Sunday, July 31, 2005

From the Rulebook

I instigated a policy a while ago, that I should not read exposés. This was after I read Bushwhacked and The Amercian Way of Death in close succession and found myself questioning the worth of humanity and whether it might be better to just go live in a yurt somewhere in Mongolia (shout out to E Ben, here, who just test-drove that life plan). Anyway, since I also have some strict policies on toilet facilities in my life, a yurt is not a good option, so no more exposés, unless I'm fully braced, and only if consumed in small amounts.

I did not, however, expect For Her Own Good: 150 Years of Advice to Women to be quite so exposé-like. The first chapter explains the patriarchy, not as just any male-dominated society, but the pre-industrial Western world in which the family unit is the basic unit of a person's destiny, and the father/male head of the family is the authority. It was quite interesting, particularly in how women were more valuable then for their unique skills, which capitalism as an economic and social system rendered alien and somewhat irrlevant. (The book was written in the mid-70s, so it's a very different "modern" situation being compared to history.)

Anyway, as soon as you start talking about the social structure of capitalism, and how the personal and the buisness are separate spheres but people are raised to function in the public or "business" world, making the personal sphere secondary and perhaps irrelevant...well, I can't read anymore.

And that's that.

Friday, July 29, 2005

A Wash

Last night was, on average, a neutral night for literature in my little world. On the one hand, the library was just pathetic. Few or none of the books I wanted were there, even when a) the online catalog said they would be there when I checked earlier in the day, or b) there is no EARTHLY reason they shouldn't be there. I mean, don't you think there should be at least one copy of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana just SITTING on the SHELF???

And Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third Narnia book. Let me complain briefly: the library system owns about sixty copies of this book. But because some are different editions or even different printings of the same edition or even, I suspect, the same exact copy of the book entered into the database by two different people, I have to sort through twenty five listings for this title before I prove that yes, the main branch carries it, and yes, they're all checked out.

Ah, but on the other hand, you now have to climb over a bookshelf to get into our bathroom. Luckily, that's not the literal truth, but the little corridor does feel rather like a submarine made of books. Yes, we have added a shelf to the pantheon. It has a WHOLE shelf for books that are borrowed from other people, plus three full shelves that we haven't filled up yet. This is all the expanding I'm allowed to do before we buy a house fifteen years from now, when we've saved up the $8,000,000 down payment you need to buy around here.

I'd like to put in a plug for my fiance here, too--Mike was a rock, when this somewhat cheapo bookshelf was letting me down (unhelpful directions, an Allen wrench that didn't match any of the sizes in our tool kit). He was very patient with my snippy impatience, and has once again made me a very happy lady.

Wish me luck making it through the last three hours of the work week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Brief Whine

I won't be long because I should be working, but I'm returning a library book half-read (well, more like 20% read), and I wanted to mention it before it was out of sight and, therefore, mind.

Stick Figure, by Lori Gottlieb, which we plugged on This American Life at one point. I have faith in those people, though they like Dan Savage a lot more than I do. But I couldn't like this book. It's written as a diary of an 11-year-old girl, but it's spotty in its realism as a diary. Of course, no diary-style novel ever reads like a real diary, with the holes, assumptions, whims, ramblings, etc. But these entries all give the very strong impression of an adult interpreting how things must have looked to her precocious young self, with a layer of "confusion" over it. An example is the author's clear awareness of her mother's gender-specific hypocrisies regarding food; another is the line where she says "I look at the women in the magazines; maybe that's what I'm supposed to look like." Well, yes, people feeling that way is a huge problem. But there's this too-precious "confusion" that the girl expresses, which is positively drowned in the adult author's neon signs pointing at the bad messages she was sent as a child.

It's about her eating disorder. I couldn't finish it. So sorry.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Trouble in Paradise

I keep getting distracted by work. Not the good kind of distracted, either, where things get done. The cruddy kind where I'm worried about things that are my fault but mostly out of my control. I am a worrier, and mostly not in a constructive way.

But the topic of the day is Literary Fiction: Why? Why? Why? And the answer, I often find, is simply, "For no reason but that the world is a bleak and uncaring void."

First, let's look at what set me off. Alice Munro's Runaway, which is the one I made Brenda lend me, when she would have started me off with a different Alice Munro book. I will first off say that it is extremely well-executed, only rarely falling into what I consider to be the pitfall of literary fiction, which is not being about anything particular. By this I suppose I mean bad LF, although it's also possible that I'm not perceptive enough to get it (this is ENTIRELY possible). But often, I find that these tiny slices of average life in which nothing particular happens are supposed to lead me to a deep understanding of something that I'm not sure even the author knows what. It's like abstract art; Jackson Pollack clearly knew what he was doing, but there are a lot of people out there who took that to mean they could make squiggles and people would buy it.

But Alice Munro is clearly getting at something, and although the actual events in her stories are often very small (even when they could have been made large, like the story of a woman who spent most of her life committed to an institution she should not have been in, she tells them as small and personal), they are interesting and clearly important. There is definitely a density to her stories, and a sense that the entire story is a heavy velvet curtain--there is probably something behind it, but even if there wasn't, the curtain is thick and rich and has a gravity of its own.

She wrote lovely, rich stories with characters who make you feel like you're learning about humanity as you read about them. So why is everything we learn so tragic? Why is it about betrayal, failure, pain, and fate kicking people when they're down? I really can't understand why nothing good ever happens to any of these people. A woman gets married--that's happy, right? But there's no sense of joy in it; it's 1927 and someone has finally asked her. She has a friend with a special gift, but she likes showing it off, and are they really friends?

Every story in this anthology, and, I often feel, most literary fiction, is an exploration of unhappiness, disappointment, and the ways in which unease can creep in where you're expecting small joys. I don't find this useful. Though I know I tend to be a cheerful sort of person, I'm not even asking for all cheer (I've read that book, it was called Three Wishes by Barbara Delinksy, and it was HORRIBLE), but life is a balance of tragedy and joy, of disappointment and pleasure. The pleasure is not made less real or sweet by the joy, anymore than pain is alleviated by the fact that you were once happy.

Katie's observation is that writers fear sentiment, and the positive often smacks of sentiment, so they shy away. This is why I have a philosopy called the New Sincerity, in which irony and cynicism are banished as old-fashioned, and it's once again "cool" to care about things, to love in a sensible and reasonable way (not just passionately and destructively), and to be interested in and pleased by the world around you. I don't always live it, but I'm fond of this philosophy.

In conclusion, I will reluctantly mention Mike's point that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers is literary fiction with a downer of a topic, but an upbeat tone--striking the balance I'm looking for. I begrudge him this point, true or not, because 1) I don't like that book, and 2) I found it sad, in the manner of something cheerful that has become grimy--a child's favorite toy trampled on in a muddy front yard.

That is all.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Think of the Children!

Okay, Anna pointed out (via her mother--I understand she won't start typing classes till she's at least 6 months old) that there are certain disturbing elements in the story of Babar the Little Elephant. And surely, the fact that he marries Celeste, who is not only his cousin, but still in short dresses, is somewhat troubling.

But I'm more concerned about his callous and selfish relationship with The Old Lady, who takes him in when he's alone and naked (literally!), clothes him, and supplies him, sugar-momma-style, with all his material needs and wants. Then she also supplies cash for gifts for the relatives who start showing up on his doorstep. And what does he do? He takes off with barely a backward glance, in HER car, and doesn't even invite her to the wedding! "Hey baby, it's been great, but you're tying me down, and I gotta be free!"


So in short, this book is full of loose morals and is not appopriate for small children.

There will be another entry later about literary fiction and The New Sincerity, but I need to settle my nerves after that brush with loose French morals.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Feeding the Monster

It looks like the consensus is that I should be a librarian. Thank you everyone who voted--it sounds like a pretty obvious fit, to be honest. I think it's the schooling that scares me more than anything--while I think I could be a librarian, I don't feel confident that I could qualify as one. And I've always resisted the idea of grad school in general. But to be a children's librarian or to work in YA, I think, would be pretty cool. Before I did anything, though, I'd have to find a part time or volunteer position, to figure out if I'd really want to do this every day. I think this is a thing I would plan for after Mike and I get married and get a house.

Besides that research (I really only looked at Simmons, which has a very good program, just to get an idea), this weekend has been full of feeding the addiction. We ordered a new bookshelf (!), which will be a pretty tight fit, but much-needed. Mike seems to think that buying books isn't a big deal, but buying a bookshelf is feeding my addiction. As though I were addicted to furniture. No, needing a new shelf (which we definitely do need) is a sign of the addiction, and what I should probably NOT have done was buy some used books at the Harvard Book Store. But I'd thought long and hard, and really wanted to reread both of them (The Poisonwood Bible and The Midwives). So that's done, and with that and the Amazon package arriving today, I have all the books I'm getting for a while. But oh, what a great ride it was this weekend.

I think today's a library day, too, though I'm not singing the song yet, so it could still go either way. I'm going for returns, but I really want to reread Jon Stewart's Naked Pictures of Famous People, which is light and dumb and funny, so I've started a list, and that's growing. Prince Caspian, Anna Karenina (I have my doubts, but I will try), and The Girls at the Back of the Class, a short, fast book by the author of Dangerous Minds.

Librarianism. I have to get used to it. It's kind of exciting to think about the things my life might hold for me in a few years that are so different from anything I'm doing now. I'm not usually excited about change, but getting married seems to be bringing on all kinds of good things.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Do You Speak for the Trees?

I have to say, Dr. Seuss's The Lorax is a little, well, preachy. It gets kind of didactic toward the end. Like about how people cut down trees and it destroys the world, but only YOU can prevent forest, wait, I mean REGROW THE FOREST. It leaned a little hard on its message, is all I'm saying.

The final Travelling Pants installment was delightful.

And now I'm drifting between the very, very literary Alice Munro (stories, Runaway), The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which is good but not really holding my attention, and The Law of Similars, which I want to read, have been carrying around with me, but have not yet begun. I really loved The Midwives, which was Chris Bohjalian's story about the family of a midwife who has been accused, in effect, of malpractice. And I want to read Trans-Sister Radio, a book which, despite its too-precious title, I'm hoping will be an intelligent and sensitive take on transsexualism.

Lynne is reading Anna Karenina, and I'm tempted to try it with her. I'm tempted, in fact, to see if Renegade Book Club would like to read it in stages--maybe read a few chapters and then meet. Or not--whatever. Still, they had a whole winter study course on it at Williams, and it's one of those books that one ought to read. Plus, I can get it half price from the publisher I work for. What's not to love?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

These Days

My aunt (well, second cousin, technically) said this weekend that I should go back to school and get my masters as a librarian. The truth is I've thought of that, and I think I'd love to be a children's librarian, or to build a collection. But something I've learned about myself in the working world is that, in spite of the many skills I have, I'm really quite incapable of being organized. I'm not a systematic person. I'm a stack-it-all-in-the-corner-and-let-god-sort-it-out kind of person. And I think that's pretty sad, because working in a library would, I think, make me very happy.

I also mentioned to my aunt that I'm about to take a bit of a dive into nonfiction. Not that I don't read plenty of it (though I've got a new policy against exposés), but I've got some good stuff on my list. Like The Scientist in the Crib, about how young children try to figure out the world and use logic to come up with all sorts of random conclusions about reality. And Cures, which is the memoir of a gay man who spent a lot of years with therapists who were trying to cure him of being gay. Finding Your North Star (that might not be exactly the title) is a little self-helpy for me, but it's by Martha Beck, whose other books, both memoirs, I really love.

And maybe her career counselling advice will send me back to grad school to become a librarian.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Sad Times

It's been a pretty emotional week--the excitement and party at July 4th, and the death of a fellow I knew that happened this week. It's hard to think about other things, but it's hard not to, as well. Right now, I'm mostly reminded to value the people I care about, and to tell them so. I hope everyone takes that advice.

Yesterday we had the first Renegade Book Club meeting, after much diddling around on my part. I have a hard time talking about a book so long after I've read it, especially since I didn't take good notes. It was an excellent book, though I don't know if I'd call it an excellent novel. Gilead was much more of a meditation than a novel. Lynne speaks of dipping into it rather than sitting down to read it, and I must say I agree. The narrator is elderly, and it is often like talking to someone old--somewhat drifty, stream-of-consciousness, moving back and forth between the past, the present and the abstract. But it is also poetry, because it's the story of a man who loved life, and the world, and people, full of flaws--everything. It's warming to meet a very good man in fiction, and to observe him trying to be a good man, when he is truly, of course, just a man.

I hope we keep Renegade Book Club running, and maybe get it a little tighter. I'm not really happy with Old Book Club at this point, so I consider it valuable. But it's hard to keep up with everything. Right now I'm reading a number of things that aren't even on my list. I'm slipping behind. I could use another long weekend, just sitting at home and reading. Sadly, it'll never happen.