Friday, May 24, 2013


1. I've read a couple more mysteries by Elizabeth George and Tess Gerritsen. They remain known quantities.  In the latest Gerritsen a character goes to New Mexico in the summer and it is so unbearably hot that she swears she will never again complain about a Boston summer. I laughed and laughed, because Gerritsen could not have telegraphed more clearly that she has never been to NM if she'd made it part of the book's title. The area of New Mexico she has her characters visit does not get any hotter than Boston, cools down twenty degrees at night, and has zero humidity. I have come to love many things about New England, but summers here make me want to die, and I live two blocks from the ocean.

2. Turns out I am the kind of person who, in the middle of a romantic text conversation, will feel the need to mention that my dog dropped a three-bagger on that morning's walk. (Berowne: "Now there's something to brag about.")

3. My Early Reviewers book this month was Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery, by Paul Collins. It's an account of a murder trial in 1799 New York, in which Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr both represented the defendant. The description of the court system at the time was quite interesting and well presented, but the "teaming-up" aspect of it wasn't too clear: we didn't get a lot of information as to the interplay between Burr and Hamilton. That's my only quibble, though; it was a solid book and I enjoyed it.

4. My metabolism, instead of gradually slowing down, appears to have just... stopped. As of last month, my body's new magic trick is the ability to generate six flab-pounds from five baby carrots. Is this because I made fun of that stupid book which claimed women over thirty-five have to avoid dessert? I REGRET NOTHING.

5. Read: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris. I think I prefer Sedaris' writing as an occasional thing, not as a full book of essays. I enjoyed this but found myself wondering what it is like to experience awkwardness for a living. Do you suppose he panics if a week goes by and nothing humiliating has happened to him? "I've been so unproductive!"

6. I found some pseudo-glam pictures of me from about five or six years ago, and I can't decide if I am more depressed by how incredibly thin and pretty I was, or by the fact that I almost certainly didn't think I was thin and pretty at the time. Ah, the pointlessness of regret. See above re: dessert.

7. Read: Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson. It had some interesting parts but was divided into a few long, long chapters, when the material would have been better served (in my opinion) by shorter zippier segments. Each chapter contained some fascinating historical material and some really dull parts: the first chapter ended with ten pages debating the metallurgic composition of the perfect saucepan, as an example. I barely made it through that bit. Overall the book felt oddly non-comprehensive and too detailed all at once: Wilson picked a few topics and then dove in to Mariana Trench level, which didn't always work. And I expected more about food, but it's all about cooking technology, not the actual things humans have chosen to eat over the centuries. 

8. Got family visiting from out of town this weekend! There will be less reading than usual but for once this is not a bad thing. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

more thoughts on motherhood and martyrdom

Something of which I grow weary: the Surprise Pregnancy for fictional characters. Seriously, let's review: a professional woman in her mid-thirties, who has managed to remain un-pregnant for the last twenty years while she focuses on her education and career, suddenly... what? Completely forgets that condoms exist or how they work? Yes, people do stupid and/or drunk things, but the character never wakes up the next morning thinking, "Shit, I just had unprotected sex," or "Shit, the condom broke," and races to the pharmacy. Instead, she has no clue that there was any chance of conception, and six weeks later is stunned when someone else invariably points out that she's pregnant (because she is never aware enough of her own body to know it before a random bystander does). Really? If I missed a period two weeks after unprotected sex I think I might, you know, CONNECT THOSE DOTS, instead of thinking nothing of it until a stranger in the elevator asks me when I'm due. (Which is also not a thing. I work with a ton of women in their thirties, and there's always someone who's pregnant, and you can't tell at six weeks.) 

We needn't even mention abortion, because these characters certainly never do. It's never an option. You're given a woman who has been emphatically uninterested in children, and devoted to a life path without kids, for decades until boom! conception! and she's like, "HOW WRONG I WAS! I CAN'T WAIT TO BE A MOMMY!" The Universal Maternal Instinct, because that's totally real. It lives in the Himalayas with the Yeti. 

I know the purpose of using Surprise Pregnancy as a narrative tool (it shows up in television and films as well as books), and that is a huge part of why it irritates me. It's to "humanize" an overly-successful woman. You create a woman who is educated and independent and professionally successful, and then you're like, "Hmm, we need to bring her down a couple notches, so: Surprise Pregnancy!" Because a pregnancy will derail her career, shake her independence (she frequently ends up with the impregnator even if he was a one-night stand and she has the financial ability to be a single mother), show that she's really just a silly girl who can't control her body, and give her emotions, because everyone knows that mothers are emotional creatures before they are intellectual ones. These female characters are always, always in a position to avoid pregnancy, and for purposes of the story aren't allowed to avoid it. No one's ever raped or anything that dark: it's just, "Tee hee, I forgot how babies are made!"

There's an ugly sense about it that we (the readers / viewers / society) can only forgive even a fictional woman her success if she is also a mother. An accidental mother, preferably; otherwise she's a cold-blooded career-driven shrew planning to take only two weeks' maternity leave (nice work if you can get it and more than most men take for paternity leave). An accidental mother has lost control over her body, and has to make sacrifices because this wasn't how she planned on things going, and that is how a large portion of our society still wants to see women: no bodily autonomy and lots of personal sacrifice. Women are supposed to be martyrs, and being so to their children is just the most obvious way. But we're expected to martyr ourselves to so many other things as well: beauty standards (three minutes on the internet will show you what many people think of women who don't conform to a beauty standard and yet "dare" to consider themselves attractive / wear a bikini / leave the house), niceness-expectations, godforsaken dating "rules" and sexual double standards. 

Really, isn't that enough? Isn't fighting all those things enough? No, because women having bodily autonomy is still unacceptable to millions of people, and unintended pregnancies are the ultimate weapon against non-conforming women in this battle. This is why, even in a stupid mystery novel, the Surprise Pregnancy makes me furious. It reflects a reality in which motherhood isn't seen as a choice that a woman can make (and that she can choose to make at a time in her life when she will be able to provide the best for the child), but as the natural state of things which an uppity woman can only delay for so long; as a punishment for sex which will eventually override any precautions against it; and as the only way to make a woman seem loving, emotional, human. UGH.  

As I pointed out to Berowne the other day, virtually the only thing left to women is permission to laugh hysterically when a man gets punched in the crotch by a dog. (Berowne wanted to deny me this permission simply because it was his crotch, and I invoked feminism.) That's an important aspect of life, but it's small comfort when everything else is trying to martyr you against your will all day long. I hate that I live in a world where, by virtue of my gender, I have to be a saint to be considered human. What makes me human - what makes anyone human - are flaws and quirks and moments of distinctive goofiness. There's a reason Paradiso is unreadable. 

The ways in which women are expected to martyr themselves in order to become mothers are, of course, nothing compared to the martyrdom expected of mothers. I am unequipped to address that, though I have witnessed it and I fully expect to fail miserably at those expectations should I become a mother, mostly because I am lazy. That's my motto, really: Too Lazy For Sainthood. That and: Dog Punching a Man in the Crotch: Never Not Funny.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

more vampires, and a couple other books, and trouble with the cult of motherhood

I finished The Twelve, the second of Justin Cronin's post-apocalyptic vampire books. The big God reveal which I feared didn't really appear - characters mention God, and for some reason the Catholic nun model is the only one anyone thinks of for a school, one hundred years after the fall of civilization, but whatever. And I did enjoy the book, though it's not as good as the first one. But I had some major problems with it, which I will now discuss in far too much detail:

All Cronin's female characters, with the exception of the one played by Milla Jovovich, are maternally-oriented to the exclusion of anything else. If they are mothers, then they are only mothers, only motivated by their children (women who lose their children either give up or become vampire queens, because once you've failed at womanhood enough to have a miscarriage, you might as well just kill everyone). If they are not mothers, they desperately want to become mothers and are thrilled when they get pregnant, even in a world where you're giving birth under basically medieval conditions and there's a 60% chance the child will get eaten by a vampire. I got so bored with the constant Motherhood thing - there honestly isn't a single fully-human woman who is primarily occupied with her own survival or with a plan for the human race that goes beyond "get knocked up". Only the part-vampire ladies get to think about things other than their wombs (and not even all of them do).

Also every named character is emphatically, explicitly heterosexual. Cronin makes it clear that all his main characters are mixed-race, because when the survival of humanity is at stake (and all the ladies desperately want to make as many babies as possible) no one cares about race anymore, but not a single character is gay. They are all straight and they all happily pair off throughout the course of the books. Except for our Chosen One hero, who likes the ladies but is too Chosen to waste his time on a girl, and apparently has things to do. (We're told, repeatedly, that in the five years between books he's become the most legendary vampire fighter ever, even though the person actually killing all the vampires is the Milla character. We see him kill precisely one vampire in the course of the book and it's not due to any cleverness or strength on his part. Maybe in the third book he'll get around to killing two!)

Between this book and Mothers' Day, I got thinking about the cult of motherhood in our society, and got cranky about it. What it comes down to is that I'm getting the worst of both worlds, as a childless woman who does want kids: I'm constantly having to defend my childless state, and have on more than one occasion been cheerfully informed that I won't know what Real Human Love is until I have a child, and at the same time there's the perception that motherhood contributes inherently to this cult and so a forward-thinking woman should be immune to its appeal. I know that if I have a child I'm not going to stop being offended by the Real Human Love bullshit (one of my friends was once told she didn't know what it was to be human because she was childless, and I don't care what postpartum hormones are in your brain, there is NO EXCUSE for that), and I'm not going to stop being obsessed with my dogs, and I'm not going to stop swooning over used bookstores (Elizabeth Gilbert, lookin' at you). And all the women I know who have kids fight that bullshit too, and raise kids who love bookstores.

I guess the issue for a woman of thirty-six who has always known she wanted kids is that the obvious question is, "Well, why don't you have any yet?" And I can't say that it's because I wanted to get my career on track or I had other caretaking responsibilities in my life or wasn't in a relationship or anything. And so there's the constant sense that I'm a failure because I should have had kids already, when my body and mind were younger and stronger, when I hadn't yet gone off caffeine. Never mind that that would have meant either trying to stay in a relationship that made both parties miserable, for the sake of the child, or finding myself suddenly a single mother. But at least I wouldn't feel put on the spot when nosy semi-strangers ask invasive personal questions! Priorities!

...Anyway. I also read:

 The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham. I have tried Maugham before and was underwhelmed, but that's because no one told me that the way to read him is in a sinus infection / cold medicine fugue state. I felt like this book was amazing and profound in a way that I fear it isn't, but it's very strangely coldly beautiful. In any case, if you need fever / medicine head reading, I can totally recommend it.

The Dead Hour, by Denise Mina. The second in her series about a young female journalist in 1980's Glasgow. Violence, sordidness, and Scottish food all over the place. Good stuff. You have to love an author who titles a chapter: "Fucking Hell Almighty Fucking Shit God". 

The Pirate Round, by James L. Nelson, which was trying to be Patrick O'Brien but with pirates instead of the British navy. It didn't work for me, but wasn't horrible. Just a little bit boring with flat characters.

And a couple more George and Garritsen mysteries. Very light and unchallenging. Perfect for a lunch break.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

dreams (sappiness alert)

So, I called my vet to make my dogs' kenneling reservations for my vacation this summer. Both my dogs are well-loved at the vet's, because it is an absolutely wonderful office staffed by wonderful people. But Darcy is really the legend of the place. When I'm there with him, I hear in the hallways, "I heard Darcy is here!" and staff gathers in the waiting room to see him. It's like being a rock star's bodyguard. 

Darcy is an amazing dog. His original owners told us that he was 75% wolf, which is not true, but I still get asked all the time if he's a wolf. (My answer is usually, "No, wolves don't get this tall.") Our best guess is shepherd / malamute / wolfhound. He's enormous, and beautiful, and so obviously gentle. Little children run to him. People inclined towards that sort of thing tell me that he's magical, mythical, out of a fairy tale. He'll look at you with his wise golden eyes and you'll become a person inclined towards that sort of thing. Claudio's new girlfriend (whom I like) says, "He's going to turn into a Russian prince someday, isn't he?" 

When I called the vet, I didn't even have to give my name. I said, "Bingley and Darcy," and the woman drew a huge breath and said, "OH MY GOD. DARCY. I GET TO SEE DARCY EVERY DAY. THIS IS A DREAM COME TRUE." 

I laughed, and of course posted her quote to Facebook, and then thought about it for a minute. 

Seeing Darcy every day is a dream come true. 

So is seeing Bingley. So is living in a place where I can have dogs. Every day after work, after errands, after potentially being stressed out by the various slings and arrows of being an adult, I get to come home to my own place, and be greeted by two wonderful dogs who are so happy to see me (and who may have left me various presents in the forms of bodily excretions or dismembered books), and it's all worth it. 

I always knew I wanted a dog of my own. Claudio and I pretty much bought a house so we could get a dog. In Bingley's puppy pictures the house isn't even fully unpacked, but it was now officially a home. (Full disclosure: two months passed between Moving Day and Puppy Adoption Day. The house should have been unpacked, but a disciple of Hestia I am not.)   

I remember the days I would say, "Someday I will have a big dog." That, for me, symbolized everything happy-making: a place all my own, with no neighbors above or below, no impossible-to-please landlords; a job stable and financially-rewarding enough to be able to afford pet care; and, of course, owning a big dog. I had no idea I'd end up with two big dogs. I had no idea that I'd end up being the sole owner of two big dogs, either, but that was never really too stressful, and the comfort and companionship I got from them when I was loneliest far outweighed what stress there was.

The big advantage of having been a hot mess at one point in your life is that you are never again inclined to underrate stability. During said hot mess period there were dreams of Pulitzers and Tonys and inexplicably-derived great wealth, dreams of being universally admired and desired, dreams of the universe realizing it owed me grand things for the generic tragedy of adolescence ("oh man, you had to survive acne AND pudgy thighs? here's your solid gold house"). But a lot of it, even at my worst, came down to someday I will have a big dog, which was subconscious shorthand for someday I will know what matters. Deep in my psyche, I wanted not to want so endlessly, so resentfully. I wanted to be a person for whom a big dog is enough.

I still have dreams, of course. I want kids and a finished manuscript and to read all the books (you will notice that each of these dreams is largely dependent on not spending time on the other two, but screw it, climb every mountain). And I'd be a humongous liar if I pretended that I have eliminated toxic, entitled wanting from my life. 

But there are a lot of nights I sit on my couch with the dogs next to me, and I feel a palpable relief: I did it. I made it here. I made it to the place of safety, the place of big dogs. Streams: forded.

(Disclaimer: sitting on the couch with Darcy may not, in fact, be the place of safety if you are of the male persuasion, given his tendency to slap a giant paw into the groin area of those humans not paying him sufficient attention.) 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

vampires, copyboys, immigrants

Latest reading:

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. I don't usually read post-apocalyptic vampire / zombie books, but I just kept hearing so much about this one that I had to give it a try. I'm not sorry I did. It steals shamelessly from every undead-end-of-the-world movie you can think of (visit to / fight in a Las Vegas reclaimed by the desert ["Resident Evil: Apocalypse"]; supposedly-savior group which turns out to have promised its members women ["28 Days Later"]; zombie fight in mall [most recent "Dawn of the Dead']; and those are just the ones that jumped out at me immediately), but its pacing is good and it's effectively captivating. The pacing is more than good at the beginning, when the events which will release the vampire virus are being set in motion, and that part is so scary that it gave me nightmares. Then it settles a bit, and occasionally bogs, when we skip to a hundred years later and the small colony of survivors, who all conform to noble stereotypes: Warrior Woman / Doomed Teenager / Maternal Instincts / Bland And Slightly Misogynistic Hero, etc. We actually have two Bland Heroes, who are so bland that I could barely tell them apart even after seven hundred pages, and we keep being informed that the blander of the two is a "Matrix"-esque Chosen One (which I suppose means he will eventually do something, so there's that to look forward to). I found that tendency in the book - the occasional slipping into hints that this was all preordained and there are people who are destined to save humanity and so on - unfortunate, since it comes uncomfortably close to being religious. The recurrence of the Noah-and-the-ark analogy in particular had me cocking a very skeptical eye at the text, wondering if at the end of the trilogy there's going to be a big ol' C.S. Lewis God reveal. I wouldn't be surprised, but I'll be disappointed. Books like these are so much more effective and scarier when it's just people behind the events. I already got the second one out of the library, but I'm a little bit wary. 

Personal digression about the C.S. Lewis God reveal: because I was raised an atheist, when I first started reading the Narnia chronicles the Jesus-analogies which would have been completely obvious to anyone else slipped right by me. Seriously, I didn't have a clue until the last goddamn page of The Last Battle, when Aslan-Jesus shows up and informs our beloved characters that they are all DEAD and that dying before you reach twenty is the BEST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU, and that this whole time Narnia was just Christian heaven. The frothing-furious, soul-searing betrayal I felt at this was beyond my ability to even process. Twenty-six years later I'm still mad, and also deeply disgusted at the idea of writing in a children's book that the character to be pitied is the one who WASN'T on the FATALLY CRASHING TRAIN. (Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about Susan, which could have been a really fascinating discussion of the dangers of a religion which focuses on the afterlife and innocence to the extent of condemning all real-life experiences, and what it's like to grow up after believing that, but what Gaiman actually wrote was bestiality porn. Sigh.)

Field of Blood, by Denise Mina. It's set in 1981 and featuring a young girl who's working as a copyboy on a newspaper and hoping to become a journalist. As I have learned to expect from Mina, people who don't have the training or experience get themselves entangled in murder investigations and there is a lot of drinking and occasional shocking violence. But I liked this book's heroine and will be reading the sequel. 

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. I put off reading this for a long, long time. Sometimes I do that with highly-acclaimed books, mostly because I hate being disappointed and because I also get a juvenile "you're not the boss of me" thing going on when dozens of people are all telling me to read the same book. But this book was not a disappointment, to say the least. It's fantastic. I didn't expect the humor - I laughed constantly - and the writing is just marvelous. There are a few chapters near the end in which characters pontificate for longer than is interesting, but that's really the only flaw. Smith is very much an heir to Rushdie, both in subject matter and writing style (it's not really a similar writing style, but it's so clearly a descendant), and there was the same sheer joy in writing that you see when you read early Rushdie. Often highly-acclaimed books are so consciously crafted - The Night Watch, and most things by A.S. Byatt, spring to mind - that you can't ever imagine the author pounding away at a keyboard completely in thrall to his/her own delight in how things are unspooling. I could picture Smith like that. I could be wrong; she could have picked out every sentence with microscopic care; but that's not the sense I got, and it made me even like the flaws as evidence of the author being young and human. Wonderful book. Everyone else has probably already read it but if you haven't, do. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

little bit of baseball, little bit of books

I went to a game at Fenway Park the weekend before last. It was fun, albeit bone-chillingly cold. I also got there late because I was on the slowest train in history, and every time it stopped in a tunnel and just sat there all I could think was that the station ahead of us had blown up. (The couple next to me were also going to the game, and the man helpfully pointed out all the large backpacks in the train to his wife and, by extension, me. Also fun to think about when you're on a train stopped in a tunnel.)

So by the time I arrived I was shaky and hungry and, besides, it was a Sunday night and so I should rightfully have been in my pajamas about half an hour ago, and when I saw Berowne I said, "This is why I don't like doing things."

We didn't stay the whole game, and they weren't playing all that well, but I'm still very glad we went. It felt like the right thing to do. Although the crowd launched into a "USA! USA!" chant at one point, in which I simply could not participate. Just... no. 

I've totally been slacking about updating this blog. Allergies are kicking my butt and now they have morphed into a full-blown cold. My reading, in brief:

A couple more Tess Gerritsen, and a couple more Elizabeth George. Both are decent distractions without being challenging. In the George ones, there continues to be nonsense about Lynley's girlfriend being pretty much useless at existing in the world without people waiting on her hand and foot (apparently she literally can't make food for herself, not even pasta, and this is supposed to be adorable), and offensive extrapolations from her to all women (instead of saying that Lynley had to occupy himself for ninety minutes because that's how long it takes Helen to get ready in the morning, George says, "while Helen did whatever takes women ninety minutes to get ready"). Obnoxious though this is, it did put my occasional* fretting about Not Doing Things in perspective. I feel like every other woman out there knits and gardens and bakes organic bread and climbs mountains, and I will never be good enough, but I somehow get by without servants, which puts me one up on the oh-so-desirable Lady Helen. True, my dinner last night was a hunk of Brie, a tamale, and grapes, but I washed those grapes all by myself. Where's the wealthy earl willing to put up with all my nonsense?** 

My Early Reviewers book this month was Anne Frank: The Biography, by Melissa Müller. It was interesting, and I'm willing to chalk any awkwardness in the writing up to the translation, but I felt as if it was written for people who had virtually memorized Anne Frank's diary. I've never read her diary; never been interested in it, and, honestly, I'm still not. So reading a book which was almost a companion to the diary wasn't ideal: the list of people the Franks knew is dumped on Müller's readers as if we are already intimately familiar with all of them, and I lost track of who was who early on. The fates of everyone mentioned are detailed in a long epilogue, by which point I'd completely forgotten who the minor players were. But I did think this was a good book, and appropriately depressing. It would probably be fascinating for those who do read it as a companion to the diary. 

*by which I mean "constant"

**note to universe: I do not actually want my boyfriend to be swapped out for an earl, thanks