Monday, November 28, 2011

Re-read: The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

It comes back to Penelope a whole lot for me. When my only other serious long-term relationship ended (thirteen years ago), I wrote a poem about being Penelope, because that boy was a classics major who read the Odyssey in Greek, and also he had graduated a year ahead of me and so there was the element of waiting.

And then my husband went and had an affair, far from home, because he wanted to be the kind of person who has adventures and is renowned for his wiles and so on. If you believe your home to be a trap, you make your own Poseidon to keep you from it, and every new girl's a goddess. And meanwhile there were two faithful dogs, waiting for him, long after his wife had given this up as a waste of time. After he moved out they sat at the window every night, looking down the street for his car, and when I called them to bed they would look at me plaintively, Argos-like, willing to be forever patient.

So I wrote a poem about that. It's, well, better than the other one.

I grew up with Greek myths; my mother's a classicist and she read the Iliad and the Odyssey to us when we were very young. And my brothers and I read our copy of D'Aulaires' Greek Myths until it literally fell apart.

Perhaps for this reason, I have a certain reverence for the myths and the poems, and at first Atwood's version seemed far too modern and irreverent for me. I had to read it a second time before falling for the humor and the spite and the realism. This was at least my third reading of it, maybe my fourth, and as you can imagine it was easy to take personally this time around. It made me feel better: there's just something about a wonderful writer putting my emotions into the perfect words that gives me enormous satisfaction, even when they are the most rancid emotions around. (In Atwood's The Robber Bride, which I read last month, there is a long paragraph about jealousy that should be after the word in the dictionary: it encapsulates the feeling so precisely.)

It's a great little book. I also then had to re-read "The Age of Lead", which is one of the best short stories ever written. Oh, Atwood, when you just stay away from futuristic dystopias, I like you so much...

And, oh! A.S. Byatt's contribution to the "Myths" series is finally coming out, in January: and it's about Ragnarok. Despite how hit-or-miss Byatt is for me, I'm deeply excited.

The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander

Going into this, I realized how little I knew about the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. Alexander posits that the story "everyone" knows is that Captain Bligh was a tyrant and Fletcher Christian a noble man pushed beyond the limits of endurance. I knew that Bligh was supposedly a taskmaster, but also that the mutineers' plan was to return to Tahiti and a life of indolence, so I never saw what they did as particularly noble. I mean, you signed up for the British navy, Mr. Christian.

(Also, I cannot read the name "Fletcher Christian" without hearing it sung to the tune of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" in my head. But that's my problem. Actually, it's probably your problem too, now. Sorry about that.)

The vast majority of this book is taken up with the court-martial of several of the mutineers, who broke off from Christian's group and remained on Tahiti for a few years until a British ship picked them up. Christian took the Bounty on to Pitcairn Island (with several kidnapped Tahitian women who were used as sexual slaves by the mutineers) and started a small colony, but they were not discovered until years later.

Fascinatingly, it turns out you can have a court-martial on a mutiny even if the captain is not present. At the time of the court-martial, Bligh was off on another voyage, and Christian hadn't been found, so the official record of what happened is completely inconsistent. Everyone had a different story, which neither Bligh nor Christian was there to confirm or refute, and what comes through the various tellings and the entirety of the book is that no one knows why Christian did it. No one witnessed any argument severe enough to lead to a mutiny; the story that Christian had fallen in love with a Tahitian woman was actually fabricated years later; and though everyone is agreed that Christian ranted about having "been in hell for weeks" at the time of the mutiny, no one had seen any signs of that misery before.

No one knows what happened to Christian, either. They found his sons, and the other children of the mutineers and the Tahitian women, about twenty years later, but the one surviving mutineer gave about six different stories as to how Christian died (and there were some theories that this guy was actually Christian, giving the name of another mutineer to avoid being taken back to England). The colony on Pitcairn Island became sort of a tourist attraction, the statue of limitations on mutiny apparently having expired. Well, that and the fact that by then the story had been re-written so that it was all Bligh's fault.

Bligh, according to Alexander, was pretty cool. He didn't punish anyone without cause, and the health and survival rates of his men were absolutely unheard-of for a voyage of that duration. And it is generally agreed that his navigation of a small boat overloaded with loyalists and supplies (to the point that only 7 inches of it was above water) over 3,000 miles to Timor is an astonishing nautical feat.

But the families of Christian and another mutineer wanted to retrieve their reputations, and the only way to do that was to sabotage Bligh's. They joined forces with an abolitionist crowd who made much out of the fact that the Bounty's mission was to collect breadfruit that was destined to feed slaves in the Caribbean. Therefore Bligh could be characterized as a supporter of slavery, and it was a small step from there to characterize him as a slavemaster on his own ship.

This book is extraordinarily interesting, even if at the beginning I had a very hard time keeping the various players straight. Alexander does provide a list of the ship's company, which is helpful, but there is a sailor named Heywood and another named Harwood, and this caused me all kinds of problems. She writes elegantly and clearly, and though her sympathies are clearly with Bligh, she gives equal weight to the mutineers' testimony. I do wish that the Tahitian women's stories had been given more than a little postscript at the end: the myth of the men falling in love with Tahitian women and wanting to stay there in domestic bliss is definitely one I'd retained, and the reality of kidnapping and rape needs to be told.

Overall, I highly recommend it if you are interested in history.

Next up: One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson. If enough people start reading this blog, I will give the readers the chance to choose what I read next!

Friday, November 25, 2011


Thanksgiving is now, and probably will be for quite some time, a rough holiday for me. Last year Claudio had just returned, and my world had fallen out from under me, and though we spent the actual holiday apart we fought for the next three days, non-stop, viciously. Mostly because he spent the actual holiday getting thrown out of bars and eventually parking my car on the lawn.

I spent this Thanksgiving at the house of a friend I will call Paulina, after the woman in "The Winter's Tale" who lets Leontes have it regarding his unwarranted treatment of his wife:

                                            O, thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir. Therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain, and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert.

Good stuff.

Anyway, she and her husband took them with me last year to their friends' house, and those friends opened their door with barely any notice to a complete stranger who had just had her world fall apart and would otherwise have been sitting at home sniveling helplessly into stuffing from a box that day. (I'd like to think I would have done better than that, but it's entirely possible I wouldn't have.) We feasted on the most astonishingly delicious vegetarian spread – anyone who thinks you can't have a vegetarian Thanksgiving would be schooled by these four people – and I feasted just as much on kindness and generosity.

This year Paulina and her husband hosted, and the other couple were there, and once again we feasted and I felt incredibly thankful. And though today started badly – frustrating walk with the dogs, running out of dog food which means an expedition into retail on Black Friday, feeling sour about many things – I still have a lot which calls for gratitude.

I am thankful for the sun over the ocean and the sound of the waves.

I am thankful for my loving family and for all the wonderful friends I have, including the people I hadn't seen in a decade or more who, upon hearing about the cancer, started sending me supportive e-mails and care packages and generally showing me that I had a whole community rooting for me. 

I am thankful for the cardinal that comes flashing through my yard when I least expect it. (The bird; I do not have an ecclesiastical nudist.)

I am thankful beyond words for my PCP, who referred me for mammograms when I turned thirty, and for the teams at the two hospitals where I had my surgeries and radiation treatments. I never cried in a doctor's office, not once, not when I was given the diagnosis, not when the possibilities of mastectomy and chemo were put on the table for the first time, but I cried leaving the hospital after my last radiation treatment. The staff gave me a certificate of completion, and hugs, and I completely broke down as I realized that these wonderful people weren't going to be taking care of me any more.

I am thankful that I have a job which is fine most of the time and which pays my bills; enormously thankful that I have health insurance; thankful for a roof over my head; thankful for a usually-reliable car; thankful for all my books.

I am so thankful for my dogs that some people think I have, quote, “an unhealthy attachment” to them. Those people can think what they want.

The plan was never to be the sole caretaker for two large, fairly needy dogs. It made sense at the time to get a second dog because there were two of us, and because Darcy was in a very bad situation and needed rescue. And even though I was always the primary caretaker, if I absolutely could not get them to the vet, or the kennel, or for a walk, I could usually ask Claudio to do so.

Now it's just me and them. I get up at five-thirty to walk them before work; I have to take them to the vet separately because attempting to control them both in a waiting room full of other animals is too much; if I need to go anywhere after work I have to run home at lunch to let them out, because Darcy's bladder control has a limit of eight hours precisely. I am not comparing this to being a single mother or anything, but it does take its toll.

I am paid back every day with unwavering love. They are always there when I come home, delighted to see me. They mean that I never feel alone or unsafe. They give me a constant sense of love and family. Without them, I really do not know how I would have made it through this year.

Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend: "You ask of my Companions. Hills - Sir - and the Sundown, and a Dog large as myself, that my Father bought me -"

I have one better than Emily. I have hills, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, and then another one, half as large but with a heart as big. Believe me, I am grateful. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Attention, my seven loyal readers! It takes me a lot longer to read non-fiction (and so far The Bounty is deliciously dense) than to read fiction or fluffy memoir, so it may be a while before the next review goes up. I will try to share deep thoughts in the meantime.

This week in books: Martin Amis begins his gushing New Yorker article on Don DeLillo by bashing George Eliot and stating that though Jane Austen may have written some halfway decent novels, Persuasion is certainly not among them.

Note to self: if you are to have a hope in hell of forgiving men as a gender, you must pretend you live in a world without Martin Amis.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Committed: A Love Story, by Elizabeth Gilbert

I have to eat some crow here. This book is, for the most part, good.

The first few pages seemed to be fulfilling my dire predictions: Gilbert states in all seriousness that her divorce (which involved her falling out of love with her husband while he wished to stay married) was as nasty as a divorce not involving physical violence can possibly be. That it could not have been more emotionally traumatic than it was.

I really should not try to quantify someone else’s suffering, or play misery poker. And Gilbert and her husband were going through this in New York, which has draconian divorce laws. But if you have not experienced the massive, all-consuming humiliation of being sexually and emotionally betrayed, of learning that the person to whom you linked your entire future ceased so entirely to respect you that he basically used you as a laundry service in between his visits to his One True Love, for thirteen months, then I would humbly posit that you do not know how emotionally traumatic a violence-free conclusion to a marriage can be.

(The adverb overuse in that sentence is amazing.)

Okay, that said, once I grumped my way past those first few pages, I found a book that was smart, funny (I laughed out loud many times), and far less solipsistic than I expected. Although it’s definitely a memoir, Gilbert is searching for answers and information beyond herself and her own experience – that’s the point of the book, that her only personal experience of marriage is bad and she is trying to look at it from a more universal perspective. And I think she succeeds.

The impetus for the book is that Gilbert, who never wants to get married again, falls in love with a man who is not an American citizen (and who also has been married once, had it end badly, and does not want to get married again). The citizenship becomes a major issue once they attempt to live together in the United States, and eventually it becomes clear that they have to get married. So Gilbert writes a book attempting to talk herself into marriage.

Most of the book is a very interesting discussion of the history of marriage and its meaning in different cultures. Gilbert also adds a good deal of information about what (according to various counselors and psychotherapists) makes a good marriage and what signals the breakdown of one. That chapter is the one my mother-in-law was pointing me toward, and though in my case it was the equivalent of locking the barn door (and the horse is the one who needed to read it anyway), I actually think it would be really good reading for anyone entering into a serious phase of a relationship.

Unfortunately, Gilbert is too concerned with her readers’ sensibilities on the subject of gay marriage: you should never, ever, no matter how semi-facetiously, apologize for bringing up gay marriage and the fact that you are for it. If I had been writing this book, the section on this would have read, “Of course gay marriage should be legal. That is so obvious I cannot believe I had to say it. If you are a horrible bigot obsessed with policing the sex lives of strangers, what are you doing with this book anyway? Were you hoping to get details of my sex life, you prurient hypocrite?” This may be why Elizabeth Gilbert has a publishing contract and I do not.

Also unfortunately, Gilbert is incapable of simply stating that she does not want children and leaving it at that. She feels compelled to justify herself by saying that she was too committed to her career as a writer (not true: you've just said that you don't want kids, not that you made the agonizing decision not to have them based on your perception of your limitations) and spends a couple paragraphs generally insulting all mothers and women who want kids. I'm amazed that the incredibly misogynistic statement that all the women she knows go into raptures at the sight of babies, while she goes into raptures at the sight of used bookstores, and the two things are clearly mutually exclusive, made it to the final print version. Yikes.

The above two things are irritating, but they comprise small sections of the book, so you can eyeroll your way past them and get back to the interesting stuff pretty quickly.

The last chapter, in which Gilbert and her partner finally do get married, made me cry. She throws in a dog, and the fact that in many medieval marriage paintings the couples were depicted with a dog between them because that is the ultimate symbol of fidelity, and that is pretty much a recipe for waterworks around here. But it was also very well written, without being sappy.

So, like I said, I’m eating some crow here. I don’t know if the experience of having to back down on a vow she made loudly and publicly humbled Gilbert enough to make her an excellent guide this time around, but whatever happened, it worked for me. I believe I will actually set aside this book and come back to it in the (of course right now I think it highly unlikely) event that I consider getting married again. And if I do, I, like Gilbert, will include two elements that my first one lacked: a pre-nup, and dogs present at the ceremony. It will be a little harder to go wrong with that beginning.

Next up: The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander. I'm very excited about this one: I like Alexander a lot and am in the mood for some serious history.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Committed: the ranting preface

So, the reason why I own Committed: A Love Story in the first place, given that I got three pages into Eat Pray Love before deciding that Elizabeth Gilbert was the most obnoxiously self-satisfied human being alive and I was not going to spend one more second in her company...

My husband left to start a new life with his mistress in October 2010. By early November he was back. Yes, his parents had found out where he'd gone and why, and confronted him about it, but to this day I do not understand why he came back. He never made any bones about the fact that he was madly in love with her and had no interest in rebuilding a life with me. He was just sort of around, for no reason, and miserable about it, and on the phone to her constantly though he'd told me that all communication with her was over. It took my cancer to give us a time frame: I told him I wanted him here during my treatment to take care of the dogs when I couldn't, and a week after I finished radiation I told him to move out.

So, anyway, a couple weeks after his return my mother-in-law gave me this book. She told me that it was very wise about marriage and that I needed to read it. Not that he did; that I did. And there was some, erm, implying that I bore equal responsibility for the marriage's demise.

In her defense, none of us except him and the Mistress knew anything close to the real story at that point. The rest of us believed that the affair was over; we also believed it had started very shortly before he ran away, as opposed to thirteen months before. None of us really realized what he was capable of until Christmas, when I was at my parents', and he told his parents that he was flying out to surprise me, then dumped the dogs at a kennel we'd never used and flew to be with her. His story completely blew up because I talk to his parents frequently, and then when the weather started messing with everyone's flights I had to pay for a rental car he could drive back from the midwest. (You may ask why on earth I wanted to bring him back. Someone needed to rescue the dogs from the kennel, and I was stuck in the southwest for another three days.)

So I don't entirely blame my mother-in-law for giving her son as much of the benefit of the doubt as one could, at the time. And it is true I am not at all physically demonstrative in public, though her assumption that I am therefore the same way in private with a loved one is flawed. I do come across as cold and reserved a good deal of the time. And it is undeniably true that I did not make any effort to be the kind of woman he wanted.

The kind of woman he wanted, for eight years, was me. I did not have to make any effort to be that person. And then he decided that he wanted a drunk exhibitionist with whom to make out at dive bars. Call me selfish, but I did not feel that my husband's development of a very specific fetish was worth throwing away six years of sobriety.

I know a lot of armchair psychology. I understand the turning-around-of-blame: you never want to believe that someone you love could have done such a thing unless provoked to it beyond endurance. But presenting the cheated-upon party with a list of things you don't enjoy but that you do to please your spouse, because Marriage Is About Compromise Didn't You Know, is not helpful. It is especially unhelpful if the things you do are watching the football game on Sunday, or not cooking red meat at home, and you think those are comparable to an alcoholic going to bars several nights a week. “I have to watch the Steelers all the time! If she won't go hang out with drunk people listening to a horrible noise band now and then, she doesn't really love him.”

And maybe I didn't. Maybe it's simply not possible for someone in recovery to love someone who, at thirty-four, is still solidly invested in getting good and drunk at least twice a week. Maybe the priorities are just too different for those two people to continue respecting each other. I don't know.

But I know that sobriety is my trump card. That nothing gets to be more important than that. That the issue is not my inability to be a loud drunk exhibitionist, but my refusal to be. I will never regret not being that person for him.

I also know that he said he fell in love with her because she is exactly like he was at twenty-four.* And that if I met someone who was exactly like I was at twenty-four, I would move to another hemisphere if necessary to get away from that person.

Different priorities.

So, that's why I own this book. We shall see if reading it makes me as irritable as recalling the circumstances around receiving it did.

*Bear in mind she met him when she was twenty-seven, which means she was displaying the maturity of a male three years younger. Maybe the reason for all the pictures of her in her underwear on the internet is simply that she has not yet mastered zippers.

Dead Souls, by Ian Rankin

This is the tenth book in Rankin's Inspector Rebus series. I haven't read them all, and haven't read the ones I have in order: it all depends on which ones I find at the used bookstore. One doesn't have to read them in order, though it helps: in this one two events from Rebus' past are repeatedly mentioned as haunting him, and I had read the book in which one of them happens but not the other.

The series is dark, seriously so. I believe the usual term is “gritty”. Scotland's poverty and social problems are always at the forefront of the crimes, and the language and the food reflects Edinburgh probably all too well. (This one includes a graphic description of a “prawn mayonnaise” sandwich that made me put my head between my knees.) Rebus has a major drinking problem and self-sabotages in his relationships, and there is rarely a traditionally happy ending: criminals get away with it, good people suffer, Rebus does not take the high road.

Dead Souls is no exception to this pattern. It deals with pedophiles, suicide, a serial killer, and other cheerful topics. It's not as rough as Set in Darkness, which was the first Rankin I read and which is like being punched in the gut, especially for a recovering alcoholic. But it is extremely depressing. Rankin's gift is twofold: one, he does not create unrealistic sorrow. You never feel that he has done something cruel to a character simply for the sake of doing so. The characters all behave realistically, and life acts realistically upon them. Two, his plots are (usually) baroque and fascinating enough that you remain hooked despite the grinding litany of reasons Scotland is Tragic. I couldn't put Dead Souls down, and it may be my favorite of his so far. In it he seems to have balanced the mystery plot perfectly with Rebus' self-destruction, so that Rebus is tragic but not a caricature of an alcoholic renegade policeman.

Next up: Committed: A Love Story, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which is a terrible idea but it has been sitting on my to-read list for over a year and I want to just get Gilbert condescending to me about marriage over with. (There's a story about why I even own this book in the first place, and it will provoke lots of ranting on my part. Watch this space! If, um, ranting is your thing.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley

The third book in Bradley's Flavia de Luce series finds our eleven-year-old chemistry-whiz heroine investigating an assault on a gypsy and the murder of the prime suspect. Meanwhile, her father is coping with his grief over the loss of Flavia's mother and the financial constraints of maintaining the huge ancestral home; and Flavia's two older sisters are busy tormenting her.

As in the previous two books, the mystery and its solution come second to the English village atmosphere and the wonderfully drawn world that is Flavia's point of view. I found that this book suffered a little more from gratuitous exclamation points – Flavia seems to be getting excited over an awful lot of things – and the author's seeming need to make Flavia more poignant was hit-or-miss for me. Her sudden desire to make friends, and sorrow at her sisters' cruelties, may be realistic but were largely absent from the first two books and made them more escapist fare.

A lovely book, still. And truth about human interactions and loneliness isn't a bad thing, even when we least want to face it.

Favorite lines: “I was unwilling to share with anyone the picking up of the pieces.”

“Until now, my fury had always been like those jolly Caribbean carnivals....a noisy explosion of color and heat that wilted steadily as the day went on. But now it had suddenly become an icy coldness: a frigid wasteland in which I stood unapproachable.”


An almost empty house , cold as only an English house can be, clogged with silent grief. Loved ones turning on you without reason, and causing more pain than strangers ever could. Not unfamiliar territory, this.

Oh heavens! The self-pity! My house is 850 square feet and filled with 180 pounds of dog. I am not exactly wandering Victorian-novel-dramatic through echoing halls here. It is, however, cold.

It is one of the two times of year (the other being that eternal slog through bone-deep chills which is a New England spring) when it almost seems to be warmer outside than it is inside. The house does, technically, have the ability to be heated, but though I was not raised in New England I come from two hundred years of Puritan stock, and I believe that to turn the heat up higher than about 55 degrees is to let my character slip into degeneracy. 60 degrees, and the next thing you know I'd be eating cheese, or drinking caffeine, or something equally self-indulgent. It doesn't bear thinking about.

My one concession to sleeping alone is to tip the thermostat into the 57-ish range, and tell myself I'm doing it for the dogs, since the bedroom no longer has the body heat and exhalations of four creatures to warm it through the night. Not that he was here half the nights. He was gone long before he left.

The aforementioned Puritan genetics mean that I am profoundly uncomfortable with the detour into self-pity this blog is all too likely to take. Let's face it, I've had a rotten year. But the surgeries are done, the radiation is over, and I have no doubts about the divorce proceedings. And there are 67 books on my to-read list. So, while there will be a lot of emotional processing here, there will also be a lot of hope.

Next up: Dead Souls, by Ian Rankin.

Friday, November 18, 2011


In October 2010 my husband left home. Later, I found out that he had left to start a new life with his mistress, and that the affair had begun in September 2009.

In March 2011 I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.

In November 2011 we began moving towards divorce.

In this past year I have read 203 books, not counting any re-reading I have done.

This blog is an attempt to work through the emotional wreckage of this year, via my reading list.