Thursday, October 29, 2015

Monkalong Week the Last: I still don't know how it ends but SOMEONE better go revenging or I'll be forced to write my first fanfic

The Monkalong is at an end!*

Let's compare some characters and then go to bed, because it's almost midnight and I still have to blow-dry my hair.

Agnes: Survives being dosed with a heavy opiate, being buried alive, giving birth by herself in a dungeon, and being systematically starved physically and emotionally. Sits in the parlor and calmly tells her friends all about it.

"Right, so then I gazed at my baby's decomposing face to pass the time...."


Don Raymond: Gets really, really sad about Agnes and almost dies. Gets really, really happy about Agnes and almost dies.

Don Raymond after a vigorous sneeze

The prioress of St. Clare: Exhibits cruelty and selfishness that leads to the death of an infant. Is publicly shamed and beaten to a bloody pulp in the streets.


Ambrosio: Exhibits cruelty and selfishness that leads him to defile Antonia (one kind of death) and then stab her twice in the chest (actual muuuuurrrrrder). Is kicked out of the Capuchin order and turned over to the Inquisition and I don't know what else because I haven't finished the last chapter yet but it better not be a fair trial and house arrest. 

I would settle for Agnes's hunting him down and tying him naked in the town square with a giant letter H for hypocrite carved in his chest. And maybe some rocks casually scattered nearby.

While we're on the subject of Antonia's defilement, I know that virginity was everything back then, but that doesn't make it any less sickening to read things like
She told him, that had she still been undefiled she might have lamented the loss of life; but that, deprived of honour and branded with shame, death was to her a blessing: she could not have been his wife; and that hope being denied her, she resigned herself to the grave without one sigh of regret.

It's passages like this that show us we've made some progress in dispelling the myth of purity, but there are other places that suggest rape culture hasn't changed at all in a hundred years. Like when Ambrosio's championship levels of victim blaming---immediately after his elaborate scheme to possess Antonio results in his . . . well, possessing Antonia---don't sound all that unfamiliar to our modern ears.
And whom am I to thank for this? What seduced me into crimes, whose bare remembrance makes me shudder? Fatal witch! was it not thy beauty? Have you not plunged my soul into infamy? Have you not made me a perjured hypocrite, a ravisher, an assassin?

Thanks, Alice, for leading us through this insane book and getting us in the Halloween spirit! I'll probably go read the last chapter now.

*At the time of this writing, I have not yet finished the book, but FORMALITIES.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Monkalong Week 3: We might be getting to the part where I have to read through my fingers

Do you remember how I said, in the first week, that maybe Ambrosio would be more tolerable after he'd experienced some good old-fashioned human frailty. WELL I TAKE IT BACK. Dude had a little sex and is now a straight-up villain.

And he's the very worst kind of villain, the kind who's still convinced that he's the hero. Even Lucifer doesn't want anything to do with him.

Although Matilda is instrumental in Ambrosio's downfall, I appreciate that Lewis is deliberate in pointing out that her lady-powers of seduction didn't single-handedly transform Ambrosio overnight into a prideful, predatory pervert. He's always had the anatomy of that particular beast, thanks to those damned monks, who "were busied in rooting out his virtues, and narrowing his sentiments" since he was a very young child, encouraging the worst of his natural qualities and suppressing the best. You might say that they created a monster.

Now we just need him to realize that.

The most excruciating scene for me this week was when Ambrosio first visits the Dalfas and sits by Elvira's sickbed. If we didn't know that Ambrosio was there for self-serving, lascivious reasons, we could read that scene as incredibly sentimental: a reunion between mother and son and brother and sister, unbeknownst to any of them consciously but deeply felt by them subconsciously.

Which makes it all the more impressive that Elvira is able to see through his act and willing to put an immediate end to it. Her mother's instinct is triggered when she first speaks to Ambrosio. She senses that they're connected somehow. So that feeling must then fundamentally clash with her mother's instinct concerning Antonia. It would be so tempting for her to ignore all the warning bells, but she doesn't even question them. She's like,

Also she says this: "And so he fell from heaven, Antonia? He must have had a terrible tumble."

That probably doesn't excuse that she rewrote Antonia's Bible and almost certainly left out Song of Solomon. Every teenage girl needs Song of Solomon so she'll have something juicy to read when she can't stay awake in church.

I'm having some trouble understanding the deeper deal with Matilda. We didn't know Rosario all that well before he revealed himself to be a she, but Ambrosio seems to think Matilda's changed a lot since she made a pact with the devil to bring herself back from the brink of death.
Now she assumed a sort of courage and manliness in her manners and discourse, but ill calculated to please him.
I mean what is she even good for now?

Most of the things Ambrosio complains about in what is a pretty long paragraph in the book are admirable qualities in either sex (just put that "negative" description of Matilda next to any gushing description of Antonia and it's obvious who would be the more stimulating companion), but I can't help noticing that Matilda also seems to have misplaced her humanity. When she gives that little speech about how Agnes deserves whatever she gets because she shouldn't have had sex if she didn't know how not to get caught, it does sort of seem like . . . she might have sold her soul. Her soul might literally be gone at this point.

And if that is what Lewis is saying, then is he also saying that the soul is the source of femininity? He believes that pity is a strictly feminine quality, but he also believes that a warm climate will naturally make women super horny. I don't know about Spanish ladies, but no one is allowed to touch me in hot weather. I'll be very stern with anyone who tries.

The only thing I'm sure of at this point, almost three quarters of the way through the book, is that Antonia is about to be violated in the most heinous manner and rereading this whole page about Emo Leonella will be my happy place when I just can't cope.
Every evening she was seen straying upon the banks of a rivulet by moonlight; and she declared herself a violent admirer of murmuring streams and nightingales.

Emergency reinforcements can't hurt

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Monkalong Week 2: DON'T BE DEAD, AGNES

When someone is about to tell a story and they pause not even a little bit in to say, "Forgive me if I seem tedious in my narration" . . .

Get ready for at least 300 whales' worth of tedious narration

Boy, does Raymond have a story to tell Lorenzo, only about a quarter of which has anything to do with the subject of Lorenzo's interest—his sister, Agnes—and the rest of which is mostly just a long lead-up to Raymond's saying, "ThenIknockedupyoursister but anyway, going back to that ghost nun."

But I'm almost willing to say the digressions were worth it because of Marguerite. That's a fascinating lady, Marguerite. She's been living as a prisoner among murderous bandits for however long and finally spots her sliver of a chance to save at least one of their potential victims and finally get out of there alive with her two young children, and she'll be damned if she'll let Raymond's complete lack of common sense stand in her way.

He sees all the hallmarks of an abusive marriage and thinks, "Heavens, this gaunt woman is disagreeable. Why can't she be more cheerful, like her well-nourished husband?"

Then she has to spell everything out for him. Look at the sheets! They're veeeeery bloody. You see, blood belongs inside of your body, and when it gets out—no? Okay, well, now you're supposed to be drugged, so don't just sit there smiling at everybody. At least fake a yawn or something.

The only reason any of them survived was because Raymond overheard that detailed bandit conference that convened directly under his bedroom window, which turned on his light bulb just enough that he could cooperate with Marguerite's detailed, moment-by-moment instructions, up to and including telling him when to strangle a bad guy.
"You may remember, that I was remarkable at Salamanca for the power of my arm."
Yes yes, we're all very proud of you.

My favorite thing about Marguerite, though, is that when she tells her own backstory, she resists that common hallmark of "the fallen woman" in literature: taking responsibility for every bad thing that has ever happened to her. She's like, listen, "my nature was licentious and warm, but not cruel." I loved my first husband and he loved me, but he wasn't fully honest with me and it landed me in this predicament, through no fault of my own. So here we are and there it is.

And I can probably forgive Matthew Lewis for any weird thing he does next, because he has Marguerite's father forgive her and welcome her and her children home with open arms, without hesitation. He doesn't make a purity lesson out of her.

I just hope he isn't saving up to unleash it all on Agnes, who is too good for Raymond and possibly also this world. (And what's up with all the conscripted nunnery in this book? It's like the convent is the Night's Watch or something.)

Every single nun in this book.

My two favorite things about Agnes, in no particular order:

1. She drew a picture of a bloody nun interrupting a dinner party, and when Raymond found it, she said, "Oh yeah, that. That's the Bleeding Nun." *goes back to drawing*

2. She's not overdramatic, as a general rule. Her attitude toward Raymond from the get-go has no tinge of mania in it, unlike somebody else.
"I threw myself at her feet, and declared my gratitude in the warmest and most affectionate terms. She listened to me with complaisance, and assured me that she shared my sentiments."
She's not so desperate to escape life as a nun that she'll forsake her family to do it. She does panic a bit when her jealous Disney-villain aunt gets involved (as a direct result of Raymond being clueless again), but even then she's realistic about the possibility of Raymond being a cad and makes a fairly foolproof plan of escape that only Raymond could bungle by eloping with an actual ghost.

There are a lot more things to like about Agnes, but look how I've gone on already. And I didn't even talk about the Bleeding Nun or the Wandering Jew or any other gerund-plus-nouns. Or about how hilarious it is that Raymond read Agnes's letter (summary: "I never wanted to see you again, but it turns out I'm pregnant and you're literally my only option of staying alive. O! How I wish I'd never met you!") and have this response:
"Excessive was my joy at reading this intelligence."
No sense to found anywhere.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Monkalong Week 1: "Vice is ever most dangerous when lurking behind the mask of virtue"

We're properly Monking along now! Led by the stalwart and true Alice of Reading Rambo.

I have no firm opinions about this book, except that I'm enjoying how much I do not know where it's going next.

I think . . . I am not the biggest fan of Matthew Lewis as a person. The introduction says he was rich and only wrote because he wanted to be famous. So it seems like he made The Monk as scandalous as he could manage and waited calmly for the outraged reviewers to drive readers straight toward him.

And he "borrowed" a fair amount from other works, by his own admission.

So he was the E.L. James of his time.

No, I take it back. He was a way better writer and none of his characters has referenced his or her inner goddess (keeping my eye on you though, Antonia). He also might have some pretty interesting insights about unrealistic religious ideals and moral compromise and human frailty. MAYBE.

Ambrosio is the protagonist? We dislike him initially, what with his exhibiting zero grace for his fellow creatures and being a giant hypocrite ("exempted himself from human failings," my ass). I've encountered (much less extreme) versions of him, and they are so earnest and naive and really can't understand how it's so hard for everyone else when it's so easy for them and there is obviously just one right way to live and it is the way they are doing it one day you'll understand.

What is confusing about this?

But sometimes they take a big ol' fall and learn humility and compassion and join the rest of flawed humanity, and you can almost stand to be around them again. And I was thinking maybe that was where Ambrosio was headed in the long run. Except apparently he ends up torturing and murdering later. So never mind about all that, what I just said.

I'm confused about Matilda, too. What is her deal?

Her "sister" metaphor that was supposed to grease the wheels and invite Ambrosio's sympathy for her was completely nuts. Do not confess your undying love to a married man and then insist that he allow you to live in his house with him and his wife. No one will feel sorry for you when he won't be your friend anymore.

His wife would not agree.

The only reason she could ever have for confessing her love was that she harbored the hope he would renounce his vows and choose her instead; so it was really disingenuous every time she insisted she didn't want anything from him. (Maybe she truly believed it at the time, but now we all know she must "enjoy him or die.")

Also she told him, suuuuuper casually, "when we expire, our bodies shall rest in the same grave," like a crazy person. Then she threatened to kill herself if he made her leave, incidentally by ripping open the front of her whatever-she-was-wearing and undoing all his resolve single-boobedly, like a genius.

But what leads me to the conclusion that she's a mastermind of super-villain proportions is that she commissioned that painting of herself as the Virgin Mary and then made sure Ambrosio would end up with it on his bedroom wall. She laid the lusty groundwork subliminally. You have to respect that level of planning.

I guess she still could have been motivated by love, as she says, but I suspect it was. . . a less noble sort of urge.

And can you really trust someone who has
a thousand Cupids lurking in her chin dimples?

I thought for sure Antonia was gonna be the one who dressed up as a boy to get close to Ambrosio, but now I'm all confused about where she comes back into this. Between the Swarthy Gipsy's Amazing Telegraphing Rhymes and Agnes the Fallen Nun's Curse, there shouldn't be any mystery as to where each of these characters is headed, but somehow there still is.

And the Internet won't tell me what the common punishment was for a pregnant nun. WHAT WILL BECOME OF AGNES?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

You CAN meet your heroes. You just may get an ulcer in the process.

I first heard of Patrick deWitt in 2012, when I participated in a contest to guess the winner of that year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. (Don’t all love stories start out that way, with happenstance?)

I hadn’t read most of the books being judged, so I almost didn’t participate in the competition, the prize for which was a copy of the winning book. But I lucky-guessed my way through the thing, probably based on cover designs and plot synopses, and ended up with a paperback copy of the reigning champ, The Sisters Brothers.

Ooooooh, aaaaaaah

I didn’t know when I read it that I was floundering, that I was about to set down a path of tiny indiscretions that would lead to bigger ones and that I would eventually set fire to some of the most important things I had built over the years.

You know how, when you go through a particularly dark period, the people, places, and media you associate with it become intolerable to you once you’re healthier? I can never set foot in a certain bookstore again. I can’t stand to hear a song from the first Alt-J album or basically anything by the Black Keys. I’ve tried and failed to get back into Doctor Who, and it gives me a twinge just to scroll past it in the Netflix queue.


That should have happened with The Sisters Brothers, and I can’t tell you why it didn’t. My personal brain homunculus must have discerned that it was worth dragging out of the fire.

Whatever the reason, here it sits uncharred, a somehow unpainful reminder of mistakes I never want to make again. A talisman.

Which is why, two years later, when my husband walked me into a tattoo parlor and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” I knew exactly which book I would borrow from.

I flipped through to look at the things I had underlined during my first reading:
We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness.
The creak of bed springs suffering under the weight of a restless man is as lonely a sound as I know.
I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?
I resolved to lose twenty-five pounds of fat and to write her a letter of love and praises, that I might improve her time on the earth with the devotion of another human being.
What would the world be, I thought, without money hung around our necks, hung around our very souls?
‘I will hang him by his own intestines.’ At this piece of dramatic exposition, I could not help but roll my eyes. A length of intestines would not carry the weight of a child, much less a full grown man.
That was perhaps the day I learned there’s a difference between a great line of prose and a great line of prose you’d like to record on your body.

Lucky for me, all I needed was one line, and there was one that perfectly encompassed everything this book means to me: that we can triumph and monumentally fail . . . and that we can forgive ourselves.

Pardon my disembodied arm.
I didn’t tell Patrick deWitt any of this when I was standing in front of his signing table on Thursday, wiping my sweaty hands on my jeans and worrying that I had worn the wrong shade of red lipstick.

I and my husband and about thirty-five other people (including John C. Reilly, wearing a jaunty hat!) had just heard him read two excerpts from his third book, Undermajordomo Minor. I couldn’t stop looking at the lighthouse tattooed on his left forearm.

I thought my husband had wandered away as I stood in the signing line, but he had surreptitiously stationed himself in the “Religion and Spirituality” section, where he could snap a candid picture of our interaction (he knew I’d be too shy to ask for one).

I think Patrick asked me how I was doing. I think I said I was doing well. He opened my new hardcover copy of Undermajordomo Minor to the title page, where the bookstore events manager had put a sticky note with my name on it.

“So you’re Meg?”

Fumbling with my copy of The Sisters Brothers while he started to sign. “Yes, that’s me!”

Yes yes fine, but more important...

I started to scootch the other book toward him, open to the page where I had underlined that crucial line. “Do you mind signing this one, too? This is my favorite line . . .”

He looked at the open book and then looked up at me a little blankly.

“. . . which is why I had it tattooed on my arm.”

He stared at my outstretched arm for a beat, then looked back up at me, then back down at the book, and then back at my arm, reaching out and touching it lightly just once. 

He said “wow” at the same time he was writing it in black marker on the page, but he wrote it with an exclamation point while whispering it almost inaudibly.

He said it was incredible, and I told him I was so happy to meet him and thanked him for coming to L.A. Then we shook hands and I fled for the door.

I will overanalyze that one-minute encounter for weeks, because that’s my way. I’ll worry that I didn’t convey clearly enough how important his work has been to my life, in the least cliché interpretation of that phrase. I’ll worry that when I mentioned this is my only tattoo, I came off as a little obsessive and overeager. I’ll worry and think that this is why I never try to interact with authors or actors or musicians I respect.

But I don’t know. Maybe he needed to see, in the flesh, that his words matter, sometimes in a different way than he intended when he wrote them. Maybe he received the message and the subtext.

Maybe I told him everything he needed to know.

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!