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.