Monday, November 26, 2012

have been on a journey, read a lot

Hello, dear readers! I am sorry for the long silence, but first I was preparing for vacation, and then I was on vacation, and then I was standing in line to have my dogs' picture taken with Santa. It's very glamorous being me.

There has been a lot of reading in the meantime. I will try to sum up:

When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson. I continue to love Atkinson. Her books aren't really mysteries; they're character studies, and absorbing as hell. And in this one the Patented Atkinson Dog Fatality gets out of the way in the first seven pages (it's awful, though) and then we can all move forward.

Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines, by Julia Blackburn. This is a very strange biography of a very strange woman, who did in fact live among the Aborigines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but who lied about so much of her life that no one really knows who she was or what was going on in her head. Blackburn accordingly writes this as mostly a dream-like first-person narrative with an extremely unreliable and grandiose narrator, and I kept forgetting that it was non-fiction. I found it pretty interesting, though.

Speaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley. This was my Early Reviewers book and the latest in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, about an eleven-year-old chemist in 1950's England. It was quite charming and quite melancholy, and a return to form after the disappointment of the previous one in the series, a flimsy Christmas story. I look forward eagerly to the next.

Rebel Angels, by Libba Bray. This is the sequel to A Great and Terrible Beauty, which I liked a lot despite its flaws (neither the rules of the magic nor the geography of the magic realm are clear; a protagonist who by birthright is the Chosen One always interests me far less than one who has to struggle). Both the charm of our heroine's realistic sixteen-year-old thought process and actions, and the aforementioned flaws, continued in this book. The geography in particular got even more confusing, and the book definitely didn't need to be almost 600 pages long. But I liked it enough that I'll read the third.

I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, by Nora Ephron. This made me laugh occasionally (and cry once), but I was definitely not its target audience.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island, by Andrew Motion. The premise of this is that Jim Hawkins' son and Long John Silver's daughter team up to return to Treasure Island and retrieve what was left behind. This was a good, fun book despite the fact that I didn't understand some of Motion's choices and the ending was narratively messy. Also I think we might be expected to believe that two eighteen-year-olds who fancy each other and share a room go a night without anything happening. Uh-huh.

Murder Being Once Done, by Ruth Rendell. An Inspector Wexford mystery. The mystery was a really small part of the book; it was slow-moving and, while not quite boring, didn't keep me awake on a plane. But I'm not sure I wanted it to, so that's okay.

Bad Boy, by Peter Robinson. The latest Inspector Banks novel. It's pretty weak: the villains are two-dimensional and the title character's transition from "charming" to "emotionally abusive" happens in the space of a paragraph and the girl with him totally goes along with it. "Oh, you were praising me two seconds ago and now you're telling me all my clothing is hideous and my makeup makes me look like a slut? Great! Let's go shopping for new stuff! This doesn't send up any red flags!" We're supposed to believe she's emotionally fragile enough to get into this relationship, but also that being called "slutty" by the man she worships is something she can shrug off. Not likely.  

And I tried to read Railsea, by China MiƩville. I really did try. I've never read any MiƩville, but everyone I know raves about him, and the premise of this book was steampunk Moby-Dick on trains, and really how can you go wrong? Well, it turns out you can, and I'm not entirely able to articulate why. The scene-setting was pretty decent, but the writing style didn't grab me and the characters actively repelled me, in that I simply couldn't care what happened to them no matter how hard I tried. I made it forty percent of the way through before I decided my vacation reading was not allowed to be a chore.

I think that's it, for now. I hope everyone had a lovely holiday!

Friday, November 9, 2012

books about disturbing people

So, re: the last post, I think I realized something else about why I might not be considered an introvert: I had politeness drilled into me so thoroughly from such a young age that I always knew my shyness wasn't an excuse to make others walk on eggshells around me. That it was incredibly rude to be visibly miserable at a social gathering, because that makes others uncomfortable. And that's a huge part of why I can play a people person on TV at parties. It's the polite thing to do.

Thanks, parents! And I'm not being sarcastic when I say that.

On the other hand, I'm now comfortable enough with myself to, when making plans for a weekend, tell a good friend, "I can't do [x] on Sunday because I already have plans all day Saturday and I'll be socially burnt out." Many of my friends are also introverts, and understand the need to have one of your two days off be about regrouping privately, and at this point in our lives we're not pretending with each other. Which is also very good.

In other news, I was in a bad and terrifying car accident this past weekend. It was completely the other driver's fault, which made me feel immensely put-upon, and by that I mean it made me feel put-upon not later, but as my car was doing a 180 and bouncing over a curb. When the other car struck me, as my car spun out I wasn't thinking, Dear God, I'm going to die; I was thinking, For crap's sake, now I have to spend my afternoon dealing with this. This is true. I felt the terror much later; at the time I felt solely irritation.

But everyone I've dealt with - insurance people, tow truck drivers, jovial mechanics who were deeply amused at the discrepancy between my appearance and the type of car I drive - has been utterly charming and I trust it will all be resolved at some point.

On to the books!

Since last posting I have read:

Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of, by Harold Schechter. This was my Early Reviewers book and I think it should be repackaged with a less salacious and problematic title and cover (the cover features a giant skull with red eyes), because it was fairly restrained and well-written. Schechter's premise is that some killers who are very famous in their time then disappear from the folklore, while others (like Lizzie Borden) remain infamous, but he doesn't really have any theories as to why this happens, which would have been interesting. The chapters are just recaps of the crimes, with a little bit of chronological context, but I found it a compelling bit of bathroom reading (what? they're short chapters). And I do appreciate someone smacking down Anita Shreve's The Weight of Water.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. Whoof. This is the obnoxious memoir I mentioned in my last post. Strayed is the type of person who would legally change her name to "Strayed", and that sort of tells you all you need to know. The basic plot is that Strayed's mother dies and she then cheats on her husband and does heroin and hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and is hot. There is an utterly absurd and soft-core-porny section near the end that exists only because Strayed wants to make it very clear that after months on the trail she was still effortlessly hot enough to pick up a random guy in a bar* who then talked for two days about how gorgeous she is, and she's going to write down every word he said for posterity. The tone of the whole book is like that: I Am A Unique Snowflake Because No One Else Is Hot Or Tough Or Beloved Enough To Do This. Quite literally in places: see the chapter about being "the Queen of the PCT" because everyone wants to do things for her.

The thing is, she was twenty-six when she did this. Twenty-six-year-olds are obnoxious. But she didn't write the book when she was twenty-six; she wrote it in her early forties. (I don't at all doubt there is hard-core self-loathing about aging behind the constant emphasis on being the most beautiful woman in California.) When you read Julie & Julia, for example, you come out of it thinking, "God, Julie Powell's an obnoxious twenty-something," but that's what she was when she was writing it. It's perfectly possible to write a memoir looking back on your early twenties and detail that you were a hot mess, and why, and do it affectionately. There's no insight in this book. It's as if Strayed can only see the timeline of her mother's sudden, early death and the events that followed; she doesn't see any causation or feel the need to get into it if she does see it. For a book in a self-reflecting genre, it's bizarrely lacking in any actual self-reflection. She tells a story about being too cool for therapy because there's nothing "a man" (her words) can tell her about herself, and for three hundred pages she treats her readers like that therapist (I know everything about my own psyche, so I don't have to tell you, and I don't sleep around because I have daddy issues, I do it because I'm so beautiful, and did I mention that my husband on whom I cheated drove 1700 miles to rescue me when he heard I was doing heroin?**). I haven't the faintest idea why I finished this book.

ANYWAY. Then I read two more Gillian Flynns: Gone Girl and Sharp Objects. The latter was her first book and is unsurprisingly much weaker than the other two. Still creepy, but not nearly as compelling. Whereas Gone Girl: aiiiiee!

The story: Amy has gone missing on her fifth wedding anniversary. Nick, her husband, is the prime suspect. We get alternating chapters from the two points of view throughout the book, Amy's first in the form of diary entries and later as, well, I'm spoiling it already. They're both terrifyingly awful people. This book is both so thrilling and so real, in terms of two people falling out of love and dealing with infidelity, that I wanted to read it all in one sitting and physically couldn't. Amy narrates long chapters about being the Cool Girl when she met Nick, all up-for-anything and always-has-a-sense-of-humor and so on, and about discovering his affair, and even though she's an unreliable narrator (as is Nick) I sometimes thought I was going to scream during those chapters. The whole thing is amazingly written and just brutal. Flynn is crazy-talented. I can't wait to see what she does next.

*As a human female who has been in bars, I have to snort a little when women hold this up as an incontrovertible example of their beauty, and a lot of female writers do.

**Does Strayed realize that this is almost certainly WHY she did heroin, and made sure he knew about it: to manipulate him into saving her? No. No, she does not. Every time she references her drug use in the book she says she doesn't know why she did it. YOU'VE SPENT FORTY-FOUR YEARS THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOU DON'T KNOW THIS? Or, which is possibly worse, she does know but refuses to admit anything negative about herself, and assumes her reader is too stupid to figure it out.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

on shyness

This post brought to you by Trying Not To Think About The Election. Length ahead.

As the first anniversary of this blog approaches, and I read an obnoxious memoir (of which more in a later post), I have been thinking about the culture of exposure and the fact that, no matter how much we may deny it, all personal bloggers are hoping on some level to be "discovered" and to be offered buttloads of money to talk about ourselves, as a reward for the hard work of talking about ourselves for free. I'm not going to lie: I'd write a memoir in a second, and of course I think it would be better than most of the memoirs out there, and I would try not to make it obnoxious but there's a good chance it would be.

I started this blog as a place to publicly shame my husband and wallow in self-pity. The book reviews were an excuse because reading is pretty much the only thing I do with my time. (This is why I say that my memoir would have a good chance of sliding into the obnoxious zone: I like to think of myself as a mature and gracious person, but at thirty-four years old I still wanted to throw myself a pity party and talk about a person I once loved as a two-dimensional villain. I would need a very stern editor.)

Berowne refuses to classify me as an introvert because of this blog. And because the second time we met I just marched right up to him and started talking, wearing my interest on my sleeve. That was one of the bravest things I've ever done, quite frankly, and without seven years of practicing the art of social functioning I wouldn't have been able to do anything but sit across the patio and blush in his general direction (as it was, after two seconds of silence I panicked and launched into a ten-minute story about my family while leaving out the only fact which gave the story any point at all).

I'm shy. Very, very shy; in a slightly later era and with different parents I would probably have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder around the time I started school, and been on medications who knows how long.

As things stand, I don't have a mental illness diagnosis which requires medication or regular therapy. I don't have any trouble reading social cues: I'm in fact hyper-sensitive to them. But for the first eighteen years of my life I could not talk to a stranger. I just could not do it. It was the most terrifying thing imaginable.

Then I discovered alcohol. And I didn't drink because I wanted to be the party girl. I drank because without alcohol I literally could not talk to someone I didn't already know extremely well. I could not function at a party without it. It was basic self-medicating.

So when I got sober, I was looking back at twenty-eight years of non-functioning socially. I had to learn how to function, the way you would learn to ride a bike or speak a new language. My theater experience helped immensely, and I was determined and observant, and learned quickly that if you are a youngish woman with a decent smile, you can get away with listening a lot and speaking a little (the flip side of that, of course, is the fact that Expert Guys will sense you from six rooms away and swarm like bees). But I am still terrified every time I land in a social situation with people I don't know. I can hide it, I can get through for a couple hours, I can think of it as a role I am playing. I can translate in my head the way you do when you're not fluent in that second language. I'm exhausted afterwards, but I can do it.

And when I was suddenly living alone, I had to learn to be able to pick up the phone and call to order the heating oil, the take-out; make my own appointments; deal with store clerks and repairpeople and neighbors. If I didn't do these things, they just wouldn't get done. So I do them. If the person on the other end of the phone is a jerk, I'll still get off the phone trembly and tearful and brood on it all day, but I can make the call.

I end up liking lots of people once I meet them, but I'm scared of almost everyone initially. I'm scared of women who are more glamorous than I am (that they'll pity my attempts to look good). I'm scared of women who don't feel the need to be glamorous (that they'll scorn me as shallow). I'm scared of good-looking men (that they'll think I'm trying to flirt) and men to whom I'm not attracted (that they'll think I'm trying to flirt). I am terrified to trembling-point of the woman who in another age would have been called the Vivacious Dame: the one whose physical appearance doesn't even matter because she is so outgoing and fun, the center of the room, the one with the loudest laugh and the most friends. The one who can dance and drink until three in the morning, never getting sloppy or maudlin, and meet you at brunch with bright eyes and a hug for the diner staff, because of course she knows them all.

I am terrified of that woman for two reasons: the first is because I believe she makes me disappear. In a sense she literally does; Berowne has yet to host a late-night party since I met him, but I know he does such things, and I know that around midnight I will pumpkin the hell out and scamper away to bed, leaving him to the Vivacious Dames. I don't fear that a Dame and Berowne would get up to anything untoward, mind (Dames are very capable of platonic friendships with men and Berowne is trustworthy). But the Dames get those hours, get those laughs, long after I've either stopped trying to contribute to the conversation or have literally left the room. 

The second reason for terror is that I can't be a Dame, and that makes me feel not-good-enough. I can stand my ground on, or shrug off, anything else that frightens me, because I know that for the people who matter in my life I am attractive enough, I am intelligent enough, I am interesting enough. I don't need to have everyone agree I'm the best at everything; don't need that universal validation at parties anymore. But the second a Vivacious Dame bombs into the room, drink in hand and energy ricocheting off the walls, I am reminded that no matter what else I do I can't be that. I can be the prettiest, smartest, nicest, wittiest woman in the room (if you pick the right room, of course), but I will never be the most fun woman in the room. I will never be the Cool Girl. (I am reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which there are passages about the Cool Girl which are so painfully close to home that I have had to physically walk away from the book on occasion lest I scream.) You can love me enough to think I'm the smartest woman in a room full of Ph.Ds, or the prettiest in a room full of supermodels. But no one is ever going to think that I'm the most fun woman in a room full of extroverts.

Lamenting that is like being in the hypothetical room full of supermodels and lamenting that I'm not the tallest. It's absurd and pointless. I have to stop assuming that everyone I love will eventually love a fun woman more, just because one person did it. But I've always felt inadequate because of my introversion. Felt that I wasn't normal, that there was something wrong with me, that it shouldn't be this hard. And when my boyfriend tells me he doesn't think I'm an introvert, I panic, because I think, What happens when he finds out I am? It's my very own Romance Novel Heroine's Terrible Secret! ("But when Vivienne Pomplemousse tells Ravensdric, Earl of Manmusk, that she is socially burnt out after only two hours at the party, what will become of their love?"*)

Blogs became a thing when I was in college (I was actually at college with one of the first personal bloggers). I didn't grow up with blogs, but as a twenty-year-old surrounded by similar people and faced with this phenomenon, I didn't see a paradox in the fact of shy or socially awkward people writing about their lives for public view. I still don't. I assume, as I think many shy bloggers do, that the people who are interested are going to read, and that they are interested because they find something applicable to their own lives here. Extroverted people assume that the interest is universally there. An introverted blogger is placing his/her thoughts in a place where those who have the interest can find them. I have about eighty readers, the vast majority of whom know me in real life. That makes sense to me.

I don't talk about anything I wouldn't talk about to someone who asked me directly. I don't talk about my sex life, and I try to keep my body image issues out of here because I find it hard to talk about those without sounding like I'm fishing for compliments. I am upfront about being a recovering alcoholic and about how terrifying cancer and divorce were, because those are things that happen, and they haven't happened just to me, and I don't want them to be things of which I'm ashamed. And, to justify myself, they do affect my reading. Many books feature addiction, illness, and marital collapse: those are all excellent sources of drama. If I were to attempt to review a book with an addicted protagonist while pretending I had no personal experience of addiction, that would just be odd.

Also, you can be introverted and want attention. I'm not going to pretend otherwise.

But, for me, what it comes down to is that I don't hate myself any more, but I'm still shy. My lack of social functioning in the past was a combination of self-loathing (why would anyone want to talk to me? everything that comes out of my mouth is wrong) and the basic personality trait that is shyness. That trait is still there, and always will be. New people and large social gatherings make me nervous and self-conscious and drain my energy fast. Period. I know I can be funny, and interesting, and say perceptive things about books, and this is an easy way to keep people updated on my life, and so I blog. And still new people and large social gatherings make me nervous and self-conscious and drain my energy fast. I don't see the contradiction, I guess. The things which it may seem extroverted, or boundary-crossing, for me to mention on a blog are the aspects of myself I used to be ashamed of, and I'm just not any more. 

I don't think that with my vast readership of eighty people who already like me I'm going to change society's view of addiction (that it's about a lack of self-control) or illness (if you get cancer it's because you did something unhealthy) or divorce (if you get divorced you just weren't willing to work on your marriage enough). And I am still a private person in many ways. But the previous version of me didn't avoid these topics because they fell into a category of what I consider private, the way my sex life does. I avoided those topics because I was ashamed of them. Now I'm not. 

I don't mean to call poor Berowne out here. He's not the only one who finds personal blogging an odd hobby for a shy person. But I have had a very enjoyable year writing this blog and I intend to continue. Just don't think that means you can take me to a New Year's Eve party, because those things are the devil.**

*What became of their love: Manmusk narrowed his piercing eyes and requested one hour more. Vivienne heaved her alabaster bosom and said that was fine. They chatted to a fabulous older couple and left after an hour and fifteen minutes.

**Does anyone really enjoy NYE parties? Discuss.

Friday, November 2, 2012

in brief

Just a quick round-up, as things are rather a mess around here. Major appliances dying, dogs I have come to love through the blogosphere passing away, and loved ones getting awful medical news. Also I kind of hate Halloween, even though dressing the dogs up is always entertaining and once I get outside with them on the actual night I enjoy the walk (rather than deal with the total chaos every time someone rings the bell and the little children who burst into hysterical tears when they see giant eager dogs, I leave the house dark and walk the dogs around town until trick-or-treating is over). So it's been a rough week.

I read:

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson. I have decided I love Atkinson, and I loved this despite the fact that she always kills dogs. In this one she introduced a very, very old dog whose owner had just died, so you know bad things are coming. And you would not be wrong.

Below Zero, another C.J. Box mystery. This wasn't his best. It distracted me, but I was a little disappointed.

Ned Kelly and the City of Bees, by Thomas Keneally. This was a crazy-pants children's novel from Australia about a boy (not this Ned Kelly; if it had been that is really the only way the book could have been weirder) who is supposedly in a coma but actually living with bees. I don't know how else to describe it. It's very reminiscent of the book the characters in Angels & Insects are writing.

I wish for love and hope for all those who need some, and a good weekend full of books.