Monday, April 22, 2013

many books, most of which are troubling regarding women

Things my boyfriend has said to me lately:

"Want to go to a museum with me?"

"I want to see 'The Magic Flute'."

"I was offered the part of Captain Von Trapp once."

"I love it" [where "it" is brushing my excessively hairy, molting dog for half an hour a day].

I don't know where the Dr. Awesomestein lab that cooked him up is, but someone should give it a large grant. (It may well be in Maine.)


Regarding the situation in Boston: I'm glad they caught him. As in caught, not killed. This week would not have been improved if it had ended with a nineteen-year-old shot down in the street, no matter what that nineteen-year-old has done. I don't know what happens now, and don't have the energy to articulate my feelings after the last post, but... I'm glad he's alive. And not in a "so they can torture him" way. As the manhunt went on, I kept hoping no one else died, including the hunted. 


Oh my, I have read a lot since last posting about books. So, as quickly as I can:

Breaking Point, by C.J. Box. This was my Early Reviewers book and the latest in a mystery series I enjoy very much, about a hero who is a game warden in Wyoming. As always, the mystery is solid and intriguing (and occasionally very graphic) and the depiction of life in Wyoming very evocative. Our hero's constant conflicts with those above him in the chain of command, and the way bureaucrats who can't ride horses are always untimigatedly evil, are getting a little repetitive, but I still didn't stir from the couch until I finished this book. 

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Oh wow. OH WOW. Take To Kill A Mockingbird, change the narrator to a thirteen-year-old Native American boy, and add a vicious rape and the (very real) fact that crimes by non-Natives on reservation land cannot be prosecuted by tribal authorities, and you have an absolutely incredible book that I could barely stand to put down because I was so invested in the story, and from which I had to take prolonged trashy-mystery breaks because it is so wrenching. I wasn't sure at first that Erdrich was going to pull off the narrative voice, but she does. This book is fantastic. 

Several Inspector Lynley books by Elizabeth George. I... well, I am interested in the mysteries, and in the secondary characters, and in Lynley's working-class sergeant, Barbara Havers. But Lynley himself and his equally upper-class best friend and the upper-class women in their lives are immensely boring and objectionable. They all swan around whining about their feelings while spending money and flitting between their many homes, and the women in particular are depicted as adorable in their inability to function without the aid of servants. One book's non-mystery side plot consists of Lynley and his friend, both in their mid-thirties, fighting over a twenty-year-old girl who has zilch to recommend her other than youth and red hair and extreme, obnoxious propensity for drama (which is, even more obnoxiously, presented as a universal feminine trait and something you just have to deal with if you marry a woman). And there is an episode in that book which had me snapping my head back from the Kindle like a turtle (trigger warning for violence against women): while three people watch, a man punches his girlfriend in the face repeatedly, and then throws her down on the ground and prepares to rape her. One of the people watching is said girlfriend's brother. The two women with him do nothing, waiting for him to do something (because only men can defend women), and only when he points out (fairly calmly, too) that due to his disability he can't reach the place where this is happening do the women rush over to the scene and drag the would-be rapist off the victim. And THEN, when the would-be rapist appears at dinner that night (it's a weekend at Lynley's family estate), NO ONE SAYS ANYTHING OR TREATS HIM ANY DIFFERENTLY. AND NO ONE HAS CALLED THE POLICE ABOUT THIS. BECAUSE THAT WOULD RUIN THE WEEKEND FOR THE HOSTESS. I don't care how fucking upper-class British you are, you don't exchange SMALL TALK over COCKTAILS with the man you just saw TRYING TO RAPE YOUR SISTER. NO ONE EVEN ASKS HIM TO LEAVE. And these three people are our recurring protagonists.  

George, in general: not great with women. Every female character we meet is appraised based on her appearance; apparently the most disgusting thing a woman can do is "let herself go". It's very frustrating to read, because it has nothing to do with the mysteries. P.D. James unfortunately does this too, and in her case as well it's offensively class-based: the wealthy women, in their soft fabrics, slim figures, and expensive haircuts, are described approvingly, while the working-class women who are raising three children on a limited income are shredded by the authors for wearing a stained top or being heavy around the hips. I don't know what to do with this misogyny thrown into books that I might otherwise enjoy. It makes me quite unhappy. 

(That wasn't quick, was it? Had to get that off my chest. Sorry.) 

I also read a couple more mysteries by Tess Gerritsen, which are very like Faye Kellerman's books: attempting to shock but without the depth of character required for me to be invested enough to be shocked. They were good distractions during this last week and while taking breaks from Erdrich. 

The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. A sweet hilarious little novel about eccentric British aristocracy in the 1920's and 30's. I have read Jessica Mitford's letters, and knew her sister was supposed to be a good writer, but had never read any of her books before. This was absolutely charming and I laughed out loud very often. I will be reading more of her stuff, I think. 

Ada, by Vladimir Nabokov. Yes, I finished it. And wow, but not the same kind of wow as Erdrich provoked. A whole lot of this book is pedophiliac incest porn, between a fourteen-year-old boy and his eleven-year-old supposed-to-be-cousin-but-actually-sister (Ada). (There is also incest between Ada and her sister.) I had something of the same feeling as I did when, flush from the wonder that is A Hundred Years of Solitude, I started reading more Garcia Márquez and found that the rape-makes-women-nymphomaniacs thing, which was a one-off in Solitude, was showing up everywhere (Garcia Márquez likes the little girls as well, and between that and the rape I stopped reading his new books about fifteen years ago). Nabokov, for this book, has created an alternate nineteenth-century earth in which Russia owns North America and there are briefly-mentioned steampunky devices and other weird and potentially fascinating stuff, but I eventually decided all this was just in the service of the author wanting a world in which pedophilia and incest are acceptable. There are entirely too many mentions of ten-year-old girls as pouty, seductive nymphets with whom it's perfectly normal for a sixty-year-old man to have sex. So disgusting and infuriating, because, fuck, that man could write. Why, why, if you had that talent, would you use it in the service of six hundred pages about incest and little girls? 

(Notable while reading Nabokov in hard copy: I have become way too used to reading on the Kindle. When you tap a word on the Kindle screen, it pulls up the dictionary definition. Nabokov's vocabulary is way beyond mine, and on possibly more than five occasions I found myself tapping an actual, physical page and expecting something to happen. Not my proudest moments.) 

The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, by Lynn H. Nicolas. This was very dense. I found it interesting in fits and starts, but the amount of information often overwhelmed me. It made me want to re-read Stealing the Mystic Lamb, and not in a good way. Books that make me want to re-read something afterwards are good; books that make me wish, while I am reading them, that I was re-reading something I liked better, are less good. So I can't honestly recommend this. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I heard the explosion across the water yesterday. I looked out the window, thinking, "...Thunder? Odd," and was still looking when I heard the second one. That actually reassured me that it probably was thunder, that there must be clouds coming in from the east or something, and I went back to my book. The noises stayed in the corner of my mind, though, and about twenty minutes later I checked Facebook.

Boston isn't my hometown. If this happened to a little city in the desert, my grief would be wild. But I have lived in the Boston-environs for fourteen years now. I arrived here as an immature and lost twenty-two-year-old, and at thirty-six I look out the upstairs window of my little cottage, which I refinanced Friday because I apparently can fool people into thinking I'm an adult now, and see the Boston skyline. (If I lean a little. Otherwise it's the Revere skyline.)

When Claudio and I first started dating, I'd T from Somerville, where I lived, to meet him at his workplace in Allston. This involves taking the Green line, which apparently caters to BU students' inability to walk more than thirty feet to a T stop, so if the weather was nice I would get off at Copley Square and walk the rest of the way. I never really got over the "big-city" feeling of taking a subway, having grown up somewhere with no public transportation whatever. Once I moved north of the city, I used my car far more often than I used the T, but a couple years ago I took a class in Boston once a week, and the morning commute on the subway made me feel so hilariously adult. 

I grew up (in the sense of spending my childhood) in Santa Fe, but I grew up here. I learned to hold down a job and pay my rent and own a car and a house and pets here. I was still totally a kid when I arrived, living in the official First Apartment in Medford (there are thousands of First Apartments in Somerville / Cambridge / Medford, all with exactly the same layout, and it is a rule that you must live in one when you first move to the area) and not having the faintest idea what to do with myself other than drink. I learned how to live sober here, how to go to museums and concerts alone if I wanted to, how to quietly be myself. Getting physically lost in Boston taught me how to pull myself together in a crisis. (Which is why I'm not great at handling crises that can't be solved by finding the Citgo sign.) 

For six weeks I drove over the Tobin bridge every morning to have my cancer treated, and was reminded that Boston by morning is rather glorious. The drive north over the Pike at night, with the buildings lit up, is also gorgeous (bonus points if you're listening to Jonathan Richman). The jogging paths along the Charles; the cheap balcony seats in Jordan Hall. The USS Constitution being taken out every 4th of July; the museums; how the Zakim bridge looks under a half-moon. The belief that having to cross a street for a Dunkin' Donuts is more than any New Englander can be expected to handle, and so they face each other just about everywhere. (When I was in Europe in 2005, being handed a tiny cup of espresso with my breakfast, I missed Dunkin' Donuts to a degree that probably should cause me shame.)

It's a city with a lot of problems. The racial history is disgusting and current racial attitudes sometimes don't seem to have caught up at all; I've seen some bumper stickers so offensive they blew my mind. There is a wretched faux-Irish-eternal-fratboy culture on offer, showing itself in the form of grown men tumbling out of pubs in Davis Square bellowing homophobic slurs at anyone with a reasonable neck-to-head ratio, or in the form of That Drunk Guy sitting behind you at Fenway bellowing homophobic slurs at the Yankees. The sports culture, alas, seems to give a permission to this behavior that might otherwise not exist.

But that sports culture can be a lovely thing. In October 2004, this city was an absurd and wonderful place to live. No one slept, the radio gave the weather forecast for St. Louis without comment, and suddenly you could be in an elevator with a complete stranger, both of you blinking groggily at your coffee, and the stranger turns to you and says, "DAVE ROBERTS," and you say, "DAVE ROBERTS!" and then you hug.

After that, of course, the Red Sox became less interesting. Their 2007 win slipped by me entirely. Because what this city does best is rally. Is start from the underdog position, the "they think they're a city, how cute," position, the "how tedious, the colonists are being troublesome," position, and surprise everyone. Doesn't matter if you're George Steinbrenner or George III or whatever sick, hateful human beings planted those bombs yesterday - Boston will surprise you.

Rally caps on, kids. (In spirit only, because in actuality it looks ridiculous.) 

Boston knows how to rally. Boston knows how to dig down and be brave and walk through its routines as usual, not letting whoever did this keep us at home afraid. We are stoic as fuck. We get up and we go to work and we make some dry cynical joke about our own fear and we donate blood and we hug our loved ones. And I hope, I pray, that Boston knows how not to turn to hatred.

A pervasive perception about Boston is that it's a mean place, a place where no one makes eye contact, where no one cares about anyone else. New Englanders are taciturn, no doubt. Being here is not like being in the Midwest, where store clerks won't let you walk away until they have your life story. But that's not the same thing as not caring. And this perception is another reason Boston can surprise you. 

Because I was desperately searching for information yesterday when the news first came out, I made the mistake of going into some comment threads on Facebook. There, of course, I saw the worst of humanity, the soulless creatures who deliberately read posts by political figures or groups they loathe just so they can spew poison in the comments. Seeing people react to the news with hatred and victim-blaming shook me up as badly as the news itself.

The moral risk of the underdog narrative is the need to have a powerful, concrete adversary. The Red Sox are nothing without the Yankees. The colonists are nothing without a monarchy. There has to be an operatic struggle. What I hope right now is that Boston will not decide its adversary is a people or a religion. I hope that Boston will recognize that the adversary is hatred, and that the way you beat hatred is not by hating more, or hating for different reasons, or hating with a larger military budget.

I don't believe that hatred is a natural state for humans. I believe that hatred is something turned to out of ignorance and fear, out of states that humanity instinctively wants to overcome. Ignorance is not a place of comfort for humans: when you see the worst of humanity, you see people who have turned to bigotry and violence because they could not find any explanation for their suffering other than to blame it, and wish it, on someone whose race, or religion, or class, or choices, are different from theirs. You see a person who was looking for answers, and fell prey to someone who knew exactly what to say to gain a companion in hatred. There will be those stepping forward now with those "answers", trying to get us to join them in their hateful narrow world. We can't listen. 

Operas could be written about the choice we make here. About the city that felt safe because it isn't the perceived world leader that New York or London is, and quietly went about its business being liberal and progressive and generally, with the exceptions I've mentioned, awesome. And now we have to choose whether to continue being awesome and curious and moving forward, or whether to turn to the same hatred that planted those bombs. Whether we become a city that responds with love, or a city where it's not safe to be a certain color or attend a certain religious service because of a rumor on the internet about who's responsible for this, or an assumption that everyone who shares an ancestry or faith with the ultimately-discovered culprits must be equally guilty. If we do the latter, then this opera is going to end like Tosca, in which the enemies' dying comfort is that they can keep fighting their battle in Hell. Seriously, Boston, let's not turn this into Tosca. Nobody wins.

We must love one another or die. Auden, later in life, scorned his own line as stupid, because we die anyway, but if we don't love one another what's the point? You might as well be dead; you are living a death-in-life, which is what hatred brings you. Hatred takes you to the grave like Tosca, hoping only to get another chance at your own toxicity in the afterlife. 

We're the scrappy underdog, Boston, the clever servant, the one acting out of love. We're Figaro, and we've got to keep laughing and hoping. We can't hate because of this.

Questo giorno di tormenti,          
di capricci, e di follia,
 in contenti e in allegria
 solo amor può terminar.

This day of torments,
of caprice, of folly,
in content and happiness
only love can end it.

Only love can end it.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

colonists, introverts, crimes, and games

Since last posting, I set aside The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro. This new thing I'm doing where I allow myself to just not finish a book is highly disconcerting. It can probably only last so long before a bad thing happens and I attribute it entirely to the wrathful Finish Your Books demigod*, whom I will never dare cross again, but in the meantime at least I don't have to spend more than forty-five minutes with an impossibly-perfect heroine and the Wikipedia entries on "Isabella Stewart Gardner" and "art forgery". Frankly, the true story of the Gardner art heist is miles more interesting.

Books I did finish:

Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. I wanted to like this more than I did. There was very little plot and a whole lot of description of life in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The titular Native American gentleman is a minor character on whom all the Noble Savage stereotypes a 21st-century author can get away with are projected, and the narrator/heroine is so freaking spunky and feminist that I could tell by the tenth page she was going to bug the pants off me: "I will speak the Wampanoag language better than any white person ever! I will have more convincing arguments about religion than any trained minister! I will win over every man I encounter with my desire to learn Latin! I will participate in Wampanoag rituals and paint with the colors of the wind!" So instead of being about the actual journey between English and Wampanoag worlds that the actual person Caleb Cheeshahteamuck experienced, it's the story of a made-up English girl who is better at everything than everyone, and Caleb's only narrative purpose is to give her an entrée to the Wampanoag world so she can be awesome there too. Having read Brooks' other books, I know she can do better. 

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Awesome. 

Tess Garritsen's The Surgeon, which is the first in her mystery series set in Boston. It was... not good, but not-good in a decent-waste-of-time way. The city is evoked nicely and it only wasted about an hour of my life. I'll probably skim a few more in the series to see if they improve.

Resolution, by Denise Mina, the last in her Garnethill trilogy, about a young Glaswegian woman taking matters into her own hands when she discovers women being abused. The plot set-up in this one was a bit forced - I just couldn't believe that our heroine would get as sucked into a stranger's life as she does, and there is so much going on from the previous two books that it becomes a little cluttered. Also things get really, really graphic: there's one chapter I barely made it through. But I like Mina's writing, and am going to check out her police procedurals.

So, on Easter weekend something came up. A recurring situation in which I get incredibly anxious and have to either suffer through a high-stress environment or risk being seen as anti-social / over-sensitive / no fun. I refer, of course, to someone suggesting a game.

We were visiting friends of Berowne's, in Vermont, and after brunch it was decided we would go outside and throw a Frisbee around, because it was Vermont. This is not the game to which I am referring: I am actually okay with the concept of throwing a Frisbee around, though it never goes anywhere near its intended destination once it leaves my hand, and I can tell that my face wears an expression of deranged concentration more suited for open-heart surgery when I am preparing to catch a thrown disk ("Don't fail me now, hands!"). But after that there was suggested a game of cribbage.

Certain members of my family are cutthroat when it comes to card and board games. So cutthroat that an eight-year-old roped into a card game for the first time will be shown no mercy. As that eight-year-old, I forgot one of the rules and didn't play the right card, and as far as one of the adults at the table was concerned you would have thought I killed her dog with a hammer while drunk. I can only assume she would have won had I played properly, and that her winning would have spared us all three Bush presidential terms, in which case her anger and scorn were completely justified and I apologize to everyone. My bad, Iraq.

So when cribbage arose, I had a massive stress reaction: it's basically like those nightmares in which you have to take an exam and have never attended the class. Oh god no. I don't know how to do this. Everyone else knows how to do this and I don't, and if I don't pick it up brilliantly within the first thirty seconds I will ruin the game for everyone and they will never again think my name without mentally tacking on, "who ruined the cribbage game that one time".  

In the event, I stammered my way through some sort of excuse for merely observing the game so I could learn the rules ("Iraq has enough problems; I should probably sit this one out just to be on the safe side"). Everyone was very nice about it and I gathered that the rules seem to involve the number fifteen a lot. It bought me some time. 

Amusingly, once I do know a game, my own competitiveness comes out. Berowne saw a whole new side of me during a friendly game of Apples to Apples early in our relationship. (I won, but considered the win tainted because on the final hand Berowne was the dealer and knew which card was mine, and I would not shut up about it. "You LET me win! Don't DO that!") I still am never sure whether I like games or not. 

I continue to chug through Nabokov's Adventures in Incest and Vocabulary, aka Ada, and have another Inspector Lynley to read. I'd say I also need to practice my cribbage, but let's not go nuts here. 

*My personal pantheon consists of sixty-five gods who enforce the commandment You Should Generally Feel Guilty About Most Things Most Of The Time.