial pig farm. Illness is described in nauseating detail, and when Camille is injured her mother pokes at the wound. Everything bad is just aggravated and made worse until everyone feels horrible, both physically and emotionally. Camille, much like Libby from Dark Places, is a troubled young woman with a dark past who is emotionally distant and has few, if any, friends. Camille is more functional than Libby since she actually has a career, but it seems she's barely holding onto it. It's been a while since I read Gone Girl so it's a bit difficult to compare them but although they are all pretty screwed up, I think these older novels have a more pervasive darkness.

Because I so enjoyed the audiobook of Dark Places, I listened to the audio for this one as well. I would have done so much earlier had it also been narrated by Rebecca Lowman, who I sincerely believe should be hired to read all the books. All of them. Ann Marie Lee isn't bad, but I was a bit put off at the very beginning when she mispronounced both "Gillian" and "Pulitzer." Some of her voices were a little overdone, such as younger sister Amma's high-pitched, wheedling tone that set her up as more of a bad character than necessary right at the start. Otherwise it was a good listening experience and I wish Flynn had more material, because something about her books works very well on audio for me.

I have a lot to say about this novel and its characters, but I don't want to recount too much for those of you who haven't read it. Flynn's books really probably aren't for everyone, but I just think they're all brilliant and I somehow enjoy wallowing in the bleakness. Nobody writes quite like she does.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

War and Peace

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy (1869) 

This is my final War and Peace post - you can see my introductory post here, and also my first and second progress reports.

I discussed some of the details of the plot and characters before and I don't want to say too much more about that at the risk of spoiling it for any of you thinking of reading the book. So I'll keep my final discussion a bit more general.

Our instructor insists that this isn't a historical novel, that to Tolstoy it was about family because family is the most important thing ever. It's hard to see sometimes, especially because in all his philosophical musings in the epilogue and appendix, he doesn't really talk about family at all. But our instructor cites Tolstoy's 99 volumes of journals as evidence of his ideas.

There were, of course, some families in the novel and the parts centering around them were my favorite. I'm not super interested in military strategy, and am rather shaky with history (I find it interesting, but have a hard time grasping it), so I preferred everything that revolved around the romantic entanglements and family life. There were some good war parts though, especially those that focused on particular characters like Bolkonsky, Rostov, and Kutuzov.

It was a bit rough getting through all the philosophical musings (especially at the end), though Tolstoy discussed some interesting ideas. For instance, the difficulty of separating historical events from one another. How do you decide where to begin with a story, when clearly everything that happens has roots in earlier events? He also questions what causes movements. Is it personalities of leaders, conditions of the time, the results of particular orders that were given, or a combination of all of these things? Tolstoy seems to accept a certain inevitability when he discusses our lack of free will. We may think we are doing what we want to do, but there are always restrictions and obstacles, and that applies as much to historical events as to actions in our daily lives.

As you can probably tell, this novel is nothing if not ambitious, and the 1200 or so pages were crammed not only with a great story, but many big thoughts and ideas. Even reading along with a class I know I'm still missing some things. This seems like the sort of book you could read 10 times and get more out of it each time. (I am unlikely to read it 10 times though.)

Reading War and Peace feels like a huge accomplishment, and I'm very glad I did it. Now I don't feel quite so daunted by other unread classics, and hopefully I'll be able to take classes on some others as well to make the reading go a little easier. But maybe not soon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nobody Is Ever Missing

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey (2014)

One day Elyria leaves her husband behind and flies to New Zealand with no explanation. She has a vague plan to to stay with a poet she has met once at a party in New York and who invited her to stay on his farm if ever she found herself in the area. It is clear that Elyria is still dealing with her sister's suicide several years before, and as she hitchhikes around this new country, her grasp on reality becomes more and more questionable.

Despite how it sounds, this isn't a very complex story. Many of the threads were not followed or explained. Elyria's sister was adopted from Korea and was Elyria's own age, which could have add a great deal to the story, but didn't. The fact that Elyria married her sister's professor is also noteworthy, but rather unexplored. At the time of her leaving, Elyria had also been participating in a study that involved having blood drawn and being subjected to a battery of questions, but we never find out why. In many of these cases, I wondered why these story lines were even introduced if they were just going to be left hanging there. But even with all these tidbits, there is very little going on at all.

The best part of the story was when Elyria was waylaid in a small town because she was out of money and was forced to take a catering job where she befriend a transgender woman named Jaye. Jaye was easily the most likable, down-to-earth and well-adjusted person in the whole book and I really thought Elyria would have done better to just stick with her.

The real beauty in this novel is the prose. Despite not being much of a story, I found great pleasure in reading Lacey's poetic and frequently surprising narration. Told in the first person, the reader is drawn inside Elyria's disordered mind, and her stream-of-consciousness perspective is sometimes frustrating but also full of unexpected beauty and I marked many passages to re-read. Here are a couple of the shorter ones:

"One framed picture was on the wall: a man on a sailboat looking at the ocean like it belonged to him, like he'd spent his whole life earning enough money to buy the ocean and now he had it and he was pleased with himself."

"...I imagined they slept in a pile the way that puppies or kittens sleep, but I slept in the metal caravan the way a sardine would if sardines came canned individually." 

Unsettling and slippery, my reading experience was best when I read big chunks at a time because I was able to settle into Elyria's story a bit better. The few hours I spent reading this unusual and intriguing novel were pleasurable, though it ultimately left me unsatisfied.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (2013)

For a review free of spoilers, see my original post about this book from last year.

My Not-So-Young Adult book group at work voted to read this and because it has stuck with me so much since I listened to the audio last year, I wasn't going to necessarily read it again. My plan was to skim through a few chapters to remind myself of some of the details. But once I opened the book, I couldn't help but read it in its entirety, even though I'm in the midst of War and Peace and, at that point, had hundreds of pages left.

I loved Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock as much the second time as the first. But now I'll tell you more about why. Some important pieces of the story were left out of my original post because they were spoilers, but those aspects of the story were some of the most important parts.

The reason Leonard is angry and wants to kill Asher Beal is because Asher sexually abused him. They were very close friends and it is implied that Asher was abused by a beloved uncle, after which he turned to Leonard. It is further complicated because Leonard sort of went along with it at first, but then he didn't and it clearly became forced. So he feels not only hurt by the abuse, but guilty and confused. What I love about this plot (I mean, it's horrible, but it's also fiction) is that it represents something that exists but is rarely acknowledged. We know all about bullying, and we know about sexual abuse, but the abuser is generally an adult and the victim is generally a girl. It is just as upsetting when a teenaged boy is raped by another teenaged boy and somehow we forget that this can happen. The novel is all the more realistic because it's as complicated and nuanced as real life can be.

In an interesting juxtaposition, Herr Silverman - the adult that Leonard admires most - has come out as gay to Leonard late in the novel. Leonard is totally like "hey, that's ok" and then immediately chastises himself, because Herr Silverman doesn't need Leonard's approval, so, what a ridiculous thing to say. In an awkward attempt to explain his hatred of Asher Beal, Leonard explains by saying "He's not gay like you. He's horrible." Then he goes on to clarify what happened between them. I keep wondering if Quick made Herr Silverman gay just to contrast with Asher so that the only gay character in the book wasn't an abuser. In any case, it works, and Herr Silverman is one of my very favorite adult characters in YA literature. (Don't be tempted to think a gay teacher could get away with inviting a teenage boy to stay overnight at his house in real life. I'd like to think it would be ok for a teacher to act as Herr Silverman did in the interest of saving lives, but the cynical side of me thinks he'd probably lose his job over it.)

I wondered if my experience with this book would be as positive the second time around, and I'm so glad it was. I just love Leonard. He is angry, yes, but even though he is planning to murder someone you know that deep down he is also a good person, or at least he wants to be. When his horrible mother dismisses the danger of his situation by saying that Leonard would never hurt anyone, it's a terrible thing to say but also, I think, true. This is a boy who spends his lunch breaks listening to another student practice his violin - and even pays him for the privilege - and who befriends a devoutly religious girl who hands out pamphlets at the train station even though he's an atheist, because he admires her wish to save everyone, and who spends his free time watching Bogart movies with an elderly chain-smoking neighbor. He is a great kid who is hurting and just needs someone to say "Happy birthday" to him. I was convinced that he continued to find good in the world and would not be able to bear leaving it. Of course, while I was reading it the first time, I really didn't know whether or not he'd go through with the murder/suicide until he actually made the decision, so maybe this is all hindsight talking.

Matthew Quick is pretty high profile (he's the author of The Silver Linings Playbook, which I've still neither watched nor read) yet this one hasn't gotten nearly the attention that it deserves. I thought maybe I was alone in my love for it, but the 5 attendees at my book group agreed that it is awesome. So spread the word!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Top ten characters I wish would get their own books

Here's a fun thing! Top Ten Tuesday is hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. I don't know if I'll participate every week, but I'm going to start trying. I love lists.

I frequently wish I knew more about certain characters, so this is a great topic. Most of these are from books I've read in the past year because they're fresh on my mind, but I'm sure I'm forgetting some that are important. Links go to my reviews.

1. Baback from Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I just read this book again (review coming soon!) and am intrigued by this Iranian violin virtuoso who Leonard never really gets to know.

2. Marin from The Miniaturist. A mysterious character from the start, once her secrets were revealed it really made me want to know her whole story.

3. Stephanie from In Darkness. She's an aid worker for the UN who ends up running with the gangs in Haiti and getting romantically involved with Shorty's friend Biggie. I want to know how that happened!

4. Serena Joy from The Handmaid's Tale. As readers we're very focused on the position of the handmaids, but all of the women in this world are oppressed and the privileged wives were in rather an awkward spot themselves. I'd love to hear the story from this perspective.

5. Anna Pavlovna from War and Peace. A single, aristocratic woman who hosts fashionable salons in early 1800s St. Petersburg. I like to imagine a free and glamorous life for her, so different than most of the other women in the book.

6. Patrick from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He's in the book a lot, and I loved him, and I bet he had a great story of his own. (I really need to review this on my blog sometime so I have something to link it to!)

7. Charlie from My Notorious Life. What did you do the whole time you and Axie were apart? Huh, Charlie?

8. Ty from Stolen. What kind of a guy kidnaps a teenage girl to live with him in the Australian outback and thinks it will work out well?

9. Aidan from The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. There's room in this world for another great story, and I loved poor, well-intentioned, flawed Aidan.

10. Boris from The Goldfinch. I guess his mystery is part of his charm but, man, his whole life must be an adventure.

What other characters deserve to have their own stories told? And am I forgetting someone obvious?

Monday, November 10, 2014

In Darkness

In Darkness by Nick Lake (2012), narrated by Benjamin L. Darcie

Shorty was in a hospital in Haiti when the earthquake hit, and now he is trapped in darkness where nobody can find him. He thinks about his life - his father, who was murdered, and his twin sister, who was taken the same day. He thinks about how everything changed after that and how he became a gangster and a killer.

In the late 1700s a slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture leads a rebellion against the French which ultimately results in the freedom of the slaves and the founding of the Republic of Haiti. His story is also one of struggle, danger, and tragedy. There is a connection between Shorty and Toussaint which brings both stories together in this deservedly award-winning novel.

There are so many elements that make this story stand out. How many works of fiction are even set in Haiti, much less ones intended for teenagers? I'd venture to guess very few. Beyond the uniqueness of the subject, though, is a strong story that is also driven by believable characters brought to life in all their personal struggles and imperfections. I also fascinated by the descriptions of vodou ceremonies and attempts to create zombis, which were different from the zombies of our popular culture. And I think Shorty is now one of my favorite characters. His voice is sincere, earnest, sometimes angry, but always compelling. He is trapped and alone with his thoughts, so he tries to be completely honest, but his story also has a desperate feel because he's trying to tell the whole thing before he dies.

Toussaint's character was very different - a middle-aged slave being lured into leading a revolt - but not without similarities. Both characters are desperate, both characters are in a dangerous Haiti that is changing, and both are caught up in a life that feels beyond their control, Shorty as a gangster and Toussaint as leader of a revolution. The two characters kind of channel each other, their stories woven together in a way that is difficult to buy as a concept, but works very well and doesn't feel forced.

This is a book that would have probably worked better for me in print than audio, particularly the historic scenes, but I do have a hard copy available that I read bits of in spots where my mind had wandered from the audio. That being said, Darcie's Haitian-accented narration was fantastic. I could listen to that guy read to me all the time. The story contains a lot of unfamiliar French or Creole words, but they are usually explained or just obvious from the context. In the audio, this only added to the feeling of authenticity.

Although this book has been on my list to read for quite a while, I kept passing it by until impulsively downloading the audiobook one day when I was feeling extremely indecisive about what to listen to. It was a great surprise and I'm so glad I got to finally experience this story, and accidentally learn about some Haitian history in the process. In Darkness stands out as one of the most unique books for teens I've come across, and I know I'll be recommending it a lot and I'll be thinking about Shorty and his story for a long time.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary M. Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth

When I heard about this graphic work from Tiny Library, I was very excited because it brought together two things I love: feminism and Bryan Talbot. Talbot is the author The Tale of One Bad Rat, a graphic novel which I love and which partly inspired the titles of my blog. He also wrote an amazing, crazy graphic novel called Alice in Sunderland which is about Lewis Carroll and the young girl who may have been the inspiration for Alice and lots of other weird stuff which may or may not be based in reality. It made my head spin, but in a good way.

Those two books are both very different from each other and Sally Heathcote: Suffragette isn't like either of them. Sally is a maid who works for a suffragette and ends up being involved in the movement herself. I didn't realize when I started reading that Sally was a fictional character and I'm not sure how I feel about inserting a character into a story that is otherwise real. Ultimately, though, it was an effective way to tell the story and all the important parts are true.

I should mention that this takes place in the UK, so although I know a bit about the American suffragist movement, most of this was new to me. I knew about Emily Davison, the activist who threw herself under the king's horse in 1913, because I saw this video, but that was the extent of my knowledge about the British suffragette movement. (Unless you count Mrs. Banks singing "Sister Suffragette" in Mary Poppins, but that's hardly educational.) The movement really was complicated and unglamorous, with its imprisonment and hunger strikes and forced feeding (which sounded awful!) and activists disagreeing about the use of targeted violence.

It was more informative than pleasurable - though I really did appreciate some of the art - and in that way was quite different from what I expected. But if you want to learn more about the women's movement in Britain, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette surely beats reading a dry history book.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ten books I'd be reading if I wasn't reading War and Peace

Don't get me wrong - War and Peace is a great book! But it's long and I've been reading it for weeks. I've read a few other things, mostly for book groups because I have to read those, and I also snuck in a graphic novel. But it's fall, which is a huge season in publishing and I keep staring longingly at shiny new copies of books on my coworkers' desks.

If it weren't for Tolstoy, here's what I'd be reading right now. Links go to Goodreads so you can easily add them to your own lists (you're welcome!)

1. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. I keep hearing that this new YA book is magical.
2. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I put myself on hold the moment I heard it was coming out, and got a copy just before I started W&P. Sadly, I had to send it back and now there are 400 people ahead of me on the list.
3. Revival by Stephen King. Ok, it's not out for another week or so, but my life isn't going to change by then.
4. Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King. New A. S. King!!!
5. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Informative, morbid, what's not to love?
6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler. Like Bossypants, but different.
7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. There's a lot of buzz about this new post-apocalyptic novel.
8. 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith. One of my new favorite authors!
9. Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit. I read a snippet of the introduction and loved it, but of course I always love a good feminist rant.
10. Lost and Found by Brooke Davis. I get galleys from Penguin every month and a lot of the time they don't interest me, but this one looks really good and since I have a pre-pub copy I'd like to actually read it before it's published.

These are all published this fall except Men Explain Things To Me (May 2014) and Lost and Found (January 2015.)

And these are just the new and forthcoming books! Additionally, I wish I had time to read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins right now. It's the final book on my TBR Pile Challenge and I don't technically have to read it for the challenge because I read one of the alternates, but I still want to! I also have a copy of Cockpit Confidential by Patrick Smith that I've had checked out since mid-September. My library doesn't own it so I want to read it before I send it back home.

The best part of all this is that when I actually finish with Tolstoy, I bet I'll start reading something completely different that's not even on this list. I wonder what it will be!