Thursday, March 26, 2015

Villette-along Week 4: "You are at once mournful and mutinous"

All right, Charlotte. We've always agreed, you and I, that there's just something about a man with a crunchy exterior and a gooey center, but M. Paul. You're blowing it, dude.

We can all see that he's sometimes mean to her because he loves her and doesn't know quite what else to do about it. But he is a grown and educated man, and at a certain point it becomes counterproductive to have an adult tantrum in front of the object of your admiration and her classroom full of young girls.
The stove stood near my desk, and he attacked it; the little iron door was nearly dashed from its hinges, the fuel was made to fly.
"Est-ce que vous avez l'intention de m'insulter?" said he to me, in a low, furious voice, as he thus outraged, under pretence of arranging the fire.
Which is a real possibility if you don't back up off that stove.

But more interesting than M. Paul's continued reliance on the Crush Handbook for Adolescent Boys is the slooooooow metamorphosis of Lucy's attitude toward him. I mean, for the longest it was, "M. Paul was not a good little man, though he had good points," and "Never was a better little man, in some points, than M. Paul; never, in others, a more waspish little despot." But then she saw him rise majestically out of that orchestra pit at the Tribune and heard him talking politics with the perfect balance of reason and passion, and afterward he was all, "How did I do?" and she was all,

If he overhauls his technique, he may actually have a shot with her, because she seems pretty thoroughly disenchanted with Dr. John these days. And well she should be.

A sampling of gripes against Dr. John:

  • He's getting reeeeally pushy about this Ghost Nun business and a little too adamant in his belief that Lucy is hallucinating everything. Can anyone remember a time in a Victorian novel when a man insisted a woman was seeing things and it ended well for her?
  • He was writing Lucy regularly and showing up late at night to whisk her off to the theater and generally being a friend, and then he reunited with Polly and . . . SEVEN WEEKS later, his mom wrote Lucy to invite her over for dinner and see this old mutual acquaintance of theirs that she didn't know John had been spending his days with all that time. And then I do believe three months of silence from his quarter followed that. What. the. hell, John?
  • He still talks down to Polly.
  • He expects Lucy to do and be whatever suits him in the moment, and she's sick and tired of it. "I realized his entire misapprehension of my character and nature. He wanted always to give me a role not mine. Nature and I opposed him."
  • He doesn't properly appreciate Vashti. I'll bet M. PAUL would've appreciated Vashti.

Yeah, let's end on that. Vashti. That whole section of chapter 23 was seriously intense and I'm sure laden with meaning I'll never grasp. Not only was it a bit of a turning point in Lucy's infatuation with John but I think a moment of personal epiphany for her and just a damn good description of a complex woman.
Before calamity she is a tigress; she rends her woes, shivers them in convulsed abhorrence. Pain, for her, has no result in good; tears water no harvest of wisdom: on sickness, on death itself, she looks with the eye of a rebel. Wicked, perhaps, she is, but also she is strong; and her strength has conquered Beauty, has overcome Grace, and bound both at her side, captives peerlessly fair, and docile as fair.
At first it's like . . . is this an endorsement or a judgment, Lucy? And then you forget about forming an opinion of the woman or even understanding what the hell this opera is about, because Vashti is a gorgeous mess of qualities, "a mighty revelation." And that could apply to Lucy, because everyone has a particular view of her personality (Madame Beck: learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe: caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home: model teacher, essence of the sedate and discreet; M. Paul: adventurous, indocile, audacious), and she finds that variation ridiculous. But maybe with the help of Vashti she could begin to see that it's possible to be all those things at once.

And John's reaction to the same spectacle that inspired so much introspection for Lucy? "He judged her as a woman, not an artist: it was a branding judgment."

You don't want a man like that, Lucy. And you may not want a jealous little wasp who embarrasses you in public, either. You don't have to choose either of them. You can stay independent. You can even choose Ginevra if you want! It would definitely do her some good.

*sound moral drubbing*

Monday, March 16, 2015

Villette-along Week 3: "A pink dress! I knew it not. It knew not me."

After this week, I'm more certain that I love Lucy and moderately less certain that I love Dr. John, and a surprise dark horse has emerged in the competition for Lucy's heart.

But Lucy. Allow me to briefly sing her praises.

She's clearly smitten with Dr. John and, if that little tangent about his portrait is any indication, has been since they were teenagers. But she still brings up Ginevra Fanshawe's name just because she knows it will make John happy if he's given an opening to talk about her. She submits willingly to play the Watts to his Eric Stoltz.

Complete with occasional
sass, of course.

She's aware and accepting enough of her shortcomings to be candid with M. Paul about her difficulty in caring for Marie Broc by herself. He's hard on her about it, but she doesn't give in to the temptation to make herself out as a naturally patient caregiver when she's not. And there's no shame in that at all. Not everyone is cut out to care for children, let alone children with special needs, and that was not her job at the school. She got the responsibility by default because she was the only one not leaving town for the holiday. She did her best, and she isn't going to beat herself up about it.

But even as harsh as M. Paul has been with Lucy, I'm joining Jenny in championing him as a suitor. Beginning with the vaudeville, he's been steadily challenging Lucy to be more than she thinks she can be (with tough love). He's not going to gush over her the way John does with Ginevra or encase her in jewelry, probably, but his admiration for her is based in fact and not fantasy and is thus worth infinity more than all of John's flattery and presents. M. Paul's methods are unconventional, but I think Lucy recognizes their merit.
M. Josef Emanuel stood by them while they played; but he had not the tact or influence of his kinsman, who, under similar circumstances, would certainly have compelled pupils of his to demean themselves with heroism and self-possession. M. Paul would have placed the hysteric debutantes between two fires—terror of the audience, and terror of himself—and would have inspired them with the courage of desperation, by making the latter terror incomparably the greater.

Music teachers: Terrifying their students into excellence
since the 1800s at least but probably even before that

Next to M. Paul, Dr. John, with all his square jaw and strong chin, looks bland. Although I am liking him much better now that the Ginevra Spell is broken (take note, ladies: do not laugh at a man's mother), he has a worrying habit of being generally . . . close-minded.

For example, contrast Lucy's disdain for the "Cleopatra" painting with his. Where she is adorably confused as to why everyone is so impressed by this sizable woman who is naked and lying on a couch amidst her own clutter in the middle of the day, John goes straight to body shaming with a side of skin-color prejudice as casually as he would ask Martha what's for dinner.

And in his tirade against Ginevra at the concert, he puts Lucy in the awkward position of having to defend a person whom she doesn't much like. Even as insufferable as Ginevra is, Lucy is fair enough to see that she hardly deserves to be a labeled a slut because of the very specific meaning Dr. John assigned to a very brief look she exchanged with de Hamal across a crowded room.

I love Dr. John's banter with his mother and Lucy, and I'm pretty sure I would also love his face, but I'm afraid he's the sort of man who's only safe for women who manage not to fall off the precarious pedestal he's placed them on. We've all encountered such men. They're the ones who have very particular ideas about what women should want and how they should behave, and dangerously little respect for those women who fall short of those strictures.

No, my vote is for M. Paul.
Yet, in the midst of prejudice and annoyance, I could not, while watching, avoid perceiving a certain not disagreeable naivete in all he did and said; nor could I be blind to certain vigorous characteristics of his physiognomy, rendered conspicuous now by the contrast with a throng of tamer faces: the deep, intent keenness of his eye, the power of his forehead—pale, broad, and full—the mobility of his most flexible mouth.
If popular culture has taught us anything, it's that righteously abrasive men and composed yet opinionated women, when combined and mixed with cold weather, lead to a chemical reaction of hot-flaming love.

Don't worry, M. Paul. Next time she won't choose to study
another man's coat sleeve instead of your glorious hawk-like face.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Villette-along Week 2: "I felt no particular vocation to undertake the surveillance of ethereal creatures"

The temptation to summarize is great in these readalongs, but you've all read the chapters (yes, even though they were many?) and I just want to talk about Madame Beck.

I find this character so interesting. Through Lucy's description of her, we get what amounts to a portrait of a living, breathing woman. It would've been so easy to make her either a cheerful and plump benefactress or a strict and unfeeling taskmaster. But Madame Beck resists categorization, and above all she resists conforming to the Victorian feminine ideal.

I think Lucy sees in her some traits that she is missing and that challenge and empower her to step outside of her comfort zone.
At that instant, she did not wear a woman's aspect, but rather a man's. Power of a particular kind strongly limned itself in all her traits, and that power was not my kind of power: neither sympathy, nor congeniality, nor submission, were the emotions it awakened. I stoodnot soothed, nor won, nor overwhelmed. It seemed as if a challenge of strength between opposing gifts was given, and I suddenly felt all the dishonor of my diffidenceall the pusillanimity of my slackness to aspire. 

So it's clear that Lucy admires Madame Beck for, among other things, her business acumen and ability to manage a school of about 120 students, four teachers, eight masters, six servants, and her own three children. But she doesn't fail to mention the character traits that would open Madame Beck to judgment even in our gender-progressive era.

Madame Beck isn't compassionate or feeling. Her heart can't be appealed to in any matter. She's a fairly terrible mother. She cares for her children and their future, but she doesn't punish them when they're out of line and she doesn't hold them when they come to her seeking affection. She is what many would call today (pardon my French) a bitch.

Lucy acknowledges these traits, but she doesn't demonize Madame Beck for them. And because Lucy, as the narrator, is effectively Charlotte Brontё's mouthpiece (Hi, Charlotte, we know you don't like the French or Catholics, WE KNOW), it doesn't seem like she's meant to be an example of a "bad woman." She's just a woman, and a fairly capable one at that.

Although I have to disagree with Lucy about Madame Beck's special talent being cunning and espionage, because if she's so good at sneaking around undetected why has Lucy detected her so many times?

I am good at spying. Look what a good spy I am.

And how does Madame Beck react to the disappointment of Dr. John's unreturned affections? She gets on with her business. She's got other stuff to worry about, like her career and stuff. Moping over boys was so 1789.

And all Madame Beck's traits contrast most drastically, of course, with Ginevra Fanshawe's, a girl who has nothing to do in life but find a husband. Too bad Ginevra is totally gay for Lucy. Oh, hi, welcome to our readalongs, in which we always make someone gay.

No but seriously, Ginevra.

She has two suitors. One is a manly-man with whiskers (gross), and the other is a pretty man with hands smaller than hers. Who do you think she prefers? I will give you two guesses.

And not only is she disgusted by John's whiskers, but she hates his name and insists on giving him a new one, and that name is ISADORE.

So there's all that. And then you have the vaudeville in which Lucy acts as one of Ginevra's suitors and steals the show. And then afterward Ginevra delivers that sermon to Lucy about all the ways she is better situated in life, and I couldn't help but think, "Sweetie, who are you trying to convince?" For her part, Lucy remains unconvinced.
For in my heart you have not the outline of a place: I only occasionally turn you over in my brain.

Lucy's heart belongs to Dr. John, and I'll entertain no contrary opinions. Good day.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Villette-along Week 1: So far, so Brontё

Villette readalong! Another fantastic excuse, kindly provided by Alice at Reading Rambo, to talk about Victorian literature approximately once a week.

I'm getting a pretty strong Jane Eyre vibe so far, which I find comforting because of how much I love Jane Eyre. Something I used to forget about that novel, until about the fifth reading, was that the characters start out as children. That happens in Villette, too, but they don't stay children for nearly as long.

We also have Brontё's trademark (based on my knowledge of the one other novel, but just go with it) level-headed and beleaguered protagonist. Lucy Snowe is only 14 at the start of the story. By the end of Chapter 5, she is 22 and has lost everyone in her family and then also the sickly Miss Marchmont, whom she'd just recently grown attached to. And I'm not sure, but I have a feeling she's going to lose the blue-eyed, auburn-haired Graham, too . . . probably right after she's decided she loves him. For now, she doesn't seem to love him.
"I told you I liked him a little. Where is the use of caring for him so very much? He is full of faults."
"Is he?"
"All boys are."

I'm assuming that Polly Home (who's ten years younger than Graham) will end up catching his fancy in the coming chapters. There've already been some concerning interactions between sixteen-year-old Graham and six-year-old Polly.

I'm sure it's perfectly innocent when Graham cradles Polly in his lap or snatches her up and holds her aloft or tries to coerce her into kissing him. And even her infatuation with him seems natural. Younger children idolize older children all the time. But it also feels ominous, somehow, like it won't end well for one or both of them.

This is clearly the best, though:
"Little Mousie" crept to his side, and lay down on the carpet at his feet, her face to the floor; mute and motionless she kept that post and position till bedtime. Once I saw Graham—wholly unconscious of her proximity—push her with his restless foot. She receded an inch or two. A minute after one little hand stole out from beneath her face, to which it had been pressed, and softly caressed the heedless foot.
No one understands her pain.

Brontё also foreshadows unfortunate events, such as Miss Marchmont's death, with turbulent weather, which was a major literary device in Jane Eyre. And Lucy uses a storm at sea as an extended metaphor for the difficult events of her life in the eight years after she leaves her godmother's house ("The ship was lost, the crew perished").

Speaking of foreshadowing, Miss Marchmont's story about her lover, Frank, dying in her arms was so heart-achingly detailed that its inclusion hardly seems incidental. Since we know Lucy is recounting this story as an old woman, I'm wondering if her life will somehow imitate Miss Marchmont's. Will she, too, be alone at the end, looking back on her short-lived encounter with true love?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Me Before You: I Before E Except After C, or Every Rule Has an Exception

Here comes the honesty. This story is what you might call emotionally manipulative, and it has tropes. Oh, does it have tropes. I have a low tolerance for this sort of thing. My husband is an occasional reader of Nicholas Sparks, and when I (good-naturedly) mock him he responds by patting me on the head and saying, "It's okay if you're dead inside."

I just save my tears for things that matter is all.

But Me Before You is proof that I can unzip the leathery pouch around my reader's heart (separate from the heart I use in everyday life, because that one is made of gummy bears and suspended in cherry Jello) and let the author guide me where she or he will.

Louisa Clark is our heroine, playing the not-unique role of directionless 26-year-old still living at home and exhibiting unconventional fashion choices. (Aspects of this character are, in fact, almost identical to Johanna Morrigan in How to Build a Girl.) Her earnings are basically keeping her family (mother, father, younger sister, younger sister's young son) afloat, so when the bakery where she works closes, she's in desperate straits. The job agency finds her a position working as a full-time caretaker for a paraplegic man. She is assured she won't be asked to perform any medical or intimate duties, for which she isn't qualified anyway, so she's not entirely sure why she's being hired at all. But she doesn't have the luxury to be picky, and the job pays well.

The man in question, Will Traynor, is quite young (in his early 30s), quite handsome, and quite rich. None of this should be a surprise to you.

Nor should it be a surprise that this handsome
yet vaguely douchey-seeming actor will be playing
him in the movie adaptation due out this year.

Will is bitter and sarcastic and stubborn as all hell. He was a successful businessman who traveled the world and climbed things and then sometimes jumped off of those same things he had just climbed, and he's not adjusting well to this new reality as a prisoner in his own body. In fact, he's staunchly opposed to the idea of adjusting to it, and he resents anyone who dares to suggest that his situation has a silver lining.

So here we have a girl who hasn't figured out her passion or seen the world outside her small hometown, yet is reasonably content, and a recently crippled man who has lived enough for five lifetimes but has a chip on his shoulder the size of his parents' castle. (Oh right, I forgot to tell you that his parents own a castle.)

I'm sure you can see where this is going. Yes? You have some knowledge of such things?

Not as much as you might suspect, unfortunately

I could see the setup from a mile away, and I knew I shouldn't be falling for it, but I couldn't help myself. Plus, there were a couple of interesting dynamics at play that made this story more than it might seem at first glance.

Because Will is a man whose life revolved around what he could do, on the power he wielded both physically and mentally, in a world that largely reinforces that superficial conception of male self-worth, he struggles to realign himself to his new reality in a way that will allow him to see any worth in himself. This situation would be just as difficult for a woman, but gender roles being what they are there is an added element of shame for a male living under this degree of dependence.

At one point, Will recommends that Louisa read The Red Queen, and the book gives her (and us) some insight into his worldview:
This book . . . was all about a kind of battle for survival. It claimed that women didn't pick men because they loved them at all. It said that the female of the species would always go for the strongest male, in order to give her offspring the best chance. She couldn't help herself. It was just the way nature was.
I didn't agree with this. And I didn't like the argument. There was an uncomfortable undercurrent to what he was trying to persuade me of. Will was physically weak, damaged, in this author's eyes. That made him biologically irrelevant. It would have made his life worthless. 
Oh, I said a couple of interesting dynamics. I owe you another dynamic. Louisa has some issues with men that, to keep it vague, involve their using their God-given manly power against her. So she's able to let her guard down with Will, exactly because of the imbalance of power between them, which ends up being crucial to her growth as an individual and wouldn't have been possible with literally any other man.

And bonus dynamic! Louisa's relationship with her family and especially her sister, and the ways they show up for her and she shows up for them are . . . really great. They're just really great.

So, yes, sure, I read a sappy love story, and I liked it a lot.

Go about your business.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Middlemarch: "But is there any yoked creature without its private opinions?"

I was reading Middlemarch from September 2014 to January 2015, and I directly hit a slump when I finished it, because I don't think I remember how to be a person who's not reading Middlemarch.

Is this what I used to do before I can't remember.

So I blame George Eliot for the fact that I haven't updated my blog since mid-January. I kept sitting down to organize my recollections and getting overwhelmed by my entire notebook of quotes compiled over five months and then watching an episode of Broad City before an episode of Broadchurch, topped off with an episode of Mozart in the Jungle (because edgy drama about the New York Symphony Orchestra that centers on the experiences of a fresh-faced oboist from North Carolina).

Maybe if I just . . . start typing words related to Middlemarch.

Dorothea Brooke is our main character. She starts off young and naive and makes some frustrating decisions to work around the societal restrictions she faces as a woman. She's not a revolutionary; she's not consciously attempting to overthrow the patriarchy. She just wants to contribute something lasting to the world, and she decides her best bet is to marry a much older man so she can be his helpmate (geeeeez, I hate that word) and contribute to his grand theological pursuits.

Just by doing what comes naturally to her as a character, she facilitates George's commentary on the general undesirability of women who have too many big ideas, commentary that seems a lot like satire until you remember that's totally how it was.
A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick labourer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles - who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions.
Men everywhere will find themselves without saddle-horses.

This character could have easily come off as too pure and noble, borderline insufferable, totally unrelatable . . . but that's just not Dorothea.

George gives us a whole assortment of lady characters to remind us that women react to societal constraints in drastically different ways. For example, Dorothea's sister, Celia, is content to be a wife and mother and leave the thinking to the menfolk. Rosamond Vincy is a shallow, vain, but accomplished woman who marries the handsome new doctor, thinking only of what he can do for her; she's both a victim and a villain in their relationship, unprepared for the messiness of marriage, unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices. Her character arc is complicated and infuriating and so relevant.

One of my favorite moments in the book involves a woman who barely figures into the plot but whose one scene is just . . . no, I can't summarize it effectively enough. You have to read it yourself. Right now. Sorry if this is annoying for you.

The relevant context here is that this woman's husband did something awful before they married, and his shameful past has come to light and is starting to make the rounds about town. And it's bad . . . like, they might have to move bad. And he hasn't been able to bring himself to tell her because he's so ashamed. Action.
It was eight o'clock in the evening before the door opened and his wife entered. He dared not look up at her. He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went towards him she thought he looked smaller - he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and the other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly -
'Look up, Nicholas.' 
He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, 'I know'; and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing with him, or of the acts which had brought it down on them. His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent. 
Is that not gorgeous and heartbreaking?

And George accomplishes that level of truth and nuance over and over with a host of characters and themes. I'm not even getting into the different aspects of masculinity represented in her male characters, but suffice it to say, she doesn't neglect the other half of the gender coin or ignore the unique plight of men caught in these social systems.

I know, but the thing is they do.

In this one small town, we see the workings of politics, the restrictions of gender, the dictates of class, the devastating effects of rumor (true and false), and the way that caring too much what your neighbors think of you can interfere with your kissing that nice man with the blue eyes, just kissing him all over his face.

I can't wait to read all 896 pages of it again someday.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Humans: Every few years we have to convince some alien race that we deserve to live and also that our noses are nice. Oh, the burdens of humanity.

Matt Haig retweets a lot of the nice things people say about his book (which you shouldn't do too often, authors, please keep in mind) and I suppose all that niceness wheedled its way into the book-choosing region of my brain.

So it came to be that I was opening The Humans, without knowing much of anything about it.

I should be annoyed with you, but here I come I guess.

The premise is pretty simple: Andrew Martin, a prominent mathematician at Cambridge University, has unlocked a mystery of prime numbers that could change the course of human history. A member of an advanced alien race in another galaxy is sent to Earth to make sure no one ever finds out about this breakthrough. The alien takes over Andrew's body, infiltrating his workplace and family, and sets to work undoing his progress. The book is a first-person record of the experience, addressed to his fellow aliens.

At first, Alien Andrew is horrified and disgusted by the human form (especially noses, because what are those all about?) and the primitive ways of the human species. The members of his race have always believed the worst about humans, and his observations often corroborate that view.
The humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. . . . They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities among themselves.
But the longer he spends in Andrew Martin's body, the more he sees the complexity and value of humanity, messy as it is.

Alien Andrew makes loads of poignant observations about the human condition, but he's at his best when he's describing the mundane.
The "pub" was an invention of humans living in England, designed as compensation for the fact that they were humans living in England.
This is what dogs liked to do, I discovered. They liked to run around on grass, pretending they were free, shouting, "We're free, we're free, look, look how free we are!" at each other. It really was a sorry sight.
So yes, I'm glad the hive mind convinced me to read this tidy black comedy with hints of Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and The Rosie Project. Very glad indeed . . . if just a little bit more self-conscious about my nose.