Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Reverse Inspiration

Some folks, whether they're as well-known as Thomas Jefferson, or as (relatively) obscure as your 11th grade English teacher, inspire you to do thing through their ingenuity, compassion, nobility of spirit, or strength. Then, there are the "reverse inspirations," people who make you go, "Well, shit, if she can do that, I can DEFINITELY do that too." Tonight I got reverse inspiration in Barnes and Noble from a source I never would've guess: Pamela Anderson.

Did you know that this woman has not one, but two novels out? The first one is called Star. Before I even took it off the shelf, I said to myself, "I bet the main character is named Star." I was right. It apparently chronicles the meteoric rise of a small-town girl into an international celebrity and sex symbol. In case anyone's questioning where she might have gotten the idea for that book, the next book is called Star Struck. If any of you have taken my advice and read the Motley Crue autobiography The Dirt, you'll know that Tommy Lee spent a few months in jail for hitting her while they were married. And just by reading the dust jacket, this book is so clearly about the two of them that you wonder why she bothered to change the names.

I have never liked Pamela Anderson. I've always thought she was more scary-looking than sexy. To her credit, she has tried to do some good with her celebrity, through her work with PETA and all, but I still always see her as vapid. Perhaps it has something to do with the quality of her "work": Baywatch was about the height of it. Then she was on two really shitty shows, V.I.P( stands for "Vallery Irons Protection)and Stacked, where she worked in a bookstore (it's a double entendre! Get it? How clever!) There was a shitty movie, Barb Wire (where she played a woman named...wait for it..Barb Wire. Pam likes to keep it simple.) Since I'm not a man, I never really paid her much attention.

But my curiousity is piqued with these books. I'm not proud to admit that I spent a good half hour looking at the books and those are what sticks out. I'm a little afraid, actually, of what it might say about me. At least I didn't buy them (not like I'd be the only one; the first was apparently a best-seller). But it may get to the point where I can't take it anymore and just have to give them a go, like I did with Citizen Girl. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if Star and Star Struck are significantly better than Citizen Girl.

Monday, June 25, 2007


All of us have secrets...some are pretty mundane, and others are life-altering. Tawni O'Dell's main characters trend towards the second (well, a book about an adult who stole a necklace from her best friend in second grade does not hold much appeal for anyone, does it?). Her character's secrets would be described by others as "shocking", but the thing about shock is that it wears off. It's to O'Dell's credit that she doesn't build towards a shocker ending. Instead, she sprinkles liberal hints about the nature of the secret throughout the book. As you're observing the main character, and hearing his or her thoughts (O'Dell writes in the first person), you start to suspect it, so when the narrator finally levels with the reader about the secret, you feel like you've known it all along, because you've come to know the main character and understand what he or she has been living with.

Coal Run is set in the same Western PA mining town as Sister Mine, and the narrator of Coal Run even makes an appearance in Sister Mine. They don't really hinge on each other, they just exist in the same reality. But still, I wish I'd read them in order so I could look for the characters from Coal Run.

It's the story of Ivan Zoschenko, who lost his father at an early age to an explosion in the coal mine, as did half of his peers. He was a gifted football player and had just inked a deal with the Chicago Bears when a serious injury (non-football related, but it's part of the plot of the book) ended his career. After an eight-year absence, he's returned to Coal Run as a deputy sheriff. The book is set during one eventful week, where he attends the funeral of his mother's best friend, gets auctioned off in a hospital charity event (dinner with him, anyway), is reunited with his much-changed childhood idol, and prepares for the release of a violent felon.

The characters in this book, as in all of her books, are really what makes the story. Ivan's sister Jolene, is a waitress with high spirits, three boys by three different men, and a former pageant queen who competed because she loved the crowns. Dr. Ed is a 70-year-old pediatrician who feels so strongly about the welfare of his charges that he makes house calls and vaccinates children for free, by force if he has to. Zo Craig is dead by the time the book opens, but manages to direct events and help her former friends and neighbors from beyond the grave.

Of the three books, this is where you'll find the most even mixture of comedy and tragedy. In Coal Run, tragedy scars the landscape. Over 100 men were killed in the mine that day, and their widows and children lived in the shadow of it until mine fires made the town unliveable and everyone was moved out and the houses bulldozed. There is also a great deal of personal tragedy. As with O'Dell's other books, domestic violence, alcoholism, maiming injuries, abandonment, and early death are the fabric of the lives of the people of Coal Run, and Ivan is coping from the fallout of an incident that shocked even them. There's also the loss of potential. Ivan is the most glaringly obvious example, but Jolene was stripped of her Miss Pennsylvania title when she became pregnant. Ivan's boyhood hero Val lost his leg in Vietnam. Ivan's former teammate also had the potential to turn pro, but turned his back on it for the same kind of life his father and grandfather had led, working the mines in Coal Run.

But there's also a lot of humor. Ivan's job takes him out to bust up a fight over ownership of a picnic table: one of the combatants had bought it, but a storm blew it into the creek and it washed up on the property of the other combatant. His sister defuses a potentially violent situation by taking off her dress; it distracts the man just long enough for Ivan to knock him out. Like the rest of O'Dell's work, it's an excellent read. But I feel a little sad now. This is all there is, for now. Sister Mine just came out, so we'll probably have to wait another couple of years for a new one from O'Dell. It will be worth it, though.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Returning to Modern America...with a vengeance

I took a bit of a break from my colonial history thing to read one of Tawni O'Dell's other books. I have both her previous books out from the library. The one that I didn't leave in the car was her first novel, Back Roads.

The dust jacket and the review on the book will tell you that it's funny. I will tell you that whoever wrote that is seriously fucked in the head. Unlike Sister Mine, which deals with many of the same serious themes, there is very little humor in this book. I think it's primarily due to the age of the protagonists, and distance from their catastrophes: Shae-Lynn was 40, and had managed to overcome her difficult childhood and teenage years to become a relatively successful adult. Harley is only 20. His mother is in in prison for having shot and killed his abusive father, leaving him to raise his three younger sisters: Amber, 16; Misty, 12; and Jody, who's only 6. All this happened a little over two years before the book started, and now he works two shitty jobs, he attends therapy sessions, and since his friends are all in college, he does little else.

He also has an intensity and anger that Shae-Lynn did not have. The book opens with him in a police station, accused of murder, and works backwards. As you get to know Harley, you're not surprised. He does have a lot to be pissed about, for sure, but he also seems pissed off about things that have little to do with his home life. Women, for instance. There's a scene where he goes to visit his mother in prison and almost gets himself kicked out for yelling at a ten-year old girl about using birth control and how she's going to get pregnant as a teenager if she's not careful. Other people, in general, piss Harley off. He gets in several fights during the book, some of them physical. He doesn't get much out of his therapy sessions, and frequently visualizes violent acts: "I...imagined picking up the empty pan and swinging it with all my night, catching Jody in the head first, knocking her off her chair, and then hitting Misty and watching her spit up bloody macaroni and cheese..."

There is also little redemption at the end of the book. Unlike Sister Mine, things don't generally end up working out and resolving themselves, which I guess is realistic. But this one doesn't leave you feeling good. That's not to say that it isn't a good book. O'Dell once again takes you into a world that most people don't really care to read about: a world of dirty houses with burned-out couches on the front lawn, where women and children get beat up by the man of the house, where teenaged girls run wild, adults work at dead-end, ball-breaking jobs, high school graduation rates are low, and the people who shop at Wal-Mart are considered upper-middle-class. Her characters, and their hopes and dreams, are all vivid, and all treated respectfully.

Many people make fun of the real-life counterparts to O'Dell's characters, and most of them just prefer to pretend they don't exist. But they're a lot more representative of America than the characters in a novel by, say, Jennifer Weiner or Candace Bushnell. I've spent the past two years living and working in an area that's only marginally better than the coal towns of Western PA, and I'm glad this perspective is getting represented in modern literature.

The Code of the Brethren

Does anyone remember that phrase from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: "The Code of the Brethren, set down by Morgan and Bartholomew?" The book I've just finished, Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty, is about the real-life career of the "Morgan" of that phrase: Captain Henry Morgan 1635-1688.

One beautiful thing about my Colonial Reading Thing is that it's helped me to see the broader connections. When they referenced trouble between the English and the Dutch heating up, I know of the trouble they're talking about. When Morgan came to the Caribbean, the English were about 9 years away from taking New Amsterdam. You can also see many of the trends and currents swirling about the story of the pirates in the Caribbean: how the old-world thinking, mired in religion, tradition and superstition, was about to be exploded by a more humanistic, individualistic worldview.

In this book, the old worldview was quite literally, exploded, over and over again by the democratic scallywag army Morgan raised, "made up of trash tossed out of a half a dozen European countries". In my beloved Pirates movie franchise, the pirates are depicted as mercenaries and enemies of all. In Empire, Talty shows how the British crown used them as a weapon: there was a razor-thin distinction between "pirates" and "privateers." The latter (of which Morgan was the best-known) had official commissions from the Crown to pillage and plunder strategic Spanish locations. The Spanish, in contrast, were mired in their old ways. Talty talks of ships that crossed the Atlantic bearing nothing but pages and pages of records and orders. It took a very long time for anything to happen in Spain, and the Spanish were terribly overextended. They did not have a counterpart to the privateer system; in fact, it would've been anathema to their whole way of thinking, in which God was at the center of everything, not the individual.

There are many delectable characters in this book. There's the melancholy King Phillip IV of Spain, who, overwhelmed by problems he couldn't solve, spent hours staring into his own tomb. Mary Carleton, the notorious whore who had impersonated a German princess down on her luck back in England, and her cohorts, with the delectable names of No-Conscience Nan, Buttock-de-Clink Jenny and Salt-Beef Peg. The terrifying, bloodthirsty psychopathic French pirate L'Ollonais. And Morgan himself, the cunning, brave Welshman who proved to be a natural leader and considered himself not an outlaw but a British patriot.

I will confess again: I am a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I love Jack Sparrow, and would marry him if he were real, even though I know he wouldn't make a very good husband. I also like the ride, too, and was interested to see historical correlations to several details in both: the mayor in the well (when towns had advance notice of pirate raids, wells were popular hiding places for valuables); the pirate wallowing with the pigs (livestock and provisions were as highly prized as swag); Elizabeth's reluctance to reveal herself as the governor's daughter in the first film (pirates often kidnapped citizens and held them for ransom, as a way to get valuables that had been hidden). There were real Gallows Points to warn pirates of what they were in for, just like the one Captain Jack Sparrow saluted as his boat was sinking on the way to Port Royale. Tortuga was not only a real place, but it seems as though it was accurately depicted in the first film. Pirates really did have a superstition that banned women from their ships, although the real-life pirates made a few notable exceptions, too.

The book was relatively entertaining, and although I have few doubts of its historic accuracy, it's clear from the bibliography that it's not presenting anything new, unlike Shorto's book. Talty seems to have leaned mostly on secondary sources, some going all the way back to the early 20th century. He lists only ten primary sources, and all of those are previously published documents. He also used a device that further separates this book from more scholarly works: he creates a fictional character. His fictional character is a "typical" pirate that would have sailed with Morgan. Initially, I thought his invention (named Roderick) was just an example, but Roderick is with is throughout the entire book, past the death of the Captain. Anyone reading this book should be aware, then, that it's more history-as-entertainment than scholarly work. That's not necessarily a bad thing: given the upsurge in interest in pirates, it's an enjoyable, easily digestible way to start, but it is just a starting place. If you already have some knowledge of Morgan's career or the pirates in the Caribbean, this book is not likely to add much, though.

Friday, June 22, 2007

May I see some ID before you go any further?

I saw a fun thing over at Pharyngula's blog. YOu can go to this website, and it will give your blog a G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17 rating. I'm proud to see that my innocuous little blog garnered an R, for the use of the words sex and rape. I guess that must have been from those few weeks where all my reading seemed to involve sex between an adult and a teenager. So children, please, either have a parent accompany you when you read this blog, or follow the time-honored tradition of asking random adults outside the theater to buy your tickets to Library Diva, and hope they don't run off with your money!

What's My Blog Rated? From Mingle2 - Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Even Old New York Was Once New Amsterdam

After reading Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, I CAN say why they changed it, and also state that it's open for debate whether people really liked it better that way at the time.

Telling an epic story, like that of the Dutch colony on Manhattan (c.1620 - 1664) is a difficult task. Imagine it today. I have three close friends living in the general vicinity. One is in his early 50s, and came to the city several years ago with $400 and no other prospects other than the promise of a free month's rent and the possibility of getting back with an ex-girlfriend, and in a modern-day Horatio Alger tale, is now happy and has a successful and lucrative career. Another friend is a scientist who, despite being intelligent, well-spoken and passionate about life and her field, has not managed to land a job in her field and lives at the edge of poverty. A third friend lives not on Manhattan but in Brooklyn. She holds a BA in English and is pursuing her master's in education while working at a group home. She is the only child of a single mom, and they live together. So whose New York is it? Probably most of you were drawn to one of the first two stories, but there are probably more people living like my third friend. Or does the story of New York in the beginning of the 21st century belong to any of them? Does it really belong to Guiliani and Bloomberg, to plummeting crime rates, skyrocketing real estate values, terrorist attacks and rebuilding?

Russell Shorto manages, in only 325 pages, to weave all of these types of stories together in presenting the true origins of America as we think of it. It takes an unusual sort of person to leave everything they knew and make a new life in a region which is essentially unknown. You'd have to be either terribly brave and noble, or terribly foolish with nothing to lose. There are plenty of both peopling Shorto's book. I laughed out loud to read about Griet Reyniers, the prostitute with a knack for self-promotion and a penchant for measuring her customer's penises on a broomstick, and her husband, pirate Anthony "The Turk" van Salee, described as a "one-man criminal class...even his dog was trouble."

But I came to admire a man who deserves his own paragraph (and more). Adrien van der Donck was poised to have it all. He was from a good family and a lawyer, recently graduated from the best university in Europe, yet he chose to come to the Manhattan colony. Once there, he proved himself to be both a shrewd politician and clever manipulator, but also an advocate for freedom and representative government. He was imprisoned and nearly lost his life to the cause, but one can see in his struggle the prototype for the American revolution.

Another hero, to me anyway, is Dr. Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Project. In a move that must have had his parents tearing their hair out, he earned his PhD in 17th Century Dutch Language. By fortunate coincidence, the New York State Library was looking for someone to translate a cache of 12,000 pages of documents from the New Amsterdam colony as he was searching for a job. This was 26 years ago, and Gehring has been there ever since. If you want to visit him in his office, you cannot just go in. The elevator doesn't stop there. You have to go up a floor, state your business, and be escorted downstairs to see him. I've just left a job that I found increasingly isolating, and his ability to keep going in the fact of that is remarkable to me.

The central thesis of the book is that the Dutch, through their tolerance, created the "melting pot" one can find in New York City today, also that their influence has been more pervasive than has been thought in the past. Wall Street was the site of a fortification they built to keep the English out (you can tell just by the name change how that worked out). If you came to the colonies as an apprentice, you'd work for a master, or baas. So if you've ever bitched about your "boss", that's where the word came from. The Manhattan Dutch also invented a dish called koosla, cabbage chopped and tossed with vinegar and melted butter. We call it cole slaw today. The book contains several other wonderful nuggets like this, both mundane and profound, to show the true influence of this often-forgotten colony.

This is starting to change. There has been more scholarship in the field, as well as general interest. I did my internship at a Dutch homestead, built shortly after the end of the Manhattan colony, and during my summer there, we received visits from the New Netherlands Project, and also from several people at the Met, who had recently acquired a Dutch homestead to exhibit and were researching the architecture and furnishings of Dutch homesteads that were still extant. It was there that I first heard about this book, and I'm glad I read it. I highly recommend it. I've also included a link to the New Netherlands Project should you want to know more...just click on the title to this post.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Colonial History Thing

In the next couple of days, you'll see a review on this site of Russell Shorto's excellent book, The Island at the Center of the World, about the Dutch colony at Manhattan. Learn where the wall of Wall Street fame came from, and why Americans work for "bosses", and find out why Adrien Van Der Donck was so great, anyway. Obviously, I've enjoyed this book a lot, and since there are a few other colonial history books on my TBR list, I'm going to try to knock some of those off, too. They are:

Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty. Cleverly timed to coincide with the release of the latest Pirates of the Carribean film, this book tells the REAL tale of the pirate of the Carribean during colonial times. It is also due back at the library in two days, so I'm not sure if I'll make it.

A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony by John Demos. Has been haunting my conscience since late 2003, when it was assigned for a material culture class, but it was an extremely busy week, and I just didn't get to it. I liked the class discussion a lot, though, and kept it to read. I started to read it this spring. Now I'm going to finish it.

The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. For the same class, we had to pick a chapter to read and discuss. Mine was about Hannah Barnard's Cupboard, and it was very engaging. That was a good discussion that day, but as my notes on the Demos book suggest, I had quite enough to be getting on with without trying to read something for fun. I've always meant to go back to it, and now I will.

Good Wives is also by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. It came from the personal collection of a legend at my graduate school. I got the book shortly before I graduated, and have been meaning to read it for two years now. This is the time!

Since nothing but history will make me go all wonky, I do have some fun books planned for the next two weeks. I picked up both of Tawni O'Dell's books, and I've started Imitation of Life. I also have to get reading for my new job. And pack, and find aplace to live...damn, it'll be a busy couple of weeks!

His Dark Materials...coming soon

Previews are already in theaters for the long-awaited screen adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first book of Phillip Pullman's excellent His Dark Materials trilogy. The film will see wide release on December 7th, and I will be there!

These excellent books deserve an excellent adaptation, and from the previews, it seems like it will get one. Sam Elliot and Nicole Kidman are excellent choices for the roles of Lee Scoresby and Mrs. Coulter, respectively. Tom Stoppard (yes, that one!) collaborated on the screenplay, as did Pullman himself. The director seems to have a relatively undistinguished body of work so far. He's previously directed Down to Earth starring Chris Rock and About a Boy with Hugh Grant, based on the book by Nick Hornby. His best-known work to date, however, is a trilogy that's quite different: the American Pie trilogy. However, he has a degree in film from Cambridge, and was hoping to enter the diplomatic corps, so perhaps he will step up. Trailers can make anything look good, but there are a lot of encouraging signs with this movie, so I'm optimistic!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

It's All in the Telling

You would think a book starring a woman who lost her mother at an early age, was smacked around by her dad, raised dirt-poor, acted as a mother to her younger sister (who disappeared at age 16 and hasn't been seen for nearly 20 years), got pregnant at age 16 after being raped, and had recently resigned the police force in an economically depressed mining town to own and operate her own cab company -- such a book sounds utterly tragic, and no fun at all, right? Not if the book in question is Sister Mine by Tawni O'Dell.

The woman in question above is Shae-Lynn Penrose, who is a true survivor with a sense of humor, tough, smart and with a strong sense of justice (early in the book, she gets toseed from a bar for starting a fight with a man who neglects his kids). As I described above, Shae-Lynn's overcome a lot in her life, but through the course of the book, is forced to deal with it all afresh when two strangers come to town separately, each looking for the sister who had disappeared all those years ago. Shae-Lynn has believed that her father beat her to death, but the strangers seems to know Shannon, and even have pictures. It's not long before Shannon herself reappears on the scene, as if she'd only been gone for a few days, and is full of lies and contradictions.

Shae-Lynn spends much of the rest of the book unraveling what Shannon's been up to for the past two decades, and what the strangers want from her. She also spends it trying to help her friends. Her town is a coal-mining town, and a year earlier, five of her close friends made national news when they were trapped in a cave-in. They got a book deal and a movie deal out of it, but it hasn't improved their lives much. all are, in different ways, coping with the aftereffects of not only the trauma, but the short-lived fame. Shae-Lynn is also working out her complicated feelings towards one of them, and as if all this weren't enough, is also forced to deal with the man who raped her so many years ago, whose identity she's kept secret, even from her son.

While this book has some of the usual elements of "chick lit" (strong female protagonist, romantic subplot, liberal doses of humor), it goes a little beyond that. For one thing, this isn't a book about the bonds between women, despite the title. Shae-Lynn is more at home among men, and although she has good relationships with several women, she doesn't seem as strongly connected to them as she is to the men in her life. Although Shae-lynn is a mother, and acted as a mother to her sister all her life, the book isn't strictly about motherhood, either. Finally, there's a lack of glamour. Shae-Lynn's hometown is not a glamorous place. It's hard, dirty, and poor, and when Shae-Lynn talks with the wives of the miners, you can almost hear the practical haircuts and utilitarian clothes.

Serious sub-themes run throughout the book: economic exploitation (frequent mention is made of the lazy, entitled, man who owns the mines); military exploitation (the Marines work hard to recruit students from the high school, knowing that with little other opportunity, they're likely to hop on the chance to get out of town); child absue and neglect (Shae-Lynn's childhood is mirrored by a 12-year-old girl named Fanci, who we first meet when she's attempting to trade her 4-year-old brother for a cab ride to the mall, and who reappears periodically throughout the book); and the whole question of what the law does and doesn't allow (read the book and you'll catch this one).

I just happened to grab this one because it was in the "New Acquisitions" section, but I'm glad I did. O'Dell has apparently written two other books, and I'll have to look for them the next time I'm near a library. I wonder if she is going to write other books about any of the characters in Sister Mine. I think that Shae-Lynn is a strong and charismatic heroine and would enjoy watching her negotiate other challenges and situations. I hope she does.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Marlene Carvell II, as promised

Sweetgrass Basket did not take me very long to read at all. I picked it up on Thursday and finished it last night. It was excellent, though, and I can understand why it won several awards and is on the recommended reading list of a group that monitors Native American portrayals in literature.

Sweetgrass Basket is the tale of sisters, Mattie and Sarah Tarbell. Mattie and Sarah are Mohawk Nation and their mother has passed away. They were sent to Carlisle Industrial Indian School, which was a real place that existed in the early 20th century.

The white man's war on the Indians did not end with the signing of the peace treaty (incidentally, the document with the most signatures of leaders known to human history -- over 500 -- and held in the collections of a museum I used to work for). Although the shooting part of it may have been over, the beliefs that they posed some kind of a threat did not die so easily. These "Indian schools" were an attempted antidote to the threat. The overt idea behind them was that the schools would teach them useful skills needed to function in society. the real intent was to extinguish group identity and culture. Members of the same tribe were separated. They were not allowed to speak their native languages, nor were they allowed to have any "Indian things" from home. They worked extremely hard. Although truancy laws were a few years in the future and the average white child may have left school after 8th grade, some people stayed at these schools into their 20s, especially those who were older when they came to the schools.

None of this is in the book, exactly. Rather, it tells through Mattie and Sarah's eyes (in alternating chapters, and in Carvell's trademark free verse style) their experiences at the school. Mattie is the elder of the two, and although she is an immediate social and academic success, she has a hard time following the rigid, military-style rules at the school and constantly finds herself in trouble. Sarah is better at doing as she's told, but struggles with her classes and takes longer to fit in. Neither girl is happy -- none of the students seem happy -- but they are fitting in well enough when a small incident gets blown out of proportion by the truly sadistic school head, and leads ultimately to tragedy.

My copy of the book was signed by the author. She signed it: "Children everywhere have stories that need to be told" and I think that sums up this book very well. One thing that angers me about the story of the Native American and the white is that we whites have never been honest about it, the same way we have about slavery. You learn about slavery and civil rights in grade school, but often have to wait until college to learn about the attempted extermination of Native American tribes. You hear vague allusions to the whites and the Indians not getting along terribly well, but they never really sit you down and tell you why. And as a result, Native American reservations are among the most desolate places in the country. Name any social problem: alcoholism, suicide, teenage pregnancy, unemployment and you'll always find it at a much higher rate on a reservation than in the general population. Carvell's books would be excellent tools for bringing the story into a classroom. They are both classified as "young adult" and both very readable and as enjoyable as is decent given the subject matter.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Please, no more sex with minors!

After reading the third book on this theme in less than two weeks, and choosing to ignore what this might say about me, I'm ready to give this theme a rest. I don't care if I never read another book about a 40-year-old fucking a teenager ever again, and that's a sentence I never thought I'd utter!

Before I turn my back on it, though, I'm going to post about What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. I had been dying to read this book ever since I saw the movie starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I expected.

The book is about twin obsessions. The one that drives the plot is the art teacher Sheba Hart's interest in a student named Steven Connolly. The interest starts out as professional (he displays a talent for art, but is unable to take her class because he is in special ed., so she agrees to help him after school), takes a turn towards the sexual, but surprisingly, winds up being a one-sided crush on Sheba's part. Sheba actually falls in love with him, which causes him to back off.

The other obsession (as those who have seen the movie will know) is Sheba's colleague Barbara Covett's feelings for Sheba. Barbara is the narrator of the book, and her feelings towards Sheba are bizarre and complex. Barbara has never married, and alludes to another strong friendship with a woman that ended badly, but you don't exactly get the impression that she's a lesbian either. Her interest in Sheba is something else altogether. In the movie, Barbara comes off as more twisted and obsessive, where Sheba is a basically good woman with bad judgement in her choice of companions -- ALL of her companions.

In the book, Barbara portrays Sheba as selfish, vain and flighty. The movie depicts Barbara as being an emotional vampire, but in the book, Barbara's actions and feelings seem more understandable, given Sheba's alternating fits of dependence on her and ignoring her altogether. In one breathtakingly callous moment, Barbara has stopped by Sheba's house, dreadfully upset because she just learned she'd have to put her cat down. During the conversation, Sheba's underage paramour calls up and asks to meet. Sheba chooses to leave her friend alone with her grief, her friend who has kept her secret, given her advice and acted as a good sounding board.

I think everyone's had a friend like Sheba Hart -- although probably not one with as big a secret as she had. In college, mine was a brilliant, charismatic, borderline alcoholic with a propensity towards casual sex, although one of the guys I thought she'd slept with repeatedly told me later that they'd never actually had sex because she'd always start crying and he'd hold her until she fell asleep. I liked her a lot, I thought I had something to offer her and had a lot of fun being around her, but she just started to suck the life out of me, because it was always all about her. Always. If I made other plans, she'd fuck with them, but would never hesitate to ditch me if something better came along.

It makes me wonder, though. I wound up walking away, but what made Barbara Covett stay? (Heller has a lot of fun with names: Covett (she does, Hart (she wears hers on her sleeve), Pabblem (the principal of the school, and the perfect word for Barbara's opinion of his new-age, touchy-feely educational and management theories). Also making cameos in the book are a Rumer, a Bangs, and a Hodge, the last of which is depicted as very dull and foolish). Was it loneliness, the desire to be needed (things get to a point where no one else could help Sheba), some sort of twisted love? The reader can decide.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Book Club To-nite!

This was a bittersweet book club for me, as it will be my last with this group since I'm moving 150 miles away at the end of the month. But it was an excellent one to say goodbye with!

Tonight was rather different. Tonight, we welcomed author Marlene Carvell to talk about her two books, Who Will Tell My Brother? and Sweetgrass Basket. Carvell lives and works in the area, and it was a real treat to hear her talk about them after having read them. Well, I read the one, anyway: Who Will tell My Brother?

The most striking thing about her novels is that she writes them in free verse. I know of no one else who does this, and it gives them a very different feel than anything else. As she talked about her journey in getting published, I felt pleased that something like this was able to see the light of day at all. I had avoided watching American Idol until this current season. I had hated the show all that time, but decided to actually see it and find out why. I had my answer during the first few auditions I saw, when Simon, Paula and Randy were actually coming out and telling people: "You've got the look that record companies love" or "You'll be very easy to market." I wasn't so naive as to believe that marketing had nothing to do with their decisions, but I hadn't thought that was ALL there was. So reading a book like Carvell's is a pleasant oasis amidst all those pink-shoe books you see at Barnes and Noble these days.

As Carvell herself said, to say that Who Will tell My Brother? is a book about a Native American boy who tries to get his offensive high school mascot changed is to oversimplify, although that is what the book's about on a very basic level. It also follows the journey of Evan (the young man in question) towards understanding his heritage, and (as Carvell also said) is about how people treat one another. Changing a school mascot sounds like such a small thing, but in the book (and the real-life experience of Carvell's son the book is based on), people dug in, people ridiculed him and treated him horribly. The Board of Education actually voted to keep the mascot -- after repeated appeals, they not only not listened to him but actually voted to keep the mascot. He got picked on at school. And ultimately, the mascot did not change. But Evan succeeded in changing people's minds, and several of his classmates stood with him at graduation through the mascot's offensive dance on the field.

The treatment of Native Americans at the hands of whites is one of the most shameful episodes in American history -- only the treatment of blacks even comes close. The difference is that attitudes towards blacks have changed, and that the story from slavery through Jim Crow and Brown vs. Board of Ed. is taught in school and well-known to all Americans, whereas we as a society have never really faced up to the systematic destruction of Native life and culture. Unless you live near a casino, you generally just don't hear about them. Politicians never court the "Native American vote." There's no "Native American Music" section at Borders, no Native American market segment. We've never really given them a way to fit in, although we have alternately romanticized and vilified them. Carvell is white, but her husband is a member of the Mohawk tribe and has a painful family history. His aunt was taken from her family and placed in a boarding school for Native American children, where she was forbidden to speak her native language, cut off from her family, and kept away from any classmates who happened to be from the same tribe (her experiences form the basis for Sweetgrass Basket). His grandfather ran away from a similar school and had to work his way back home. He changed his name from a typical Native American last name when he'd applied for a liquor license and gotten denied. He applied under his new last name and was granted it. And while Who Will tell My Brother? is a novel, her own sons suffered through many of the same experiences as each tried and failed to get the mascot changed.

If you're wondering, though, there was a positive ending IRL. Her son's cause resonated with the eighth graders in the district, and as high school students, a group of them banded together to fight for change. The school board promised them that if they did a list of things over the course of the school year, they could change the mascot, but refused when the students came to them having completed the list. The students went to the media, a special school board meeting was called, hundreds showed up, the mascot got changed, and there was an unprecedent turnout of high school seniors who were 18 at the next board elections and they voted out the president. They kept the name -- the Marauders -- but the mascot itself is now a wolf. The real-life Evan, meanwhile, is now studying for the bar exam, and is involved with a tribal court out west.

Carvell's third book is in pre-publication and doesn't deal with Native American issues. She is working on a fourth, but didn't tell us much of what it was about. It was a fascinating evening with her, however. I'm going to pick up her other book tomorrow (sexual exploitation fest 2007 having come to an end). I'll report on it soon!

Monday, June 4, 2007

To Catch a Predator...or not

On the heels of Lolita, I read another excellent Jodi Picoult book, Salem Falls. The book is meant to be a version of The Crucible for modern times. I've never read The Crucible, so I can't really give an opinion on her success or failure, but the book was good.

This is the fourth book of hers that I've read, and I think one of her real strengths as a writer is her characters. Since her books are typically legal dramas, it would be easy to set up "good" characters and "bad" characters, but hers are always real, conflicted people with elements of both.

Salem Falls is the tale of Jack St. Bride, ex-private school teacher, ex-prisoner and current dishwasher. Jack was the victim of some unfortunate circumstances: he helped a student get some birth control pills. She developed a crush on him, and wrote a diary of the relationship she imagined them having. Her father found it, along with the pills, and the dominoes all fell from there. Jack is now adrift, with no home or job to go back to. He lands in the small Massachusetts town of Salem Falls, gets a job as a dishwasher, falls in love with the diner owner (Addie) and tries to put his past behind him. Megan's Law makes that rather difficult, though, and thanks to his instant notoriety, he finds himself once again wrongly accused.

His accusers are a quartet of teenage practicioners of Wicca. It's clear from the moment you're introduced to the girls, however, that the chief accuser, Gillian Duncan, is really the one driving everything for the girls. Her father is the richest man in town, and the others trail contentedly in her wake, whether it takes them to the occult, or to phony accusations of rape.

I think the book would've been better if Picoult had explored the bond between the four girls more. They were the most interesting characters in the book to me. I've always found the concept of unquestioning allegiance interesting, maybe because it's so opposite to my own nature. The slowest parts of the book involved the attorneys on both sides of the case. The book would not have suffered at all from their omission. The other characters are vivid and interesting, though: Addie, once a victim of rape, diner operator and mother to a dead child; her father, Roy, who transforms from the town drunk to his former self during the course of the book; police chief Charlie Saxton, whose daughter is one of Gillian's quartet and who has to come face to face with his own past and the truth about his daughter in the course of his investigation.

They have been discussing the idea of building a "civil confinement" facility in my state for sex offenders who are deemed extremely likely to offend again. The whole project gives me the creeps, and I wonder why sex offenders, in particular, seem to loom so large in our minds. In the 80s, everyone was afraid of Satanists. 20 years later, it seems to be sex offenders that we all fear. I've often wondered why, and I don't have a good answer, except that maybe they embody the concept of "lost innocence" that we as a society seem to be concerned about. The feeling is that kids are mature earlier than ever, even biologically speaking, no one hides their porn-viewing or strip-club visiting, you can use all kinds of swear words on prime-time TV and 2/3 of all movies released are rated R. Juvenile sex offenders, perhaps, are the loss of innocence come to life, and while parents are basically powerless against the internet and swear words on TV (or FEEL powerless against these things), they feel they can do something about sex offenders in the community. But I'm interested in hearing anyone else's theories.

Later in the week, we'll be exploring sex between a minor and an adult from another angle in Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? or Notes on a Scandal. Or perhaps another angle will present itself, but I'm sure the sex will creep in there. Stay tuned.