Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ruby: Here's some information. Do with it what you will.

I'm going to tell you, very calmly, why I couldn't love this book and in fact sort of disliked it, but first here's Emily's mini-review because she loved it and I love her.

First of all, the language is rich and dense (similes and metaphors and descriptors, galore...sometimes too many?), and the characters are complex. And the message—which centers on a woman breaking the cycle of abuse and taking back control of her soul (literally)—is deep and poignant and relevant. I get why people are comparing Cynthia Bond to Toni Morrison. I do.

But I hated my life while I was reading this book.

I am far from being the sort of person who demands that books and movies make me feel warm and safe. No Country for Old Men is one of my favorites of recent memory. I'll watch a Lars von Trier movie to unwind after a long day at work. I enjoy existential dread!

But this seemed gratuitous. It felt like Bond was forcing me to wallow in the most vile pits of mortal experience, and every time I thought maybe it was time to get out and towel off, she was like, "NOPE. You don't have enough muck in your soul crevices."

Soul muck is my Kryptonite.

All we really know at the beginning is that Ruby is in her 40s and is the "local crazy" in a small Texas town. Ephram is a man who knew Ruby and loved her from afar when they were children. She had moved to New York as a young woman but came back I think 15 years prior to when the book picks up. And in that time, something about being back in that town made her lose her mind 100% all the way.
They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline.
As the story unfolds in the present day, we learn through current events and flashbacks what set Ruby on the path to madness, how her tortured history inexplicably relates to Ephram's seemingly uneventful one, and the heroic effort that will be required to bring her out of the pit. And, oh right, there are supernatural doings throughout.

Damn. Even now, it sounds so good. Because it is. It would be. It should be. So why isn't it?

As near as I can figure, the book's biggest problem is that it's grossly out of balance. You have to slog through 99 miles of evil before you reach 1 mile of world-weary sadness shot through with glimmers of hope for future redemption. One chapter in particular, toward the middle of the book, was so emotionally oppressive that I was nauseated.

But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe that imbalance was intentional.

Bond works with homeless and at-risk youth in Los Angeles, so this is probably a story she's seen play out in real lives. She may have taken in all the hurt and trauma of all the kids she's ever counseled and poured it into Ruby. This could be her way of letting victims of abuse know that she sees them, that they're not alone—that if all they find when they look back is darkness, they should take one step forward. And then one step more.

OK, this is what I'll say about Ruby: I will never claim that anyone should read this book. People (especially women) who have suffered abuse are more likely to be triggered by the events of Ruby's life than encouraged by them. People who haven't suffered abuse might feel as though they have by the end of the story. It's your choice.

I support you if this is your decision.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I smell faintly and forever of sour milk

Two weeks ago today, the dogs and I were taking our regular 3 p.m. stroll when we were accosted by a tiny street thug.

At claw point

I heard plaintive mewling along the fence that rings the industrial complex where I rent my office; so I peered under and he was just there, sprawled face-down in a gap between the fence and a row of shipping containers. I heard a startled rustling farther down the sidewalk, and I thought certainly that was his mother. This was my justification for doing what I now believe to have been a shameful thing, which was go back to my life where I was a person with two dogs and no kitten.

At the same time the next day, again with the strolling and again with the mewling, but a little more assertive this time. I crouched in the weeds and looked under the fence, and he was in the exact same spot and visibly upset about it. I squeezed behind the shipping containers and scooped him up, and everything has been basically awful since then.

Look at this asshole.

He was only a week old when I found him, eyes firmly shut and umbilical cord attached. Now he's the ripe old age of 3 weeks, but he still has to be on a heating pad because he can't regulate his body temperature, and he needs his butt rubbed with a moist towelette to help him pee and poo.

And he has to be bottle-fed kitten milk replacement every 2 to 4 hours, which he gets HELLA belligerent about because he keeps forgetting how the milk travels from the bottle to his mouth. He spends at least 10 minutes every time screaming and clawing at my hand and the bottle and his face before a drop hits his tongue and he furiously suckles himself into a transcendent milk stupor. Until the next time he's hungry (which is every moment he's awake even if I just fed him but he fell asleep for a minute and then a dog barked and woke him up and he's preeeetty sure he should eat again as long as we're all here).

You are CLEARLY full, sir.


But his eyes are open now, and they seem to be getting bigger and brighter every day. And he purrs vigorously when you cradle him against your heart. And he climbs up your shirt so he can put his front paws on your face and gently gum your lip. And he leans toward Gizmo so she can lick the milk off his face. And he wobbles along the floor with his tail straight up in the air while Paco hesitantly follows behind, trying to figure out what manner of beast this is and whether it has designs on his evening biscuit.

So yeah . . . when can we find a home for this jerk and reclaim our lives?

UPDATED TO ADD: The very next day after I posted this, the rescue said they had a lactating female and there was room for this little outlaw to sidle up to the bar for a libation. So, alas, he is gone from my life, on to bigger and better things. But whenever the day's chaos abates, when calm settles over the house, in that still, small moment, I can hear . . . Meow? DAMMIT WOMAN I SAID MEOW.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Landline: Take in combination with Greg Laswell song of the same name. Writer's orders.

It’s no secret around these parts that I’m a fan of this Rainbow lady. Thanks to my continued association with people who have their fingers on the pulse of literature (pretty sure this all started with Raych, but then of course it was Alice who enthusiasm-ed Rainbow into being our friend), I got in on the ground floor with Attachments and have since happily ridden the elevator up, first to Eleanor & Park and then to Fangirl.

But the floor I arrived at when I pressed the button marked Landline was something altogether different from the others, because instead of being a place full of beanbag chairs where I could drink a sugary coffee beverage and watch young people lovingly tousle each other's hair, there was a full bar and arm chairs with permanent dips for my bum. For me, it was present (with a hint of future) tense.

Help yourself to a whiskey.

Georgie and Neal have been married for about 15 years and have two young daughters and a home in Los Angeles. They’ve grown complacent in their relationship, finding endless distractions in their girls and in Georgie’s work as a sitcom writer. But all the things they haven’t been saying to each other have been piling up, as they do, the distance yawning imperceptibly wider, as it does, and when Georgie chooses to pursue an important career opportunity rather than visit Neal’s family for Christmas, the distance becomes literal. Neal takes the girls and goes to Omaha anyway, leaving Georgie at first in denial that anything is wrong and then completely uncertain about where their relationship stands.

And then the story takes a turn for the fantastical. When Georgie calls Neal from the landline in her childhood home, she discovers that she can talk to the Neal of 15 years ago, before they decided to get married. As Present Georgie talks more and more to Past Neal, she starts to wonder whether this is her chance to change history . . . and if she even wants to.


This story hit me pretty hard in a personal way. Maybe it's because I'm a lot like Georgiedomestically challenged, career-driven, inclined to pick the most saturated color on the paint sample card. Maybe it's because my husband is a lot like Neala better cook than he has any right to be, quiet with his emotions, big with his romantic gestures. I also have a mother who's obsessed with her pug, and we also live in Silver Lake (technically Echo Park, but that's just semantics and roughly 15% less hipsters).

Or maybe it's because he was literally digging himself into a hole while I was reading the first half of the book.

No but really.

We're coming up on 4 years of marriage, which is exactly the number of years we were together before the wedding. But marriage, guys . . . it's this whole other THING. And, unsurprisingly, Rainbow captures that flawlessly:
You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten—in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
It's not all introspection and married-people angst. The secondary players in Georgie's life (her mom, stepdad, sister, close friend and writing partner, daughters, and more) don't seem to have any idea that they're secondary, because Rainbow doesn't ever treat them that way. And of course there's playful banter. Of course there is.
"She reclaimed her virginity?"
 "Leave it, Georgie. She can do whatever she wants with her virginity."
"Right," Georgie said, nodding her head. "Right . . . It doesn't sound like such a bad idea, actually. Maybe I'll reclaim mine before you come back. In the name of Queen Elizabeth."
Subliminal messages in the Harry Potter books, obvs.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Martian, or Tony Stark Goes to Mars

I don't have a brain wired for scientific reasoning, but I'm endlessly fascinated by people who understand science and can explain it to me in a way that makes me almost think I can understand it, too. I put them in the same category as those individuals who roughhouse with wild hyenas.

Science, like hyenas, can never be tamed.

The six crewmates of Ares 3 are caught in a serious windstorm (sustained gusts of about 110 mph) on Sol 6 of their scientific mission to Mars. They’re forced to scrub the whole mission and flee the planet as the wind makes serious moves toward tipping the MAV (i.e., the Mars ascent vehicle, their only ticket off that godforsaken rock). As they’re shuffling their blind way toward the MAV, through the whipping wind and dust, Mark Watney (specialties: mechanical engineering and botany) is impaled by a wind-borne antenna and swept far away from the group. Presumed dead by his crew (and reasonably so), he's ultimately abandoned on Mars. The ensuing story is something like Castaway without the coconuts.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m f*****.
As Mark applies his wits and expertise toward the end goal of not becoming dead, he walks us through his adventures and misadventures via logs. He explains his methods in what should be an irritating amount of detail but is not, because tell me more about how you separated pure hydrogen from rocket fuel and then used it to make water and also how you took that whoozit and connected it to this whatsit to create an even handier doodad.

This is a literal fight for survival from beginning to end, and it's an incredibly tense read. It would be much less enjoyable without the levity that Andy Weil (through Mark) brings to every page (let's hope Ridley Scott doesn't run the movie adaptation through his Ultra-Serious Doom Machininator™ and squeeze all the humor out). It's a rare variety of person who can keep the jokes coming while alone on a barren planet that is actively trying to pop him like a blood-filled balloon—which kind of reminds me of this other guy I know.
“I admit it’s fatally dangerous,” Watney said.
“But consider this: I’d get to fly around like Iron Man.”

One more thing: That crew of six people? TWO of them are women. That is one more than the absolute bare minimum, which means this book about a to-this-day overwhelmingly male-dominated profession that centers on a white man stuck on Mars alone passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. All arguments against including real women in sci-fi are invalid for all time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alias Hook: Well, I didn't hate it

Fairy Tale Cleverly Retold is one of my favorite book flavors. And my first cartoon crush, aside from Robin Hood the (literal) fox, was Captain Hook. I like a man who wears a jaunty hat and creatively compensates for a crippling disability. But most important, he and I agree on one crucial point:

Peter Pan is an asshole.

Because you drug them with pixie dust

So when I heard about this retelling of the classic tale from Hook’s perspective, openly casting Pan as the villainous boy-child I’ve always known him to be and giving Hook a scrappy 30-something love interest in Stella Parrish (he deserves love, dammit), I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough.

Unfortunately . . . it wasn’t all that good.

The explanations Lisa Jensen cooked up to make sense of a Neverland that can be a fantasy playground for children while simultaneously resembling the clock-like death arena from Catching Fire are well thought out and undeniably clever. And when she let herself get truly dark with her story, I was enthralled. “He finds them by their longing, stray boys for his tribe and girls to tell him stories.”

(I mean, they might. We don't know.)

But those few moments of delicious creepiness were couched in what often seemed like mediocre Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction—with a voudon priestess on a Caribbean island and everything.

Jensen never seemed to find Captain Hook’s voice, and because of that, I could never see him as more than the sum of his parts. It was almost as if she were doing improv and someone in the audience shouted out, “You’re a Restoration-era pirate with a good English education and particular ideas about women. GO.”
You’d scarcely know her for a female, garbed in her plaid jacket, a glimpse of white shirttail peeking out over loose dark trousers. Her feet are scarcely clad in soft, useless satiny things that expose her toes and heels. And she is surely not Indian; her face and hands are pale, her hair brownish and dusty, not long and silky black, much less done up in pearls and powder, as was the fashion in my day. But I am scarcely reassured.

But speaking of those Indians, they're a high point in the book. Jensen succeeds where the Disney movie justand I think we can all agree on thiscompletely failed. The Indians in this Neverland are people. With lives. And motives. And a nuanced cultural context. Imagine that.

While we’re saying nice things about fair representation of minorities, I also want to mention that feminism is in full effect throughout. The female characters (human and nonhuman) exhibit wisdom and agency and authority, and are more often cast in the role of rescuer than rescued.

BUT there was this one weird Victorian-morality-play deal that put a patriarchal fly in the ointment.

**The mildest of spoilers lies here.**

There’s a rule in the Neverland that innocent blood can never be shed, because that would upset the balance and destroy the land and everyone who lives in it; so the people/creatures of Neverland are pretty concerned that Pan might try to kill Stella for the crime of being an adult lady—that is, until she does adult-lady things with Captain Hook. “She is innocent no more, not as she was when she first arrived. . . . There are many ways to lose one’s innocence.” And so, because she had sex in the Neverland, Pan is free to stab her in the face with no long-term consequences to anyone’s way of life EXCEPT STELLA’S BECAUSE SHE WOULD BE DEAD.

**That's a really mild spoiler up there, so you should probably just go ahead and read it. OK I’ll wait.**

So in the end, I won’t say this book is a waste of time. It has some great moments, and I’m not sorry I read it. I just feel it’s my duty to warn you that you’ll have to muddle through a fair amount of Deep Thoughts With Hook, and this is what they look like:
Stella is my guiding star. Her body is my altar, my refuge. Her love is my life, and by God I will deserve her, coaxing the most wonderful music out of her that I have ever played, until we lose ourselves at last in the riotous swell of this love we make together.
That's my best advice.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week THE END: “I don’t think I was here at all.”

I’ve been concerned about Johanna all along, of course, but I wasn’t truly worried until she started doing Kenny’s bad speed (“even Shane McGowan from the Pogues won’t take it”—yikes) in a bathroom stall. It seemed to Johanna to be the only remedy for her unhappiness after an offended bass player threw his drink on her. It seemed to me to be another suppression of her Self.

And she’s been doing a lot of suppressing throughout this book. Really, whenever she’s not with John Kite or her family, she’s not so much building a certain kind of girl as pretending to be that girl already, at the expense of actually getting to know herself. This is what I meant when I said (somewhere . . . in someone’s comment section?) that faking it until you make it can be a dangerous game if you play it too enthusiastically.

When I look back through Johanna’s sexual adventures, beginning with The Kisser, she almost seems to disappear from the book in those places. There’s no room for her there.
The thought I can’t have is “I don’t want to do this”—because how do I know if I don’t want to do this? I’m still terra-forming me. I’m learning so many new things about me, every day. Perhaps this is the day I find I am secretly a masochist. (p. 259)

As it turns out

And that’s a common theme in Johanna’s coming-of-age story. Almost nothing she has done to date has been for herself, because it was the best thing for her. We can argue that she wanted to have lots of sex and decided she would do that, but in actual practice . . . what is she getting out of any of this?
“All my sex is done by me, and is silent.” (p. 262)
Those are not the words of a sexually empowered woman.

She is so out of touch with herself and so lacking in agency that she becomes one of those girls who drunkenly kisses another girl solely for the benefit of a male onlooker. And she nearly becomes one of those girls who engages in a threesome to gain said male’s approval (“I order myself to be OK with this”).

And the compromises extend to other areas of her life, too. Did you guys know that Johanna once had secret dreams of being an academic? No, and I’ll venture no one in her life did either, because this is the first time she’s lowered her fa├žade enough even to think about an alternate path to the one she’s heading down full tilt:
In another world—where I had not run away from school to earn money—I would have gone there, I think. My mock-exam results were high enough, and I would have left Wolverhampton and entered that intellectual Gormenghast, where there are no boys standing on street corners shouting at you, no men threating to put an ax in your dog’s head. (p. 268)
Fortunately, the night of the almost-threesome and melancholy thoughts on the Path Not Taken was also the night when Johanna found her agency.
I feel excitingly . . . free. Things were going to happen to me last night that I did not like—and I stopped them. I have never prevented my own doom before! I have never stood in the path of certain unhappiness and told myself—lovingly, like a mother to myself—No! This unhappiness will not suit you! Turn around and go another way! (p. 279)
Oh THERE you are, Johanna.

And while that’s not the end of Johanna’s pain, it is the beginning of true self-discovery, helped along by a supportive family (thank you, Caitlin, for that companionable conversation between Johanna and her mum) and a gentle musician in a fur cape who has some growing up of his own to do.

This has been a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. YOU CAN HAVE THIS BOOK. Preorder it from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller. Imma go read it again now.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 4: In which I hold forth on the subject of lady-plumbing

I’ve been relating a lot with Johanna throughout this book, but this week—this week she became my Patronus.

Here’s the thing, friends: Most women get 1 urinary tract or bladder infection (aka cystitis) in their lifetime, maybe a handful if they’re not careful. I’ve had . . . somewhere closer to 50?

I started getting them in my late teens, and anything could set one off. In college, I figured they were flaring up more often because I was drinking too much coffee and not enough water and getting so engrossed with my studies that I sometimes forgot to pee in a timely manner. And when I got married, hoo boy did I level up because of reasons—to monthly UTIs and even the occasional kidney infection. My mom tells me that the propensity for this affliction goes way back among the women in her family.


I feel as teenage werewolves must, the first time they explain the hereditary nature of lycanthropy to their adolescent peers, the night after something awful happened with the full moon and a friend’s cat.
"It’s passed down from my mother’s side," they would say, apologetically—collar still hanging from their mouth, displaying a small bell and a disc bearing the legend TIBBLES.
Caitlin, if you’re reading this, I have tried and failed for half my life to describe the very particular agony of such an infection, often to a concerned party on the other side of the bathroom door as I drink my 10th bottle of water and my legs go hopelessly tingly from sitting too long on the toilet. I have often considered investing in a cushioned, heated toilet seat. I started AND finished The Poisonwood Bible whilst sitting in a tub of scalding water. And I have never, ever, ever seen the humor in any of this, but I can't very well ignore it now, can I? Also, I can mark this passage and present the book to people by way of explanation before I disappear into the bathroom for 8 hours:
I begin my tinkle, and have the exciting chance to watch my face contort in sudden and total agony. HELLO. This piss is apparently made of boiling poison. Boiling poison, a billion Lilliputian arrows, and a wildly rotating whirligig, made of Satan's pinlike teeth.
Shhhh...pain is your home now.

I also really enjoyed the focus on Johanna and Krissi’s relationship in this section. When they hung out in Johanna’s room, bonding over music, it made me miss my brother. (Hi, Ryan, if you’re here! Sorry about when I talked about my bladder.) We never really had any discussions about music, as the elder Morrigan siblings do on this occasion, but some of my fondest memories of my brother come with a specific musical soundtrack: the day we hung out in his attic bedroom at my grandparents’ house, listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine and feeling grievously misunderstood; the times I snuck in to clean his room while he was out (cleaning is my love language, yo), singing along to his copy of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom or Green Day’s Dookie; any number of occasions that warranted our top-of-the-lungs belting of songs by a Star Wars theme band called Twin Sister (WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND HERE, WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND).

But aside from these two points of personal significance that I spent all my time talking about this week, Johanna was really busy in this section getting her first kiss and then kissing all the kisses, pretending to be sexually liberated, writing brazen letters to John Kite (who's still wonderful, BY the way), making poignant statements about the nature of cynicism and the most important aspect of sex (“You get a whole person to yourself, for the first time since you were a baby. Someone who is looking at you—just you—and thinking about you, and wanting you, and you haven’t even had to lie at the bottom of the stairs and pretend you’re dead to get them to do it.”), making oblivious comments to her obviously gay brother about the Bee Gees being so gay and how if there were any gay people in Wolverhampton they would probably be shot . . . very busy INDEED.

All that’s left now is to finish the book, and I simultaneously cannot wait and am so sad to see it end.

This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Look, you. Stop mucking about and preorder the book from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.