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 fa├žade 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.