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.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Dear Library: It's not you, it's me.

I was surveying a list of the books I read in 2014 . . . you know, just to see how it went in a general way. I felt like I'd read quite a few books written by women, and I did make a conscious effort to step outside my comfort zone with genre and culture and such.

I did OK I guess.

Looking at the list, it's pretty obvious and completely unsurprising to me that I need to focus more on nonfiction and nonwhite authors, and I'd also like to get back into the classics, which I seem to have wandered away from in recent years.

But that's small potatoes compared with the other thing the list showed me.

I have a habit that got completely out of hand last year, and I can't make light of it any longer. I'm staging an intervention for myself. You're all invited, and we can drink booze at it, obviously.

Out of the 67 titles I read last year, 46 were from the public library. That means, despite my sizable and ever-increasing personal library, I continue to ignore most of the books I share my home with.

My husband, every damn day.

The cycle goes like this: (1) See a book I've been meaning to read and am actually pretty excited about reading. (2) Buy it (and usually several others shut up). (3) Lovingly shelve it by genre and author's last name. (4) Promptly forget it ever existed.

Once I get a book home, an invisible switch is flipped and I immediately start taking it for granted. I know it will be there waiting for me indefinitely, like a long-suffering friend. But the thing is, it isn't always. I can't tell you how many times I've loaned out a book and never seen it again. And if I've already read the book, that's a minor irritation, but I usually haven't read the book.

Don't go! I can be better!

I think this problem stems from a lack of impulse control. If someone on the Internet is raving about a book and all I have to do is add it to my library hold list and wait passively until it's my turn, I'm gonna do that. Multiply that by every time someone raves about a book on the Internet and you get a massive library hold list that's steadily supplying books, all of which have the sexy allure of an expiration date.


I think I have just one title on hold going into 2015, and it's Station Eleven. Everyone's been drooling over that one, so it can be my bit of fun on the side. But I'm making a point this year to focus on loving the ones I'm with. Incidentally, that includes a few Joan Didions, a couple of Donna Tartts, some William Gibsons, several George Eliots, and the Absolute All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison.

And they all deserve my time and attention.

Thanks for being patient, books. Now get off those shelves and let's boogie.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thunderstruck (and a life update): "I knew something was ending, and I was grateful, and I missed it."

Before I get into the book we're all gathered here to discuss, I just want to say, HEY, HEY GUYS, GUYS, I WORK AT DISNEY PUBLISHING NOW, GUYS.

It's been a crazy first two weeks, and I'm going to bed tonight with visions of Sith Lords dancing in my head. I love my coworkers, piles of cookies and chocolate keep appearing on my desk, I literally read books about super heroes and Jedi between the hours of 9 and 5 every day, and I sometimes eat my lunch next to a life-sized sculpture of Sully from Monsters Inc. My life does not suck.

But I haven't quite figured out where everything else goes now that I can't stay up until 3 a.m. catching up on my reading or check in with some of you guys on gchat during the workday or hang out at home with my husband until noon or stop what I'm doing at any given moment of the day to rub my face all over my dogs' faces.

Change, even the good kind, is hard.

But the main things I want you to take away from this are that my job is awesome and I've eaten my weight in cookies today.

And now we can move on to the business at hand.

When it's been a while since you finished a particular book, but you loved it so much that you really can't let it pass through your life without comment, there's nothing for it but to bust out some quotes.
The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body's a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed: your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn't a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job.
A round-jawed teenager sat on a leather settee with a handheld video game, frowning at the screen like a Roman emperor impatient with the finickiness of his lions.
Paris on paper always looked like a box of peanut brittle that had been dropped onto the ground, the Seine the unraveled ribbon that had held it together. 
The way Elizabeth McCracken describes everyday things is beyond me. It took me a solid month to get through this book of only nine stories, and it's because every sentence describes a new way of looking at something—sometimes the mundane and sometimes the incomprehensible. Each story demands to be lingered over; no skimming allowed.

Just really get in there and spend some time with it.

My favorite, "Juliet," falls almost exactly in the middle of the collection, and I think it's a good example of the cohesive tone of these stories—a quirky snapshot of everyday life that also addresses how humans cope with loss.

The story opens with the plight of a beleaguered bunny named Kaspar who lives in the children's room at a public library, and then it goes into the interactions of the librarians and patrons, and one patron in particular, Juliet. But it morphs into an examination of tragedy, and how the effects of sudden loss (of any loss, really) ripple out and out and out, reaching more people in more varied ways than we might imagine possible.

I first fell in love with McCracken's writing (and her, also...a little bit) when I read her afterword to the Signet Classic 150th anniversary edition of Bleak House. I read afterwords because I'm a completist, but they rarely make me want to go straight back to the beginning of the book for a reread. What I did do was go straight to Twitter to tell her how lovely her words were, and within minutes she replied to express her gratitude for my gratitude. We live in a magical time, friends.

Every day brings us a little closer to Internet tacos.
So what've we learned here today? You should read Elizabeth McCracken's writing at every opportunity. And you can still be hungry for tacos after eating many, many cookies.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Minireadathon: I'M AWAKE I'M AWAKE. WhadidImiss?

The Minithon's been in progress for about 2 hours now, and I've just stumbled out of my cave and toward the coffee. This is why Angelenos are notorious for being late to everything: Pacific Standard Time, that cruel minx.

I tentatively planned my reading for this thing, but it's mainly just whatever books I'm in the middle of right now.

  • I'm halfway through Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories (short stories are miniature longer stories).
  • I'm also halfway through Middlemarch (not miniature in girth, no, but the people in the cover art are quite small) and determined to finish it by 2015, so help me.
  • I've been saving Horrorstor for this day because I have a feeling it will whiz along. And it's about an IKEA, basically, where all the furniture and the meat products come in pieces. Small pieces.
  • Sex Criminals Volume 1 is a comic and therefore inherently miniature. Let's hope nothing inside is miniature. *nudge-nudge*
  • Oh yeah, and I checked out a couple of Star Wars middle-grade chapter books yesterday because of reasons.
I have coffee in my cup. I have miniature quiches in the oven. READY, SET . . .

UPDATE: It's after 7 p.m. now, and I've just kind of . . . kept reading and eating. But I guess I can't keep counting all this toward my minithon achievements indefinitely. Otherwise I'll be 83 and still making a list of all the tiny foods I've accomplished, and then it will be a list with just PRUNES written over and over and over.

Despite starting the minireadathon 2 hours late and going shoe shopping in the middle of it, I did manage to put the following into my brain and/or face:
  • One heart-achingly beautiful short story from Thunderstruck (16 pages)
  • The entirety of Horrorstor, which fit the mini theme even more closely than I thought because so MANY things were in small pieces by the end (243 pages)
  • Three mugs of coffee
  • Seven tiny spinach quiches
  • Three teensy oranges
  • Innumerable cheddar Goldfish
  • Half an ahi tuna slider

But I've got all these snacks left over . . .

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bone Clocks: Does no one else feel as though photos of David Mitchell are quietly judging them?

I was intimidated by David Mitchell for some reason. No, actually . . . I know why. It's because he has an expression of vague disapproval in his author photos* and the trailer for the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas makes my noodle hurt.

Oh NOW I get it.

Despite my crippling self-doubt, I have now read a David Mitchell book in its entirety, and aside from a few instances of flipping back 50 pages, rereading select portions, waiting for the light bulb to go on, and then proceeding, my concerns were unfounded.

I'm not saying it's a simple story structureIt's written from multiple character perspectives and intertwines story lines, which seems like it might be Mitchell's Thing. The transitions from one perspective to the next are clearly divided into six sections and marked with thematic illustrations, but even so the switch-over can be disorienting—like going to sleep and finding, upon waking, that you're in a different body. You might need a minute to get your bearings.

Oh please, you know this is the first thing you would do.

We start out with Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old in the English countryside who has a fight with her mother and decides to run away from home. Everything is pretty standard-teenage-girl-stuff with Holly. She's a lot like Johanna from Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, dealing with family life, falling for the wrong boy, and itching to grow up. But there's this subtle undercurrent of oddity, because Holly has, in the past, heard voices and experienced what you might call psychic premonitions.

That supernatural flavoring carries through all the sections, as we jump from Holly to a cast of other characters whose lives intersect with hers in unexpected ways. The book jacket uses the phrase "everyday grace and extraordinary wonder," and I guess the book jacket knows what it's talking about.

The prose isn't flowery or spare, but it's often quite good, like so:
Love's pure free joy when it works, but when it goes bad you pay for the good hours at loan-shark prices.
Minor quibbles: In one of the sections, people occasionally speak French, without any translation provided. That sort of thing makes us peasants feel left out, and we don't prefer it. Also, the foreshadowing can be heavy-handed at times—"I couldn't shake the feeling that I had just seen so-and-so for the last time" and that sort of thing. I suspect the editors recommended adding these signposts, maybe worrying that the average reader would trail too far behind without moderate hand-holding.


At any rate, this book successfully broke the David Mitchell ice for me, and now I can tackle that copy of Black Swan Green I've had for 3 years. Well, you know . . . eventually.

*After watching this video of Mitchell's presentation at BEA 2014, I see that he's charming and self-deprecating and not at all scary. He describes his own book as a "big, thumping beast of a thing" and briefly examines the subject of tickling.