Tuesday, December 31, 2013

end-of-year babbling

Goodness, what a year. Actually: goodness, what a last three years.

2011 was about going through cancer treatment while my first marriage broke up. 2012 was about finalizing the divorce, rearranging a ton about my life (on a practical level: every major appliance including my car died at some point; on an emotional level: hooo boy), and starting a new relationship for the first time as an adult (no, I wasn't an adult at twenty-four). I end 2013 married again, five months pregnant, and adjusting to living with someone after living alone for two and a half years. And because in 2014 there will be, barring something terrible happening, an actual baby, things are not exactly going to settle down around here.

Thankfully, my job has remained fairly stable through all this.

Thankfully, I was able to keep paying the mortgage and stay in the little island cottage I love so. (It's far too small for both my stuff and Berowne's, not to mention a baby's, so we will have to find somewhere else in the next couple years. Like I said, things are not exactly settling down.)

Thankfully, my family is all well (Impending Baby will have two cousins born right around the same time!) and the dogs are their fabulous doggy selves.

Thankfully, I met and married a man who... well, the following two conversations speak for themselves:

1. Me: Guess what is today's historical anniversary? Think cannibalism.

Him: The Donner Party?

Me: No... though that is also right around this time!

Him: The whaleship Essex?

Me: Yes! [claps hands] You know me so well.

Him: I love you.

2. Upon our being congratulated about our soon-to-be "family of three":

Him: Um, family of five.

The dogs: Damn straight!


So the year ends on a sweet note, but of course challenges remain. As I said, it's a major adjustment to suddenly be living with someone again, especially someone who comes with a whole adult household's worth of stuff, and I have not always been, shall we say, gracious about it. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU HAVE MORE STUFF TO BRING UP TODAY I THOUGHT WE WERE DONE" was said a few times, not to mention how jarring it sometimes is to see a completely rearranged living room full of his furniture. (Yes, my old furniture had been eaten down to the springs and frames by certain canines. But it's still jarring.)

I can't have proper cancer screenings until I'm done breastfeeding, according to my oncologist, so if I do breastfeed (I plan to try) I may not have another mammogram for a year or more. Breastfeeding does lower one's odds of recurrence, but that's still a disturbing prospect. However, I always knew that pregnancy would be slightly dangerous, and I always knew I wanted to try for kids anyway (a covering OB called me a "warrior" for getting pregnant after breast cancer, and I said honestly that it never occurred to me not to try). So this is a mixed bag as well. Everything is.

As I have mentioned in recent posts, due to some eating-issues triggers we're unfortunately ending this year with the return of perfectionism and self-shaming. But I beat those things before and I will beat them again. Cheese limits! Not in this life. 

2014 will have challenges I can't even imagine, but there will be books, and laughter, and apples. There will be dog kisses and long walks; delicious meals and good friends; excessive capitalization and parentheses and other fun with writing. When I was reading "A Christmas Carol" out loud to Berowne, our friends, and the dogs, the baby danced the whole time, so you know there will be Dickens. There will be no cheese limits. 

Resolutions for 2014: 

Hang onto my sense of humor - I'll need it, I know, and so will those around me. 

Let myself take it slowly when I need to, and imperfectly almost always (of course this does not apply to my work, which is data-based and so does have to be accurate, but absolutely none of my outside-work activities are measurable [or comparable to others'] to the extent that I pretend they are). 

Try to enjoy the moment (stop worrying about whether my car's parked in at a party, about whether I'll regret spending Saturday afternoon reading instead of cleaning, about what next month's bills will look like). Life's significant blows are almost always unexpected, and the best preparation for them is to not already be wound spring-tight in fretful preparation for something else; even if it is the prepared-for something else that does arrive, having made myself a wreck expecting it doesn't, astonishingly, help. 

Always live in a house full of love (this is merely dependent on oneself and local rescue organizations: when I was single and living with two dogs, it was still a house full of love). 

Be grateful for the abundance of what surrounds me and is available to me, rather than assigning gratitude the role of what I should feel for the few things I haven't denied myself (when the self-denial is based on nothing more than principle). 

No self-neglect in the name of bravery or stoicism or Doing It Right. This isn't a real issue while I'm pregnant, because any self-neglect doesn't affect just me right now, but it's an old habit into which I'm too likely to slip once the baby's born. "Only the world's most selfish mother would be concerned about her own health issues!"

I'd say "less guilt", but I'm going to be suddenly responsible for a small human life, so that's unrealistic in the extreme. As is "less worry". I think this train of thought comes back around to the first item about not losing my sense of humor. As long as my daughter never sees me become bitter or resigned, as long as she doesn't see me centering my present life around past tragedies or resentments, as long as she sees me laughing and moving forward, I think I'll be doing okay. And on the days I can't do okay, the dogs can take over. (I wonder how Kongs are as teething toys.) 

A very happy New Year to all. May your nights be comforting, your dawns rejuvenating, and your days full of laughter.    

Thursday, December 26, 2013

a couple books, and more pregnancy blah blah

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. A study on how the disenfranchisement of minority males in America is being achieved via the "War on Drugs", with its harsh mandatory sentencing and the fact that anyone convicted of a felony then loses the right to vote, apply for public housing, etc. Alexander is smart and relatively articulate, but I feel like this book was about a third longer than it needed to be. She repeats herself a lot, as if she didn't trust her reader to go along with the argument. It got kind of dry. 

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon. I don't want to say, "This book is for dudes," because that's offensive and no doubt thousands of women loved this book, but... this book was kind of for dudes. And I say that as someone who LOVED Kavalier and Clay despite having zero interest in comic books. But this book? I was only interested in one of the six or seven plot lines, and even that one (about midwives) was irritating due to the two women being undeveloped and hence undifferentiated (they are different races and one is pregnant, but their dialogue, motivations, and status as Supporter of Male Character are virtually identical) as characters. I didn't care about the teenage obsession plot, or the blaxploitation kung fu movie plot, or the record store plot (oh LORD, the monologues about jazz), or the endless pages full of pop-culture references. What Chabon has done here - and he's pretty upfront about it - is written a book for Quentin Tarantino. I do not feel that Tarantino and I overlap much, as target audiences go, and I have to admit that I skimmed the last fifth of this book in a big way. That said, the man can write. 


In life-news: I'm twenty-four weeks pregnant (oh my GOD this is really happening). The baby's kicking away in there at regularly-scheduled intervals, or when something exciting like a loud noise or a Christmas cookie occurs. Berowne, the other night, pulled out his harmonica, and at the first two notes the baby clearly woke up from a sound sleep the way that anyone would if woken from a sound sleep by a harmonica. "WHAT WHAT HOLY COW WHAT??" I don't think I've ever felt her kick that hard before. It was hilarious. 

(I had really good intentions about remaining scientifically clinical about it Not Being a Baby Yet. I was going to keep saying "fetus" and "it", because women being overly cutesy about their pregnancies = bleeaargh. The "it" was impossible to maintain once we knew the sex, which we did at about fourteen weeks thanks to the awesome new blood tests; and once I felt kicking I found myself using the word "baby", and by now it's totally She, the Baby, and I'm running into the bathroom while Berowne is showering to tell him, "Oh man, she's bouncing!" and it's all ganging as agley as best-laid schemes aft do.) 

We had a lovely quiet Christmas, just us and the dogs, and opened lots of baby-related presents and went for a walk in the freezing cold and ate delicious food (I married a fearsome cook) and generally enjoyed ourselves. 

Unfortunately, I continue to have anxiety around being lectured at the doctor's about my weight gain. This anxiety is completely unfounded because neither the OB, nor the midwife, nor any of the nurses, have said one word about that weight gain; this is all coming from that one nutritionist and the internet, saying that the maximum a woman should gain during pregnancy is thirty-five pounds and almost all of that should happen in the last trimester. According to things like the Mayo Clinic website, I should only have gained fifteen pounds, tops, by now; I've gained roughly twenty-five. And because the Mayo Clinic website clearly knows me and my body and my health very well, my feelings of shame are completely justified. Or something. 

There's no reason to worry. The weight is all where it should be - belly and, ahem, bosom -; no swelling in my face or hands or ankles; no expansion, even, in my thighs, which is where excess weight always hits me first. My skinny jeans - until they reach the belly - fit exactly as they did before. I feel grand and the baby is obviously active as anything. I only gained two pounds my first trimester, and then the second trimester, when one has the appetite of a post-hibernation bear anyway, corresponded with the holidays and a vacation to a place with the world's tastiest restaurants (yes, I've been to Paris - very yummy, but no Santa Fe). So I'm sure everything is fine, but I'm also cringing at the thought of a) not being perfect and b) not being perfect in a weight-related way. And I'm boring everyone to tears with my whining about it. I promise I'll stop in 2014! or at least regain a sense of humor about it. It's just, well, I believe I should either be perfect or the kind of awesomely imperfect free spirit who can laugh off expectations. Instead I am the kind of person who was never really designed to be perfect (a hard worker, yes; fairly intelligent, yes; naturally perfect and gifted? oh no) but is also incapable of shrugging off a random authority figure telling me I have failed at an arbitrary measure. Turns out this is an un-fun combination. 

(The nutritionist wanted me to shame myself into cheese limits ["this is all the cheese I am allowed today," I'm supposed to tell myself, sternly, while preparing my post-work snack]. A CHEESE LIMIT. I ASK YOU. And as if I will EVER go back to the mental processes of, say, 1996, when I was convinced that if I were a better person I wouldn't need calories to survive and that all the bad things that happened to me were 100% deserved because I was a disgusting flab-pig with no self-control and I "allowed" myself something I shouldn't have. Puh-lease!)

Okay, I really will stop now. Stay warm, everyone! Enjoy the hell out of your cheese!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

only, like, half of this post is about pregnancy...

So, I really do still read, despite pregnancy eating my brain (how much I retain is a completely different issue). 

I worked very hard at not mentioning the pregnancy to anyone but a select few for a long time, but now that the floodgates are open, it's All Pregnancy, All the Time. I even posted a picture of the bump to Facebook this morning, heaven forgive me. All this must be incredibly boring for my friends who are not interested in that sort of thing and/or used to tune in to my social media for dog shenanigans. Just as I really don't want to become one of those mothers who only hang out with other mothers - I've been on the childless receiving end of that, and it sucks - I had good intentions about simply being pregnant while I go about my normal life. And to a large extent that's exactly what's happening: I go to work, we walk the dogs, we go to see friends, etc. I had to buy new pants, and a couple times a month I have medical appointments, but so far (knock on ALL the wood) nothing has changed enormously. 

Except that I'm growing a human being, HOLY CRAP. And that I have to put tons of thought into all the stuff we need to buy, and all the things we need to learn, and picking a daycare, and AAAAIIIEEE. (Baby stuff we have purchased to date: two swaddling blankets. The end.) So I apologize for all this pregnancy-madness, and in advance for the impending baby-madness. I'm very wary of alienating readers with this preoccupation, but I have to be honest about the fact that it is a preoccupation, in a big way. Plus the workplace policing of what I ingest has begun, and there is no way that's not going to be entertaining / appalling blogging fodder. 

I am sure there will be baby + dog shenanigans. So there's that to anticipate...?  

Read lately:

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, by Philip Hoare. Contained some interesting (and devastating) stuff about the history of whaling, but was mostly about Philip Hoare, and occasionally the prose got completely overwrought. 

The Dreams of Ada, by Robert Mayer. Non-fiction book about a disappearance in Ada, Oklahoma and how two young men were convicted of murder without any evidence that the disappeared person was, in fact, dead. This book fell victim to the true-crime theory that long, long letters from barely-literate people are worth reproducing in their entirety (I blame Norman Mailer for this - let's face it, you can blame Norman Mailer for most things), but having made peace with skipping those parts, I found this book well-written and gripping. 

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick. His latest, about the beginnings of the Revolutionary War in Boston. I really enjoyed it, but I think if you weren't quite familiar with the Boston area you'd get very confused about the geography involved. There are a few tiny maps scattered here and there, but mostly Philbrick just talks about troops marching from town to town without explaining where the towns are in relation to each other. Maybe this was written for Bostonians specifically. Worked for me. 

Rest Not in Peace, by Mel Starr. My Early Reviewers book. The latest in a series I know of but hadn't read before, about a 14th-century British surgeon who solves crimes. Starr's done his research, but lets the reader figure out archaic words and customs largely from context rather than infodumping, which I greatly appreciate. The story itself was no more than fine, but I liked the style. 

Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs, by Elissa Wall. Ever since reading Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, I've been fascinated by the Mormons and their various sects. This book was overlong and not particularly well-written, and I did wonder if Wall ever really figured out how babies are made (it's possible that even after leaving the sect, she continues to believe that birth control is immoral, and that's why she keeps having babies even when it's a bad time to do so), but parts of it are effectively creepy, especially if you've already read about Warren Jeffs in Krakauer. I'd recommend you stick with his stuff, rather than this, if you want to know more about the topic.  

Friday, December 6, 2013

pregnancy FAQ

Q: Aren't you worried about the dogs around the baby?

A: No. My dogs are neither vicious, nor unexposed to small children, nor so dim that they would fail to recognize that a creature is a) helpless b) important and c) a member of the pack. Frankly, the dogs will probably have a lot more patience with the baby than I will. 

Q: How much weight have you gained?

A: All of it, apparently, but since you're not my doctor, you don't get a numerical answer. (And yes, I have been asked this question by people who are not my, or anyone else's, doctor.)

Q: Don't you feel beautiful?

A: I used to have a twenty-six-inch waist. 

Q: But pregnancy is a woman's most beautiful / natural / womanly condition!

A: That is SO offensive to women who choose not to or cannot have biological children. Please don't ever say that.

Also, I am thirty-seven years old, have gone through cancer treatment, and was single until last year. I had pretty much given up hope of ever having children, when I have known my whole life that I want them. And here I am, growing a human being. The idea that we, as a society, need to constantly reassure pregnant women that they are actually hotter now than they've ever been seems to me a strange set of priorities in the face of the literally awesome biological process my body is experiencing. It's the difference between grudging your way through a workout or a run out of a desperate desire to be thin, and doing said workout or run for the sake of and delight in what your body can do. When I feel the baby kick, it's like finishing a workout that I previously wasn't strong enough to complete: wow, my body can do this. Really, whether men now find me more desirable than ever (which I've seen several books claim they do) is not factoring greatly into my sense of wonder here. 

Q: Does that mean you are totally cool with your body and your weight gain?

A: HA HA HA. Seeing a number on the scale that I had never seen before, and then being told that that number was "over the line" in terms of acceptable weight gain by the nutritionist, has me in a tailspin. Even though that weigh-in was four days after returning from a week spent at the most delicious restaurants in Santa Fe, when under ANY circumstances I would have gained about eight temporary pounds. Even though my body-fat percentage pre-pregnancy was crazy low, to an extent that I couldn't healthily sustain in pregnancy. I can come up with a dozen logical arguments why I shouldn't worry about this, and still all I hear in my head is someone telling me I weigh too much.  

Q: How gassy are you?

A: Level: Hindenburg.

Q: Does being pregnant increase your chances of the cancer recurring?

A: Yes. An increase of estrogen in the body is not a good idea when you had estrogen-receptor-based cancer. If there were any cancer cells left in my body post-treatment, pregnancy will give them a boost. If there weren't, I should be fine. There's really no way to know until I'm delivered and can resume screenings. I've kept all my OB care at the same hospital where I got cancer treatment, which provides me some peace of mind, although of course I go into hysterical panics now and then.

Q: Has your bladder betrayed you when you laugh yet?

A: No.

Q: What about when you sneeze?

A: I was home and in my pajamas, so it doesn't count.

Q: Is your hair growing as fast and gloriously as everyone says it will?

A: Not really. 

Q: What about your eyebrows and those weird mole hairs?

A: Like bamboo in the wet season.

Q: Have you stopped the self-destructive Googling?

A: ...Mostly. The idea of "acceptable weight gain" sent me back in that direction, I admit. I'm working on not doing stupid things like that.

Q: Are you going to eat the placenta?

A: Am I what?

Q: The eating of the placenta is a thing about which you have to have an opinion now, as part of your Birth Experience. Women blog about how they had postpartum depression because they were not allowed to eat the placenta (and apparently had no other access to the extra iron and protein that women need after childbirth, the lack of which they say caused the depression). Women blog about how they didn't have postpartum depression because they ate the placenta. Women blog about how their postpartum depression was caused by eating the placenta (because it was full of hormones). All the above groups of women are smug about how the placenta is at least "real food", a sentiment of which Alferd Packer would no doubt approve. 

A: I personally will be getting my postpartum nutritional requirements from food items which did not just come out of my uterus, because we live in an amazing society where things like "iron supplements" and "steak burritos" are widely available, but, you know, do what you want. Also, if you needed the nutrients in your placenta to successfully survive childbirth, wouldn't your body reabsorb it? Perhaps I have more faith in the body's current working design than these women do. 

Q: Are you convinced that anecdotes are contagious?

A: Yes. I was completely convinced that because I know someone who miscarried at nineteen weeks, it was more likely that I would miscarry at nineteen weeks than that someone else who doesn't know this person would. I genuinely believe that hearing (or reading about) terrifying pregnancy stories increases my odds of experiencing one myself. Which is why it's especially awesome that for every terrifying and obscure thing I found on the internet, one of my friends would say, "Oh, I had a friend who had that!" Seriously, it could have been something only experienced by six women a year worldwide, and one of my friends would know someone who had it, I'm not even kidding ("Ha, you'll never guess what I convinced myself I had last night while panic-googling: this thing called Malevolent -" "Malevolent Leaning Womb? Oh, my co-worker had that! She was bedridden for seventeen months and the leech expenses were outrageous!"). I was four months pregnant at our wedding because I was quite sure our friends' struggles with fertility meant we would struggle with it too, and so we should start trying long before the wedding. 

Q: Didn't you just say you have faith in the body's biological processes, rather than in magical thinking? 

A: I am large, I contain multitudes.  

Q: Yeah, multitudes of cheese, pudge-pants. 

A: Whatevs, you're just jealous because I'm At A Woman's Most Beautiful Stage. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to tend to my latest rash.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

travel reading

Whatever You Do, Don't Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide, by Peter Allison. Cute and a quick read.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This book is incredible. Ursula, born in the English countryside in 1910, dies over and over and gets a restart on her life each time. She starts retaining hazy memories of her untimely ends, and thus has a small ability to change things going forward. So much of this book, however, is really just about her family and growing up in England during the first World War and then surviving (or not!) the second World War as an adult. Although at times it gets a little How Many Ways Can You Die, especially at the beginning (which is a fairly brutal recitation of How Many Ways a Child Can Die, and probably not what I should have been reading while pregnant), that tapers off once the story gets into its stride. I loved it.

Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, by Raymond Bonner. Rather interesting but not as compelling as I wanted it to be for plane reading (I get serious anxiety and nausea when flying, and couldn't take anything for either condition on this trip), and Bonner's argument ended up depending too much on a theory that the defendant was set up by the police. Which he may well have been, but that wasn't quite what I was expecting.

For the Love of Mike, by Rhys Bowen. I gave the second entry in this "female detective in turn-of-the-century New York" series a try, but remain underwhelmed. Not reading any more.

Cambridge Blue, by Alison Bruce. Completely forgettable police procedural. I finished this two days ago and don't remember the main character's name. 

He Who Fears the Wolf, by Karin Fossum. Norwegian mystery. Awful. I don't know why I finished it. 

Faithful Place, by Tana French. God, she's good! 

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, by Alexandra Fuller. Fuller clearly wrote this memoir as an apology to her mother, who was very upset by Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. It's still well-written and interesting, but it's, well, racism and colonialism apologia in a lot of ways, because that's what made her mom upset about the first book: that Fuller accurately documented her racism and people said, "Wow, your mom is racist!" (Fuller also attempts to equate Scottish clan pride with inevitable racism, which chuffed my Scottish hide.)

The Naming of the Dead, by Ian Rankin. A known quantity, which is absolutely not a bad thing.

Watching the Dark, by Peter Robinson. Also a known quantity. Less impressive than Rankin, but I will keep reading this series as long as he keeps churning them out. 

Black Hills, by Dan Simmons. I have no idea why I kept reading this. It was immediately apparent that it is nothing but info-dumping - there are entire, enormously long, chapters which might as well be the Wikipedia entries for "Lakota manhood ritual", or "Chicago World's Fair", or "construction of Mount Rushmore" if they aren't already - and this just goes on and on for six hundred pages. The only shred of originality was Simmons' belief that General Custer and his wife were horny as badgers, which he shares with us via passages that, combined with the encyclopedia-entry-style of the rest of the book, made me remember the greatest romance novel plagiarism scandal of all time. (I'll wait while you read that. It's worth it.) Other than the delight of that recall, this book had no redeeming qualities.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

back to the books!

So I appear to have worried a lot of people with my last post. Fret not; I am past the most emotional-confused-paranoid phase of the pregnancy, during which I absolutely could not stay off the Google. Poor Berowne would have been completely justified in slapping the phone out of my hands some nights (of course the terror usually struck in the middle of the night, especially when I was experiencing a clearly fatal symptom like gas). And, like I said, I knew I was pregnant for a month before I had my first doctor's appointment, so for that month I was completely adrift. (I knew I was pregnant a week before taking the test, actually, because my PMS symptoms are just as reliable as my period, so when they didn't show up I knew what was going on.) I like my medical team and so far everything's going well. 

Now that I am visibly pregnant, as opposed to just potato-shaped, I'm okay with my body. Tracking weight gain on a monthly basis is, inescapably, a little triggery for me - I used to find out my weight once a year at my physical, and the rest of the time go by how my clothes fit and how I felt - but I'm adapting to it. Having finally gone ahead and bought some maternity clothes (I believed that to be a jinx for the longest time) helps, too. So much less pinchy. 

I have no intention of avoiding the internet and its absurdity. Tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation is the basis of much of my humor, after all, and if I don't have the ludicrous "standards" of the upper-class smug mommy blogger as a comparison, how can I exaggerate my own fumblings to the point of farce? I mean, I already know that any child of mine will be the one sent home from daycare in disgrace after setting off sixteen other kids' allergies from the sheer amount of dog hair on his/her clothes, so I might as well get an early start on Not Doing Things Right. 

On to the reading!

38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, by Scott W. Berg. I did not know this chapter of history: in 1862, during the Civil War, a Dakota uprising against settlers in Minnesota led to the arrest of over 300 men who all received a death sentence. Lincoln pardoned all but 38 of them. This is, of course, a very tough read, but fascinating and well put together. I can recommend it. 

Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century, by Mike Dash. It cracks me up, how many books I've read just this year with "Trial of the Century" in the title. This one is about a murder trial in early twentieth-century New York City, and about the city's politics of that time. It was okay, but I didn't care too much about the outcome and it mostly made me just want to re-read The Alienist.   

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. A novel based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was the last woman in Iceland to be executed. It's well-written, if a little eagerly dreamlike in the way that a young author's first novel can be. Certainly well-researched about life in Iceland in 1829, which I found to be the most interesting thing about it. I didn't like Agnes as much as I think I was supposed to, and wanted more about some of the other characters. But it's good enough to make me look forward to more of Kent's work. 

Mad Madame Lalaurie: New Orleans's Most Famous Murderess Revealed, by Victoria Cosner Love. Delphine Lalaurie's New Orleans house caught fire in the 1830's, and the firemen reportedly found tortured and mutilated slaves in the attic. The house is now infamous on ghost tours. This book was, unfortunately, both sensationalist and dull, utilizing long letters from Lalaurie's adult children which should have been excerpted and spending far too much time on her first husbands and her life before New Orleans. 

The Blessing, by Nancy Mitford. Not nearly as much fun as the other book of hers I've read. Amusing about the differences between the French and English, but had rather a somber tone and went on too long. 

The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950: The Battles That Saved South Korea--and the Marines--from Extinction, by Bill Sloan. I finished this, but it was a slog. If you enjoy really detailed descriptions of battles and have a high tolerance for racial slurs (Sloan quotes the Marines extensively, and let's just say they never used the word "Korean" to describe their foe), this seems a pretty comprehensive book. It did not do anything for me. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

in which I use my love of lists and ranting to make a small announcement

Things No One Tells You About Being Pregnant:

1. You bloat. You bloat like a dead whale during an August heat wave. Every pregnancy website and book you encounter will be chirping, "You don't gain an ounce during your first trimester and hiding the pregnancy will be the easiest thing you've ever done!"; meanwhile, back in reality, the Bloat means that by week eight none of your pants fit and everyone at work is wondering when they can start telling you to lay off the donuts. (Also, you are supposed to gain some weight during your first trimester. The nutritionist yelled at me for only gaining two pounds at the end of mine, which was adding insult to injury given that I was resorting to the fifteen-pounds-ago-pants at the back of the closet by then.)

2. If you think you have seen the most hostile and shaming stuff the internet has to offer, you haven't. I've had cancer; I thought I knew how scary and evil the internet could be. But I knew NOTHING. I was completely unprepared for otherwise normal-seeming and woman-friendly pregnancy sites to suddenly say things like, "some lucky women actually lose weight during their first trimesters if their morning sickness is bad enough," because vomit-related weight loss, at a time when you need to be as strong and healthy as possible, is still weight loss and therefore automatically awesome!! Visit a pregnancy website and get blindsided by pro-bulimia sentiments: do you love being a woman yet? 

I was unprepared for the forums on which all participants swear to high heaven that they didn't show until twenty-four weeks and that anyone who does is eating 3,000 calories a day and will have a diabetic obese baby. I AM NOT EVEN EXAGGERATING. This sentiment is ALL OVER the internet. Even setting aside the Bloat, if somehow you have managed to gestate a fetus the size of a cantaloupe but in the process you haven't gained any weight and your uterus hasn't moved above your pelvis (which it does around week 13), I would guess that maybe you are, I dunno, an enormous liar. 

It turned out that, despite being an intelligent and realistic person, and despite having watched many of my friends go through pregnancy, I completely bought into the Hollywood myth that a pregnant woman looks exactly as she did before for three months and then gets a tiny, perfect, obviously-baby-related belly. And the internet is full of women reinforcing this myth, aggressively and judgmentally, at each other. At fifteen weeks and absolutely huge, I made the terrible mistake of image-googling "fifteen weeks pregnant", and of course was slammed with pictures of whippet-hipped women who looked like they'd maybe had a large lunch. There were tears. It was awful. 

(Every pregnancy website and book will attempt to console you for your tragic weight gain [even if they think it shouldn't arrive until month six or whatever] by pointing out, over and OVER, that you have giant boobs now and are therefore womanly. You will see the phrase "your new womanly curves" approximately 400,000 times in your pregnancy reading. Apparently all these sites and books believe it is impossible for a woman to have already had large boobs, or to have been perfectly womanly without them. My "new womanly curves" consisted of my waist disappearing, so that I looked like a potato. I could never decide which was worse: being told that I shouldn't be gaining any weight or being told that my weight gain should make me feel sexy. Either way, the implication was that I was doing something wrong by feeling dumpy.) 

This whole fat-shaming where-is-your-self-control bullshit is especially evil given that it's being directed at women who will be hunched over a toilet dry-heaving if they don't put food in their bodies far more frequently than they used to: having an empty stomach makes the nausea terrible. On very bad days, I had to set my alarm to wake me up every three hours overnight for preemptive eating, rather than be woken by my stomach trying to turn itself inside out. Of course, the internet (and the nutritionist I visited) would have it that even at vomit o'clock a.m. I should be taking care to eat only the most healthful and varied of foods. I went through a five-week period when literally anything other than saltines and egg noodles came immediately back up, and if I so much as looked at lists of "healthy pregnancy snacks", with their raw vegetables and yogurt, I would have to sit very quietly until the urge to vomit passed. When, out of self-loathing, I forced myself to eat raw carrots before I sensed that my body was ready for them, I threw up for the next sixteen hours. What I was finally able to keep down: a grilled cheese sandwich. Diabetic obese baby, here I come! 

As if this body-policing and -shaming wasn't enough, I was trying desperately to hide it at work, long past the point at which I was fooling anyone. I was so excited to be pregnant. I was also horribly afraid that something would go wrong, and if on top of something going wrong I had to explain to 200 people, some of whom have Strong Opinions, that I wasn't pregnant anymore... HELL, NO. At one point I decided that if word got out I was pregnant and then I didn't carry to term, I would quit my job and move to Nova Scotia. I'm not kidding; that would be far preferable to hearing, daily, "It's because you walked your dogs," or "It's because you ate that thing I saw you eating the other day". (This plan is still very much in effect, by the way.) So, while the internet was busy telling me that I shouldn't see any difference in my body, I was struggling with the basic fact that when you start out short and with a tiny waist, being four months pregnant is not something you can hide. It made me have flashbacks to high school, when my outfits of choice involved enormous t-shirts because I believed my body was so appalling that the only thing to do with it was swathe it in a tent and pray nobody looked at me. 

All this resulted in me hating the changes in my body, when I wanted to be excited about them. It was an awful, awful feeling. 

3. The Better Mother Than You madness starts with prenatal appointments. There will be tons of women on the internet claiming that they got care weeks before you did, in a "I am taking better care of my baby than you and/or my doctors have agreed that my pregnancy is just the most important one ever" competition. When I called my medical center the same day that I peed on the stick, they said they don't even consider a woman pregnant until eight weeks, so that's when my first appointment would be. Then I went on-line and found women swearing that by week six they'd already had an ultrasound. This is ridiculous and should be ignored. It's only true in cases where the woman was already under medical care when she got pregnant (usually because there were fertility treatments involved) and/or has medical issues which mean the pregnancy is very high-risk. 

The less medical intervention required during your pregnancy, the better, but the internet competition to have the most and earliest screenings and appointments is fierce. It's a means of feeling important, like I said: if you are the person in the OB waiting room to whom the most attention is being paid, then you and your fetus are truly special. I fell victim to this at first, being a competitive person, and actually got a little huffy at how casual and cheerful everyone was around my OB appointments. Then, at my first ultrasound (not until twelve weeks, which is perfectly normal) I had to wait half an hour for the doctor to come in because all the other ultrasounds that day were showing problems and he was running way behind. He finally came in, used the words "beautiful" and "perfect", told me to start saving for college, and was gone in ninety seconds, back to some poor woman who had just gotten bad news. I realized then that I was being incredibly stupid. 

(It's also worth noting that I live in a state with progressive abortion laws. Women who are not so fortunate need medical information earlier, because they have less time in which to make a decision. In the year 2013, there are women who have to have conversations with their doctors about being sent across state lines should they be among those getting bad news at their ultrasounds or from their tests. In the year 2013. Just saying.)    

4. The "pregnancy glow" is a giant myth, unless you were already the kind of woman who hasn't had a visible pore since she was seventeen. A massive overload of hormones is going to do things to your complexion, but they are not going to be kind things. The one mercy the internet offered me was that this is universally agreed upon. It's considered okay to admit to anything that isn't weight gain, and so at least I didn't have to think I was alone in my experience of Zit Fest 2013. This was scant comfort, but I took what I could get. 

5. No one agrees on when the second trimester starts. It's held out to you as the holy grail. It's when your risk of miscarriage plummets and you stop feeling sick and you can tell people, but NO ONE agrees on when it starts. Some say week 12; some week 13; some week 14. I got all excited when I thought I'd made it; and then I encountered all these sites saying, "You're in the last week of the first trimester; hang in there!" and I was like, "Oh joy, another week of being convinced I'm going to miscarry any second." (It turns out that the part about your sickness ceasing is also a lie.) 

To add to this joy, my first ultrasound was at a place other than my OB's office. The ultrasound estimated that I was six days further along than we'd thought, but my OB's office said that until they did an ultrasound, they would continue counting from my LMP. Between that and the above nonsense, for an ENTIRE MONTH I didn't know which trimester I was in. And I DO NOT DEAL WELL WITH UNCERTAINTY. 

6. If you bring a peanut butter sandwich to work for lunch, you will eat it before 10 a.m. 

7. They have dropped the "Advanced Maternal Age" designation from the chart of women over 34. I had been warned about that designation, and was ready for it, but instead I was handed a piece of paper with - wait for it - "Elderly Primigravida" written on it, and I made an amazing noise. That's right, ladies: on your 35th birthday you are medically considered "elderly". As a 37-year-old, I'm surprised my chart doesn't just say "Crone" or make references to Sarah and Abraham. 

8. There will be a whole 'nother post about this, but visiting your oncologist while pregnant is the most terrifying exercise in "be careful what you wish for" imaginable. All my doctors have been casual and cheerful about the pregnancy. Not a one of them has been either of those things about me, in terms of potential cancer recurrence (except, ironically, the internet, which is sure I'll be fine). But more about that later. 

9. Everything about it is surreal. But I'm really, really happy and excited.  

10. The current cultural assumption that leggings are pants gets pushed even harder at you. And it's tempting. It's tempting as heck. Will I be able to resist? Watch this space!

Monday, November 11, 2013

the triumph of hope over experience

Yesterday Berowne and I got married, in a tiny ceremony in the backyard. The little group of friends and family participating worked like stevedores for a few days on our behalf: a tent had to be raised and lowered, tables and chairs arranged, food cooked, dishes washed, dogs wrangled, pictures taken, and last-minute texts reading WE ARE OUT OF COFFEE FILTERS responded to. Everyone was unflaggingly cheerful and generous. 

It was all quite perfect. The weather cooperated - a tiny bit of rain when the cake came out, but we just hustled it into the tent -, the impromptu speeches during the Quaker-style service were hilarious and touching, and the dogs, who were the obvious stars of the day, behaved impeccably. 

I don't regret my first wedding at all. I don't regret my first marriage at all, which I know may surprise those of you who remember the early, bitter days of this blog. The marriage's dissolution was sad and rough, but that is the nature of the beast. Without that marriage I wouldn't live in this adorable little island house, and I wouldn't have the world's best dogs, and I wouldn't have some of the wonderful friends and family that I have. I will always think of myself as having two sets of in-laws, and I'm very lucky in that regard. 

And I don't regret that I had the fancy chapel wedding, all about the dress and the hair and the makeup and the pictures. It was an excellent party, with an excellent group of people. But I didn't need to do it again, and thankfully Berowne felt the same way. Hence the tiny backyard wedding with a friend officiating and people just speaking up during the service until Berowne looked at me and said, "I think we're married now," and then we broke out the posole and frito pie. I wore my mother's handmade cocktail-length wedding dress. A friend did my eyeshadow. My hair did its own thing. Sometime in the afternoon I ran upstairs and changed. It was exactly what I wanted.

Today we're off work; Berowne will be running down to his old place to return the tables and chairs to his landlord (who usually rents them for weddings but let us use them free of charge, because, like I said, people have been awesome to us) and pick up some more stuff. I have about sixteen loads of laundry to do and think the dogs deserve some new toys, so eventually I too will be getting out of my pajamas and sallying forth. And tomorrow our quiet domestic routine kicks in again. 

But for now, one more cup of coffee at the kitchen table, looking at the autumn light on the yard and feeling like everything in my life is turning out just right. I were but little happy, if I could say how much. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Good heavens, I'm behind on this. Life is very busy! In good ways!

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes. A very short little piece about nineteenth-century ballooning and Barnes grieving his wife. I do love his voice. 

The Likeness, by Tana French. The sort-of sequel to In the Woods, though you could read it on its own. The only way I can describe this book is to say it's exactly what would happen if The Secret History were an Irish police procedural, complete with the fact that the supposedly magnetic and irresistible student characters are actually extraordinarily obnoxious. If you liked The Secret History, you would like this; and even if, like me, you didn't, you might find it compelling as hell. I did. 

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller. Fuller's memoir about growing up in Africa with crazy-racist, crazy-colonialist, crazy-drunk, just plain crazy parents. Immensely disturbing and fairly hard to put down. 

The Clockwork Scarab: A Stoker & Holmes Novel, by Colleen Gleason. Oh dear. Gleason's premise and the set-up for a series is that, in a steampunk London, Bram Stoker's sister and Sherlock Holmes' niece fight supernatural crime. I find the initial decision to use one historical family and one fictional one questionable at best (why not give Conan Doyle a niece? he and Bram Stoker knew each other), and it goes downhill from there. Neither heroine is at all likable, and Gleason's conception of steampunk is that everything is mechanized, down to umbrella-stands and sugar spoons, just because. And early on we are given the backstory that Miss Stoker's previous mentor, who has mysteriously disappeared, was named Siri. What on earth, you may think. No one has ever been named Siri except... and then the time-traveler from the present day appears, for no reason, and you get one guess as to what kind of cell phone he's toting with him. It's all pretty much that forced. Nothing is resolved, because we're supposed to want the sequels, and every male character under thirty is a potential love interest for at least one of our heroines, so that the constant "my knees weakened under my skirts" reactions to policemen / noblemen / pickpockets / time travelers get REALLY old. 

The House at Sea's End, by Elly Griffiths. The third in the Ruth Galloway series. The plots, which all require an archaeologist to get involved in, and menaced by, murder cases, are starting to get a bit absurd, but I am pleased to report that our heroine having given birth has made her much more like she was before getting pregnant. She's interesting again! And the struggles of single motherhood struck me as realistic, unlike the previous book's "I am ten weeks pregnant and therefore HAVE NO IDENTITY BUT MOTHER," stuff. 

Tombstone Courage, by J.A. Jance. Mystery set in Arizona. Pretty generic but a decent afternoon's distraction. 

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, by Piper Kerman. I haven't seen the series, but I thought I'd check out the book. It's not bad, though not particularly memorable. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

lots of books, all crammed in

The reading, of late:

Death of Riley, by Rhys Bowen. Slight mystery set in nineteenth-century New York. It was okay; nothing memorable.

Armadale, by Wilkie Collins. Oh, Wilkie. It's no Woman in White, but it's still delicious. There is actually a chapter entitled "The Plot Thickens" (ironically, that particular chapter caused very little to thicken). It starts very, very slowly, but once the villainess showed up I couldn't put it down. She is wonderful. Melodrama! Coincidence! Disasters at sea! Foreboding dreams! A kick-ass female character! Fabulous stuff.

Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge, by Eleanor Herman. A book about royal mistresses through history. It contained some interesting and juicy stuff, but Herman came across as so incredibly judgy about sex that the book's topic seemed a virtually nonsensical one for her to choose. (She also includes a postscript about how her second marriage has worked where her first didn't because of what she learned from royal mistresses: always put the man and his interests first, basically, and never show him you're having a bad day. Gaaaaagh.)

A Serpent's Tooth, by Craig Johnson. A solid entry in his Walt Longmire series, although the instant the male characters start remarking of a female character, "Have you noticed that she's a bit emotional lately?" I rolled my eyes back into my head. I will have you know, writers, that I have been female for almost thirty-seven years, and a good majority of that time I have been emotional as hell while also, amazingly, not being pregnant. A female character could be emotional because she has family concerns, or financial worries, or her job is preoccupying her, or for any of the reasons that a male character might not quite be himself either. But noooo, it's always that she got knocked up. (I refuse to consider that a spoiler, because the first time someone mentions it is roughly ten pages in, and if you have read any books before it's completely obvious what Johnson's point is.)

Pym, by Mat Johnson. This book is insane. And insanely good. The premise is that a fired English professor discovers a manuscript proving the historical veracity of Edgar Allen Poe's Narrative of Gordon Pym (which is recapped deftly, so you don't have to have read it), and puts together an all African-American crew to travel to Antarctica and look for the locations Poe describes. Johnson is an amazing and hilarious writer, and his riffs on literature and being black in America were my favorite part of the book. The plot is utterly deranged, although never less than engrossing. I tore through this and would highly recommend it, even though a dog disappears with no explanation (given its potential fates, I was frankly relieved to be spared detail).

The Fallen, by Jessy Mackenzie. Mystery set in South Africa. Should have had potential but was just dull and over-long.

Zelda: A Biography, by Nancy Milford. I knew very little about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald prior to reading this, other than that they seemed like exhausting people to be around. This book certainly reinforced that, but in a compassionate way. They were so, so young, after all. The last third dragged, given that it was just endless excerpts from Zelda's novel Save Me the Waltz, which was kind of a hot mess, but I found the book interesting overall.

Mind's Eye, by Hakan Nesser. Scandinavian mystery. So dark and cold. I don't feel the urge to continue with the series.

Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads, by Joni Rendon. My Early Reviewers book, and rather fun. Short, dishy little chapters, perfect for bathroom reading. From the cover and the blurb, it seemed like it was all going to be about ladies' men, but equal time is given to homosexual and bisexual writers, which I appreciated.

Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier, by Hampton Sides. Essays from a writer I love about the craziest aspects of America. Some are from the early 1990's and haven't aged as well as one would like, but Sides' writing is never anything but great. The essay about Santa Fe, where he lives, had me on the verge of packing the car and heading west; and the last section, with three essays about 9/11 and the Iraq war, was wrenching. I cried.

So what have I been doing lately? Other than reading my butt off, clearly. Well, Berowne is almost completely moved in, which is utterly wonderful. I have been dealing with anniversary-emotions: October 17 was the day Claudio left, and even though it's been three years and it was 100% for the best, every late October I get smacked with a big ol' dose of You Are Not Good Enough and there are a lot of ranting journal entries and some crying. (I believe I actually said, and meant, "Anyone else would have done everything better than I have!" to Berowne, who was kind enough to not laugh. Much.) 

But things are good. The dogs are happy and getting more walks; I am being fed by a ridiculously good cook; the dryer and the porch railing are fixed. In three weeks I get married again, which is madness and also just about the easiest decision I ever made. No complaints around here. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

mysteries, book clubs, insects

There is nothing new going on in my life which is fit for blogging, so this post will just be the books. 

I've read lately:

A Death in the Small Hours, by Charles Finch. This was my Early Reviewers book. I have read two previous entries in Finch's series, which follows a wealthy Victorian gentleman solving crimes in his spare time. In both the other two I was irritated by how brief and obvious the crime-solving part was. After reading a third, I think I've realized that the crimes aren't the point. The "mystery" in this one was also brief and obvious, and concluded when there were still about fifty pages left to go, which made me think that the conclusion would turn out to be a red herring, but it didn't. Finch is more interested in the scene-setting and the rhythms of his characters' daily lives, and while he's not quite good enough yet at creating characters sufficiently fascinating for this to work, he's getting there. I didn't at all mind how fluffy this book felt.

The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler. It's... not all that much about Jane Austen. And the women in it all have their lives orbit around men (one is a lesbian but her relationships didn't ring true to me; they were just heterosexual relationships with the pronouns switched, I felt). The one who is supposedly obsessed with her dogs doesn't talk nearly enough about said dogs and gets paired off, in strained fashion, with a dude by the end (they all get paired off, which I know is a conscious nod to Austen but which also has a lot of them going back to partners who treated them abominably, and that's not cool). I can see what Fowler was trying to do, and why this book was a best-seller, but... meh. I got initially excited by Crazy Dog Lady, but when it becomes clear that her life is empty without a man and she must stop wearing clothes covered in dog hair so that she will be loved, I barfed in my mouth a little. 

The Death of a Joyce Scholar, by Bartholomew Gill. Mystery set in Ireland. It was very intelligently written, for sure, but I didn't feel that fascination with the detective hero/heroine which will keep me reading a mystery series. 

The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths. Definitely a weaker sequel to The Crossing Places. Our heroine is knocked up and has become All Maternal Instincts All The Time, complete with no conflicted feelings whatsoever about suddenly becoming a single mother at age forty. (Also there's that inevitable moment where she's in danger and she feels the baby move and knows she must survive! for the baby's sake!!, which chafes my britches anyway [women: not allowed a survival drive unless it's for someone else's benefit!] and in this case happens when she's about ten weeks along, at which point feeling the embryo [it's not even a fetus yet] move is not a thing.) And there are the insertions of diary entries / thoughts from the killer, which I just dislike as a stylistic choice (I blame Val McDermid for starting that). But all that complaining aside, I like Griffiths' writing and she did at least keep the heroine passionate about her line of work. I'm sure I'll read the third, though I'm wary about how Ruth will handle motherhood. 

Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects, by Amy Stewart. Don't read this if you have a tender tummy or are feeling at all sick. Just don't. 

Marion Fay, by Anthony Trollope. What an incredibly odd book. The title character develops consumption solely to prove a point, as far as I can tell. It wasn't nearly as charming as most Trollope, though it had some of his wit.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

let me sum up

Oh my, I have been very remiss in updating this to reflect my reading. I shall have to be brief:

Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom, by Sara Benincasa. A quick little entry in the "I had a nervous breakdown" memoir genre. Mildly amusing, mildly perceptive, with a rushed "I'm all better now!" ending. 

Last Night's Scandal, by Loretta Chase. Chase takes the child characters from a previous romance novel and has them all grown up and falling in love. They're not as interesting as adults as they were as children, and Chase, whose previous novels are all set in Regency times, cannot stop talking about how ridiculous the fashions of the 1830's are. True, but it doesn't make it easy to believe in the heroine's unstoppable beauty, when on every page we're reminded how stupid her clothes are. And the story kind of dragged. 

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin. Sort of a mystery - the hero is a constable and there's a murder - but mostly a novel about race relations and poverty in a tiny Mississippi town. Very rough stuff but really, really well written and I was utterly captivated. 

North and South, by Elisabeth Gaskell. When it is autumn, a not-so-young woman's thoughts turn to fluffy nineteenth-century literature she has not previously read. I have a ton of Trollope on deck, too.

Kiss of Steel and Heart of Iron, by Bec McMaster. More steampunk vampire / werewolf romance fiction, which is a much more prevalent genre than I ever realized until I started rummaging around in it. There's tons of it! The queen, as far as I am concerned, is Gail Carringer, whose books are just hysterically funny on top of being well-crafted. But McMaster is also really good. Her world-building is excellent and I was able to follow the rules and logic of that world with hardly any info-dumping on her part. There is a fair amount of "my woman" stuff going on, but, well, they're romance novels. I knew what I was getting into. 

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, by David Quammen. Quammen studies the Asian lion, the Australian crocodile, the Amur tiger, and the Romanian bear as he travels around the world examining man's relationship to large predators. It's a good and interesting (and very sad, considering how we are exterminating these predators) book, but mostly it made me want to re-read Vaillant's The Tiger

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, by Richard Rhodes. Aeeiiee. Rhodes details both the mass killings which led up to the Final Solution and the psychology behind convincing groups of men to engage in said killings. It's a really brutal read, as you can imagine, but the discussions of inciting mass violence and how people react to that were interesting enough that this book was more than just a recitation of horror after horror, though it had that element as well. (Reading about Babi Yar made me try to like Shostakovitch again, but that is just never going to happen.) 

Disaster at Sea!, by Edward Rowe Snow. This is three unintentionally hilarious volumes of marine disaster and "mysteries of New England" in one. It's... not well written. Snow, I gather, was all about quantity, cranking out three or four books a year his entire adult life. He never uses a period where an exclamation point will do, and he goes on digressions within a five-page story which leaves the reader completely confused. But I gleaned some fun from reading about places I know, and shipwrecks and cannibalism are always my cup of tea. 

In life-news: Berowne is moving his stuff in a little bit at a time, and I am clearing away as much of my stuff as I can, although this means - gulp - getting rid of some books. Sacrifices must be made! Particularly when they are books I didn't like but still held onto for some reason.  

Speaking of disaster at sea, I went on a sailboat with Berowne and some friends a few weeks back. I got terribly seasick and the outboard motor not only died but tried to fling itself into the ocean on the way back, so the other gentleman aboard had to hold it on while Berowne sailed us back to the mooring, which you're not supposed to do because it's a narrow channel with lots of other boats in it and sailing doesn't give you enough control over your direction. Unless you are a totally bad-ass sailor with a calm and collected assistant (not me; I was busy not throwing up). The boat and all aboard arrived safely. Of course, I still am pretty sure the "it's designed not to capsize" statement was a total lie, and so those moments when the boat was traveling more or less sideways were a little alarming for this landlubber. As I said later, I do know how to swim but I was not going to be thrilled if I had to. 

Autumn is here! I am thrilled about that. Bingley has only eaten a little bit of Berowne's couch! The two of them are working out some pack-level issues. He's got a bit of an attitude, that brindle dog of mine, possibly because he was such an easy puppy that I never had to really establish dominance the way I did with the traumatized adult Darcy. But we'll work it all out. Life is pretty good. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

flappers, Nazis, walking scenes, and free love for everyone!

I am sorry for the delay! I have been reading a long irritating book (much more below) and also re-reading the entire No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, because it was a beautiful early fall weekend and I had lots of snacks, so what else are you going to do? 

The new books I did read: 

The Diviners, by Libba Bray. I do love Bray. This book was set in 1920's New York and features a bunch of young people, all of whom have special powers, getting gradually drawn together by the hunt for a serial killer. By the end they are nearly all assembled for what will clearly be Adventuresome Sequels, for which I am excited. The 20's slang got a little out of control, and Bray really pushed the "almost-awful but always-interesting heroine" shtick too far - at the beginning I disliked the heroine a lot - but I tore through this and had a great time. 

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel. I've been fascinated by the looting of art by the Nazis since reading Stealing the Mystic Lamb, and so periodically check out books on that topic. Some have been very dull and dry, but this one was quite interesting and exciting. Edsel paces the story well, and juggles the different stories going on with his multiple heroes, who are scattered across Europe, without any confusion on the reader's part.

Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. Sigh. Ryan and Jetha have clearly very recently discovered the concept of open relationships and are in that twenty-years-old-just-discovered-poly-place where you scream to anyone who will listen that your way is the natural way!! and everyone else is SO repressed and sad and wrong!! (And the twenty-years-old-monogamous-tending among your friends get REALLY judgy and prudish and mean, not that I would know anything about being like that.) 

I'm just going to pick a few examples of what made me mad about this book, because its whole premise made me mad (said premise = open relationships are the way to happiness for every human on the planet), but I think it also featured some pretty sloppy anthropology and stupid conclusions:

The authors trot out, over and over, multiple examples of very small (150 or so individuals) tribal societies which practice no sexual monogamy whatsoever and in which, according to the authors, there is no way for a woman to know the biological paternity of her child. And sure, they argue convincingly that in these cultures the idea of biological paternity is irrelevant, but at no point do they ever address the first thing that came to my mind when I read this: how do these societies avoid incest in the succeeding generations? And if they don't, what health issues have resulted? These (in my opinion) glaringly obvious questions are completely ignored, no matter how often they bring up these tribes, because the authors' theory is that these societies are superior in every way to societies in which biological paternity does matter, and they are not going to let some pesky inbreeding statistics get in the way.

The authors posit that humans stray from monogamous relationships because the amount of sex in a relationship diminishes over time, because it's humanly impossible to remain excited about having sex with someone you love once you've done it too many times, and because monkeys aren't monogamous. To which I have many, many responses, some of which are, "Not always," "There are, like, five hundred emotional reasons why people cheat on each other," "No," and "So?" 

The authors seem to believe that in open relationships it's just not possible to cheat, hurt a partner, or damage trust, and so that is the answer to eliminating infidelity and jealousy in our world. I know several people who are in open / polyamorous relationships and who would laugh and laugh at that statement. Trust, interestingly, is never really mentioned at all as part of a sexual relationship, because the authors' goal is for humans to completely separate sex from love. That, to me, kind of defeats the purpose of non-procreative sex entirely. 

Well, okay, the authors don't always have the goal of separating sex from love. That's one place where it gets really sloppy: they go inconsistently back and forth between saying that sex is a community-bonding tool (as in the non-monogamous tribal societies) and saying that it is a purely biological need for release which you shouldn't be threatened about your husband getting from his secretary. So I'm not sure they even knew how they were defining sex half the time. It's best if all adults in a community bond lovingly through sex and assume all the kids belong to them! But sex is just sex and equating it with love is a stupid cultural construct that goes against all our throbbing biological urges! 

It's as if one of the authors believed that an "open relationship" is a heterosexual one in which the male partner goes off and has anonymous sex in restaurant bathrooms a couple nights a week while financially supporting his wife, and the other was actually defining it the way everyone I know who is in an open relationship defines it: as relationships. You may have a romantic / sexual relationship with more than one person at one time, but it isn't just about sex. You're dating these people. I think one of the authors understood that, but I don't know which one. Unfortunately, whichever one didn't understand that wrote the final chapter (see below), and that chapter wiped away all the times that this book almost made a good point about polyamory's value in family-building, to replace it with a paean to male politicians whose wives put up with their philandering. 

Oh, and this book also claims that all humans, everywhere, always, prefer socialization to solitude, and that (presented as an irrefutable fact) "Sartre was wrong". So I guess introversion is also an "unnatural" state into which we have been culturally shamed...? Because our society pressures and guilts extroverts into behaving more antisocially, and tells them they're "not normal" if they just want to go out with their friends on a Saturday night instead of staying home with a book. Everyone knows that.

The final chapter was so ludicrous that it made me wonder if this whole book had been an elaborate satire. On the first page the authors lament, as they put it, this "one-size-fits-all" relationship advice that humans get fed, and then they spend the next eight pages reiterating that, no matter who you are, monogamy WILL make you miserable and sexually repressed, and your spouse / partner WILL go out and have sex with other people, and if you aren't a slave to stupid Victorian narratives you WILL be happy that he's getting the sex he needs, because after ten years or so spouses always think of each other as siblings anyway and he still totally respects you. And if you think, Um, no, I actually disagree with all of that, then you have been brainwashed into repressing the imperatives of human nature. I picked the male pronoun above deliberately, by the way. This whole chapter, which only mentions male straying, felt specifically and hostilely directed at, like, nagging frigid wives of unfaithful men, rather than at both men and women and their equally-valid sex drives. There was a definite flavor of Men Have Needs, Little Lady to it, and they even trot out a psychologist who claims that women who leave their cheating husbands don't actually want to leave; they're just doing what they've seen happen in movies. Seriously.

In conclusion, what I gathered the answer to "why we stray" is, according to Ryan and Jetha, because Don Draper the penis can't be tamed. Oh, and because our society has forced us through cultural pressure and sexual shame into [heterosexual] monogamy, which is not natural for anyone and which has never made anyone happy. Well. It is the trend at the moment to bray from the rooftops that monogamy is unnatural, and I don't begrudge that trend, since the "anything but heterosexual monogamy is unnatural" trend got broadcast for centuries first and is still, sadly, pervasive. But I think the idea of claiming that anything - anything - is universally natural or unnatural for every single human on the planet is incredibly fucking stupid. You might as well write a book the central premise of which is that every person in the world loves cauliflower: research cauliflower all you like, it's still not going to be true. À chacun son goût, dumbasses. 

The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was okay. Seventy percent of it was travel, which was probably intended as a Lord-of-the-Rings type thing, but which just made me say at the end of each chapter, "Well, that was another solid Corman walking scene." (MST3K joke.) I didn't fail to enjoy this, but I don't think I'll be reading the sequels. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

in defense of nice characters and not being a Serious Reader

Since last posting, I have read:

Cold Wind, by C. J. Box. Not the greatest in his Wyoming game warden series. The scenery isn't given the usual loving descriptions, and there's not enough of the hero and far too much of his trained killer / gun nut / hiding from the evil government buddy, whom I hate anyway (as a woman, I'm clearly supposed to find him mysteriously sexy because he kills lots of people in extremely violent fashion and without remorse, which... um, no) and who in this one has 50% of the story devoted to him, and that story is all based on a "you killed my woman" revenge motive which reduces a previously-interesting female character to a plot point.

Then, without intending to, I read two books which were bizarrely similar: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, and The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths. They are completely different genres: Messud wrote a first-person-narrative, artistic-folks-in-Cambridge-Massachusetts, novel, and Griffiths wrote a murder mystery set on creepy marshland in northern England. But they both feature female protagonists in their late thirties who live alone, have complicated relationships with their parents, feel competitive with their friends, and sleep with married men because someone has died. In The Woman Upstairs our heroine, Nora, is a frustrated artist / elementary school teacher who falls in love with an entire family: husband (who has a talking-head job about international affairs and has many boring monologues), wife (who is a successful artist and Impossibly Exotic), and son (who is one of Nora's third graders). Nora's mother died and she never got over this and this is The Biggest Tragedy That Has Ever Happened to Anyone, except for the Equally Biggest Tragedy that is Nora's lack of artistic success. She is the kind of heroine who inherits a hundred grand and still complains about her life; who always describes herself as "the funny one" when she never, not once in 270 pages of interior monologue, says anything funny; and who bores the damn pants off me. I know, of course, that Nora is an antiheroine, and that this book is about selfish people living a clueless middle-class life in Cambridge and using each other, but Nora just bored me, as did the family-unit-object of her obsession. I didn't care what happened to anyone involved. (And very little did happen. Most of this book is Nora whining and obsessing. Not much action.) That said, Messud is a wicked good writer and in the first couple chapters, before it got tedious, I was utterly involved in the realism and beauty of the phrasing. The characters just couldn't carry it.

Compare that with Griffiths' heroine, Ruth. First off, the pacing of The Crossing Places is very different, and you could say that's because it's a mystery / thriller, but Messud keeps hinting that something Terrible happens at the end of Nora's story, and trying to keep the reader thrilled that way, which didn't work for me at all, and Griffiths succeeds in being thrilling. That makes this book more plot-driven and with less time for interior monologue and soul-searching and whatnot, but I got the impression that Ruth wouldn't go for that nonsense anyway. Reading these books at the same time was a hilarious illustration of the difference between Americans and Brits: Americans, like Nora, throw their emotions all over the room. I have an emotion and you're nearby? My emotion is now your responsibility, because my emotions are just that important. Brits do not do this. Ruth has occasional regrets about living alone, and struggles with her relationship with her parents, and sometimes envies her more successful colleagues and prettier friends, but she never loses her sense of humor, or sinks into self-pity, or becomes bitter. She just keeps being awesome at her fascinating job (archaeology!) and genuinely interested in the people around her. I wanted to be friends with her. Also, it's a really well-written and creepy book, even if I figured out the culprit before the end, and I'm quite happy that Griffiths has written sequels, because I want to hang out with Ruth some more. (She reads Ian Rankin books! Nora, for all her liberal-arts-education reference-dropping, doesn't seem to read at all.)

I feel often and guiltily that to be a "better" reader - certainly to be a more serious one - I should have more patience for antiheroes and antiheroines, for mean characters, for the "unflinching" novels full of broken people making ghastly choices and suffering and hurting each other (see: Johnson, Denis for just one example). I'm quite sure that I shouldn't have liked The Crossing Places more than The Woman Upstairs. But I don't really do unflinching. I'm a flincher. And when I read a book, or watch a movie or a TV show, I want someone to root for. 

There is enough realism in my reality, quite frankly, and in a lot of the non-fiction I read, some of which has no real hero and is very emotionally affecting. I don't need to go looking elsewhere for it. This made me a bad English major and probably makes me a bad book blogger; I want to like books more than I want to be challenged by them. Of course one book can do both, and I have read many that have, but if I have to choose...  

In one college seminar I took, we were studying Louise Erdrich. While discussing a scene from one of her books in which an enchanted man and woman have sex endlessly, our professor leaned forward and asked, "What's missing from this scene?" 

Of course we all stared at the floor, embarrassed to death and drawing blanks. The silence dragged on. Finally one brave soul ventured, "They don't talk to each other...?" just as the professor boomed, "DETUMESCENCE!" (As you can imagine, this is one of my fondest memories of college.) 

I was not the brave soul, but quite often now as I read Important Novels I feel that way. These novels might be saying profound and true things about agency and desire, about how people are genuinely selfish at heart and will always hurt each other in the end, and sometimes there is gorgeous writing and extreme talent behind these stories... and I'm just sitting there thinking, I wish they'd talk to each other. 

I like happy stories. I like admirable heroes and heroines. I like characters keeping their senses of humor no matter how dark the situation (this is probably why I like Scottish police procedurals so much). I'm really glad that I got to study the literature I did with the incredibly intelligent people around me at the time, and that I have an in-joke which allows me to boom, "DETUMESCENCE!" when the bananas have gone bad, but I was always essentially a visitor in the ivory tower, and I don't miss it. And why shouldn't I believe that the primary function of my reading should be to make me happy? That is its function. That's why I do it.

I've got a romance novel and a YA paranormal on deck and I'm not even ashamed. I bet the characters talk to each other. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

floods, mysteries, Australia, and weddings

In books:

American Rust, by Philipp Meyer. I don't often read books in the genre of broken steel towns and frustrated masculinity, and this pretty much fulfilled my quota for the next several years. Lots of violence and despair and the women are not especially realistic and no one has gone anywhere in the end.

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill. This was okay but when the library loan expired before I was done, I didn't check it out again. Fairly dry.

Fever of the Bone, by Val McDermid. A fairly solid entry in her Tony Hill / Carol Jordan series, although the case does hinge on some unfortunate beliefs about how the ladies go crazy when they want babies.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink. This was just brutal. Fink describes the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center, where at least twenty patients were euthanized because it was believed they could not survive either the conditions in the hospital or an evacuation. The main culprit was clearly the lack of planning and communication at Memorial: the generators were below flood level, which administration had known for years, so the electricity went out fast; and the main building was connected by a skybridge to a building with electricity the entire five days, but the staff who knew this never mentioned it to any patient caregivers. The evacuation was also a total disaster. The first half of the book is about those five days and the second half about the investigation and legal results (no one was indicted). Both sections were very, very hard to read, but Fink is an excellent reporter and I couldn't put it down. I had been prepared for the human loss because I remember this from the news, but I was blindsided by something else: on the first few pages I learned that it had long been tradition in New Orleans for hospital staff to bring their families and pets to the hospital when a hurricane threatened, since it was usually the safest place to be. I had a very bad feeling about this, and it was justified. The rescue boats refused to take animals, and there are no final numbers on how many pets were euthanized or abandoned.

The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding, by Robert Hughes. Enormous and dense and really, really good.

Snow Angels, by James Thompson. This started out pretty well; our hero is a detective inspector in Finland, and his new wife is American, which means the explanations about Finnish culture and society are actually handled deftly. And I was interested in the mystery's resolution. However, that resolution is clumsy and unconvincing, and along the way we've had a lot of misogyny, from sex outside of heterosexual monogamy being condemned by every character we're supposed to like, to the eye-roll-inducer wherein the "good" female character is effortlessly thin and the "bad" female character has to work at it. Thompson also clearly doesn't know how weight actually works, since he falls into the lazy shorthand of "the perfect woman weighs 120 pounds no matter how tall I make her, because tradition!" (If you don't know this tradition you don't read enough crap. The "she was a perfect size 6" has been replaced, across the board, by "she weighed a perfect 120 pounds".) This shorthand is also stupid because it's always narrated from a man's perspective, meaning we're to believe that straight men a) know how much their wives / girlfriends weigh (not unless he is controlling and creepy) and b) know what size their wives / girlfriends wear (we don't know; I wear anything from a 2 to a 10 depending on the brand and/or style). There are other examples of misogyny I could give; suffice it to say this book started well and then made me feel really icky.

In life:

Ah, the planning of the second wedding. In theory it shouldn't involve any planning beyond: "show up at our house on this day and we'll get married", but because there is family coming from out of town it's going to be slightly more complicated. I still anticipate that the primary time commitment will be getting bow ties on the dogs and then trying to get pictures before they chew them off, but it is possible that the weather will be bad and twenty people and two dogs will be stuck in an 870-square-foot house with one bathroom all day. If so, then so.

Even just having family there almost immediately ballooned beyond what I was picturing, but I'm touched that so many want to come so far for ten minutes of goofy vows and me in a dress from Target. As long as they're happy with it being that informal, I am happy to have them there. I've had the big formal chapel wedding, and it was beautiful and full of wonderful people but I don't want to do that again. By my third wedding, presumably, I'll have learned to not even tell anyone that we're eloping until it's a done deal. (There will not be a third wedding because if this marriage doesn't last what I will have learned is not to get married again.)

In so many aspects of life, not just my various nuptials, I am learning what makes me happy as I go. Apparently this is what happens when you get older! Who knew? I confess to being mildly tempted by the local event hall's autumn wedding package, with its promises of hot cider and a "doughnut station", but I am aware that sending someone on a Dunkin' Donuts run will achieve much the same end, and more comfortably.

In sadder news, my parents' lovely dog with the bone cancer was put to sleep on Friday. He is no longer in pain, which is the important thing. Between that and the tales of pet death in Fink's book, I spent the long holiday weekend adoring and spoiling my dogs even more than usual. They deserve it, the dear silly destructive beasts.