Sunday, April 29, 2007

Those Wacky Tudors

When I was in high school, I watched the movie Lady Jane, starring a very young Helena Bonham Carter and an equally young Carey Elwes (plus a bonus part for Patrick Stewart, before I knew who he was). Later, when Lady Jane Grey herself came up in my history class, I almost convulsively said out loud, "I saw that movie!" To which my teacher responded immediately, "Really? Because, that movie was just sex sex sex!" To which I wish I had responded, "How did you know?" which comeback is less sassy now that I think about it than it seemed when I thought of it five minutes after blushing and not responding to her well-meant teasing, or the class giggling at me.

You know how sometimes you come across something unusual, or maybe a word you've never heard before, and then all of a sudden it's everywhere? Well, apparently Alison Weir has written some five million books about British history, all very readable nonfiction, and I've only just come across her. I'm reading Innocent Traitor, which is about Jane Grey, who holds a special place in my heart because of the aforementioned anecdote (and the movie that spawned it--it really was all about sex, and I was 15). It's an enjoyable book, and well-written in its way. It doesn't have a lot of the qualities of a really literary novel, though the writing is very enjoyable and well-crafted. It's really a book by a non-fiction writer who's giving herself permission to create scenes. I really was giving her credit for doing something clever by using cliched phrases in a historical novel to give it a flavor of the past tied to the present, but when a newly married woman explained that she "had never felt such bliss," I realized she was just trying too hard.

The sudden existence of Alison Weir and all her knowledge of Tudor and Stuart England (as Miss Lavoie's class was called) reminds me of Philippa Gregory, and I'm again asking myself if I should try to read something else by her. I really kind of hated The Other Boleyn Girl, mostly because real history contained some rather un-novel-like facts--such as the fact that randy King Henry VIII was kept twitching on the end of a string for NINE YEARS. It's hard to drag out a novel of cat-and-mouse romance for nine years. You end up writing things like a one page chapter entitled "Spring, 1527," "Summer, 1527," and "Fall and Winter, 1527." It gets, in a word, boring.

But maybe I should read The Queen's Fool. It's about Elizabeth, who I find to be more interesting than most of the rest of them. I don't know why I'd give the woman another chance, but I want to. Part of me wants to. Mostly because I love pre-digested history--I love the stories with the boring or dragging parts taken out. I love the characters when they're revealed to me, instead of being told up front what their personalities are, the way actual books of history seem to. I love it when the craft of storytelling, as used in fiction, is brought to history. I love Sarah Vowell, who by the way is working on a new book about the Pilgrims and I'm so excited. She should write faster, in my opinion.

In sum: Alison Weir, good. Philippa Gregory, bad, but for some reason getting a second chance. Sarah Vowell, awesome.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why am I reading this?

Really, if I can't answer that question, you could call it the biggest insult to a book, or the saddest state of things. But it's the hardest thing to read, I think.

Have you ever heard of Charlotte Sometimes? The answer could easily be no. Kids' book. It's so depressing, though, because it's such a good idea that's so poorly executed. I really don't know what Charlotte learned from her adventures in a body-switching, time-traveling situation. You don't know her at all before she wakes up in the wrong time, and she really never does anything or has any thoughts besides wanting to go home.

The book might be about identity--what, besides how you look, makes you recognizably you? But it never really answers these questions. And I think that, if I can't even figure out for sure what questions you're asking, or even trying to answer, then you've failed in a sad way. It wasn't even entertaining! I'll accept that as a reason to tell a story--it's a romp!

But no. You've got nothing for me. Sorry state of affairs.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sex and Lies

Man, I'm some sort of glutton for punishment. I hated Girl Meets God so much that I ran out and got Lauren Winner's other book. Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Now I know a lot about how a good Christian practices chastity (as distinguished from celibacy). It was a different, less offensive kind of frustration from the last book, though. She's still kind of obnoxious in the way she "admits" her own flaws in the most self-righteous way I've ever heard. But the really bizarre thing is how many things I agree with her on. I agree that sex is important and shapes who we are as people, and therefore it's important to have an ethical code around our sexual behavior. Then she starts talking about St. Paul, and she loses me. I'm pretty sure Paul kind of hated women and resented our existence. I don't want to take my sexual ethics from him, thanks.

What else have we? The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood. Short and kind of easy to read, but a wry retelling of the story of Odysseus from the point of view of the waiting Penelope, and a chorus of her handmaidens, who were killed by Odysseus when he returned to Ithaca.

And I'm finally reading The Time Traveller's Wife. I'm really enjoying it; one of the main themes is about finding joy in the happy moments of a difficult life, which is something I struggle with myself. It's an intense book, about someone who lives an intense life, but is trying not to. I was turned off for a long time by an anecdote someone told me about a certain sex scene, but it was not really as troubling as I was expecting. I was slowed down again, though, when I tried it on audiobook first. One of the first scenes in the book is a sex scene, not particularly graphic, but somewhat intimate. Those are tricky on audiobook, and when the scene is at the beginning of the story, before you really know the characters, it feels awfully voyeuristic.

This time, though, I got past it, and it got all thrilling and tough and awesome. I'd say you should go read it, but I'm pretty sure at this point I'm the last person (woman, anyway) in the United States who hasn't read it yet. So you probably already have.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Near-Trauma Experience

It's hard to post about this, even a week later, because I'm going to sound like I'm joking or exaggerating my emotion, when I'm not. Or rather, I'm going to start to joke and use hyperbole when I don't mean to, because it's the easiest way to protect myself from how really close to home this hit. But I'm going to tell you the story.

Last week, (Tuesday morning, I think) the BPL website went down for about half an hour. This is not the end of the world. When it came back up, my list was gone. This was, to a certain extent, the end of the world for me.

At the time, the list was 62 books long. It's a list of the books I either intend to read or am interested enough in that I don't want to forget that they exist. I've been compiling this list for years--once I've read the book and it's been logged, either here or in my journal, I delete it from the list. Each individual book is not nearly as important to me as the list as a whole--it's almost like a record of my thought processes, and also a predictor of my future thought processes. There are young adult novels about post-apocalyptic survival (Z for Zachariah), nonfiction books about the religious right (Don't Think of an Elephant), all kinds of novels (The Historian, The Uses of Enchantment, The Time Traveller's Wife), history, politics, environmentalism--all kinds of things that I've thought about or planned to think about. It was like losing a diary, and it was really harsh.

That night (after checking for the 40th time in 12 hours, emailing and phoning the library, and being told there was no hope), I started recreating the list. I managed to pull almost 2/3 of it out of my brain. It still hurt, but I really felt a sense of relief that it was all in there. Sometimes I feel like things aren't real until I write them down, or tell someone--until they're recorded. I find it weirdly reassuring to find out that my brain can, indeed, retail information, much in the way it's designed to.

In the morning, like magic, the list reappeared. I issued Mike the huge apology and thank you that he was owed (I was not good company that evening), printed the list immediately, and went about my business. I have to say, I feel like I've discovered something about myself. I'm just not 100% sure if I discovered a new stability, or a new instability.