Monday, January 24, 2005

Feminist Fantasy

So, The Firebrand, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I think that the best way to explain what's been troubling me about this book is by comparing it to The Mists of Avalon. Most people would consider the latter her masterpiece, and I can't disagree. The thing these have in common is depicting a matriarchal society, a world in which women are powerful, equal to men or better, possessed of the truest power and beloved of their own goddesses. Druids, in Mists, and Amazons, in Firebrand. I think the Amazons are less convincing.

First, there's less history behind them. Not that I require historical accuracy in my fantasy, but when you have history, you get a certain verisimilitude, just because you're telling the truth. The main problem, though, is that in her Arthurian story, the society seems to fit. There is a place for men, beside the women and intertwined with them, and they don't seem extraneous or pointless. In this book, however, it's hard to believe that anyone has babies, the men and women hate each other so. They visit a city, for example, where all the guards are women, a city ruled by a Queen who has no consort (there is no such thing as a King). And yet the Queen's daughter is a little chit who thinks that being a warrior would make her "manly." Only women can be blacksmiths, for various spiritual reasons. Okay...but the question remains: what are the men doing? Are they allowed to use their physical strength in any way at all? I mean, I'm not a very intense feminist, but is it still considered very wrong to admit that men often have stronger bodies than women? And I have trouble really believing in a world in which every character who isn't an idiot believes that staying indoors, pursuing intelligence, not being a warrior is just stupid and useless.

I bet at some point we get a wise man, though. But for some reason, it seems like it would be bad form to have an intelligent, respectable woman who doesn't kill people for a living.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Deep Sorrow

Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road, which we read for book club a while ago. It was very good, but also both sad and tragic. And I just finished The Easter Parade, a later book by Yates. Sad, too, and with a stunning tragedy that sort of comes from behind. It was really so good--the main character was just perfectly rendered. You could sort of see the author's own life echoing, though the main character is a woman. But based on some interviews I read, the alcoholism and lack of meaningful relationships was something he knew about.

But the tragedy that both follows inevitably from the whole story and also creeps up on you at the end, really hit me for some reason. Partly it's because the book spans 40 years in a short storytelling space, and you're still feeling for a five- and twelve- and twenty-year-old girl, while you're watching her life age, get stale, dissolve. And the emptiness that you can clearly perceive throughout the book becomes solid and real so quickly and brutally at the end--I think it hits home with me for some reason. I have no reason to really fear dying alone as much as I do, since I have a big close family and a lot of great friends. But I guess it's a neurosis--or maybe you can just blame Yates. Maybe anyone would have felt this insidious discomfort. He does write squirmers.

Despite this, I really, really recommend this book. Emily is an amazing character, running out of time.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


I blame Charles DeLint for my opinion of Neverwhere. I have heard criticisms that I can agree with--the bad guys and grossness are a little over the top, to the point where you feel like maybe Neil Gaiman is enjoying Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar a little too much. And there are a lot of things he does in his fantasy world that are fun but don't hold up past the moment of delightful cleverness that they deliver. You can't picture all these creatures he created continuing on their underground ways after we've moved out of their scene.

But still, I think Charles DeLint is to blame for my reaction to this book, because he filled me up with "invisible people who have slipped through the cracks of society and now live in a world that goes on side by side with the world we know, but in the shadows." (That probably didn't deserve scare quotes, but still.) Now that I think about it, though, there's something neat about the confluence of psychology (what's the difference between invisible and ignored?), quantum physics (worlds existing beside each other, but slightly skewed) and pure fantasy (the Marquis, the Hunter, the Beast). And at least Door, unlike every single DeLint heroine does not have a short bushy haircut, a fitted tank top, baggy jeans and combat boots. She's got a leather jacket.

Gaiman is better than DeLint is (than DeLint is most of the time; I've only read a few of his, and I really liked Jack of Kinrowan). He's great with clever, and he understands the difference between things that are inherently important, things that can be considered unimportant, and things that must be considered important. Dignity, responsibility, loyalty.

This all sounds kind of fishy when I tell it. I'm trying to take a loftier look at what is basically a good story, with a traditional English fellow (I kept thinking of him as Arthur Dent) in the middle of it. I enjoyed it very much as such, but I'm not sure how book club will take it.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Package Day!

Ah, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Aside from celebrating a great American and getting the day off from work, we get UPS deliveries today (UPS lists this as a holiday "recognized but not observed," whatever that means). And Barnes and Noble, after failing us at so many turns, finally delivers.

We got the new Alton Brown cookbook, Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson, and Locas, which is a Love and Rockets collection and weighs about eight pounds (thank heaven for free shipping). The things that excite me, though, are The End of the Affair, which I'm excited to read now that I've learned that I like Graham Greene (I'd like to see the movie, too, eventually, though I can't imagine that Hollywood could do with a romance-based plot what I suspect Greene is going to do). I'd also like to read The Quiet American, and see that movie, I think. Though a book written about an American in Vietnam in the 60s can't be anything like a movie made out of the same plot in the 90s.

And Gilead. I haven't been so excited about a book I barely know anything about by an author I've never read in I don't know how long. And I will make this statement, for the public record (such as it were): if I don't get the book club pick in time to bring this to the table, I'm going to call a Renegade Book Club. I will bring together those who will rally to my banner, and together we will begin a new tradition, firm and bold in our faith that change can be good, and new beginnings are always possible.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Oh, Thank Heaven It's Over

For the record, I finished Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And I bow my head in a moment of silence for all those who have suffered this book, as I have.

The last bit was okay, though. It really hustled toward the end.

Also, more incidentally, I think I'd be enjoying Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere very much except for the fact that I'm reading it for book club. I think it will be tough to talk about, particularly in the context of this book club. But it's a good fantasy book, I think.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


So I've been thinking lately about self-control. For a few reasons, but mostly because of a couple of things I read recently. One was Mosaic, by Soheir Khashoggi, and the other an article from the New York Times about a month ago. The article was about autistic people who are denouncing the idea of curing autism or treating it as a disease, instead of as a complex series of personality traits, like shyness. It was an interesting article, but I find the position to be somewhat frustrating. (If you want to read it: For people with Asperger's, or similarly functioning people with autistic traits, I agree that the public could be a lot more tolerant, and that this kind of tolerance would solve a lot of problems. But the adovcates mentioned in the article specifically refer to violent outbursts. I'm sorry, but the point where you become a danger to others, or to yourself, is the point where a personality trait becomes a pathology.

I feel like it's a huge part of being an adult member of society to practice self-control. We grown-ups have to do things we don't like, deal with people we don't like, behave in ways that are not always exactly what we want to be doing. It's part of what makes us adult human beings. Only one part, but a big one, and that's a large part of why society works. We can debate the ends toward which this self-control is put, but I think not having violent outbursts is at the top of my list.

The other thing I read that fits with this theme was Mosaic. First, though I haven't read it in a long time, I think I'd still recommend the author's other book, Mirage. This one had an all-right plot, though nothing to write home about. The amount of time given to the best friends of the main character seemed out of proportion--if the book is about these three women of different races living and loving in New York, they should have had more time. If it was about Dina, the main character, trying to get her children back, they should have had less. But the characters were just terrible. They were wooden--solid, beautifully carved of oak and mahogany, but unjointed and immobile.

When Dina's children are taken by her husband--out of the blue, while she's at work; she didn't even suspect that there were problems in their marriage--many words, mostly cliched, are given to her inner turmoil. But the author does little more than state that she is angry. If you picture the movie of this book, it involves Dina sitting and thinking a lot. And calm, deliberate thinking--some depressed, some productive, some angry, but not impassioned, not ridiculous. Only once does she hurl something across the room in anger, and never does she scream or yell, never while talking to her husband does she shout at him. When either of them even begins to speak rudely to the other, they stop themselves immediately and say things like, "Is this what we've come to?" She doesn't interrupt when he's explaining his behavior, or try to claw his eyes out, or even claim to want to.

And I'd think it was a character trait, but everyone is like this. Mothers don't snap at their children, they are unendingly patient and often concede to the children, not because they're right, but because they're confident. The teenagers seem like the most realistic characters in this book, and mostly because we never get inside their heads--they just act out, and we're left to assume why. As though adults never do that. As though the self-control required to be a member of society is, once attained, inevitable, and runs bone deep.

I don't know. I think of myself as an adult. I take care of myself financially and physically, I function in the world, socially and professionally. I do things I don't like because they need doing or they're good for me. I don't have a great deal of self control, personally, but even those who do have something more complicated going on under the skin. I think that's what makes it such an appealing trait--knowing that beneath the calm and pleasing surface, there's someone just as messy and complicated as I am.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Impulse Buy

So this was kind of a weird thing to do, particularly for someone who is as reluctant to buy things as myself. When I see something I want at the store, I generally go home, and if I'm still thinking about it in a few days, then I go back to buy it. I resist the impulse to buy.

But when Linden was here the other day, and we were looking at the used and remaindered books at the Harvard Bookstore, and I saw about three books I liked or wanted to read, right in a row on the remainders table, I gave in and bought...

Now here's the weird part. Not Lucky, by Alice Sebold, which I really enjoyed, recommend to people, and would read again. Not Our Lady of the Forest, which is on my library list and everyone on the train is reading (or maybe it's the same person every morning--I only ever notice the book). No, I got Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader.

What? Why? I mean, most people read The Yellow Wallpaper and appreciate her voice for oppressed women in the 19th century. And I have her novel and a lot of her short stories. But the thing is, they aren't that great. First of all, they're the same story over and over again: three men--one overbearing, one indulgent, one respectable--are confronted with a strong woman, and their characters are revealed to us. The novel is the same--it's schlock sci fi, about three explorers (see above) who discover an isolated mountain community composed entirely of women. (If you wish hard enough, apparently, you don't need sperm to have a baby). It was absolutely trite and one-sided. She's a cheerfully furious writer.

But I bought her nonfiction. I blame Virginia Woolf--I don't like her novels, but I really love her essays. So when I opened to a random page and read the essay title "A Defense of Advertising for Marriage," I thought I'd give her a shot. What the heck, it's only $6.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Susan Isaacs

I just finished Any Place I Hang My Hat, by Susan Isaacs.

It's not bad--not at all. There are just bits that seem out of place, and it's unclear where it's going at times, and the emotional climax isn't quite as cathartic as I'd have liked it to be, and she overuses some of her best writing tricks--her detailed observations of annoying people, for example, or being inside the head of someone having an instant panic reaction caused by jumping to conclusions.

I will say only this: read Shining Through, read Lily White, and read Almost Paradise. And, for my money, stop there.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Library Sated

Caved yesterday. Went librarying. Susan Isaacs, excellent as she's been in the past, is not promising me much with Any Place I Hang My Hat, but I have to give it a shot. The Song and the Scaffold is a translation from a German book about nuns during the French Revolution (by the way, does anyone besides me see parallels between America today and France before the Revolution? Hint: Halliburton=Marie Antoinette). Then there's Mosaic, which I've mentioned, and The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates, who wrote Revolutionary Road. The latter was a book club read a while ago, and it was quite good, in a tragic way. I wasn't planning to try another of his books, but I was in the Y section and I liked the first line.

It's a terrible burden, and a great pleasure, all these books.


I've been reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

"Why?" asks Brenda, sincerely puzzled.

I've been asking myself that, too. I decided to read it because it's a classic, and I never had, and I had a comic book version of it as a kid that I liked a lot. As it turns out, there's about a comic book (read: 32 pages) worth of interesting material in that book, and furthermore, the pictures would be the best part, as it's almost exhaustively descriptions of various fish. It's hard to comprehend without reading it how exhaustive such descriptions can really be.

(I'd like to point out that I also had a comic book version of Jane Eyre, which I went on to read in full and cherish as a literary treasure.)

Both a drawback and my downfall in this Verne adventure is the fact that I'm reading it online. Someone has put it on their website (, neatly split up into chapters, with an irritating and distracting background that I have to highlight the text to ignore. So, though I feel like I'd like to just stop reading it, I feel that, as part of my reading online experiment, I need to stick with this. I'm half-reading Vanity Fair online as well, but that book isn't split as neatly into little chapters that can be read in ten or fifteen minutes, constituting the non-smoker's equivalent of a cigarette break.

Assuming it doesn't put you to sleep, in which case Jules Verne can be blamed for my low work productivity.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Uh Oh...I Hear the Music

I have a library song. It's a bad sign that I hear it tinkling around in my head today. There's a book on reserve waiting for me...I haven't read for book club yet, and I have a million other borrowed books to take care of, but I hear that siren song, the library jingle tinkling through my head....

Oh, who are we kidding? I'll go. It'll happen. It'll be fine; there's nothing wrong with going to the library. It's not an obsession. I'm going to get Any Place I Hang My Hat, by Susan Isaacs. I don't hold out much hope--her last couple of books haven't been the greatest--but she has great moments, even when the plots are thin.

And then Neverwhere for book club...and then we'll see.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Just Worse and Worse

Oh, this book! It hurts to read, and it's getting worse and worse. I'm fully prepared and rooting for the farm to go under--to end everyone's misery. If only the characters would run away from their troubles.

Sometimes you're really enjoying a story, yet you long to get to the end so you don't have to watch the suffering anymore. And sometimes you're reading about people's troubles, and you feel that you're like them, and their lives are so familiar that when you, say, look up and find yourself on the train on the way into work, there's a split second of confusion as to whether it's your boyfriend who's not speaking to you, or Ginny's husband who's not speaking to her. Or maybe you feel a little residual anger at your grandfather for being such a jerk (though, I feel obliged to point out, nothing like this character Larry).

Anyway, Katie, thanks for recommending A Thousand Acres. That may sound sarcastic, but it's really so good.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Farm Tragedy Books

Well, looks like I've found a new genre of books that's almost unbearably painful for me: farm tragedy. I'm reading the excellent book A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. It's very well written, an excellent portrait of a woman who's spent her whole life working to keep her head down and happy with that. I know about keeping a low profile as a way to fend off bad things, and I know about the way farm people work--always moving, always looking a few hours ahead to the next piece of land to take care of, the next rainstorm, next year. I'm hurt by the fact of farms vanishing, and watching this successful farm go under in the book--as it clearly must--makes me squirm.

The father, too--Lear, Larry--is that person whose existance I can't tolerate. The person who doesn't acknowledge the real existence of others, the fact that they have, as he sarcastically puts it, a "point of view." The physical abuse in the book is more tolerable to me, because it's just mean, twisted. It doesn't deny the very fact of the daughters.

This might not make sense if you haven't read the book. I'm a little distracted. It's a wonderful book, but in the painful way of so many great stories.