Saturday, January 9, 2016


Weeeeeell, we're doin' it. We're reading Ron Chernow's massive Alexander Hamilton biography. Thanks, Alice, for hosting and giving us the motivation we need to become more intelligent people and better denizens of society.

My favorite thing about this book so far (aside from the fact that I can now feel very smug while reading in public) . . .

Psh. Lolita. *struggles to lift Hamilton upright*

. . . is that it puts more meat on the bones of what they teach in most American history classes.

Horatio Gates, for instance. I always encountered him as a bullet point. 
  • Horatio Gates: General at the Battle of Saratoga, turning point of the Revolutionary War
He sounds so heroic. HORATIO. Like someone who should be blowing horns and taking names.

Now I've had to reorient my whole mental image of him to accommodate the fact that he was a vain, cowardly, inept, heavyset, gray-haired, bespectacled RAT FINK.

Accusing Hamilton of being a sneaky-breeches letter-copier just because you got caught shit-talking Washington?

What's also kind of crazy is how little things have changed.

On a small scale, it's weird to think that some of today's collegians, writing opinion pieces for their school papers and staging campus protests, could be modern-day Hamiltons.

On a larger scale, political change is strongly tied to the questions: "Does this affect me directly? Then why should I care?" And it was then, too. The Boston Tea Party happened because Parliament had created a monopoly for the East India Company, and the rich merchants, who'd been getting along just fine with their smuggling, were finally motivated by personal interest to join the radicals in protest. 

And one member of Parliament's solution to the uprising in Boston was to DESTROY Boston. That rhetoric might also sounds a little familiar to modern ears, along with Myles Cooper's description of "the people of Boston" as "a crooked and perverse generation."

When people yell and scream about what our Founding Fathers had in mind for this country and how far we've strayed from their vision, and this amendment and that amendment, I want us to remember this excerpt from Hamilton's writing:
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
Some bullet points:

  • Is there a biography for Hercules Mulligan? Hercules Mulligan for president.
  • I wonder how many times we'll hear about Madison's "shapely legs."
  • Samuel von Pufendorf is a ridiculous name.
  • "Hamilton wrote to Laurens with such unbridled affection that one Hamilton biographer, James T. Flexner, has detected homoerotic overtones in their relationship. . . . There was such an unabashed ardor in Hamilton's relationship with the marquis that James T. Flexner has wondered whether it progressed beyond mere friendship."

James T. Flexner: MAKE EVERYONE GAY.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Several fantastic things I forgot about The Wind in the Willows

You've probably read The Wind in the Willows. It's a well-regarded children's classic. But you kind of need to read it as an adult if you want to appreciate its glorious weirdness in full.

From my repeated readings as a kid, I remembered that Rat and Mole are close friends. What I did not remember is how that friendship came about. Mole meets Rat on the river bank; they go for a ride in Rat's boat; Mole isn't used to water travel and tips the boat over, drenching them both; Rat invites Mole home, where he promptly puts Mole in a dressing gown and slippers; AND MOLE NEVER LEAVES.

They become platonic life partners. They have picnics.

Rat is aggressively masculine, with his brace of pistols and knowledge of the Wild Wood, and Mole's bosom literally heaves at least once.

I also remember, of course, that Toad is addicted to motorcars and his friends have to lock him in a bedroom "till the poison has worked itself out of his system." Never mind the heavy substance-abuse and intervention undertones, how did I miss this?
At first Toad was undoubtedly very trying to his careful guardians. When his violent paroxysms possessed him he would arrange bedroom chairs in rude resemblance of a motorcar and would crouch on the foremost of them, bent forward and staring fixedly ahead, making uncouth and ghastly noises, till the climax was reached, when, turning a complete somersault, he would lie prostrate amidst the ruins of the chairs, apparently completely satisfied for the moment.
Don't pretend you're above giggling at this sort of thing.

And then . . . AND THEN, Otter's son goes missing, and Mole and Rat go out in the middle of the night on a search-and-rescue mission. They're rowing along when Rat hears mysterious heavenly music. He's completely enraptured by it and follows the sound to an island, where things get weird.
"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. "Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"
And then Mole is suddenly struck with awe, too, and there's all this flowery language that I won't make you read, which leads up to him lifting his head and---
He looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just falling away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward.
GOD IS A FAUN. Or a centaur. I'm not 100 percent clear on that. But even for someone who was obsessed with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this is an unusual development. And let it be noted that there's no mention of a deity before or after this. It's just animals wearing clothes and rowing in boats and eating cheese by the fire and---BOOM FAUN GOD.

Then they find the missing baby otter asleep between Faun God's hooves, and Faun God makes Mole and Rat forget that they ever saw him, because otherwise "the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the afterlives of little animals helped out of difficulties."

No, I mean, kids can totally relate
to the concept of soul-deep ennui.

And I haven't even gotten into the time Toad dressed up as a washerwoman and had to endure off-color jeers from all the men he passed on the street.

Everyone read this to your kids. Start now.

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.