Friday, January 25, 2013

winter reading

(The previous version of this entire post was eaten when I was writing the last sentence of it. So, so angry.)

Since last posting I have read Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir of living under the fatwa. It's overlong and over-retaliatory (he is simply vicious towards his second and fourth wives), and he name-drops non-stop, and I didn't come out of it liking him at all, but it's Rushdie writing about writing. So it's infuriatingly beautiful in parts, and I now want to re-read many of his novels.

Then I read A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord, the definitive book about the sinking of the Titanic. It's really well done and ratchets up the tension perfectly. It also put a lot of things in perspective for me at the moment: "Are you in the North Atlantic right now? Like, literally in the North Atlantic? No? Then you're probably okay."

Next up was my Early Reviewers book, Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister. Our heroine is Violet, a movie critic who can only be strong and opinionated on the page, not in real life. She's trying to dump a needy boyfriend and gain custody of her orphaned niece, and failing at both, until she releases the ghost of Dorothy Parker. I had a couple issues with this book: all the biographical info about Ms. Parker is given in clumsy infodumps which shouldn't even be necessary (please, writers, please stop assuming that to write for a "general audience" you have to dumb it down); Ms. Parker is written as a sexually confident seductress, which I don't think was the case; and the love interest is a barely two-dimensional Generic Ideal Man. Meister does get self-doubt right, for sure: the terror of a confrontation at work is portrayed so perfectly, as is the desire to run away from the nice guy for fear that when he finds out you're actually quiet and boring he'll be disappointed. But I couldn't stand said nice guy saying, essentially, "You are the most wonderful woman ever, in whom I could never find fault, so I have no problem forgiving you for messing with my head, because I'm not a person with his own feelings, I'm The Heroine's Reward." Because wish fulfillment for the ladies means a dude who loves you enough to let you treat him really, really badly and doesn't even require an explanation, am I right? I mean, I understand the urge behind that, that the heroine/reader wants to believe in a man who will love her even if she's freaking out and being afraid and being vulnerable, instead of the reality which is too often, as Ms. Parker put it, "I wonder why they hate you, as soon as they are sure of you. I should think it would be so sweet to be sure." But I liked Violet enough to want her to wind up with an actual character, and poor Michael is just a worshipful checklist.

I did finish The Three Musketeers, which not only bogged like hell but was misogynistic in what struck me as a weirdly modern way. Milady is working for all these evil men, not as her own agent, and yet the instant she's neutralized the evil men all become the Musketeers' bros, because it's only manipulative chicks getting in the way of dudes being friends, am I right? It's utterly bizarre. After I slogged through about sixteen chapters of Milady seducing her Puritan jailer, and then she's captured, I thought that was maybe the halfway point. Nope! It's all "Mission accomplished!" and then a brief epilogue explaining how d'Artagnan and Rochefort are best friends now. What? I promptly started Twenty Years After, which ironically fulfills my "assume your readers are smart" request by expecting me to know everything there is to know about seventeenth-century French politics. Alexandre Dumas has called my bluff, and I am boned.

The other night I was reading some fairy tales, in bed, and came across something by the Brothers Grimm called "Clever Hans". To sum up: Hans goes every day to see Gretel. Gretel always gives him something, Hans always does the wrong thing with it, his mother tells him what he should have done, and then the next day he applies her advice inappropriately. Gretel gives him a knife; he sticks it through his sleeve; Mother says, "You should have put it in your pocket;" the next day he gets a goat, puts it in his pocket; Mother says, "You should have put it on a lead;" the next day he gets bacon, puts it on a lead, etc. Eventually this ends with Gretel tied up in the barn because the day before she gave him a calf. Hans reports to Mother that Gretel is tied up in the barn; Mother says, "You should have cast friendly eyes on her."

Hans returns to the barn, plucks out the eyeballs of the cows and sheep, and throws them at Gretel.

"...what the FUUUUUCK," I said, and carefully put the Kindle down, and pulled the covers over my head.

("Hmmm," said Peter Shaffer.)

Now reading a novel called The Passing Bells, which tells the story of an English lord, his American wife, and their troublesome children on the eve of WWI. I know what you're thinking, but it was originally published in 1978; "Downton Abbey" stole from it, not the other way around. (The estate is even called Something Priory.) It took a little while to get going and there has been some clumsy infodumping (a character saying, "I suppose everyone has to read Thomas Hardy's novels, like Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd," which is totally a natural way to talk), but I'm getting into it.

May you all stay warm and safe.

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