Sunday, April 14, 2019

Dooce Treatment

Remember dooce.com? The LA party girl blogger turned mommy blogger turned blogging industry? I followed her for years, mostly writing about parenting and her struggles with mental illness. She's a really good writer, and I enjoyed the blog a lot.

Her name is Heather Armstrong and her new book is called The Valedictorian of Being Dead. It's about an experimental treatment for depression that she underwent--experimental as in she was patient #3 in the trial--after an 18-month depressive episode that nothing else could touch.

It's really hard for me to review this book apart from my feelings about Heather herself--isn't that always the case with a memoir? I have fairly strong opinions about her work, and it's kind of hard not to have strong opinions about her life, too, when you've read years and years of detailed accounts about it. 

One of the pivot points of my reaction to dooce is the idea of honesty, straightforwardness, and self awareness in a personal blog. Just because you write a blog about your life doesn't mean you owe your readers any particular details. I don't have any right to know more about the facts that fall in the gaps I see in her storytelling, the places where I want more detail. I want it, but I'm not entitled to it, and I know that.

But am I entitled to the truth about the parts she does write about? Nobody promised me nonfiction, did they? And then again, what is "the truth" when you're telling your life story? There are plenty of stories I tell myself and mostly believe until I don't and I realize they were never true.

Take the divorce. That's about when I stopped reading the blog; that's about when I realized that the people I thought I was reading about were personas. (It's reality TV. No one believes reality TV, right?) I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure that pictures of her on a date with someone else (selfies, not any kind of blogger-paparazzi shots) showed up on her Instagram just a couple of days after the separation was announced. What that said to me was either a) cheating, or b) a long-term rift that there had been no hint of in the storytelling. To the point where, in my memory, there was a "my husband is the best husband" blog posts fairly current before the split was announced.

The specter of her ex-husband, Jon, hangs over the book. He doesn't appear, having moved to New York since the split, but one of the driving factors in the book is her fear that if he finds out about the severity of her depression, he'll take the kids away.

I have complicated feelings about that, too. She spent 18 months very, very depressed. Hiding in the closing crying on the phone to her mother about wanting to be dead. Weeping and leaving the room because the fight to make her daughter practice piano was too much. I have felt this--the tyranny of the neverending list of things that need to be done that she describes so, so poignantly. Her ability to explain the feelings of depression is amazing.

But also, maybe she wasn't doing her kids any favors by plowing through this? Not that her ex was the solution--he appears to be a "two weeks in summer and one holiday a year" kind of parent, which, eugh. Who is that guy, and who was the guy I knew on the blog? So no, I don't necessarily think he should have taken her kids. But maybe someone should have been looking at whether they were okay through this?

Ugh, I don't want to dump on her. I really don't; this is a great, interesting memoir of this particular treatment, and it does an excellent job with almost everything it's trying to do--her relationship with her mother and stepfather, her father and her siblings, the family history of mental illness, the experience of the treatment, the nature of her depression, all incredibly well-painted. 

I guess it's more that I don't entirely trust her to be an authentic reporter of her own life. Whether it's for reality TV reasons (in service of the story), or for standard memoir reasons (to protect the real people who are out there in the world living this life), or because her tragic flaw is the need to be the valedictorian of everything, including memoirs, and so everything is cured and sewed up into a neat little package--when I read her book, I am very aware of everything that must be there but is not being said.

One thing that gave me pleasure, though, was how, as the treatment starts to work and she starts to reconstruct her life, she realizes that she has to build it in such a way as to not trigger her anxiety. This is something I have learned myself in the past few years--that part of keeping myself emotionally healthy and strong is to build a life that does not press on the places where I am weakest. There are things that are harder for me than they are for other people--it is not weakness to work around those things instead of trying to do them anyway because I "should." Having a job that you can do competently without getting panic attacks is more important than having a prestigious job; I've learned that, and I am only, endlessly glad that Heather did, too.

I guess that's the other part of reading this book, the good part. In spite of my doubts about whether I'm getting a whole and accurate picture of this person's life, the story she is telling--her suffering, her family's support, her hope--all resonated with me, and I was rooting for her all the way.

Missed you, dooce.  Best of luck with everything.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

On Trust: The Stillwater Girls

I know I've talked about this before--the difficulty of reading a new author when you're not sure if you're supposed to trust the characters or not.  The Stillwater Girls, by Minka Kent, is a perfect example of this, and I'm trying to pick it apart.

For the first half of the book, you're reading two stories in alternating chapters from two narrators. One is from Wren, who lives in a cabin in the deep woods with her sister Sage, and whose mother left weeks ago to take their youngest sister Evie to a hospital. Wren has never been off their homestead, and if Mother doesn't come back, they might starve.

The other story is about Nicolette, who lives in a lonely part of upstate New York with her photographer husband, whom she loves deeply but suspects might be having an affair. They have been unable to have children (and I'd include some content warning for infertility struggles) and this has put pressure on the marriage. The two stories appear to have nothing to do with each other for a very long time.

Now, my objective opinion is that it took too long to bring the two stories together. Wren's story was compelling in its own right, but Nicolette's didn't grab me, and I was mostly waiting for her to have something to do with Wren. This is partly a pet peeve of mine; I have zero interest in whether anyone's husband is cheating on them.  If he's murdering people or conspiring against her, I'm on board, but if he's just sleeping around, even if he's working really hard to hide it, I'm sorry, that is nowhere near thrilling to be even  source of tension in a thriller.

So I was pretty dismissive of Nicolette. She seems very normal, maybe a little shallow and spoiled. And I've realized that I've been trying to figure out whether this is a quality of her character or a judgement I'm making. Does she seem shallow because I am quick to judge people as shallow, or because the author is painting her as shallow?  I struggled with this for a lot of the book; if the author is painting her as such, it's actually pretty subtle and well done, because it's not enough to turn me against her or make me doubt her, but I've definitely noted it.

If I knew the author well enough to feel confident, I would be creeped out by how uneasy the character makes me. But writing this, I realize that I have had another piece of important information that I was ignoring; Wren. The other point of view character has a very different voice and a very different life and personality. But there's no hint in Wren of any reason to doubt her judgement, in spite of her isolation and ignorance. 

In fact, after the two stories intersect, Wren offers a check on Nicolette's observations. The language Nicolette uses about Wren doesn't quite jibe with the character we know from Wren's chapters; a good deal of Nicolette's shallowness comes through in how she perceives Wren (as "little" and "innocent").

I'm nearing the end of the book now, but I think I've talked myself around to trusting the author. Which has me excited to get back to it and see what's going to happen; I'm pretty sure we're coming up on a big twist.

I stand by my assessment that there are some pacing problems with the first half. But there's also a compelling story in there, and now I very much want to know how it ends.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Contagion

I started reading Contagion, by Erin Bowman, a few months ago, but it wasn't the time.  The time was now and it was actually a great read for the same reason I had to put it down.

See, late last year I got really into a series of audio dramas from Audible based on the Alien franchise. They're really great, full cast productions of stories about other encounters with the xenomorphs from the movies.  One story is the backstory of Newt from Aliens and the details of what happened to that colony. Another involves Ripley's shuttle being found between Alien and Aliens, with some serious retconning to resolve all continuity issues.  There was even a convincing Sigourney Weaver imitator playing Ripley.

The thing is, I listened to them all in a row, and they're very similar.  Group of people come to a remote, deserted planet inhospitable to life to investigate something ominous, they find strange and fascinating sights--weird eggs, alien ships--and are inadequately frightened.  They investigate, in spite of barely being able to breathe the air, in spite of the fact that there are probably people missing, so there's reason to be wary.  But no, we'll just check this out. 

Then the aliens hatch and are chasing them, and the people are running, getting picked off, trying to find their way to some kind of escape. We learn more about the aliens and wait to see how many people will actually make it, knowing it won't be many, in some cases knowing the answer will be "just Newt."

Don't let my being jaded stop you from listening; any one of these is a really great story and very well-produced. Maybe don't listen all in a row. But I was glutted on these when I picked up Contagion.

Contagion is the story of a science crew sidetracked to answer a distress call at a mining outpost called Black Quarry. (Point: could you give your mining outpost a more ominous name?) It's an ominous planet, inhospitable to life, and a survey team Died Mysteriously there years before (except for one child who survived). But there might be a source of McGuffin--excuse me, corrarium--on the planet, so another team is investigating. But now they've gone missing, and a team is sent to investigate.

The team consists of: the child survivor of the first mission, now much older. Her teenage intern, scrabbling her way out of a lifetime of institutional foster care. A young pilot who washed out of the military because of a very slight peripheral vision problem. A too-young, too-cocky captain.  A few red-shirts.

So they get to this inhospitable planet, and they start investigating, and it's very mysterious, and they find things that don't make sense, and then ominous things start to happen.  The first half of the book was very much like the part before you find the aliens.  Which is actually great; it's about the nitty gritty of conducting a rescue mission on a dangerous world, with some extra interpersonal conflict and military/political drama thrown in. 

When I came back to it recently, I was all fresh, and it started at a good clip. I think the cover gives away enough information that I can safely tell you without spoilers that there is a zombie virus involved, and leave it at that.

Too long; didn't read: awesome space horror; can't wait for the next one.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

More Wayward Children

I thought Beneath the Sugar Sky would be the last of the Wayward Children series, but then In an Absent Dream appeared magically on Netgalley, and they were so kind as to share it with me, and a big ol' thank you for that.  Of course, they gave it to me months ago and I read it months ago, but by gum here I am, raving about it now.

Remember Lundy from Every Heart a Doorway? She was Eleanor West's right hand girl at her Home for Wayward Children, a middle aged woman in the body of a child, somewhat prim and devoted to mapping the nature of the worlds her charges have visited.  This is her backstory, where she went and how she came back and how she came to be the Lundy we know at the school.

Because, of course, once she was just a little girl named Katherine Lundy, who liked to read and to think, who liked rules and logic, but who found that the world wasn't quite fair, even by its own standards.  And when she stumbled into another world--the Market, where everything has a value and it is always, always fair--she knows that she's home.

I think what I loved most about this book is that it is addressing a completely different problem than the others in the series.  In this book, while Katherine doesn't much like the way this world is, she does actually love her family.  This is a book about choices, and about how choices are a part of life, and you can't clever your way out of having to sometimes give something up to get what you want. Some resources--like the hours in your life--are finite.

When Lundy finds her way through a door into another world--a world that feels like home to her--there are things she's leaving behind.  And when her new world and new friends demand things of her--giving is wonderful, but what are the limits? Giving generously to your friends can complicate relationships, and your judgement of what they need might not be theirs.

I love how the idea of a world that is always fair is explored here, and how this perfect world--which even makes room in fairness for people's ability and knowledge and freedom--is not enough to be everything to every person. 

In the end, this story brings Lundy from a mysterious, distant figure into a full, fleshed-out character. Knowing her back story, her later life is even more interesting. I wonder sometimes if Seanan McGuire ever regrets that her first book in this series was a murder mystery in which so many interesting characters died; I would very much like to read the story in which that one girl finds her way home through the spider queen's tiny portal.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oh, the Whammy

I was putting down books left and right this month, so I didn't blame the book itself when The Witch of Willow Hall failed to hold my attention and I ended up setting it aside. A coworker read it, though, and when we started discussing it, I decided I wanted to finish it so we could have a full conversation.

So that's what the last to days have been--aggressively skimming this what-a-crockery and texting outraged observations to Library Lily. Comments like "that's not how duels work" (her reply: "that's not how life works") and "All she had to do was yank the letter out of his hand when I shouted at her!" I ended up reading the climactic scene out loud to my family because it made so little sense.

Great cover, though, right? I had some hopes. It's 1821 and our heroine, Lydia, arrives in the present tense in New Oldbury, a stupidly named town (upon which the narrator remarks) in western Massachusetts. Her father's going to start a mill and ignore his family, and the rest of them are going to flee the scandal that has been hovering over their good name.

Older sister Catherine is gorgeous and flirty and in trouble. Little Emeline is Lydia's closest friend. Mother drifts through the house in a haze. There is theoretically a brother named Charles off somewhere. Lydia meets Mr. Barrett, her father's young, handsome business partner. There are maybe ghosts.

The pieces start to line up all right, but when they all come together, it collapses into a hot mess. This book includes such thrilling details as incest, death of a child, and miscarriage, but spends most of the time on the page describing the physical locations of people in the room, their expressions, postures, seated positions, and state of their dress. The story cannot carry off the gravitas required by the themes.

Lydia makes literally no choices and takes no action on any subject at any point. She does not tell anyone how she feels about anything, even when they ask, for reasons that don't make much sense. She spends a lot of time trying to pretend nothing is happening--sometimes more than once on the same page (if she doesn't open her mother's door she can pretend her mother isn't sick; if she doesn't open the book, she can pretend she doesn't have any need of the information in it).  This lasts right up till the very end, when she does one thing in the last scene (which doesn't go very well) and we're supposed to be impressed.

Catherine would have made a much better main character. She's scheming and conniving. Much of her behavior doesn't make emotional sense, given the shallow characterization--but maybe it would have made sense in her head. Her aggressive attempts to flirt her way to a husband are at least practical and well-planned, unlike literally anything Lydia undertakes in the whole novel.

Everyone in this book behaves so erratically, with so little human feeling or common sense. There was a good idea here--girl with latent powers moves to haunted house--but what I ended up reading was, disappointingly, the least lurid incest book ever.

I got an ARC of this book from Netgalley for an honest review.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Speaking of Bad...

See, some books are just so silly that I have no problem giving them a big ol' raspberry. Darcey Bell's A Simple Favor is one of those books. I picked it up because I had seen a preview for the movie with Anna Kendrick, whom I find oddly charming, and Blake Lively, whom I find oddly offputting, and figured what the heck?

What the heck indeed. This book is mostly just Not Good.  I'm not 100% sure why I read through to the end, except possibly that A) I hoped there would be a really twisty twist that set all that came before on its ear (spoiler: newp), and B) I was baffled by the idea of Anna Kendrick playing Stephanie.

I knew from the movie trailer that Stephanie (Kendrick) was the boring one whose best friend, Emily (Lively) is all amazing and glamorous but turns out to have Secrets.  That's about all I knew.

But it turns out that Stephanie is not just the square one (which Anna Kendrick can do quite nicely, thanks), she's the frumpy one.  She runs a mom blog in which she frequently talks in broad, saccharine generalities about moms.  Like, "Moms have amazing mom powers, and their mom strength holds them together through a crisis.  The amazing community of moms etc. etc."  She's very uptight, sure, but also pretty dim.

Emily, on the other hand, is a glamorous PR manager for a fashion company in New York City.  Stephanie is a widow, but Emily is married to a gorgeous husband.  Their sons are the same age and they're friends.

The simple favor is to watch her son for a few hours after school.  The drama starts when Emily doesn't come home. The police get involved, and is there foul play, and where is Emily?

It's the most Gone Girl plot since Gone Girl itself, but it is not anywhere near as clever or shocking or gritty as Gone Girl.  As the plot unfolds, it starts to look like literally  no one in this book is actually all that smart, and instead of having fun watching an evil genius pull the strings of all the regular people around her, you're watching a sneaky stupid person play childish games with a dopey stupid person.

And, insult to injury, the major plot twist hinges on one of the classic daytime soap opera twists.  Think "amnesia!" only even cheesier.

So yeah, I read the whole thing.  I'll probably even watch the movie when it's available to stream, because Anna Kendrick is a dear.  But whoo nellie, this one was pretty dang cheesy.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Why I Stopped

Not why I stopped blogging; I'm not self-aware enough to write about that, and it's not very interesting.

But why I stopped reading this book that I had been excited about and that seemed to be giving me everything I always ask for when I talk about books. I've been thinking a lot about why the book I just set aside, Beneath the Citadel, didn't work for me, and about what to say about it.

Self-conscious aside: writing a negative post about a book that I didn't actively dislike but that just didn't work for me feels mean. I often just skip those--I'll write a pan of something that was amusingly bad (foreshadowing; watch this space), but a book that I have some respect for but that didn't work for me--taking the time to pick it apart feels kind of petty.

But the question of why I felt that way is interesting, and it's what's been on my mind. So my apologies to the author, and all of my respect for the good work that went into this book that ended up being not for me.

First, let's say that the cover is glorious. I stared at the cover for a long time before I got a chance to start reading (when it was on my desk at work), and it brought me a lot of joy. The first chapter was also truly excellent; four young rebels appear before a tribunal and are sentenced to death for breaking into the citadel. We learn their characters, get some great moments, and spend some interesting time inside the head of the Chancellor, who is surprisingly sympathetic for the head of the government against which we're going to be rooting.

This is just what I ask for--start me in the middle of some action.  Not the climax, but I have so little patience for a first page that is mostly descriptive.  Don't start me with the weather or the landscape; start with our characters doing something, so I can learn about them by watching them interact with the world.  Perfect here.

Then they're taken into the dungeons, to be executed tomorrow. They execute an unlikely escape, which is pretty cool and impressive, and they flee into the catacombs that are, appropriately enough, beneath the citadel.

Now, I read the first quarter of this book, over 100 pages. The entirety of this section was our four main characters on the run.  Aside from one very important plot driving incident, not much happens in this run.  They are finding their way through the catacombs; there are soldiers chasing them, sometimes closer sometimes further away.

What's really happening in this section is backstory. And there's a lot of it--you've got four characters to meet, to learn how they ended up here and how their relationships with each other work. We also have a huge amount of world-building--who are the rebels, and against what are they rebelling?  We have to learn about how the visions of the seers have governed this world, how the rebellion arose and was put down, where these characters fall in the hundreds of years of political backstory this represents. 

There are a lot of gaps to fill in, and there's a lot of explaining to get us caught up to date. There are scenes from the past, but there's no tension to them, because the outcomes are all foregone conclusions--here is how Cassa and Kestrel met.  We already know they'll become best friends; watching it happen doesn't have the tension, the chance of the unexpected that keeps me reading.

I think what I'm seeing is that, while the book so far has a decent amount of things happening, there is not nearly enough surprise. There is almost no change at all, not even small moments of surprise, at this point in the book.  On a different day, the writing and the characters might have kept me going; I suspect it's going to change shape soon.

But today, I'm antsy and impatient, and I'm lost.  I still want very much to go back and read this author's previous book, Iron Case, which I've heard is excellent.  But here and now, I'm just going to have to shift gears.