Friday, October 26, 2012

the longest post I have written to date, I think

Several of these are novellas and there were two books I flat-out discarded after a bit. But it does seem like I'm getting my pacing back!

Since last posting I read Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table, by Ruth Riechl. It's a memoir ostensibly about her trajectory as a food critic, but mostly about the disintegration of her first marriage due to her numerous infidelities. There is some food involved, but very little of it is eaten when anyone's even close to sober, which has always bothered me about food writing. Riechl drops a lot of Famous Chef names, which meant almost nothing to me, and even more Fancy Wine names, which meant zero to me. And she trots out the trope that True Love means, "I can't stand this person, we hate each other, we're making every social event awkward by snapping at each other, let's make out in an elevator, because sexual chemistry only manifests itself as hatred at first". GOOD BASIS FOR A RELATIONSHIP THERE. The last quarter of the book doesn't even mention food; it's all just a failed adoption attempt and Riechl behaving inappropriately with her first husband after moving in with the second. Why would you write about doing such things? Makes me get my prude face on.

I cleansed my palate with a C.J Box mystery, Winterkill. Solid and engrossing and reliable, as his books almost always are. Enjoyed this much more than Riechl.

And then two failures:

I tried to read Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin, because when I discovered Rankin has written another series I was very excited. I haven't read all the Inspector Rebus books but I do know he's apparently written the last, so there is a finite number. But what the heck this was I don't even know, other than some sort of generic "thriller" (I put it in quotations because it was completely un-thrilling) narrated by a stone-cold killer-for-hire who likes to talk at great length about his preferred brand of guns. There is a private detective who does lots of cocaine, and an obvious love interest who appears in doorways wearing only a T-shirt and with a gun that she, silly little lady, didn't even load. (It's worth mentioning said doorway is to a room that contains her father, which you'd think would induce even the silliest of little ladies to put on some pants.) I actually thought the whole thing had to be a joke which was going to go somewhere unexpected, but eventually realized it wasn't, and put it away.

Also a failure was The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber. What IS this nonsense, I muttered through the first 70 pages, while our various heroes rant objectifyingly about women, one female character who bears no resemblance to an actual human passes through, and not one but two dudes potentially on their deathbeds, five hundred years apart, decide to write down Everything (as opposed to Everything Important), which in the case of the first means providing exposition by the bucketload for the one person (his wife) who presumably already knows all this, and in the latter case means talking about the numberless affairs he's had because all women love giant thick-necked bodybuilders (I'm not making that up; apparently we do). There are whispers of a newly discovered Shakespeare play floating around, which appears to be the eventual plot, but Gruber's writing and characters were so offensive to me that I couldn't even make it to my requisite 100 pages, the usual point at which I allow myself to discard a book. I was going to try for the hundred, but then I flipped ahead a bit and read a part where our thick-necked Casanova is talking about his affair with a woman who, as he says disdainfully, "turned out to be one of those women who like to" [perform a perfectly normal sex act which could only be considered problematic by a man very insecure in his masculinity]. "Gruber, you're a dick," I said out loud. Back to the used bookstore it goes.

So many parentheses! I feel comfortable leaving them in because that is actually how I talk.

Then I read Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn, which turned out to be one of the most frightening books I've encountered. The first night I started it, I woke in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom and thought, Nope, not going downstairs, you can't make me. Eventually biology did make me, but I was not happy about it. I then considered bringing the dogs in the bed, but the only thing worse than waking from a nightmare and being alone in bed is waking from a nightmare to find there's something beside you in the bed that you can't immediately identify. This book was sort of a combination of Ruth Rendell and In Cold Blood. Terrifying. Very, very hard to put down.

And then Unlocked, by Courtney Milan, a romance novella. It was fine. Not particularly remarkable or memorable, but sweet.

Followed that up with another novella, Denis Johnson's Train Dreams. I do like Johnson's short stories and cannot read his novels; more than a hundred pages of his broken characters and I start whimpering a little. So this was a good length. There were a couple supernatural bits which genuinely made the hair rise on the back of my neck, and which I did not like reading alone in the house at night. Very strongly written overall.

And then this text conversation happened:

Me: Heh, my Kindle is recommending to me a trashy romance entitled "The Boat Builder's Bed".

Berowne, who is a boat builder: You might consider it.

Me: Fantasy couldn't possibly compare to reality. On the other hand, it is free.

Berowne: Free and you most certainly can relate to the protagonist.

Me: Downloaded. You will suffer through the prose with me if it is awful.

Berowne: I don't want to fall short of the fantasy.

Me: So far this boat builder is named "Rafe Severino" and drives a Jaguar.

Berowne: Damn it!

Me: And our heroine is trying to move furniture in a miniskirt and high heels. I do not relate.

Me: He's part Maori! OF COURSE he is. Gotta fetishize the natives! [He later turns out to be part Cherokee as well. SURE HE IS.]

Me: She's "unnerved by the waves of undiluted masculine power rolling off him". Just like I was when I met you.

Berowne: Now you can relate.

Me: He's "hurling sex all around" the room! It's like the author spied on my life.

Berowne: The funniest thing is I'm not sure you're joking.

Me: Our hero has a 10,000 square foot house. Have you been misleading me about the kind of money there is in boat-building? [It turns out that by "boat builder" the author means "owner of multimillion-dollar yacht company". No boats are built or sailed in the course of this book.]

Me: "Paddling her pert curvy butt was some consolation, but not enough."

Berowne: Paddling? Around in a big canoe?

Me: Yes, interesting verb choice. Ugh, our hero is dismayed because our heroine is a career woman and no career woman could ever want kids. He doesn't know about her Secret Child!

Me: "She admired his beautiful moonlit thighs."

Berowne: Don't we all?

Me: Not as much as we admire "the two tight creamy cheeks of his butt".

Berowne: My god, your clothes should be in a heap on the floor by now.

Me: Our hero has just announced that "keeping a woman safe is always a man's business". Infantilize me, baby. Oh lord, she's 25 and he just berated her about "ever getting around" to becoming a mother.

Berowne: Nice.

Me: But there's a Secret Child! Which she conceived despite condom use because she is so Perfectly Fertile!

Berowne: Oh my, that's arousing!

What this book mostly was, though, was money porn. Page after page of how rich the hero is, all his material stuff, all the material stuff he buys her; and she gets maybe two lines about how she wants to Make Her Own Way in life before deciding that living off him and popping out his babies (a relationship without children doesn't count, we are pretty emphatically told) is really the best thing in the world, because she can do it in a 10,000 square foot oceanfront house (he mocks her quite cruelly about the size of her apartment). The final scene is not about how much these two characters love each other, but about the size and ostentation of the bathroom in which they're having a conversation. Also there was no boat building whatsoever.

This is why I rarely read romance novels set in the modern day. Yes, this was a particularly bad one, but even the decent ones I've encountered (Nora Roberts comes to mind) are all about money. Of course period ones are all populated by nobility and our heroes are fearfully wealthy dukes and earls, but there is far less emphasis on Stuff. Every modern one I've read has lists of the Stuff the hero buys the heroine, which she is never in a position to buy for herself, and lists of his multiple cars and $500 ties, and that just makes my skin crawl because if you're pressing that money-consciousness so hard on the reader, you're making it a huge part of your heroine's decision to be with this guy. It's supposed to be part of the attraction for both reader and heroine, as if the amount of money someone has is just as important as whether he makes you laugh or whether you go slightly weak when you think about his hands which are scarred and callused from ACTUAL boat building whoa, sorry, got a little carried away there.

I know it's a fantasy. That's what makes me sad: this fixation on obscene wealth doled out by a man to a dependent woman as part of a supposedly woman-oriented fantasy. Of course there is nothing fun or romantic about struggling to get by, but no one should buy into this nonsense that the Ultimate Fantasy Date requires a private jet, the opera, and a designer gown he purchased for you without asking your opinion, and that the Ultimate Fantasy Happy Ending means that you have been swept away from your terrible plebeian working life and can now live among eternal cocktail parties and the constant nightmarish pressure to stay beautiful and thin, and never accomplish anything but being his woman! Isn't that what we all want?

If when I die I go to Hell, it will be an eternal cocktail party at which I have to be conscious of my laugh lines and have no life of my own to talk about.  

I don't deny it would be nice to not have to worry about money. But that still doesn't mean I'd want a guy to present me with diamond jewelry on the second date and take it for granted that I want to quit my job and move out of my little cottage the second I can, because ladies only work until they can catch a rich man, and how can an actual human being live in 850 square feet? The only wealth-fantasy I've ever bought into was the Beast's library in Robin McKinley's Beauty.

In conclusion: this week has contained lots of reading. Lots of laughter. Lots of irritation about books which try to tell me I should want something I don't simply because I am female. Lots of gratitude for all the good in my life. For the most part, I wish but for the thing I have.

Friday, October 19, 2012

all military takeovers, all the time

Since last posting I have only read books about dictators. Good times!

First up was By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño. It's a little novella, narrated by a priest on his deathbed, about Pinochet's rise to power. Short, but intense. It reminded me of Nádas' A Book of Memories or Sebald's Austerlitz, without being as good as either (I used to re-read A Book of Memories all the time in college and have been meaning to return to Austerlitz, but I can't imagine wanting to read By Night in Chile again). There is one astonishing bit where the narrator says, "Let God's will be done, I said. I'm going to reread the Greeks." And then for a two-page run-on sentence he rereads the Greeks, chronologically, while his country falls apart, and I cannot do justice to the writing but when it concluded with, "And then there was silence. I put my finger in the book to mark my place and looked up," I let out my held breath. It's pretty amazing, but the rest of the book wasn't on the same level.  

Then I headed over to WWII Germany, with The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. At first this book totally grabbed me with its weird poetic style and the fact that it is narrated by Death, and then that got annoying, and then I liked it again. Unfortunately, it all stayed on a superficial poetic parable-level for me, so I didn't care about any of the characters, because they weren't developed people. It tells the story of one German town, and for the most part, there are only Good or Bad people in town. There are the people who conceal Jews, and the people who spit at the Jews while they are being marched through town on their way to the camps. There are boys who are evil Hitler Youth leaders and there are boys who idolize Jesse Owens, and nothing in between. And the only characters Zusak goes into detail about are the good ones, for whom hiding Jews in the basement is a matter of course. We never see any struggle, any complicity with the Nazis that comes at a terrible moral price but keeps a family safe. And so the middle part, which is mostly about a family hiding a Jew, bogged exceedingly for me, because there was no struggle on the part of the family, no doubt, no moral haziness. I couldn't retain interest in that level of purity.

The ending successfully punched me in the face, which Zusak (to give him credit) warns the reader it is going to do. I mildly resent the fact of said punch.

Then I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson. I had been warned by others who read this that it's not nearly as interesting as Larson's other books, and I had to agree. I anticipated that the American family in question would be an ordinary family, but it turns out it's the American ambassador and his family, which I suppose meant they had access to far more members of Hitler's inner circle than an ordinary family would have, but also meant they were almost entirely immune to the everyday changes taking place in Berlin. I didn't believe for a second that they were living in "terror". Larson doesn't show that they are, either; it's all parties and who the adult daughter is sleeping with (everybody). The daughter, Martha Dodd, is a huge part of the book, but the amount of page space Larson devotes to her is baffling given that he clearly doesn't like her and doesn't bring her across to the readers as a person of any interest whatsoever. The chapters on the Night of the Long Knives are quite chilling, but they come too late in the book. By then I was just powering through because my library loan was expiring and I didn't want to check it out again.

I think I will read something which is not about dictators next. Possibly a nice light murder mystery, or horror story.


In me-related news, because heaven forbid I write just about reading, the actual purpose of this blog, without banging on about myself (as a Scottish blogger I love puts it): I'm feeling a strange sense of needing a label. This hasn't happened for many years and I think it has to do with dating again, and being introduced to his friends and family and wishing there was a quick way to identify myself for them, or present them with a hobby (excuse me, avocation) more concrete, more immediately useful for discussion or explanation, than "reading".

I flail about for labels when dating, because in the Beatricebrain, there is always some "perfect" match for the man I'm with, for whatever reason, and it isn't me. The Mistress was such an exact embodiment of my paranoid thinking that I still sometimes think I conjured her out of thin air. I'm leery of even mentioning the paranoid thinking I do about Berowne, lest I single-handedly create some healthfully-freckled woman with long beautiful hair who dyes her own yarn, cans her own fruit, and hasn't eaten a processed food item in sixteen years, striding up to his front door saying, "I just moved in on the next working farm over; would you like to harvest kale with me and meet my goats?"

(Nothing against women who do any of these things! I think women who do these things are awesome, frankly. I just don't have any interest in doing those things, and yet there is a voice in my head telling me I should be interested in doing them, and that women who do these things are automatically more appealing than I and if one appeared to my boyfriend he would be like, "Well, honey, there are goats. You can't compete with that.")   

If I was unabashedly urban, that contrast with Berowne's lifestyle at least might be interesting, but I'm not. I hate cities, I hate noise, I keep farmers' hours. I'm not high-powered regarding my career: I cherish being able to stand up from my desk after eight hours and go home and not check my e-mail until I am back at that desk. But I'm not at all crafty or earthy, either. I don't knit or garden or leave the house without product in my hair* and I'm terrified of bees.

Of course some of this (the label-hunting, not the fear of bees) has to do with my reading pace slacking lately. Previously when these thoughts came up I would toss my head and think, "I do so do things. I read and I write and I read and I watch documentaries and I laugh like a hyena over coffee with friends and I read." But of late I haven't been reading that much. So how do I define myself, and what do I have to offer? As if all my smarts and personality fall right out of my head if I don't study the printed word for two days. 

I think the maxim, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so," also applies to being interesting. I should stop wasting so much mental space and emotional energy on it, and give Berowne enough credit not to believe that he's walking around thinking, "She's almost perfect; if only there were goats."  

(What if there was a tiny goat? And also puppies? This.)

*Female celebrities who say of their pixie cuts that "now I just roll out of bed and go!" are huge liars. You need product, time, an extra mirror to see the back of your head, and the occasional flat iron, or you look like the lovechild of Kevin Bacon in "A Few Good Men" and Tintin.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

in which I enjoy lists


1. I have memorized my library card number, because I need to log in with it to get e-books. This strikes me as something that is as it should be.

2. It appears to have pushed my bank card number out of my brain, and I am trying to convince myself that that is also as it should be, rather than a sign of my decrepitude.

3. I was listening to Peggy Lee's "I'm a Woman" in the car this morning, and singing along to all the things she can do (starch and iron two dozen shirts / make a dress out of a feed bag / swing till four a.m., go to bed at five, jump up at six and start all over again), and then I said out loud, "I can't actually do any of those things," and laughed like a loon. I often feel less-than due to my lack of domesticity and social spontaneity (because it seems like you should do at least one of those things, right? you should be either house-proud or the life of the party, rather than reading amidst the dog-hair tumbleweeds), but some of the time I can laugh at it. And that is so good.

4. What my iPod shuffle plays when I am alone in the car: Peggy Lee, bluegrass, classical, interesting indie rock, flamenco, etc. What my iPod shuffle plays when my new boyfriend is in the car: crap 90s pop which is on there strictly for workout purposes.

5. My car is too loud for the drive-through.

6. Finished The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. It is the story of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage, told from the point of view of the wife, Hadley Richardson. I don't think McLain is a particularly amazing writer, although every now and then there was a very well-crafted phrase, and her few attempts to write a chapter from Ernest's perspective were cringe-inducing. The descriptions of expatriate writer life in the 1920s were decent but could have been filled out, and I wish there had been more about the politics of Europe at the time. Hemingway does go off and do his war reporting, but the background for the conflict is really glossed over. I found this book compelling as hell, though, simply because as a portrait of a collapsing marriage it is deadly accurate. Reading it in fact brought me back to a lot of emotions I haven't felt in a while. I know those feelings will always surface periodically, and as long as I let them pass through me instead of bottling them up, I'll be okay. In summary: Hemingway was a dick. But we already knew that.

7. Then I read Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. It's a huge sprawling book about twin boys born to an Indian mother and English father in 1950s Ethiopia, and the medical career in America one of the boys (our narrator) goes on to experience. Verghese is a doctor, and the descriptions of medical care and operations are fascinating and clear (not to mention graphic). The politics are also handled quite well, I thought. Alas, I didn't like our hero, so the second half of the book I found less appealing than the first, in which he's telling the story of his birth and childhood and he doesn't really appear as a character. Also, women are treated pretty shabbily in general and sex never ends well. For the first three hundred pages I couldn't put this down, but was disappointed by the second three hundred. I certainly understand the popularity of it, though, and would describe it as a good book.

8. I am reading three books at once right now, which I don't usually do (one is a re-read). Perhaps I am trying to make up for my lack of reading during September.

9.  I may never be either a domestic diva or social butterfly (or dance in "Swan Lake", or play the cello), but I have periodic spasms of wanting to get out the tool kit and fix everything myself. I predict this current one will end when a crucial piece of my broken dryer is flung across the basement, and disappears forever, because I thought a spider fell into my hair.

10. I cannot entirely blame #5 for this, since it happens when I am on foot as well: my ratio of "ordering decaf" to "receiving decaf" is only at about 2:1 these days. Just how exciting will my day be? I NEVER KNOW.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


September was low.

There was no concrete reason for this. My relationship is going very well, work is fine, I'm getting to see a lot of my friends, and autumn is my favorite season. But sometimes there isn't a concrete reason for a lingering depressed mood, and I need to accept that, instead of trying to find something I can fix.

By writing about being depressed, I am aware that I'm falling into the blogger trap of believing that everything I do is important. I don't think that, nor is this a post about how I'm offering myself up to let others know that they're not alone. If you have clinical depression, you're not alone, but I don't have that. I know people who do, and I know I'm lucky to be merely coping with a mood drop that lasted three weeks. This is just an explanation for the scanty reading recorded here.   

The problem, this time, was that when I realized I was going through a bad period I committed to self-care (not the problem) and then I decided to equate self-care with stagnation (the problem). So I would come home from work and think, "I have to be gentle with myself," and not work out, and re-read a Peter Robinson without even paying much attention to that, and half-ass a journal page, and go to bed; and in the morning I would sulk late in bed instead of walking the dogs and/or meditating.

And I know that doesn't make me feel better for more than a day or two. I know that nothing erases certain types of my bad feelings more effectively than a hard workout. I know I feel more engaged and curious when I'm reading something new. Comfort reading is grand for one rainy Sunday afternoon now and then. When done for several weeks straight, it actually burns me out. 

(I did, however, discover why I'd been so irritated at Robinson's "none of my readers know 'Othello'" deal from the last book of his I read: in one of his early books, the plot includes a community theater troupe putting on "Twelfth Night", and Robinson assumes his readers know the play. He doesn't explain who the characters are, he doesn't give us a Cliffs Notes of the plot: he assumes we know. Now I am less inclined to blame Robinson for the later nonsense, and more inclined to blame an editor saying, "You need to make this more accessible for the American market!" or something.)

At the end of the month, I finally found myself looking forward to coming home from work and reading something new. It is a good feeling. I think I am on the upswing.

So I did some reading. First was Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles, by Robert Sackville-West. Knole is the ancestral home of the Sackville family, the most famous member of which is of course Vita. The current inhabitant of Knole, Robert, wrote this book about the history of his family and the fortunes of the house and estate. It's mostly about the history of England, as the various Sackvilles rise and fall in royal favor. He devoted a little too much detail to Vita's mother, who was apparently a very dramatic person (and someone who left a huge amount of correspondence and journals behind her), but I didn't find her worth the amount of page space in a book that wasn't her biography. Other than that I quite liked this. Sackville-West's writing style is clear and witty, and it's a fun book for an Anglophile.

Then I read my Early Reviewers book, The Raven's Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens. Set in 18th century England, it is the story of a young nobleman wrongfully imprisoned and his friends' struggle to free him. Baltakmens is a Dickens scholar, and is obviously parroting Dickens' style as much as possible. This sometimes produced enjoyable metaphors, but I didn't get any sense of Baltakmens' own voice, and our hero is dumped in prison before we get to know him at all, so I didn't have any emotional investment in him securing his freedom. The book in general was over-long and the beginning too truncated; I would have expanded the pre-prison bit so that there is a chance to develop the character and then show how prison changes him (all the changes prison wrought on him were told to the reader, not shown), and trimmed some of the later stuff. It wasn't bad, and I didn't object to reading it, but it never sucked me in.

I am about halfway through The Paris Wife, a novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife. I have mixed feelings about it as a book, but as a portrait of a marriage falling apart, it's painfully mesmerizing.  

But I'm reading! This is good. And don't worry, I shall be back to all mirth and no matter soon enough. You should have seen the havoc the dogs caused their first weekend at Berowne's house. When Darcy's housetraining fails him, it fails spectacularly.

P.S. Berowne said a glorious thing lately: that when he wishes me to have a wonderful day, he means that literally: a day full of wonder. And since he said that I have been going through my days looking for sources of wonder. They are everywhere. Living where I do, I get to see both the sunrise and the sunset over the ocean (if I walk two blocks and go upstairs, respectively). When I come home from work or errands or the clothesline, I am greeted by two dogs who are wagging themselves sideways in their delight to see me. Sometimes, in the midst of a hard workout or yoga or Zumba routine (haters to the left), I feel fully in my body and utterly gleeful at the things it can do. This past Sunday morning I found myself sitting in a rustic kitchen with my dogs at my feet while a handsome bearded man made me breakfast, and if finding yourself in a Nora Roberts novel isn't cause for wonder I don't know what is.

I said I wanted the word for 2012 to be "delight". No reason there can't be two words for this year, which has surprised me pleasantly in so many ways.

P.P.S. A brilliant description of the adulthood blues.