Thursday, January 26, 2012

growing pains

So, I've been doing the divorce paperwork. And it's not fun. I'm not going to get into much more detail than that.

Sufficiently indicative is the fact that I found myself stomping around the internet looking for fights. And since I don't generally comment on other sites, this meant deliberately reading things that I knew would irritate me, and then ranting at my friends, and saying things that weren't thought through, and hurting feelings.

It's hard not to feel that it's not fair. And it's a small step from that to thinking that others have it overly fair, and are gloating or taking their relationships for granted or in some way taking something away from me. Which is precisely what I was talking about in a previous post: my adolescent belief that everything in the world is a competition. I had hoped I was outgrowing that, but I certainly know about triggers, and that nothing changes all of a heap. I can't tell you how many times I swore I'd never drink again, or how many times I vowed, "He does that one more time and we're over." Fall seven times, get up eight.

There's something demanding to be addressed here, I believe, because I'm doing stuff that doesn't help: the aforementioned hunting for irritants, not keeping to a regular eating schedule, treating every household issue as a Crisis, etc. And normally I am invested enough in keeping myself on an even keel that I am quite good about making sure that I'm not doing these things. So something's working its way up and trying to get my attention; it's not general self-destructiveness pushing me along this course.

I'm not excusing my behavior of this week - if you've talked to me in the last few days, you have almost certainly heard me say something snappy, even if it wasn't directed at you. And that isn't helping anything. Nor is the fact that I then get angry at myself for being angry.

Having formed a hyper-competent persona over the years, and being a person very reluctant to admit to any failure to begin with ("hence a blog about your divorce?" says my mother, eyebrows raised), admitting that I don't really know what I'm doing is a tough thing for me. But, let's face it, I've never done divorce paperwork before. I've never handled a house by myself before. I don't know if I'm doing any of this right. And that unsettles me so deeply that I suddenly doubt my ability to handle anything, including the emotions - anger, sadness, humiliation - with which I have previously been comfortable. They're not fun, but I acknowledge them, I know they're natural, I work through them. And none of them stand up to dog kisses.

But one little feeling of ignorance and incompetence seems to be setting off a scenario in which I'm letting my emotions turn on me, because I suddenly stopped trusting myself to handle, and honor, them.

Note to self: not magically knowing everything is not the worst thing in the world. If you did magically know everything, life would be very boring, because there would be nothing to learn. That might actually be the worst thing in the world.

Time to re-evaluate my reasons for wanting to never get anything wrong. And part of that is posting about having a juvenile, petulant, crabby week. I get the occasional impression that this blog comes off as the work of someone who is handling a terrible period in her life with inhuman grace and courage, and while I am of course uncommonly gracious and courageous, I'm also making it up as I go. I'm going to tumble, in the sense of being petulant or unpleasant company, sometimes. I feel (honestly) fortunate in that I've done the tumble-and-try-again routine enough to have faith in it.

And now I must eat a giant meal and not listen to the news.

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl

A young lawyer, in 1849 Baltimore, goes pretty much crazy when Edgar Allan Poe dies under mysterious circumstances (which are historical fact), and abandons everything in a quest to find out what happened. He ends up going to Paris, dealing with two men who may have been the inspiration for Poe's Inspector Dupin, recruiting one of them, antagonizing the other, and then at around the middle of the book Napoleon-assassination schemes start popping up and the chronology becomes totally kerfuddled and I got completely, infuriatingly, lost; and genuinely did not want to pick up the book again because it was irritating me so.  

So I took a break at that point, and hustled up on the Kindle the actual Dupin stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" scared me to death when I was little, because we owned a version of Poe's stories which had terrifying illustrations, and there was one of the orangutan (oops! spoiler alert, I guess) killing the victims that I can still see when I shut my eyes. I have a fear of orangutans which is directly attributable to that picture.

Anyway, so I had not remembered that the story itself is twenty pages of Dupin saying, "I deduced this, and that, and this, because I am brilliant. Oh, and because there was orangutan hair all over the place." What? That's not brilliant deduction! That's as if "The Speckled Band" included a shed snakeskin lying conveniently at the foot of the victim's bed. And the second story - "The Mystery of Marie Roget" - is unreadable. I didn't even attempt the third.

Then, while I was on my Kindle, I looked at the collected works of Dickens I downloaded, and saw something called "No Thoroughfare", of which I'd never heard. So I read it, and WHAT. For the most part it's very, very dull, but then there comes a part which apparently he let Wilkie Collins write: the heroine, who until this point has been a completely typical Dickens heroine - weeping, drooping, blushing, tiny feet, etc - follows her fiancé into the Alps, leads the search party when he goes missing, constructs a rope harness and has herself lowered down to the ice crevice where he has fallen, and when all the men are saying, "It is the power of love and the hand of God giving her this strength!" she responds with, "Actually, I grew up here, doofuses." And then at the end the hero decides, "Oh, she must not know that the villain is dead; it would upset her far too much!" and I'm like, "She knew the villain was the villain long before anyone else did, and she rappelled down a glacier, I think she could handle it," but no, we're back to blushing and drooping (all Dickens' heroines can safely be pictured with heads too heavy for their necks, given the amount of drooping going on). A totally bizarre story. And frankly pretty terrible.

Then I re-read some Lovecraft. And watched five episodes of Castle. And then, finally, once more unto the breach.

It didn't get any better. It didn't get worse, exactly, but I finished the book with no clue as to what had actually happened behind the scenes, or why. Such a disappointment. The first half was fine, although I itched to be able to edit it (characters suddenly have things in their hands without any explanation; someone "taps on his papers" when it's unclear whether he's sitting or standing; scene changes happen too rapidly), but the second half was just no fun at all. It's entirely possible we're supposed to think the narrator is out of his gourd, hence all the non-linear narrative and confusion, but it didn't come across that way to me.

Next up: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht

My mother read this a few months ago, and gave me the heads-up that Obreht is trying to cram everything she's got into one book. I definitely agree: I kept wanting to say, "Slow down, Téa; something tells me you're going to get another book contract, you don't have to say it all now."

Much of this was previously published in the New Yorker, and you can see it in the twenty-page character studies which would make perfect NewYorker fiction pieces and which Obreht's determined to include as backstory whether the character's relevance to this novel merits that much page space or not. I am fairly certain that Obreht had about twenty short pieces, some about village life, some about a girl's adolescence during war, and created a framework with which to cobble them together into a novel. I enjoy over-the-top village-grotesque backstories, so I didn't truly mind, but it meant that a) whenever a minor character was introduced I knew to get comfy and b) the blurbs about Obreht's mind-boggling plotting skills made me roll my eyes. You can see the places where the cobbling-together happened, and the parts about the war adolescence were frankly a little tiresome. The pacing isn't bad, but that's not the same thing. 

The framework: a young doctor, in an unnamed Balkan country, is trying to investigate the circumstances of her grandfather's death, and remembers stories he told her from his childhood. One story describes a tiger who invaded his mountain village and was protected by a deaf-mute woman (the villagers called her, you guessed it, "the tiger's wife"). The narrator is unlikeable and the plot isn't the point; it's a showcase for Obreht's metaphor-heavy writing.

Sometimes the metaphors / similes don't work: I occasionally found myself wondering why no one, in her writing seminars, said as much (she's said she wrote most of this book while getting her MFA). Saying barnacles clung to the bottom of a rowboat "like something earned" doesn't actually make any sense. Did the barnacles earn their spot? Did the rowboat earn them? Do earned things actually cling? If it's the rowboat doing the clinging, why would it cling to (or earn in the first place) things which damage it? You see what I mean? The phrase "like something earned" is - well, can't you just hear a thousand undergrad poems ending with it? If it has nothing to offer but its own heaviness, in a context that just puzzles, it shouldn't be included in a published book. Encountering it threw me off my stride for several pages.

But then she can also whip out something like, "while the big cat lay, broad-backed and rumbling, red tongue peeling the cold out of his paws," which made me say out loud, "Ooooohh," and go into a total language swoon. Peeling the cold out of his paws. Love. It.

The comparisons to Everything is Illuminated are inevitable - Eastern European war aftermath, magical realism, ridiculously young author who is being fawned over by all NYC - and that comparison may be part of why I liked this book so much, because despite all its flaws it is better than EiI by a factor of about eighty. Take note, Safran Foer: this is how you do it.

This book made me excited not only because Obreht is wicked talented (as we say around here), but because I can see the places where she has ample room for improvement. She did cram all her stories into one novel, so it may be a while before we get another one, but I really, really hope she doesn't go the Safran Foer route and start writing stunt books because she doesn't feel she has any growing to do. This book is good. Her later stuff could be amazing.

(Be warned: bad things happen to animals in this book. Really bad things.) 

Next up: The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl. Pearl frequently disappoints me with the execution of his ideas, but I'm always willing to give a historical potboiler a try.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

re-reads and television

Over the long holiday weekend, because temperatures were for the most part in the teens and I have no life, I spent most of my days on the couch, with the dogs, re-reading history.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, is, I think, still his best. He has attempted in his following books to re-create the juxtaposition of murder / scandal with technological advancements, but it never works quite as well as it does with the World's Fair in Chicago and the murders of Dr. H.H. Holmes. A fairly disturbing read, and Larson's choice to write one scene from the point of view of a murder victim is a little jarring. He addresses that choice in the afterword, and defends it well, but it does make it seem suddenly like fiction. Other than that, what a fascinating book.

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Nathaniel Philbrick, remains flawed. Philbrick is really out of his depth writing about a non-nautical piece of history, but he brings his excellent storytelling to it and provides enough maps and diagrams that the reader is able to get the sense of the battle. The book feels incomplete, as if he didn't quite know how to finish it, and I always am a bit unsatisfied when done with it. But it's very interesting nonetheless.

I flipped through A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, as well. It hasn't held up as well as I would have expected, but that may be simply because I was first assigned it in high school and I'd never read anything like it before. Now history as written from the powerless' point of view is commonplace, and how comprehensive Zinn is actually makes this book a little overwhelming. Reading it one chapter at a time is probably the best way to handle it.

I also watched "Cranford", which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is very rare that I find a show which appeals both to the part of me which loves pastoral period dramas featuring exquisite acting, and to the part of me which appreciates a good cat-being-given-a-laxative scene. I did not at all expect to be laughing as much as I was throughout. There is a dog fatality, and normally, on page or screen, dog fatalities leave me emotionally devastated and furious at the writer(s), but for this one I laughed until I couldn't breathe. It didn't hurt that the replacement pet shows up immediately and is transparently played by the same dog. Perfect.

But it's sad, too: wonderful characters die left and right, and the last episode had me crying like a baby the entire time (some of that was sentimentally happy, and all of it was utterly manipulated: I kept saying, out loud, things like, "Oh no, NOT the book of poetry, oh crap," and "Oh god, you're pulling out 'Loch Lomond', I'm DONE"). It was extraordinarily cathartic.

One quibble, though: the two female characters aspiring hopelessly for the heart of the Dashing Newcomer are portrayed rather cruelly, when as far as I could tell their only crime was daring to believe they deserved a man's love despite being (in one case) not pretty and (in the other) not young. Of course they are cheerfully paired off with other men at the end, because it is that kind of a show, but the way they are mocked rankled a bit for me.

Finally started The Tiger's Wife over breakfast today. We shall see how that goes.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War, by Alexander Nemerov

This was extremely difficult. Interesting, but it's been a long time since I read something this theory-heavy (probably not since college) and I had to take it slowly.

Nemerov is an art historian who writes about the impact of art on its contemporary surroundings, and vice versa, and in this he attempts to substitute an 1863 performance of Macbeth for a piece of art. I think he falters slightly in doing so: as he talks about theater it becomes clear that this is not his forte, although he does a good job of explaining that a nineteenth-century performance, with its static set-pieces and tableaux, is far better suited to this than a modern one.

His thesis (I think) is that a piece of art, or a theater performance, in an age of mass communication, is able to become both a "place" and also impact other places. The photographs of actors as their characters which were distributed after every performance, the photographs of the battlefields, and the telegraph connecting a command from Lincoln (who attended the performance in question) to his officers in the field hundreds of miles away, are devices which de-isolated individual places in a way not previously possible.

Nemerov tries to cram his thesis into a discussion of almost everything he finds interesting from the time period, and jumps around a bit much: for two pages he's talking about a painting of an interior and then suddenly he's discussing the death of a Confederate officer in a prisoner-of-war hospital (and I have to confess I entirely missed what the point of that death, as regards art or places, was). It all felt rather hasty at times, and hasty juxtapositions combined with dense theory writing are a tad overwhelming for someone out of practice reading the stuff.

When Nemerov just pulls out his art history chops and talks about a piece of art in its historical context, and its structure, design, impact, I liked this book quite a lot. I had a magnificent art history class my senior year of high school, and honestly thought that was what I was going to do with the rest of my academic career and possibly with my life. The art history department at my college turned out to have needed more people like my high school art history teacher, desperately, and back to the inevitable English major I went. But I still love the subject and its vocabulary.

Nemerov also occasionally describes something as "testicular"seemingly just for the sake of using the word. In no case did I think that what he was describing was actually testicular. One passage, about women on battlefields collecting bullets, which I kid you not included the phrase "goddesses of sterility gathering the balls of dead men, nuts of a landscape serried with earthworks", made me shriek with laughter while the faces of all the theory boys I've known flashed before my eyes.

Overall, an interesting and very challenging read with some flaws. And I definitely had to turn on parts of my brain which I haven't used in a good long time, and that's never a bad thing.

Next up: The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht, though I'm allowing myself some recuperative re-reading in between.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yellow Lies, by Susan Slater

I keep giving Susan Slater's Ben Pecos mysteries a try. They have approving blurbs from Tony Hillerman, after all. But after Thunderbird, and now this one, I have to conclude that she's just not good.

The characters are cardboard, the villains are identifiable ten pages in, and the mystery's solution consists of an Exposition Theater performance by said villains for someone they're about to kill. "Since you're going to die, let me tell you exactly what I've done!" The writing's unremarkable, and though this one constantly mentioned food, none of it was New Mexican food, and so I just do not get the point of that.

It's not the unfairness of reading this directly after Boyle, either. I happily sit down with Hillerman after reading Impressive Literature, all the time, and he doesn't suffer in comparison. Apples and oranges. But I'm not going to read any more books by Slater.  

Next up: Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War, by Alexander Nemerov, which, by the third page, already features phrases like "instead I have aimed to treat that night's performance of Macbeth as a place, even as a Thing in Martin Heidegger's sense" and "the capacity of an aesthetic act to produce such an earth of self-secluding points". I may be in trouble.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

World's End, by T.C. Boyle

I found this book fantastic, which unfortunately means that I won't have too much to say about it. I find that I have tons to say about books I disliked, and not that much for those I liked.

World's End follows three families in upstate New York through three time periods - the 1680s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. Our protagonists either behave extremely badly - every married character save one, by my count, is having an affair - or are nice people to whom terrible things happen (maiming, eviction, affairs). It was hard to muster up sympathy much of the time, and yet I couldn't wait to see what happened next, and adored Boyle's writing style, and definitely am going to check out more of his books.

The line between unexpectedly good, heavily-metaphored writing, and pretentiousness, is a very fine one. This book won the PEN/Faulkner Award, and I have previously read books which also did and which read like my mercifully-soon-abandoned college attempts at imitating Faulkner (best example is The Mercy Seat, by Rilla Askew - it is very bad indeed). I can't really articulate why Boyle stays on the good side of that line, because occasionally his language does get too much, and he's dealing with dicey subjects like mystic Native Americans and ghost sightings and such. And yet it works. He balances it.

So, yeah. Don't have much more than that, but I highly recommend it, and am very glad that he's as prolific a writer as he is. Finding a writer you like and realizing there are ten-plus novels out there by that writer is a delicious feeling.

Next up: Yellow Lies, by Susan Slater.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Moby-Dick marathon

Friday night I pounded through Why Read Moby-Dick?, by Nathaniel Philbrick. It was less academic than I expected; mostly it's simply Philbrick talking briefly about the parts of Moby-Dick which he finds most awesome. Nothing wrong with that. 

Saturday morning, I collected my friend Paulina and we headed to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. 

It turns out that, despite my best intentions, I cannot really just plunge into for a 25-hour Moby-Dick marathon any more than I could expect to run an actual marathon without any training.

I had formed the impression, on no evidence, that this was an informal thing at which you could curl up on the floor with your pillow and blankets, take off your shoes, and snack merrily. Instead, the moment we arrived I was told I could not bring in my backpack and that nothing but small bags would be allowed in until 8:30 p.m. The event starts at noon. This meant that unless we wanted to go eight and a half hours without food and drink (other than from the water fountain), we would have to leave periodically.

Which we did; around two we ducked out and ate our sandwiches, but it was not quite the atmosphere I had pictured (in fairness to the organizers, the atmosphere I pictured also included gorgeous well-read fishermen with a thing for nerdy women). I imagine it does get far less formal as the night wears on.

Some readers I could have listened to all day. When they were reading I didn't need to follow along in my copy, I forgot that I was physically uncomfortable, and I thought that this was the best thing in the world. The man who read the “Nantucket” chapter should record audiobooks for a living. A beaming middle school teacher brought up six of his students, who each read a paragraph of one section, and they were all great and beyond adorable.

Some readers to all appearances had never seen the words on the page before, despite having been assigned their portion months ago. Stumbling, mispronouncing, sometimes simply thrashing about in the middle of a paragraph, having lost the sense of it long ago and now just stabbing at the words without any regard for punctuation or emphasis. You don't know how long ten minutes can be until you are listening to that.

Paulina and I had to switch seats at one point because we were directly in front of a woman who uttered either a smugly wise, “Hmmm!” or hysterical laughter after every single sentence. Occasionally she laughed hysterically in a smugly wise way, as when the text refers to the Pequod as a lucky ship. Because, unlike everyone else in the room, she knows how the story ends! Paulina and I slipped up to the front row after half an hour of this, where I found myself next to a trio who believed that the front row of a reading event is an appropriate place to carry on extended conversations. Hell is other audience members.

Also, those folding chairs were astonishing. I have never felt sensations like that in my lower back, and had rather expected not to until I was in my seventies. Between that and the dehydration and hunger issues, after six hours we gathered our things and limped out. A quarter of the marathon, which is not bad at all. We figure that next year, with a massive meal beforehand and more attention to our water intake, we can easily do ten hours.

I'm making it sound like it wasn't all that great, but that's not the case, and I'm so glad I went. There were people there ranging in age from ninety to six. Families. Young couples flooded in around 5:00, as if on dates. Audience members filled the seats, cluttered up the stairs, leaned from the second story. All there to hear volunteers read from a giant, bizarre novel. It was charming.

So charming, in fact, that this morning, rested and scrubbed, I decided to go back for the last couple hours. I woke up blue, and finding an excuse to drive on highways under an oddly enormous sky while blasting Mumford & Sons was also a factor (where you invest your love / you invest your life), but this morning it was utterly charming as well.  

I didn't go anywhere near the chairs, but went halfway up the stairs and leaned over the balustrade. At one point I realized there was a girl of about nine or ten next to me, and she was looking over at my copy of the book. I moved it in between us, pointed to where we were, and we read along together for a chapter. Every reader knows that wonderful moment, when without words or even eye contact you discover there is another reader beside you, and make a tiny accommodation to share the moment, share the story. It warms the heart.

Barney Frank was there, and read a good deal of the penultimate chapter. His district includes New Bedford, so it was politic, but he had obviously done his prep work. It was a very exciting section. 

The man reading the very last bit broke down on the last sentence before the epilogue. He started audibly choking up on "then all collapsed", paused, tried to collect himself, and managed in a voice full of tears, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago". I don't even know why he was crying, but I cried too. (Although, because I am twelve, I don't know how you manage to do "From hell's heart I stab at thee," without doing a Ricardo Montalban voice.)

Amazing stuff. A couple hundred people turning out to celebrate a book. It doesn't get better than that. The chairs could, though.

Next up: World's End, by T.C. Boyle.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny

I read this on the Kindle, sitting in bed with a space heater blasting and my dogs curled up around me, because the furnace went out and I had to wait at home all day for the repairman. Occasionally I braved the frigid downstairs to make tea or hot chocolate, and then dashed back up to the one cozy room. It was a rather good way to read Louise Penny (and I am sure the dogs wish the furnace could go out every day), though I wish that this one hadn't taken place in June. Talk of the heat just made me crabby.

I do love Penny, and the village of Three Pines in which most of her books are set. I desperately want to live there except that a) they all speak French, and I am like the woman in Bury Your Dead who can read French but whose accent "could stop a train", and b) I would weigh four hundred pounds if allowed to eat at Olivier's Bistro frequently. Oh, the food descriptions. Lord have mercy.

Many of Penny's main characters are artists, and this book centers around the artistic success of one character and the resulting descent of the art world upon Three Pines. The murder victim was an art critic, and critics, dealers, and artists populate the pages. This is not new to Penny's books, yet I am increasingly finding that her descriptions of art are over-the-top. Paintings are constantly making people gasp aloud, burst into tears, know that they are in the presence of greatness. I much preferred the wonderful descriptions in The Brutal Telling of two wood carvings which at first seem adorable and then, after a few moments, people don't want to be in the same room with them. And when the part of the carving which caused the unease was identified, it made sense. The portraits by Clara Morrow, and the viewers' reactions to them, don't make quite as much sense. I remain unconvinced that anyone can actually paint, in a subject's eyes, "the moment when despair turns to hope", though I would love to think someone could.

Another major plot point in A Trick of the Light is AA. The murder victim was a member, and Inspector Gamache attends meetings, talks to other members, and reads the literature. I admit that my hackles flew up when I realized this was going to be a thing, because I have never come across AA in a book without the author buying into it hook, line, and sinker (admittedly I read a fair number of sobriety memoirs, and it seems that no one who has written one got sober without AA), and given my own extremely mixed feelings about the program, this irritates me.

Personal digression:

I got sober without AA. But I believe that if AA gets you sober, good for it. I believe whatever gets someone sober is good. Whatever works is good. And I feel that the ethos of AA does not accord that respect to anything besides itself. I had one maddening interaction with a therapist last year in which she preached AA at me for an hour and said that, because I had not done the steps, obviously I had no insight whatever into what made me drink or how to stay sober, and we would have to "start from scratch" on those topics. At this point I had been sober for over five years, and no one has ever accused me of being insufficiently introspective, but she was not hearing it.

Some of the steps are useful. Not all of the steps are useful for everyone. Everyone's addiction experience is different, and everyone's path to sobriety will be slightly different. I hate AA's emphasis on powerlessness; I kept drinking as long as I felt powerless over my addiction. It was only when I thought, No, I can do this, that I stopped. And while one can argue that any addiction has to be replaced by another, that an addictive personality doesn't stop being so and it's a matter of finding something less self-destructive, the addiction to the group and to the meetings makes me a little wary. I do believe that there has to be a replacement addiction - mine is exercise - but think that ideally your replacement addiction is something you can do by yourself if you can't find anyone else. I, personally, do not want my sobriety to depend on anyone but myself, and that includes a higher power. If I'd gotten sober for my husband, this year could have been a mess. If I'd gotten sober for a higher power, this year might have well made me lose my faith, and then what? I didn't get sober for anyone but me, and that's the one person I'll always have with me.

I'm not saying that my route to sobriety is better or stronger than that of someone whose route includes AA. I'm saying I respect AA as I would respect anything that gets an addict sober, but I don't feel that AA respects me back. It's like being a tolerant liberal around Tea Party nutjobs: we're saying, "Well, what you say is vile but I will defend your right to say it," and they're saying, "No one should have the right to believe anything other than what I believe." The road of tolerance is strictly one-way here. AA doesn't think anyone not in AA is really sober; we're just dry drunks, with no personal insight and no willingness to change. And that offends me mightily.

End personal digression!

So, Penny handles AA better than I would have expected, although she still comes firmly down on the side of it being a positive thing. The only dissenting voice is that of an alcoholic who is still drinking and makes an ass of himself at parties. But for the most part Penny simply reports on the facts about the program, and lets us see that the people within it are all there for different reasons and not all of them are noble. There are characters who claim to have worked the steps and be at peace, and Penny shows us that they are hypocrites.

The mystery is intriguing - there are plenty of suspects - and though the last scene, with a storm thundering outside and Gamache saying, "Someone in this room is the murderer," is a little much, I was willing to go with it. Penny does seem intent on unveiling the unpleasant sides of her recurring characters of late, and while that worked with Olivier in a way that kept him sympathetic, the more we learn about Peter Morrow the less sense it makes that anyone puts up with him, whether as a friend or a spouse. And at a certain point it's simply not fun to read about his feelings of inadequacy and spite.

Still, this was not a disappointment, and I will continue to be very excited every time Penny issues a new book.

And oh, she can write about dogs.  The following is from Bury Your Dead; it comes halfway through and it marks the point at which I, struggling with the grief the entire book provoked, just started sobbing and didn't stop the whole rest of the way.

Though Gamache would never say it to Henri's face, they both knew he wasn't the most courageous of dogs. Nor, it must be said, was Henri very bright. But he was loyal beyond measure and knew what mattered. Din-din, walks, balls. But most of all, his family. His heart filled his chest and ran to the end of his tail and the very tips of his considerable ears. It filled his head, squeezing out his brain. But Henri, the foundling, was a humanist, and while not particularly clever was the smartest creature Gamache knew. Everything he knew he knew by heart.

Yeah, that got you too, huh?

(And yes, there was a post earlier this week which I have taken down. It was a revenge post and I want to be better than that. More importantly, it was poorly edited.

I shall keep the good part from it, though, to remember:

I want the word for 2012 to be "delight". I want to find something in which to delight every day. It can be the dogs, or a warm bath, or a silly TV show. It can be a big personal triumph or just the fact that I've laughed that day. It can be my own body, which can do yoga and walk long distances and lift weights, or Bingley's excessively round head. I am justly proud of the equanimity with which I handled 2011, but I'm going to be greedier than that in 2012. I want to be quietly delighted with something every day.)

Next up: Why Read Moby-Dick?, by Nathaniel Philbrick, in preparation for the Moby-Dick marathon this weekend.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley

This is the fourth book in the Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is an eleven-year-old chemist (and budding poisoner) living with her two sisters and widowed father in an immense pile of a house in 1950 England. Murders keep happening around Flavia, and she sets out to solve them.

In this book, the financial straits of the family have forced them to rent out their estate to a film crew, who arrive over Christmas, in a blizzard, and havoc ensues. Then the star is murdered, and Flavia begins her investigation, around her plans to capture Father Christmas.

I felt as if this book was both shorter in page length and much lighter than the first two. The third I also felt was getting less substantial. Perhaps this is inevitable in a series like this - it reminds me of what happened with Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. But with that it took about six or seven books before I started mentally accusing Smith of phoning it in. Bradley had such potential, and I enjoyed the first two Flavia books so much, that I would be very disappointed if he's already settling for fluff. Not that there's anything wrong with fluff in its place, but I wasn't looking for it here.

Next up: A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny. I am having to gird my loins for this, since the last one in this series was so emotionally devastating that I spent days recovering.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman

This book is very flawed. 

Ackerman contradicts herself about how the Old Testament god loved (in one passage it's unconditionally, a hundred pages later it's only if you've proven yourself worthy); she's only interested in heterosexual desire; her parental gender roles are set in stone (and in the 1950s); she gets the origin myth of the narcissus wrong; she messes up the chronology of the plot of Hamlet; she uses Pyramus and Thisbe as an example of a tragic romantic couple, when anyone who's ever seen a good production of Midsummer will go into a helpless giggling fit at the phrase "Ninus' tomb"; and she occasionally writes sentences like, "Why do we need a duvet cover for the warm, rich, feather comforter of sensuality?"

These are problems. The sloppy ones are especially problematic because they cast retrospective doubt on the research done for the first section, which is the history of love, sexuality, and marriage throughout the Western world, and which is really quite fascinating. I enjoyed this first third of the book very much, but later wondered about it once I'd seen that she couldn't even be bothered to glance back at Hamlet and find out if "Get thee to a nunnery" comes before or after "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?"

But it went off the rails for me entirely in the middle section, which she fills with:

1.  Six pages about how a woman's hair is the only secondary sexual characteristic which matters, and that the longer and more wild the hair is (how much like Diane Ackerman's it is, in other words; this whole middle section is all about her personal experiences) the more sensual a woman is, that cutting off a woman's hair desexualizes her, and how women with children cut off their hair to signal that they are no longer sexually available. Ohhh-kay. Setting aside that this book was written in 1994, before the widespread development of the pixie haircut, some women (like me, showing my own bias here) have always looked better with shorter hair, and what about the exposure of the neck? Ackerman never once, in the entire book, mentions the neck as an erogenous zone. She's too busy talking about the times she's been considered dangerously erotic and womanly because of her hair. 

2. Twenty-two pages (fully 7% of the book) about women and horses. Ackerman claims that all little girls not only go through a phase of being wild about horses but that all little girls have access to horses recreationally. Seriously. She looks back on her privileged Pennsylvania childhood and is incapable of thinking that a different type of childhood exists. And then we get 22 pages about having a big sweaty animal between one's legs (yeah, yeah, we've all read "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl", this is not news) and how every eight-year-old girl wants this (ewww) and how every eight-year-old girl can just buy jodhpurs and riding boots and head down to her local stable. I don't know, maybe it would be interesting to a woman who did have a passionate relationship with horses in her childhood. I have never cared about horses one way or the other. Ackerman does say that given her age, there were no sports really available for girls when she was growing up, so she turned to horses. But a better use of page space would have been a couple about horses and then a lot more about what exercise and sport in general means for girls coming into their sexuality and their bodies. The book at this point was rapidly turning into "Diane Ackerman's Personal History of Love and No One Else's".

3. Ten pages about the Indy 500, because all men love is cars. And only men love cars. Also, Diane Ackerman gets leered at by drunk men a lot, because her breasts are so amazing. After the horses, and because I adore my car and adore driving, I skimmed this part. 

4. Four pages about flying in dreams and how wonderful it is and always about sex. Some of us are terrified of heights and only dream about falling, never flying, and I am just going to leave that in the hands of Freud. 


These issues made me as angry as they did because the book really had potential. When Ackerman isn't going off the rails with duvet metaphors, she writes quite well, and like I said, the first third of the book was fascinating, until I started doubting the research. And it read quite quickly, and was often hard to put down. But she just comes at it far too much as if it were a memoir, instead of a piece of reportage. She tacks on a bit about pets at the end, and it's immediately obvious she's never had one in her life; after the pages and pages rhapsodizing about the bond between women and horses, the best she can say about a cat or dog is that its owner is holding it prisoner and what seems to be the pet's love is just Stockholm Syndrome. For heaven's sake.

So, alas, this book frustrated and irritated me, and yet it's not badly written, and the idea of a book on this topic pleases me. I imagine that there are probably better ones out there. 

Next up: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley. Yes, I recently read a Flavia de Luce book, but this is my EarlyReviewers one, and those get priority.