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.

Monday, November 3, 2014

California: The book, not the state...but also the state a little bit

Brainstorming about what we might do in the event of a global catastrophe seems to be a natural human compulsion. It's driven by nothing so practical as preparedness (I have the empty cupboards and junk drawer with a lone AA battery rolling around to prove it); I think it's more about our fascination with the breakdown of the civilized world. It's why Zombie Apocalypse story lines are most compelling when they focus more on how the survivors form new hierarchies and moral codes and less on the AAAAAAH ZOMBIES.

The husband and I discuss contingency plans as a matter of course.

Just the other day
Me: "That looks like the kind of place where people are lured to die."
Husband: "But . . . no windows . . . gated courtyard . . . high, flat roof. Excellent shelter for the Zombie Apocalypse."

If you don't mind the very real possibility of murder by puppets and/or Bob

In California, civilization is knocked off course by a series of natural disasters, the severe effects of climate change that all those scientists have been warning us about. Exclusive gated compounds called Communities pop up for the few who can afford the extravagant membership rates. Outside the Communities, everything looks a lot more dystopian. This intensified contrast between the haves and have-nots brings out political radicals who seek to dismantle society even further so that everyone will be on the same level.

Young married couple Cal and Frida decide to leave disintegrating and increasingly dangerous Los Angeles and head for the woods, and that's where we find them at the start of the book. Juuuust the two of them. In the woods.
The finality of their situation sat on her chest like a brick and pushed. No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away, the ones keeping her safe with their concern, keeping her okay, keeping her the same as before, and she was spit out as if from a Wizard of Oz tornado.
But then Frida discovers that she's pregnant, and this whole cabin-in-the-woods, solitary existence doesn't seem like the best option anymore. As events unfold, Frida and Cal get alternating chapters to show us their side of things, which makes the book a lot about how this new reality changes them and leads them to do things that strain their bond as a couple.

Just for example

It's "eminently readable" for all the reasons Alice lists in her review (subtle plug for my homegirl, Reading Rambo), but if you happen to live in Los Angeles, you also get the added joy of seeing well-known locales from actual life through a grimy post-apocalyptic filter.
Toni lived on the second floor of a ramshackle duplex that overlooked Echo Park's now-drained lake. The lake's old bridge was gone, maybe burned for firewood, as were the pedal boats. Frida had been born too late to see the lotus flowers, which had once floated across the water's surface.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ruby: Here's some information. Do with it what you will.

I'm going to tell you, very calmly, why I couldn't love this book and in fact sort of disliked it, but first here's Emily's mini-review because she loved it and I love her.

First of all, the language is rich and dense (similes and metaphors and descriptors, galore...sometimes too many?), and the characters are complex. And the message—which centers on a woman breaking the cycle of abuse and taking back control of her soul (literally)—is deep and poignant and relevant. I get why people are comparing Cynthia Bond to Toni Morrison. I do.

But I hated my life while I was reading this book.

I am far from being the sort of person who demands that books and movies make me feel warm and safe. No Country for Old Men is one of my favorites of recent memory. I'll watch a Lars von Trier movie to unwind after a long day at work. I enjoy existential dread!

But this seemed gratuitous. It felt like Bond was forcing me to wallow in the most vile pits of mortal experience, and every time I thought maybe it was time to get out and towel off, she was like, "NOPE. You don't have enough muck in your soul crevices."

Soul muck is my Kryptonite.

All we really know at the beginning is that Ruby is in her 40s and is the "local crazy" in a small Texas town. Ephram is a man who knew Ruby and loved her from afar when they were children. She had moved to New York as a young woman but came back I think 15 years prior to when the book picks up. And in that time, something about being back in that town made her lose her mind 100% all the way.
They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline.
As the story unfolds in the present day, we learn through current events and flashbacks what set Ruby on the path to madness, how her tortured history inexplicably relates to Ephram's seemingly uneventful one, and the heroic effort that will be required to bring her out of the pit. And, oh right, there are supernatural doings throughout.

Damn. Even now, it sounds so good. Because it is. It would be. It should be. So why isn't it?

As near as I can figure, the book's biggest problem is that it's grossly out of balance. You have to slog through 99 miles of evil before you reach 1 mile of world-weary sadness shot through with glimmers of hope for future redemption. One chapter in particular, toward the middle of the book, was so emotionally oppressive that I was nauseated.

But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe that imbalance was intentional.

Bond works with homeless and at-risk youth in Los Angeles, so this is probably a story she's seen play out in real lives. She may have taken in all the hurt and trauma of all the kids she's ever counseled and poured it into Ruby. This could be her way of letting victims of abuse know that she sees them, that they're not alone—that if all they find when they look back is darkness, they should take one step forward. And then one step more.

OK, this is what I'll say about Ruby: I will never claim that anyone should read this book. People (especially women) who have suffered abuse are more likely to be triggered by the events of Ruby's life than encouraged by them. People who haven't suffered abuse might feel as though they have by the end of the story. It's your choice.

I support you if this is your decision.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I smell faintly and forever of sour milk

Two weeks ago today, the dogs and I were taking our regular 3 p.m. stroll when we were accosted by a tiny street thug.

At claw point

I heard plaintive mewling along the fence that rings the industrial complex where I rent my office; so I peered under and he was just there, sprawled face-down in a gap between the fence and a row of shipping containers. I heard a startled rustling farther down the sidewalk, and I thought certainly that was his mother. This was my justification for doing what I now believe to have been a shameful thing, which was go back to my life where I was a person with two dogs and no kitten.

At the same time the next day, again with the strolling and again with the mewling, but a little more assertive this time. I crouched in the weeds and looked under the fence, and he was in the exact same spot and visibly upset about it. I squeezed behind the shipping containers and scooped him up, and everything has been basically awful since then.

Look at this asshole.

He was only a week old when I found him, eyes firmly shut and umbilical cord attached. Now he's the ripe old age of 3 weeks, but he still has to be on a heating pad because he can't regulate his body temperature, and he needs his butt rubbed with a moist towelette to help him pee and poo.

And he has to be bottle-fed kitten milk replacement every 2 to 4 hours, which he gets HELLA belligerent about because he keeps forgetting how the milk travels from the bottle to his mouth. He spends at least 10 minutes every time screaming and clawing at my hand and the bottle and his face before a drop hits his tongue and he furiously suckles himself into a transcendent milk stupor. Until the next time he's hungry (which is every moment he's awake even if I just fed him but he fell asleep for a minute and then a dog barked and woke him up and he's preeeetty sure he should eat again as long as we're all here).

You are CLEARLY full, sir.


But his eyes are open now, and they seem to be getting bigger and brighter every day. And he purrs vigorously when you cradle him against your heart. And he climbs up your shirt so he can put his front paws on your face and gently gum your lip. And he leans toward Gizmo so she can lick the milk off his face. And he wobbles along the floor with his tail straight up in the air while Paco hesitantly follows behind, trying to figure out what manner of beast this is and whether it has designs on his evening biscuit.

So yeah . . . when can we find a home for this jerk and reclaim our lives?

UPDATED TO ADD: The very next day after I posted this, the rescue said they had a lactating female and there was room for this little outlaw to sidle up to the bar for a libation. So, alas, he is gone from my life, on to bigger and better things. But whenever the day's chaos abates, when calm settles over the house, in that still, small moment, I can hear . . . Meow? DAMMIT WOMAN I SAID MEOW.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Landline: Take in combination with Greg Laswell song of the same name. Writer's orders.

It’s no secret around these parts that I’m a fan of this Rainbow lady. Thanks to my continued association with people who have their fingers on the pulse of literature (pretty sure this all started with Raych, but then of course it was Alice who enthusiasm-ed Rainbow into being our friend), I got in on the ground floor with Attachments and have since happily ridden the elevator up, first to Eleanor & Park and then to Fangirl.

But the floor I arrived at when I pressed the button marked Landline was something altogether different from the others, because instead of being a place full of beanbag chairs where I could drink a sugary coffee beverage and watch young people lovingly tousle each other's hair, there was a full bar and arm chairs with permanent dips for my bum. For me, it was present (with a hint of future) tense.

Help yourself to a whiskey.

Georgie and Neal have been married for about 15 years and have two young daughters and a home in Los Angeles. They’ve grown complacent in their relationship, finding endless distractions in their girls and in Georgie’s work as a sitcom writer. But all the things they haven’t been saying to each other have been piling up, as they do, the distance yawning imperceptibly wider, as it does, and when Georgie chooses to pursue an important career opportunity rather than visit Neal’s family for Christmas, the distance becomes literal. Neal takes the girls and goes to Omaha anyway, leaving Georgie at first in denial that anything is wrong and then completely uncertain about where their relationship stands.

And then the story takes a turn for the fantastical. When Georgie calls Neal from the landline in her childhood home, she discovers that she can talk to the Neal of 15 years ago, before they decided to get married. As Present Georgie talks more and more to Past Neal, she starts to wonder whether this is her chance to change history . . . and if she even wants to.


This story hit me pretty hard in a personal way. Maybe it's because I'm a lot like Georgiedomestically challenged, career-driven, inclined to pick the most saturated color on the paint sample card. Maybe it's because my husband is a lot like Neala better cook than he has any right to be, quiet with his emotions, big with his romantic gestures. I also have a mother who's obsessed with her pug, and we also live in Silver Lake (technically Echo Park, but that's just semantics and roughly 15% less hipsters).

Or maybe it's because he was literally digging himself into a hole while I was reading the first half of the book.

No but really.

We're coming up on 4 years of marriage, which is exactly the number of years we were together before the wedding. But marriage, guys . . . it's this whole other THING. And, unsurprisingly, Rainbow captures that flawlessly:
You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten—in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
It's not all introspection and married-people angst. The secondary players in Georgie's life (her mom, stepdad, sister, close friend and writing partner, daughters, and more) don't seem to have any idea that they're secondary, because Rainbow doesn't ever treat them that way. And of course there's playful banter. Of course there is.
"She reclaimed her virginity?"
 "Leave it, Georgie. She can do whatever she wants with her virginity."
"Right," Georgie said, nodding her head. "Right . . . It doesn't sound like such a bad idea, actually. Maybe I'll reclaim mine before you come back. In the name of Queen Elizabeth."
Subliminal messages in the Harry Potter books, obvs.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Martian, or Tony Stark Goes to Mars

I don't have a brain wired for scientific reasoning, but I'm endlessly fascinated by people who understand science and can explain it to me in a way that makes me almost think I can understand it, too. I put them in the same category as those individuals who roughhouse with wild hyenas.

Science, like hyenas, can never be tamed.

The six crewmates of Ares 3 are caught in a serious windstorm (sustained gusts of about 110 mph) on Sol 6 of their scientific mission to Mars. They’re forced to scrub the whole mission and flee the planet as the wind makes serious moves toward tipping the MAV (i.e., the Mars ascent vehicle, their only ticket off that godforsaken rock). As they’re shuffling their blind way toward the MAV, through the whipping wind and dust, Mark Watney (specialties: mechanical engineering and botany) is impaled by a wind-borne antenna and swept far away from the group. Presumed dead by his crew (and reasonably so), he's ultimately abandoned on Mars. The ensuing story is something like Castaway without the coconuts.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m f*****.
As Mark applies his wits and expertise toward the end goal of not becoming dead, he walks us through his adventures and misadventures via logs. He explains his methods in what should be an irritating amount of detail but is not, because tell me more about how you separated pure hydrogen from rocket fuel and then used it to make water and also how you took that whoozit and connected it to this whatsit to create an even handier doodad.

This is a literal fight for survival from beginning to end, and it's an incredibly tense read. It would be much less enjoyable without the levity that Andy Weil (through Mark) brings to every page (let's hope Ridley Scott doesn't run the movie adaptation through his Ultra-Serious Doom Machininator™ and squeeze all the humor out). It's a rare variety of person who can keep the jokes coming while alone on a barren planet that is actively trying to pop him like a blood-filled balloon—which kind of reminds me of this other guy I know.
“I admit it’s fatally dangerous,” Watney said.
“But consider this: I’d get to fly around like Iron Man.”

One more thing: That crew of six people? TWO of them are women. That is one more than the absolute bare minimum, which means this book about a to-this-day overwhelmingly male-dominated profession that centers on a white man stuck on Mars alone passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. All arguments against including real women in sci-fi are invalid for all time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alias Hook: Well, I didn't hate it

Fairy Tale Cleverly Retold is one of my favorite book flavors. And my first cartoon crush, aside from Robin Hood the (literal) fox, was Captain Hook. I like a man who wears a jaunty hat and creatively compensates for a crippling disability. But most important, he and I agree on one crucial point:

Peter Pan is an asshole.

Because you drug them with pixie dust

So when I heard about this retelling of the classic tale from Hook’s perspective, openly casting Pan as the villainous boy-child I’ve always known him to be and giving Hook a scrappy 30-something love interest in Stella Parrish (he deserves love, dammit), I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough.

Unfortunately . . . it wasn’t all that good.

The explanations Lisa Jensen cooked up to make sense of a Neverland that can be a fantasy playground for children while simultaneously resembling the clock-like death arena from Catching Fire are well thought out and undeniably clever. And when she let herself get truly dark with her story, I was enthralled. “He finds them by their longing, stray boys for his tribe and girls to tell him stories.”

(I mean, they might. We don't know.)

But those few moments of delicious creepiness were couched in what often seemed like mediocre Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction—with a voudon priestess on a Caribbean island and everything.

Jensen never seemed to find Captain Hook’s voice, and because of that, I could never see him as more than the sum of his parts. It was almost as if she were doing improv and someone in the audience shouted out, “You’re a Restoration-era pirate with a good English education and particular ideas about women. GO.”
You’d scarcely know her for a female, garbed in her plaid jacket, a glimpse of white shirttail peeking out over loose dark trousers. Her feet are scarcely clad in soft, useless satiny things that expose her toes and heels. And she is surely not Indian; her face and hands are pale, her hair brownish and dusty, not long and silky black, much less done up in pearls and powder, as was the fashion in my day. But I am scarcely reassured.

But speaking of those Indians, they're a high point in the book. Jensen succeeds where the Disney movie justand I think we can all agree on thiscompletely failed. The Indians in this Neverland are people. With lives. And motives. And a nuanced cultural context. Imagine that.

While we’re saying nice things about fair representation of minorities, I also want to mention that feminism is in full effect throughout. The female characters (human and nonhuman) exhibit wisdom and agency and authority, and are more often cast in the role of rescuer than rescued.

BUT there was this one weird Victorian-morality-play deal that put a patriarchal fly in the ointment.

**The mildest of spoilers lies here.**

There’s a rule in the Neverland that innocent blood can never be shed, because that would upset the balance and destroy the land and everyone who lives in it; so the people/creatures of Neverland are pretty concerned that Pan might try to kill Stella for the crime of being an adult lady—that is, until she does adult-lady things with Captain Hook. “She is innocent no more, not as she was when she first arrived. . . . There are many ways to lose one’s innocence.” And so, because she had sex in the Neverland, Pan is free to stab her in the face with no long-term consequences to anyone’s way of life EXCEPT STELLA’S BECAUSE SHE WOULD BE DEAD.

**That's a really mild spoiler up there, so you should probably just go ahead and read it. OK I’ll wait.**

So in the end, I won’t say this book is a waste of time. It has some great moments, and I’m not sorry I read it. I just feel it’s my duty to warn you that you’ll have to muddle through a fair amount of Deep Thoughts With Hook, and this is what they look like:
Stella is my guiding star. Her body is my altar, my refuge. Her love is my life, and by God I will deserve her, coaxing the most wonderful music out of her that I have ever played, until we lose ourselves at last in the riotous swell of this love we make together.
That's my best advice.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week THE END: “I don’t think I was here at all.”

I’ve been concerned about Johanna all along, of course, but I wasn’t truly worried until she started doing Kenny’s bad speed (“even Shane McGowan from the Pogues won’t take it”—yikes) in a bathroom stall. It seemed to Johanna to be the only remedy for her unhappiness after an offended bass player threw his drink on her. It seemed to me to be another suppression of her Self.

And she’s been doing a lot of suppressing throughout this book. Really, whenever she’s not with John Kite or her family, she’s not so much building a certain kind of girl as pretending to be that girl already, at the expense of actually getting to know herself. This is what I meant when I said (somewhere . . . in someone’s comment section?) that faking it until you make it can be a dangerous game if you play it too enthusiastically.

When I look back through Johanna’s sexual adventures, beginning with The Kisser, she almost seems to disappear from the book in those places. There’s no room for her there.
The thought I can’t have is “I don’t want to do this”—because how do I know if I don’t want to do this? I’m still terra-forming me. I’m learning so many new things about me, every day. Perhaps this is the day I find I am secretly a masochist. (p. 259)

As it turns out

And that’s a common theme in Johanna’s coming-of-age story. Almost nothing she has done to date has been for herself, because it was the best thing for her. We can argue that she wanted to have lots of sex and decided she would do that, but in actual practice . . . what is she getting out of any of this?
“All my sex is done by me, and is silent.” (p. 262)
Those are not the words of a sexually empowered woman.

She is so out of touch with herself and so lacking in agency that she becomes one of those girls who drunkenly kisses another girl solely for the benefit of a male onlooker. And she nearly becomes one of those girls who engages in a threesome to gain said male’s approval (“I order myself to be OK with this”).

And the compromises extend to other areas of her life, too. Did you guys know that Johanna once had secret dreams of being an academic? No, and I’ll venture no one in her life did either, because this is the first time she’s lowered her façade enough even to think about an alternate path to the one she’s heading down full tilt:
In another world—where I had not run away from school to earn money—I would have gone there, I think. My mock-exam results were high enough, and I would have left Wolverhampton and entered that intellectual Gormenghast, where there are no boys standing on street corners shouting at you, no men threating to put an ax in your dog’s head. (p. 268)
Fortunately, the night of the almost-threesome and melancholy thoughts on the Path Not Taken was also the night when Johanna found her agency.
I feel excitingly . . . free. Things were going to happen to me last night that I did not like—and I stopped them. I have never prevented my own doom before! I have never stood in the path of certain unhappiness and told myself—lovingly, like a mother to myself—No! This unhappiness will not suit you! Turn around and go another way! (p. 279)
Oh THERE you are, Johanna.

And while that’s not the end of Johanna’s pain, it is the beginning of true self-discovery, helped along by a supportive family (thank you, Caitlin, for that companionable conversation between Johanna and her mum) and a gentle musician in a fur cape who has some growing up of his own to do.

This has been a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. YOU CAN HAVE THIS BOOK. Preorder it from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller. Imma go read it again now.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 4: In which I hold forth on the subject of lady-plumbing

I’ve been relating a lot with Johanna throughout this book, but this week—this week she became my Patronus.

Here’s the thing, friends: Most women get 1 urinary tract or bladder infection (aka cystitis) in their lifetime, maybe a handful if they’re not careful. I’ve had . . . somewhere closer to 50?

I started getting them in my late teens, and anything could set one off. In college, I figured they were flaring up more often because I was drinking too much coffee and not enough water and getting so engrossed with my studies that I sometimes forgot to pee in a timely manner. And when I got married, hoo boy did I level up because of reasons—to monthly UTIs and even the occasional kidney infection. My mom tells me that the propensity for this affliction goes way back among the women in her family.


I feel as teenage werewolves must, the first time they explain the hereditary nature of lycanthropy to their adolescent peers, the night after something awful happened with the full moon and a friend’s cat.
"It’s passed down from my mother’s side," they would say, apologetically—collar still hanging from their mouth, displaying a small bell and a disc bearing the legend TIBBLES.
Caitlin, if you’re reading this, I have tried and failed for half my life to describe the very particular agony of such an infection, often to a concerned party on the other side of the bathroom door as I drink my 10th bottle of water and my legs go hopelessly tingly from sitting too long on the toilet. I have often considered investing in a cushioned, heated toilet seat. I started AND finished The Poisonwood Bible whilst sitting in a tub of scalding water. And I have never, ever, ever seen the humor in any of this, but I can't very well ignore it now, can I? Also, I can mark this passage and present the book to people by way of explanation before I disappear into the bathroom for 8 hours:
I begin my tinkle, and have the exciting chance to watch my face contort in sudden and total agony. HELLO. This piss is apparently made of boiling poison. Boiling poison, a billion Lilliputian arrows, and a wildly rotating whirligig, made of Satan's pinlike teeth.
Shhhh...pain is your home now.

I also really enjoyed the focus on Johanna and Krissi’s relationship in this section. When they hung out in Johanna’s room, bonding over music, it made me miss my brother. (Hi, Ryan, if you’re here! Sorry about when I talked about my bladder.) We never really had any discussions about music, as the elder Morrigan siblings do on this occasion, but some of my fondest memories of my brother come with a specific musical soundtrack: the day we hung out in his attic bedroom at my grandparents’ house, listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine and feeling grievously misunderstood; the times I snuck in to clean his room while he was out (cleaning is my love language, yo), singing along to his copy of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom or Green Day’s Dookie; any number of occasions that warranted our top-of-the-lungs belting of songs by a Star Wars theme band called Twin Sister (WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND HERE, WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND).

But aside from these two points of personal significance that I spent all my time talking about this week, Johanna was really busy in this section getting her first kiss and then kissing all the kisses, pretending to be sexually liberated, writing brazen letters to John Kite (who's still wonderful, BY the way), making poignant statements about the nature of cynicism and the most important aspect of sex (“You get a whole person to yourself, for the first time since you were a baby. Someone who is looking at you—just you—and thinking about you, and wanting you, and you haven’t even had to lie at the bottom of the stairs and pretend you’re dead to get them to do it.”), making oblivious comments to her obviously gay brother about the Bee Gees being so gay and how if there were any gay people in Wolverhampton they would probably be shot . . . very busy INDEED.

All that’s left now is to finish the book, and I simultaneously cannot wait and am so sad to see it end.

This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Look, you. Stop mucking about and preorder the book from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 3: “A chrysalis is hung in the dark.”

This week's low came when the hammer finally dropped and the Morrigan family’s benefits were suspended pending an investigation into their situation. This can only mean that their meddling neighbor took it upon herself to report Dadda for washing the car that one day.

Oh the damage wrought by misguided do-gooders

The family income will drop by 11 percent until the powers that be determine whether they qualify for continued assistance.
Eleven percent is not very much—but, when you are very poor, it may form the bedrock of your survival.
And now you are standing on so much less than you were before. You are unstable. You are liable to fall.
Johanna reminded her parents that she'll be getting some money from the reviews she’s written and can help supplement that deficit. But the elder Morrigans put on their Responsible Parent hats and insisted that she open a savings account and put aside half of everything she earns (“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, Johanna”). This was a redeeming moment for Johanna’s parents and further evidence, I think, that they're just people, trying to do their best and occasionally succeeding.

As for the high, Johanna’s trip to Dublin to interview John Kite was a doozy.

Let's DO.

That was a really fantastic day. But she’s fallen HARD for this man who’s really just a motherless boy and still perhaps a little too old for her. And we don’t yet know whether he’s interested in her the same way she’s interested in him. Or if we even want him to be. Because as sincere as he seems (“Duchess, this is one of those great afternoons where you make a friend for life, isn’t it? We just seem to be . . . a lot the same.”), he’s not the picture of stability and that fur coat probably smells not-good.

But I think the most important thing about him as he relates to Johanna’s story is that he’s the type of person who allows others to be just who they are. And Johanna is getting drunk on that, because she’s not used to that level of acceptance, to the idea of someone (a man, no less) being unreservedly delighted by who she is.
John Kite was the first person I’d ever met who made me feel normal. That when I talked "too much," it was not the point where you walked away, going, "You’re weird, Johanna," or "Shut up, Johanna,”—but that that was when the conversation actually got good. The more ridiculous things I said—the more astonishing things I confessed—the more he roared with laughter, or slapped the table and said: "That is exactly how it is, you outrageous item."
I felt some of Johanna's giddiness as I was reading that chapter because it took me back to my own youth, when I was equally starved for male attention and uncertain whether I was even acceptable to the opposite sex. I know how much a day like that would have meant to me then.

I also remember how much of a naïve idiot I was at her age, and I’m in constant amazement that my crippling insecurity, paired with a naturally trusting nature, didn’t land me in a shallow grave before I reached adulthood.

What comes to mind is one particular concert I went to when I was about 16. There was no stage, so the band were on the same level as the audience, and we were all just standing in a circle around them. I was front and center on the inner ring of that circle, and the guitarist/singer, during an instrumental portion of one of the songs, showboated around a little and landed directly in front of me, where he lingered for quite some time, pressed right up against me, his front to my front. I remember that he looked me straight in the eye the whole time he was standing there, and the back of his pick hand as he played the guitar was quite literally in my crotch. But instead of recoiling at being singled out for a ritual groping by a man in his mid-20s who was a complete stranger to me, I was flattered. The sweaty musician had picked me.

The thing about hearts for eyes is that they impair your vision.

After the show, I somehow ended up in the band’s RV. (I KNOW.) But in an absurd twist of fate, in their offstage lives these guys were sober vegans and perfect gentlemen. They sat me at the pull-down table with a pile of potatoes and a knife. They (literally) armed me against a threat I hadn’t even registered.

So Past Me and Present Me are arguing with each other as I read Johanna’s adventures in Dublin and London, in pubs and at parties. I understand both sides of that coin now. Sure, every night out seems brimming with excitement and possibilities. But I see a little too much of my foolish streak in her. And then there's this:
I have made my notes, now, you see, on how to build a girl, and put her out in the world. Everyone drinks. Everyone smokes. . . . You come into a room and say things, like you’re in a play. You fake it till you make it. You discuss sex like it’s a game. You have adventures. You don’t quote musicals. Whatever everyone else is doing, you do that. You say things to be heard, rather than to be right.

Just hoping for the best at this point
This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? Of course you are. Preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.