Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hausfrau: A super-unpleasant therapy session, now available in paperback

Literature is full of characters that you'd really rather not identify with at all. Anna Benz in Hausfrau is right up there on the list.

She is the thirty-something American wife of a Swiss banker and the mother of three young children. Finding herself bored and aimless in a foreign country, with a husband whom she sees as emotionally distant, she finds herself carrying on a series of affairs that become increasingly more difficult for her to extricate herself from. She is not empowered or particularly intelligent, and she is certainly not noble.

So imagine my dismay when I started seeing myself in passages like this:
Anna was a swinging door, a body gone limp in the arms of another body carrying it. An oarless ocean rowboat.
The exertion is effortless. Surrender is your strong suit. Assent, your forte. You abdicate a little more each day. There's nothing you intend. You do not fight it.
And there's no need to seek out these mistakes, for now it is they who seek you. 
A lot of the reviews for this book highlight the reader's reluctance to spend time in a world where every character is unlikable. And none of those reviewers is wrong. There's not one character in this story to revere, and they all seem to be operating on the premise that they're floundering in their own private hell, with minimal effort expended to peak over the flames occasionally and see how their actions might be affecting others.

The themes that stand out to me—settling, passivity, apathy, hypocrisy, yearning, coping, loneliness, boredom, discontent, victimization, ennui, existential dread—are . . . well, they're unpleasant things to dwell on for any number of pages. But no good comes of ignoring the destructive power of any one of these things in the average human life, and it seems to me that Jill Alexander Essbaum's intent in writing on these themes was to say, "Right, so murder and violence and drugs are certainly dramatic, but do you know what ruins a lot more lives than those three things put together? ISOLATION."

No one should aspire to be like the characters in this book, but there is such a thing as learning what not to do. And the most important thing Anna taught me is this:
But the lie of all lies was that her solitude had been inevitable.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mini Readathon: The readathon for people with reasonable expectations

I'm sitting here at my computer at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday before even visiting the coffee fountain, dispenser of all life.

But that's the last unreasonable thing I'll do today, because the minithon is all about reading miniature books, eating miniature snacks, taking frequent social media breaks to see what everyone else is eating and reading, and doing so for a miniature period of time (eight hours . . . or less, for those of us who have a wedding to attend at 2 p.m. and/or just wander away at some point in a mini-snack-induced daze).

So what am I reading?

I was listening to a Literary Disco podcast the other day, and one of the hosts was talking about how he and his wife have started reading to their newborn baby to get her into a bedtime routine. Right now, they're doing The Wind in the Willows, and he talked about how surprisingly adult the prose is and how strange it is to revisit the book as an adult.

Then I went to Disneyland and hit up Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, which gave me the vague feeling that Jay Gatsby was partially modeled after a reckless amphibian, and that's just not a hunch you leave unexplored.

Perhaps we all aspire to be J. Thaddeus Toad. The waistcoats alone!

So that's all I have planned to read today, because having a stack of books at my elbow has never seemed to work for me. Although I do have several comics here that I might intersperse among the antics of besuited woodland creatures.

Onward and snackward!


Well, I didn't get very much reading done, on account of I had to go to a wedding ceremony midway through and didn't deem it wise to carry on reading during the ceremony.

But I did get through fifty pages of The Wind in the Willows and finish volume 1 of Manifest Destiny and consume pizza bagels and mini Oreos and a full-size bagel and a tiny can of Sierra Mist and two regular-size cups of coffee.

Pretty sure those are the rules.
Thanks for hosting, Tika!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lazarus: Game of Thrones meets Wolverine meets...Mr. and Mrs. Smith? In any case, there's a salsa-dancing scene.

I haven't been finishing much of anything in the book department lately, but I binge-read the first three volumes of Greg Rucka's Lazarus series and give it two strong yet feminine thumbs up.

My introduction to Rucka's work happened when I was somehow trusted to copyedit his Han Solo adventure novel (coming out this year as part of Disney/Lucasfilm Press's Journey to the Force Awakens series, if you're interested in that sort of thing). Not only did he capture the essence of Han and Chewie in that story, but he wrote a killer female-character-who-isn't-Leia. I was intrigued.

Rucka has had a hand in almost every superhero comic property: Wolverine, Batwoman, The Punisher, Batman, Elektra, Wonder Woman. . . .  He has seventeen pages on Goodreads. You get the idea.

This original series is his newest project, and if it's the only thing of his you read you'll be doing okay for yourself.

The premise: At some point in our future, the world is divided among a handful of wealthy Families. The people who serve them, Serfs, are privileged above the Waste, which is everyone else. So there are no more states, no more countries, no more governments---just territories run by Families. Among the Families, there are alliances and feuds over contested territories.

Each Family has one member who's been given genetic enhancements and appointed to act as the Family's protector. This person, called the Lazarus, is a living weapon and is veeeeery difficult to kill, because he or she can regenerate. But the Lazari are not machines. They feel pain (so they feel like they're dying even if they don't often stay dead), and they have emotions and doubts that can lead to conflicting loyalties.

Which, indeed?

Forever Carlyle is the Lazarus of Family Carlyle, who rule over the western United States and northern and western Canada.

She's drawn like a cross between Gina Carano and the T-1000 and fights like a Spartan warrior who underwent strict martial arts training,but she's still believable as someone who could exist in our world.

Muscles and a conscience, imagine.
I don't love the overall art style, but Michael Lark is really great at drawing action. A fast-paced sword fight, let's say, can be really hard to follow in comic panels, but he makes it feel as seamless as possible when dealing with literal seams. If you let your eyes sweep across the panels, you can almost forget the separation.

That all might be enough to convince you to pick this up, but I could also tell you about the other female characters who exhibit strength in various ways, including as nurturers and villains. And the not one but two interracial couples. And the possibly gay character. And all the sexual tension between Forever and Joacquim, the Lazarus of Family Morray, who is even more handsome when the skin on his face hasn't just been melted off by an explosive.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Villette-along Week IS IT OVER YET? "Fighting the battle of life by proxy"

I lost steam there at the end, as did Charlotte by all appearances.
He advanced; he opened the door; my back was toward it; I felt a little thrill---a curious sensation, too quick and transient to be analyzed. I turned, I stood in the supposed master artisan's presence: looking toward the doorway, I saw it filled with a figure, and my eyes printed upon my brain the picture of M. Paul.

But not, like, ALL of them.

Although I would've appreciated if Lucy had exerted herself to yell something more than "Dog in a manger!" at Madame Beck (who is a colossal twat, by the way, and I take back all the nice things I said about her at the beginning of this readalong).

I still like Lucy, because she personifies abstract ideas like a boss ("Freedom excused himself, as for the present, impoverished and disabled to assist; and Renovation never spoke; he had died in the night suddenly.") and because everyone else is so awful that she seems pretty okay in comparison. Also she says things that make me want to put her in a nest and pet her head:
I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call. . . . gradually, by long and equal kindness, he proved to me that he kept one little closet, over the door of which was written "Lucy's Room."
Ginevra eloped just because she felt like it, but still got a trousseau and family money and a proper wedding after the fact. And remember how she was disgusted by John's whiskers and Lucy described de Hamal as really feminine? Well de Hamal also saw a nun's dress and thought, "I should definitely put that on and walk around a little and then keep doing that on a regular basis." Juuuuust saying.

So after a long period of Lucy being passive to an infuriating degree, M. Paul presented her with a place to live and her own school and might have said that he would maybe want to get married when he came back in three years.

He promptly went to the West Indies and . . . never came back? (CB, what is with you and the West Indies as a place where bad things happen to love interests?) Did he come back? I DON'T KNOW.

What I do know is that the three characters I hated the absolute most in the whole book lived long and prospered all the days of their lives, because that is the literal last line of this 559-page book of which they are not the main characters.

I mean it this time, Charlotte.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Villette-along Week 5: "I never offer flowers to those I love."

You have to give CB credit for writing a love story that is simultaneously predictable and bizarre. At this point, it seems pretty inevitable that M. Paul and Lucy will end up legally bound, but the way they're getting to that conclusion is so gradual that I almost didn't notice it was happening. Lucy's attitude toward M. Paul has been evolving almost imperceptibly, largely because even though she's narrating, she's not really telegraphing her mind-set at specific points in time. Our latest sign post was, "I did not dislike Professor Emanuel." And that, from Lucy, is as good as a declaration of love.

M. Paul is not a clear-cut romantic hero. That is to say, if CB tells us one good thing about him, she immediately balances it out with something negative.

  • He tutors Lucy one-on-one and challenges her to stretch herself mentally because he believes in her intelligence even if she doesn't. (HURRAY!)
  • He's a jerk to her when her hard work pays off and she finally starts excelling in her studies. (BOO!)
  • But "when M. Paul sneered at me, I wanted to possess them more fully; his injustice stirred in me ambitious wishes---it imparted a strong stimulus---it gave wings to aspiration." (Excellent use of reverse psychology, M. Paul.)
  • He rifles through her personal effects. (Not cool, man.)
  • He leaves her chocolates and books he knows she'll enjoy, and she does. (Oh, well played I guess?)
  • He censors those books by literally cutting portions out. (What, are you her dad?)
  • He validates Lucy's Ghost Nun sightings. (ABOUT DAMN TIME.)
  • The only reason he's seen Ghost Nun is because he's been rear-windowing from his private rented room over the garden. (There is nothing okay about this, and thank goodness Lucy voices as much.)
  • He exhibits actual childlike glee when Lucy presents him with his birthday present. "This object is all mine?"

In the end, my opinion of M. Paul's actions has to be informed by Lucy's reactions to them. She's clearly charmed by his habit of going through her things. The more worked up and unruly he gets, the more content she feels ("It seemed as if the presence of a nature so restless, chafing, thorny as that of M. Paul, absorbed all feverish and unsettling influences like a magnet, and left me none but such as were placid and harmonious"). And while I would not find it endearing if a man commented on my choice of clothing, because it's a woman's personal business if she wants to wear a ribbon, yo, this is how Lucy receives M. Paul's criticism of her "gay fashions":
You are well habituated to be passed by as a shadow in Life's sunshine: it is a new thing to see one testily lifting his hand to screen his eyes, because you tease him with an obtrusive ray.
Under the guise of criticism, M. Paul gives Lucy permission to see herself as "volatile and versatile," as a blaze instead of a shadow. He is the literal antithesis to John Graham Bretton, just as Lucy is to Paulina.

And every scene Lucy and M. Paul share in this section (which is a section mainly of scenes with Lucy and M. Paul) veers into the territory of quirky rom-com. I know some of us are wishing for sexual tension (because obviously), but if I was in a room with these two people I would definitely think they were about to bone:
As for me, I took it with entire coolness. There I sat, isolated and cut off from human intercourse; I sat and minded my work, and was quiet, and not at all unhappy.
"Is that far enough away?" he demanded.
"Monsieur is responsible for it," said I.
"You know very well that it is not so. It is you who have created this immense void: I had nothing to do with it."

Not touching can be sexy, too.

And THIS, this is like a description of an alternate universe wherein Casaubon was actually worthy of Dorothea Brooke:
There were few bound and printed volumes that did not weary me . . . but his tomes of thought were collyrium to the spirit's eyes; over their contents, inward sight grew clear and strong. I used to think what a delight it would be for one who loved him better than he loved himself to gather and store up those handfuls of gold dust, so recklessly flung to heaven's reckless winds.
CB seems to be providing an honest portrayal of a romance between flawed people whose flaws perfectly dovetail to make each a better person. And is that not kind of beautiful, at the end of the day?

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.