Thursday, June 20, 2013

India, Asgard, the Amazon, and heat

Latest reading:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. Boo spent three years reporting on the lives of residents of a Mumbai slum, and the result is impressively detailed but didn't move me and reads too much like fiction sometimes (not the events, but the writing style). I feel like there are better books about poverty out there, although I'm having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why I sometimes had to force myself to pick this up again.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt. This is Byatt's contribution to the "Myths" series, in which writers get to basically riff on any myth they want (Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson's Weight, etc). I was initially very excited that Byatt was doing the Norse gods, but the end result was... disappointing. Instead of "psychoanalyzing the gods", as she disdainfully says in her afterword that all the other authors have done, Byatt merely re-tells the myths of the Norse gods with the minor framing device of a girl (named only "the thin child") reading the stories during WWII. The main character of the book, if we go by page space, is the Midgard's serpent, who is portrayed in a way that made me have to go re-read Susan Cooper's Greenwitch, because Cooper did it better. The wolves - and wolves in Norse mythology are crucial - are given short shrift and that shrift is written, well, sloppily. Say what you like about Byatt, she doesn't do sloppy, but here she just seemed to have slapped a large dog-shaped space on the page and gotten back to her ten-page list of fish that the Midgard's serpent eats.

The framing device should have worked for me, it really should have. I was a thin child bent over my giant book of Norse mythology, after all. (We didn't read our D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths to pieces, as we did the Greek, but we loved it too.) But there was nothing of the vast physicality of those myths in Byatt's re-telling. None of the epic, astonishing cold you could see in the pictures; no hot blood when Fenris bites off Tyr's hand; and no sex. Byatt tries to write about Loki without writing about sex or sex appeal, which as you can imagine doesn't work, and she has to leave out all the goddesses except Frigg in the Baldur story. And Byatt has her thin child coming up with all these incredibly adult ideas about Christianity based on her readings, which didn't ring true. A kid doesn't read those myths to thoughtfully compare them to the Bible: she reads them because they are awesome and make her feel powerful. Also because wolves.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I really liked this. It's a shameless riff on Heart of Darkness: the protagonist is a pharmacologist sent into the Amazon by the company she works for to find out what's going on with the miracle drug supposedly being harvested / manufactured there, and the Kurtz figure is the female scientist heading up the drug effort. Patchett clearly has fun with re-tooling Conrad and the post-colonial attitude towards indigenous people, while creating her own story that's interesting in its own right. I was a little concerned going into this, since I loved Bel Canto and then was severely disappointed by The Magician's Assistant. Fortunately this was much more like the former than the latter. 


In other news, it's summer. I'm trying to be good-natured about this, and relish delicious salads and the sea roses in my yard and that one day when a tanktop and capris is a perfectly comfortable outfit, as opposed to what you are sweating through. But summer is a rough time for me appearance- (and therefore confidence-) wise. Summer reminds me that my genetics really don't think I should be outside unless it's fifty degrees and misty.

Some people, at the three o'clock post-barbecue mark, just become a little more bronzed along their cheekbones; I turn beet-red and my pores produce Scottish-chip-shop-caliber grease. My upper chest always gets sunburned early in the season, usually in the car so I have a nice seatbelt tan line, and it stays red and blotchy until December. My upper arms break out in pimples and heat rash. My legs refuse to take a tan: I'll be outside all day, in shorts, in sun so fierce that my neck is blistering despite 100-SPF sunscreen and a hat, and at the end of the day my legs remain so white they look green. It's utterly bizarre. From the waist up I am more sensitive to sun than a German vampire, and from the waist down apparently my skin generates some sort of natural sunblock more powerful than anything created by science. Just another one of my fearful asymmetries. 

My, that was whiny. I do enjoy some aspects of summer, and last year advanced so far in my tolerance of it as to actually purchase a bikini top (not a whole bikini; pants-wise I will never wear anything more revealing than board shorts in public, and you can't make me), although some of that had to do with a friend texting me prior to my beach-house visit, "What would you think of a very handsome, scruffy, old-fashioned boat-builder who also sings in a band?" I remember wondering whether the boats were old-fashioned or the gentleman was, and figuring that either way this called for the astonishing decision to let someone other than my oncologist or a tattoo artist see my torso. That decision seems to have worked out. 

Summer: maybe not all bad? Ugh, who am I kidding. The other morning, struggling to find a work outfit, I patted the sweaters in my closet and said, "I miss you already." But there will be days with ocean breezes, and trips to the dog beach, and ginger beer. Before I know it I'll be shoveling snow again. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

war, art, and vivisection

Since last posting, I have read:

The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II, by Iris Chang, a non-fiction book about the atrocities committed by the Japanese invading army in the city of Nanking between 1937 and 1945. Both gory and oddly detached, with a lot more detail about Chang's research than about the actual event. It wasn't badly done, but I remained largely unaffected by it. The strange and sad epilogue by Chang's husband, about her mental breakdown and eventual suicide, was more emotional.

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova. I liked Kostova's first book, The Historian, but was well aware at the time that I could easily have disliked it had I been in a different mood. The Historian's problem, though, was only that it was silly; The Swan Thieves' problem is that it is deadly boring. We are given alternating storylines and narrators: a modern story features an artist in a mental institution, and his psychiatrist (whose every action I commented on with a loud, "BAD PRACTICE,") starts interviewing / gets obsessed with the artist's ex-wife and mistress. Then there's a story set in the 19th century featuring a French aspiring artist having an affair with her husband's uncle, and the modern artist has become obsessed with the 19th-century woman. Lots of characters, lots of narrators, and they are all incredibly dull. This is a long book, and three-quarters of it is first-person narration from the ex-wife's and mistress' points of view, detailing how they fell in love with this guy who really has nothing to recommend him. I mean nothing. He's a two-dimensional jerk. There's tons of talk about how his painting is so brilliant and he's a genius, so it ends up being four hundred pages of "he's an artiste, so it doesn't matter that he's a  philandering bore who's selfish to the bone", and this from two supposedly independent grown women, not nineteen-year-olds after their first encounter with a theory boy. (Kostova handles her characters with a seriously misogynistic touch: the women are all also artists who submissively acknowledge their inferior talent while they orbit the man, and who fall in love with much older men in teacher roles; and there is OF COURSE the loathsome accidental pregnancy.) I finished this out of sheer stubbornness and nothing else.

It's not that I just hate the laziness of "x is a genius, and therefore worthy of love," literary trope. It's that I don't understand it. If the one thing a person, like Kostova's character, has in his "good" column is that he can paint (or sing, or write, or argue philosophy) really really well, and in his "bad" column is that he's a brooding humorless selfish-to-the-point-of-destroying-other-people's-lives freeloader, what on earth would make you fall in love with him? The women in the book don't delude themselves about him being nice or useful. They just fall back on banalities about his Incredible Paintings and how he's a Force of Nature, and immediately I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. (I am NOT saying I've never gotten tangled up with brooding selfish dudes. I'm just saying that when I did, I tried to convince myself and my appalled friends that said dude wasn't actually that bad. I didn't try to convince anyone that it was okay for him to be that bad, or that he shouldn't be held to the same standards of bad as other people, because he was good at something artistic. I find that rationalization totally bizarre. Someone's artistic talent is not going to come pick you up when your car breaks down.) 

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece, by Roseanne Montillo. This is an interesting book that uses alternating chapters to discuss the history of corpse robbing / dissection / galvanism, and give a mini-biography of Mary Shelley and her path to writing Frankenstein. I thought the juxtaposition worked really well and gave a strong historical context to the novel's creation, and Montillo is an engaging writer. The Shelley pieces, however, ended up being far less about her than about the men in her life. I learned a lot about William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, but not much about Mary Shelley. This may accurately reflect how she was identified at the time - as the child of two great thinkers and the mistress / wife of a great poet - but it left me wanting in terms of understanding her as an author. Still, I think this book was a good idea and well executed.

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls, by David Sedaris. It was all right. The funnier essays I had already read in The New Yorker, and I skipped entirely the ones that were written from a fictional character's point of view. Not his strongest collection. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

a quick post

Things for which I am grateful:

1. Friends and family: over the holiday weekend my brother and his girlfriend were visiting, which was great fun. We ate large brunches and went to museums and all cooked together in my wee kitchen and the dogs got huge amounts of attention. The guests flew out Sunday afternoon and Monday morning Berowne and I had breakfast with Claudio's parents and watched the little town parade. I don't think having good people in your life can be better illustrated than by your ex-husband's parents inviting you and your boyfriend over all the time.

2. Books, naturellement. Of late I've read: several more trashy mysteries, a weird creepy Dutch novel which I liked but didn't think was as good as the hype would have it (The Dinner, by Herman Koch), another of Denise Mina's good disturbing books about Glasgow (Slip of the Knife), an excellent John McPhee that I somehow hadn't read before (The Pine Barrens), a book in a series I like very much about a free black man in 1830's New Orleans (Dead Water, by Barbara Hambly), and a book of political essays by my grandfather (Freedom and the Public: Public and Private Morality in America, by Donald Meiklejohn). I enjoyed reading all of these, in different ways. There is so much out there to read, and it is wonderful.

3. That moment in the wee hours of the morning when you wake and realize the temperature has dropped enough to warrant a blanket. I do wish this moment would sometimes come in the wee hours of, say, a Sunday morning, as opposed to a Tuesday, so that the perfect sleeping weather could be savored. But I'll take it anyway. 

4. The new meditation I am practicing which states that when negative emotions arise, one should try to "let the story line go and abide with the energy" (Pema Chödrön). Since I both replay unfortunate encounters in my head over and over and OVER, and tend to try to repress negative emotions, this reversal of those habits is a fascinating exercise. 

5. The dogs, of course. Although last night when we all went upstairs to bed Bingley sniffed at the door of the spare bedroom, freaked out, and ran downstairs. This happened a couple of times. Finally I opened the door, fully expecting a bat to fly directly into my face, and let Bing investigate. He trotted into the room, looked around, and then happily went into the master bedroom and his crate. Naturally I lay awake long after Panic Hound was snoring away, pondering the nature of the obvious haunting in my spare bedroom. It is probably the ghost of the horrible pants I wore in many of the old photos which live in that room's closet. "BEATRIIIICCEEE... HIGH-WAISTED BAGGY JEEEEEAAANNNNSSS..." Brrrrr.