Monday, July 8, 2013

50 Shades of Grey is standing between me and well-read? Do I have to arm-wrestle it?

So something happened (almost a month ago?), and I thought I was over it, BUT I AM NOT OVER IT. In fact, I just had a sort of internal rage-dialogue with myself in the shower, which is what led me to my computer with wet hair at midnight on a Sunday.

The folks at Book Riot posted a list of 100 recommended titles for those who wish to call themselves “well-read.” This was bound to be a controversial list no matter what ended up on it, because everyone has favorites that may not appear on THIS particular list for any number of reasons, and because the meaning of “well-read” is itself subjective. And I get that the purpose of the list is to represent a sampling from a wide variety of genres that would engender a sort of well-roundedness in the reader who tackles them all.

Well, 50 Shades of Grey is on the list.

The argument for its inclusion—as far as I can understand from the lively comments section—is that, whether we like it or not (we HATES it, Smeagol), it is a permanent fixture in popular culture and has made important waves among the readerly and not-so-readerly masses. The other part of the argument is that you can’t have an informed opinion about something unless you experience it firsthand.

Let me just say, I respect and am quite fond of the people who presented these arguments. I will forever and always look to them as People Who Know a Thing or Two About Books, and I admire the way they push the Literary Elite’s buttons on the regular.

But I really just have to call bullshit on this one.

The second part of the argument sounds uncomfortably akin to the one I used on my parents when they tried to warn me, based on their years of experience as adult humans, that my awful boyfriend was, in fact, awful. “But, Mom and Dad . . . how will I KNOW for sure unless I experience firsthand his meth-induced rage while trapped in a moving vehicle with him?” (True story.)

On a very basic level, I think we can all agree that triangulating opinions from respected sources (or, in some cases, just one REALLY GOOD source; hi, Mom and Dad!) will give us a pretty good idea of what we’re dealing with, whether the subject under review is a book or a potentially disastrous dating decision. And learning from other people’s mistakes so that we don’t have to make them ourselves is not inferior to firsthand experience and does not disqualify one from holding an informed opinion (notice that I specify informed opinion). The information just didn’t happen to come from experiencing the terrible thing firsthand. AND THAT IS OK.

The first part of the argument is a little bit more tricky and also the bit that sparks my shower-fury, apparently.

YES, correct, E.L. James HAS written a thing that has subsequently gotten people talking . . . and talking and talking. But has she added anything NEW to the conversation?

Let me just check on a couple of things here:
  1. Is the main female character of 50 Shades of Grey still an infantilized adult virgin who repeatedly and nauseatingly refers to her “Inner Goddess”?
  2. Is the main male character of 50 Shades of Grey still a wealthy businessman with “singular erotic tastes” and “the need to control”?
  3. Does the plot still revolve around him dominating her through a BDSM crash-course on sexuality while she meekly submits at every turn?

The answer to all those questions is STILL and always will be YES.

So I am at a loss as to what this book is adding to the CULTURAL (pop or otherwise) conversation that might raise it above the level of Honey Boo-Boo, just for example. Because for one thing, BDSM erotica is not NEW, and for another, as far as I can tell, this particular specimen of BDSM erotica is just perpetuating the same old unhealthy message that has caused such a problem for women who want to be taken seriously since the beginning of time. That is BORING. I am bored with that.

And I don’t need to waste several hours of my life (a generous time estimate) reading this book to figure out that it's a waste of time.

If that’s not an informed opinion, then dammit, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. But at least I have this cookbook that teaches me 50 things to do with chicken.

Except the opposite of that,
because I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home: Hits you right in the childhood

So this book is The Sad, right? That’s probably the one thing everyone hears about it. And whenever a book gets that reputation, our cynicism pops in for a visit (oh, who are we kidding, it never left). No one appreciates being emotionally manipulated by an author (*cough*John Green*cough*Markus Zusak).

But in this case, it was less like, “Look at this puppy: I KICK IT AND ALSO DIP YOUR LOLLIPOP IN A MUD PUDDLE,” and more like, “Remember the ’80s and how they kind of sucked the most for the gay community, and also how hard it was to be a teenage girl? Remember THAT? Let’s discuss.”

June Elbus is 14, and the year is 1987. She has an older sister whom she used to be close with but is now separated from by a gaping chasm called High School. She’s a little bit eccentric. She doesn’t have many friends her age. Who she DOES have is her Uncle Finn. He understands her better than anyone else in her life and lets her be just who she is. But Finn is wasting away in the grip of a serious disease—an automatic-death-sentence sort of disease. Since the name of this particular affliction isn’t mentioned on the book jacket, I feel obligated to warn you that this could possibly be a spoiler? So if you haven’t already guessed what the mysteeeeeerious illness is, read no farther.

Be sure to visit the snack counter on your way out.

Everyone came back with snacks, right? Because I'm sure you all figured out that Finn is gay and has, at some point before the story picks up, contracted AIDS. Because it’s the ’80s, no one yet knows how to protect themselves from this virus or even exactly how it's transmitted. And the stigma around AIDS is at its height, because with ignorance comes fear and with fear comes people braiding ribbons into the manes of their moral high horses. If you have AIDS, you must have done something to deserve it, or someone must have given it to you maliciously because you fraternize with the sort of people who would do something like that. Because AIDS only happens to Bad People.

Something about adding insult to injury.

The book follows June through this pivotal time in her life, showing how she and her family deal with the enormity of their loss and the conflicting feelings that come with fiercely loving someone who the world tells you is dirty and wrong and unlovable. It’s also about family dynamics at their most basic. About siblings. About mothers and daughters. About husbands and wives. It’s good, you guys. It’s really good.
And the writing? Not too shabby for a YA book (she says with her hands shielding her face, and also having recently read no fewer than five YA books in a row).
The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible. (p. 233)
One thing I love about June is that she's kind of into the Renaissance period and visiting the woods by herself so she can pretend she is a lone maiden venturing out in search of medicinal herbs to save the people of her village. She might be a little old for make-believe, but time travel is an effective escape at any age.
I used to think maybe I wanted to become a falconer, and now I’m sure of it, because I need to figure out the secret. I need to work out how to keep things flying back to me instead of always flying away. (p. 350)
I identify with this character. I have an older sibling whom I was close to and then grew impossibly far away from without ever really understanding how. I also used to pretend that I lived in another time. I didn’t have woods to retreat to, but I frequently ventured into the backyard bushes to reenact scenes from Sleeping Beauty.

I played the part of the horse.

Even more than those somewhat superficial connections with June, I also have an uncle who died of AIDS. Because my family is fairly conservative and also lived far away from my Uncle David (he in San Francisco; we in Texas), there has always been a lot of mystery surrounding the whole ordeal—made worse by the fact that I was too young to be invited into ALL the details of his illness. I knew that he preferred men. I knew that he wore a lot of leather (and he looked gooooood, ya’ll). I knew that he was a little thinner each time I saw him. I knew that there was a fair amount of tension around that subject. I knew that he somehow understood me better than any of my other aunts and uncles, even though I saw him the least. (He MADE me a leather journal for Christmas one year because he knew I loved to write.)

And then one day he was just gone. And that was that.

So after I read this book, I decided to ask my dad more about that time. I asked him why none of us went to Uncle Dave’s funeral. (We just couldn’t make the journey to California on such short notice.) I asked him if they kept their distance because they disapproved of his lifestyle. (Partly.) I asked him if he had a partner to take care of him when he got really sick. (No, because his long-term partner, whom he met in England [if you’ve read the book, you will realize that this is a CRAZY parallel], also had AIDS and passed away first. But he was surrounded by close friends.)

It was a good talk. And I’m glad this book inspired it.

So go forth, my friends. Read and cry cleansing tears of crippling sadness.