Sunday, November 29, 2015

quick thoughts and books

Terrifying moments in the life of a toddler's parent:

 - When you approach the daycare door at the end of the day and can't remember what you dressed her in that morning, and become convinced you will not recognize her. (I actually didn't, the first time they put her hair up, and couldn't find her in a group of other children. The staff had to be like, "Um, right there? Staring at you?")

 - When you realize just how much karma was accumulating every time you judged the parent of a child who was out in public with unbrushed hair. I have to factor ten minutes of chasing her around the house with a comb into every morning, and her ponytails still look like they were created by drunken sloths.

 - When you have to run into the other room for a moment, and you ask her, "Perdita, will you be all right?" and she looks up at you with huge eyes and nods very solemnly, and you get hit with a pomegranate-scented wave of all the future moments when she won't be all right and you won't be able to fix it, and you start crying so hard that you almost fall down the basement stairs.

 - Attempting to zip up the deadly-snug thigh section of the footie pajamas without snagging a roll.

Read lately:

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. Tells the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the community that processed the uranium for the atomic bombs. Decent but not really as much about the individual women as I wanted it to be - lots of digressions into the political backdrop, which meant that the ubiquitous old white dudes running the show became major characters.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. The premise is that the world has ended and a troupe of Canadian actors wanders North America performing Shakespeare. HOW COULD I NOT. However, it turned out that that storyline was really annoying / upsetting, and I was glad that there were plenty of other storylines. It was annoying because our ostensible heroine is impossibly beautiful, impossibly bad-ass (can hit a target with a thrown knife while blindfolded, we are told), and supposedly the best Shakespearean actress the post-apocalyptic world has ever seen (comment withheld). She is, not coincidentally, really boring and I didn't care what happened to her. It was upsetting because since I had a child I cannot handle apocalypse scenarios, unless I convince myself that in the event of 99% of the world succumbing to a death flu the remaining 1% would be really nice to each other. (Also surely someone would have gotten the power back on after twenty years - as Berowne pointed out, hydroelectric dams are going to still be around, and it's not like instruction manuals will cease to exist.) I kind of have to believe that people will be nice to each other. Otherwise you start thinking like Cormac McCarthy, and then your idea of post-apocalyptic mothering is a woman who talks about her "whorish heart" and her pathetic womanly inability to protect her child, and then kills herself, and then you end up divorced three times which I'm sure is a total coincidence.

I didn't want motherhood to turn me into a total wimp about death in books. It was already bad enough that the mention of a dog's mortality in even, like, the acknowledgements of a book would make me bawl, but now I'm just a total disaster. The week I was reading Station Eleven I seriously had to hold myself back from trying to pack a year's worth of supplies into the car (which, for the record, is a Ford Focus) JUST IN CASE.

Also, I know that bicycles are undignified, but we have all (meaning the internet) acknowledged that their lack of dignity is no longer a good enough reason for post-apocalyptic stories to keep pretending they don't exist, and so reading a book published this year that continues said pretence was frustrating.

The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh. Boo-ring. Our impossibly beautiful teenage heroine attempts to find out what happened to her impossibly beautiful mother, and I am excessively not into stories about things happening to women because they are beautiful / women getting away with profoundly stupid behavior because they are beautiful.

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek. Good and interesting. It's almost too light in tone some of the time, but at the end, when she tells the story of being one of the pathologists working the World Trade Center remains on and after 9/11, it gets just the right tone and is really affecting.

The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert. SO twee. Not badly written by any means, though it does just go on and on, but it's simply a Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy set at the end of the nineteenth century, and those are eye-rolling no matter when you set them. No, really, you do have to give me more than "she's adorably unpredictable and dresses uniquely and has a tattoo" to describe a love interest the pursuit of whom can interestingly take up a whole, long, book. I finished it through stubbornness.

And the little miss has woken from her nap! Time to dash.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

many books and few life lessons

I turned thirty-nine yesterday, and feel like I should have some Profound Wisdom to share about what I have learned in thirty-nine years as a woman (or maybe that's for when you turn forty? I dunno), but most days I feel like all I have learned is how to pretend that I don't constantly feel like a fifteen-year-old with trick joints. There was a plan in the back of my head to share a list of Things I Have Learned for this post, but since I didn't write anything down in preparation, all I've got are things I have thought about in the last forty-eight hours (and even that is probably giving my long-term memory too much credit).

1. Desitin stains never, ever, come out of clothing. I've sacrificed two pairs of dress pants to my child's diaper rash in the last three weeks. (Those of you capable of slathering diaper cream on a squirming, screaming toddler and not getting any on yourself are probably the same people who, pre-baby, could wear light clothing to work because you wouldn't spill coffee on yourself in the car before even getting out of the driveway. You live in a magical world the gates of which are forever closed to me.)

2. There is no reward for being the good girl. There is no moment when the universe sends you a note saying, "Because you are thin and quiet and helpful and don't take up space, here is your solid gold house." There is just you, waiting for this and, when it doesn't come, deciding that it's because you won't deserve your reward until you're even thinner, or until you stop ever asking for what you want, because you did that like three times in the last year and clearly need to be punished for your appalling selfishness. The good-girl reward never shows up. (In the case of things like raises, the reward will only show up if you ask for it, which is why silent martyrdom is self-sabotaging.) People far more selfish and thoughtless than you will always seem to be doing better, and no, it's not fair, but you have to stop doing anything that you are only doing in the hopes of getting a gold star or you will drive yourself insane. If you do something stereotypically good-girl-ish because it's genuinely something you like to do, rock on. But pay enough attention to your own motivations to know the difference.

3. Speaking of differences, telling yourself, "The house needs to be clean," versus telling yourself, "I want the house to be cleaner," can change entirely your attitude about housework. At least it did for me, this morning. Also helpful: thinking about standing in front of Anubis' scales with various other women and having him say, "Okay, the only thing I'm putting in this scale is whether you kept your house spotless, and anyone who didn't gets eaten by the crocodile demon," and even the crocodile demon saying OH COME ON.

4. You're not going to run out of books to read. You can put that book that you hate down. Really. You can. You probably won't actually be cursed if you do. Probably.

And speaking of books:

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott. Really, really good, as I hoped it would be. The four women Abbott picked are two for the Confederacy and two for the Union, and she doesn't truly try to be objective about the Southern ones. Upon review, I don't think she had the option to be: she has the women's own words to use against them, and these women were racist and awful. It was a fascinating book.

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates. This was not about Bates' program teaching Shakespeare in prisons, which is what it purported to be. It was about Bates becoming totally obsessed with one prisoner and publishing all her conversations with him, only two or three of which really have to do with Shakespeare. Very disappointing.

An Old Betrayal, by Charles Finch. Light period mystery.

Die Again, by Tess Gerritsen. The Rizzoli and Isles books are pretty formulaic, but this one actually kept me up late, nervous and invested. Well done.

A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. Yup, pretty wrenching.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen. So good! Victorian vampires, though that wasn't even clear from the first eighty pages... it slow-builds and then just goes crazy in the best possible way. I was genuinely frightened, I was emotionally invested in characters, I cried, I didn't want it to end, and I really really hope that the possible-sequel which is set up at the end happens. Recommended unhesitatingly if you like that sort of thing and have some tolerance for gore.

Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar. A novel about the Bloomsbury Group from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister. It's beautifully written to an extent that sometimes had me reading a page over and over, and yet that beauty never felt forced. What did feel forced were the letter portions - usually letters from Lytton Strachey to someone else, always on the topic of how amazing Vanessa is, because the readers need to be told that. Which, frankly, we didn't: as a narrator/character, we got everything we needed to for her to be sympathetic and impressive. The letters irritated me. Also irritating was the fact that Parmar spent the entire book building up to what was narratively displayed as the Great Love of Vanessa's Life, and then in the afterword said, "Oh, she was with this guy for maybe two years, and then she left him for her brother's ex-boyfriend with whom she had a child and lived for forty years." WHAT? It is historically true, yes, but knowing that this was historically true (which I didn't beforehand) makes Parmar's narrative decision even weirder. It's too bad, because, other than that and the letters, this book was amazing.

A New York Christmas, by Anne Perry. Another of her little Christmas novellas. Cute, relaxing.

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. Strange little novel about a woman working at a newspaper in New York. No one really behaves like a human being and it tries both to be dreamy and brutal about life. I had no problem finishing it but it never made me care.

The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure, by Martin W. Sandler. A YA book about the Overland Relief Expedition, organized to save 265 whalers trapped in the ice in the winter of 1897. The rescuers drove giant herds of reindeer to the winter campsite so that everyone would have enough meat to make it until the ice permitted rescue ships to make it through. Quite interesting, although of course there were dog fatalities, but Sandler skims over them as fast as he can. I appreciate that.

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. Not racist! Albeit a lot of it makes no sense unless you know church bell ringing intimately.

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. A re-read, of a fun little book about a bedridden detective looking into the story of the Princes in the Tower.

And I abandoned The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century, by Paul Collins. At first tedium was its only crime, and I was willing to keep powering through the dullness of a thousand popes, but then Collins announced that Islam is an inherently violent religion, and that Christians would never have come up with the idea of killing people over religion if they hadn't been exposed to Islam. You can imagine how well I reacted to that statement, especially at the goddamned moment. Tedium and xenophobia cross a line that even the demon crocodile of unfinished books would understand.

May you all be safe, with your loved ones and good books, on these strange and frightening nights.