Thursday, August 28, 2008

Falling Apart

On the back of Janelle Brown's new novel, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, three of the four blurbs imply that the book will be funny. They call it 'great fun,' 'withering satire,' and 'excruciatingly funny,' which makes me wonder if they also watch Animal Cops and CSI because they get a kick out of it. There were some funny/satirical touches swirling around the edges of the story -- teenage daughter Lizzie's pink sparkly Bible for teens ( James 5:15: "If you pretend you're, like, totally sin-free, you're full of b.s and God knows it. But if you confess your sins, God...will scrub all that nasty shizzle out of you."). The idea of buttoned-up housewife and country-club member coping with her divorce through crystal meth obtained from the pool boy. Older daughter Margaret getting a job dogwalking, and failing at that (you're probably supposed to laugh at the fact that the prissy little dog she was walking escaped and got hit by a car, although I've always been in agreement with actress Betty White on that type of humor, who won't do a movie that plays injury or cruelty to animals for laughs).

Generally, though, this story is downright depressing. It concerns three women (the three above) going through separate life crises. Janice's husband of three decades left her for her best friend the very day his company went public and made him a trillionaire. 28-year-old daughter Margaret's relationship has fallen apart, and so has her feminist magazine for teenage girls, Snatch, leaving her nearly $100,000 in debt. 14-year-old Lizzie has recently slimmed down and has finally enjoyed sexual success with boys, but not the right kind, and is ostracized not as a loser anymore but as the school slut.

All this takes place during one summer, and the house sinks deeper into depression as the women try to find ways to avoid their problems. You can practically smell the unwashed laundry and empty liquor bottles as you read this book. The presence of the Margaret character makes the book cry out for a feminist interpretation, and it ain't a pretty one. It comes out that Janice had the chance to live a bohemian life, had intended to live in Paris, but got pregnant before she could follow through. Yet Margaret is sort of the incarnation of the life Janice had intended, and she's not any happier: she feels that she's failed to live up to everyone's expectations, and it isolates her.

Lizzie thought she was playing by the rules, and living up to everyone's expectations. She lost weight, like her mother wanted her to. She got invited to lots of parties, and her mother was so proud. She had sex, just like all her peers seemed to expect her to. But all it got her was her name written on the boys' room wall. And pregnant, of course. They had to throw that one in there, as the ultimate punishment for screwing around (someday, I'm going to write a novel where a teenage boy sleeps around and gets a girl pregnant as a tragic consequence of his fun).

The book seems to say that there's no way to win as a woman. You can't carve your own path -- all that gets you is a bunch of debt. You can't go the route your own peers are telling you to go -- they actually don't mean it anyway, and they won't respect you if you do. And, even if you manage to strike some sort of compromise, your husband will dump you for your best friend and you'll be ostracized in the process. Through it all, you'll be looking at everyone around you, wondering how they do it.

The fact that many of them are probably looking back at you and wondering the same thing doesn't enter into the story much. For example, when you go to your high school reunion fresh from a breakup and stare in envy at the classmate who's a happily married mother and homeowner, there's a good chance she may be staring enviously back at you, thinking about how you're in graduate school and unencumbered and don't have to worry about getting back at 4 because that's when you foolishly told the babysitter you'd be home. Even a simple acknowlegement of the fact that Janice got ostracized not because people didn't like her anymore, but because she was a living reminder that it could happen to their marriages too doesn't enter in the story. All around, this book made me feel hopeless and depressed.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Creepy Vision of the (near?) Future

Another birthday gift I received this year was Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Unlike Wicked, I'd read this one before, all right -- renewed it twice from the local library and still wound up bringing it back late. It's a pretty captivating, scary, well-written book.

In the mid-nineties, my fellow women's studies minors and I had a similar reaction to another one of her books, The Handmaid's Tale. The professors must have felt the same way we did, because I had it assigned to me at least twice. For those of you who were attracted to a different discipline or went to college in a different era, this is a dystopian version of the future where right-wing Christian lunatics have taken over and taken away every freedom and privilege women now enjoy. That includes their right to choose sexual partners and raise children. That's what a "handmaid" is: she lives in the home of one of the elite married couples, and the man of the house has sex with her in order to get her pregnant (due to environmental catastrophe, a lot of women are infertile. Never the men, of course). If she succeeds, the couple keeps the baby and she goes away somewhere else to try again. If she fails, she's given a few other chances before it's the salt mines for her -- literally.

What can I say? Those were slightly different times, and the book scared the crap out of us. We talked at length in class about how a lot of that stuff could totally happen, although maybe not all of it at once. The Republican Revolution of 1995 had just happened, abortion clinic bombings were rampant, and one abortion provider. Dr. Bernard Slepian, was murdered in his own home in the next town over from where I grew up. Admittedly, I haven't re-read the book in a while, but looking back, our fears seem misplaced.

What to make, then, of Oryx and Crake? This is also a dystopian novel, but its themes are science run amok, corporate domination, and environmental ruin. It's also a little more complex in structure, as it weaves almost at random between the past and the future. It's hard to say much about it without giving things away, but I will say that this book seems as plausible to me now as The Handmaid's Tale did ten years ago. What Atwood is masterful at is personalizing her dark visions of the future. We hear what it's like to live in these times through the eyes of people that were intimately affected by them.

I wonder how I'll feel about Oryx and Crake in ten years. I wonder if some of that stuff will have happened, or if (hopefully) it will lurk on my bookshelf as a sort of souvenir of an earlier time. But thinking about the two books, one thing they both have in common is a society subdued by fear. In The Handmaid's Tale, a key concept used to control women is the difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to." The powers that be argue that, yes, women may no longer have the freedom to go where they please, marry who they want, or hold jobs, but they get freedom from sexual harassment and assault -- no one would dare anymore. In Oryx and Crake,the slight resistance against the corporate domination of society is failing because the corporations have more resources than any group of individuals could ever hope for, so the dissenters are getting increasingly desperate and turning to terrorism to make their point. So those who are less inclined to dissent put up with all sorts of restrictions on their freedom, believing that they're trading safety for freedom.

Yet, it's always a bad trade. It's one we've been asked to make repeatedly since September 11th. Surely, you don't mind if the government knows what books you're checking out at the library, do you? It's not like you're reading anything bad, after all. And if someone was reading something bad, think how many lives could be saved if we knew about it, and did something while the person was still reading and not acting. And that's how you make reading a book a crime, that's how you wiretap ordinary citizens, that's how you arrest teenage girls at Barnes and Noble for trying to get a conservative senator to autograph a copy of a book opposite his philosophy. So although the finer points of Margaret Atwood's dystopian books may not hold up over time, the larger messages do: fight for your freedom, don't let fear win, don't let art die, and above all else, keep thinking.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Good vs. Evil?

Traveling productions of Broadway musicals often visit my city, and the main event of this season was Wicked. Heavily promoted on the radio and on billboards, its presence in town reminded me that the book, by Gregory Maguire, was on my TBR list. I got it for my birthday and finished it a couple of days ago.

Whenever I see a good-vs.-evil type movie, I always wonder about the villain. How did he or she get to be like that? I must not be the only one, because movies are fleshing these villains out a little more. Often, their actions are explained either by revenge or by some sort of psychological trauma in their past. In Wicked, we view things through the eyes of the witch herself. Turns out Elphaba is more misunderstood than anything else, and may have even been just a pawn in a game that she never understands.

Maguire takes our traditional understanding of Dorothy's tale and turns it on its head. The Wizard of Oz is definitely not wonderful, unless you happen to be a fan of tyranny and intimidation. The Cowardly Lion, being an animal endowed with a soul, has very good reasons to be afraid. The Yellow Brick Road was built at a tremendous cost to life and remains a controversial project. Oz is a place of political unrest, and the Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba) is both an activist against and a victim of the Wizard's harsh regime. The connections between herself, the Wicked Witch of the East (Nessarose), and Glinda the Good Witch are fleshed out, to the reader's delight.

Reading this book was sort of a meandering experience. I found the beginning rather slow-moving, concentrating as it does on Elphaba's parents and on her first year of life as a green baby in a rural part of Oz. The book then fast-forwards to her college days, where we view her primarily through the eyes of her social-climbing roommate and ultimate best friend, Galinda (as she was known back then). The story takes several unexpected turns, but they're handled so matter-of-factly that you can't really deem them plot twists. It doesn't join with what you know of the principals until the very end, and I started to get that same feeling I sometimes get when, 57 minutes into an episode of CSI, they seem no closer to solving the case than they were at the beginning. You know they'll get there because it's what you were promised, but how are they going to do it?

I also began to wish that I was a little more familiar with the Oz books. I learned at a previous job that there is actually some astronomical number of them, but I think I only read the one the movie was based on, and only once. A greater understanding of them would've enhanced my reading of Wicked, but I still enjoyed the book.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Part of a Sisterhood: A Long-Standing TBR gets vanquished at last

Every time I go, I check. It's never there. It led me to speculate that the library didn't even carry it, until I looked it up one day and learned that even though it's almost ten years old, it remains that damn popular. But this time, there it was on the shelf. I picked it up. The cover was faded and battered, and the protective plastic pitted with sand. The pages were stained with coffee, and the binding is on the verge of giving way. Everything about this book said it had been loved by women in my area since the library purchased it, and I was next.

The book I'm speaking of is Good In Bed by Jennifer Weiner. It's one of those books that helped put chick lit -- books by women, for women -- on the map, and after spending an enjoyable day and a half with it, I can see why. Weiner skillfully blends realism with fantasy in the book, so that you can both identify with her heroine Cannie and look up to her at the same time. So that you hurt when she hurts, cheer when things go her way, laugh along with her. So that you close the book feeling like you can attain your dreams just like she did.

The title of the book refers to her ex-boyfriend's new magazine column. Cannie spent three years with Bruce, during which time he barely worked at all, but magically managed to land a job writing the guy's perspective for a women's magazine. And the first column was all about her. "Loving a Larger Woman" was its title, and although she's initially angry and embarassed enough to throw a box of tampons at his head, upon re-read, it's so sweet that she decides she wants him back.

People like this book for Cannie. She's eminently likeable: smart, funny, confident, and working hard to overcome a sad past. Her parents were divorced when she was a teenager, and her dad abandoned the family, popping up periodically just long enough to hurt her. I was pleased to see this issue get treatment in a book, since it will statistically affect at least half of all women Cannie's age (if she was a real person, she'd be 37 or 38 now). The rest of her family is pretty interesting: her sister is a wild child, and her mother is now living with a woman who none of them care for. Cannie is also a size sixteen, and yet she has a good job, friends, and a love life, which made her a hit with the millions of women that are not size four and blond.

Yet, at the same time, it caters well to readers' fantasies. Cannie also becomes friends with a famous movie actress, meets her celebrity friends and sells a screenplay. The ending (which I won't spoil) involves the best type of revenge on her ex. And although things are hard, everything does essentially end up working out.

There are some minor inconsistancies in the book, mostly having to do with character. They're nitpicky, but still annoyed me. At one point, Cannie reflects on lifestyle changes entailed by her impending motherhood by realizing that she won't be able to buy a $200 pair of boots whenever she wants anymore, yet at another point in the book, she confides that she gets her hair done at the local beauty school. Bruce has worked very little in his adult life, yet manages to go from being an unemployed slacker to a featured magazine columnist, while Cannie's years of hard journalistic work hasn't even allowed her to become the head of her department at the newspaper? When Cannie's partying with a celebrity in L.A., she states that her wildest nights generally consist of ice cream and books, yet at other points in the novel, she talks about staying out late with her girlfriends and drinking. Stuff like that -- nitpicky to mention, but they add up.

However, they're not enough to overwhelm a generally favorable impressiong. The book has aged pretty well, unlike some of the other chick lit books which are riddled with brand names and pop culture references. I like Jennifer Weiner a lot, and although her writing's definitely evolved since this book, I still recommend it if you haven't yet seen where it all started for her.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Paging Mr. Darcy

When I wrote about another book in the canon of English literature this winter, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I mentioned the difficulties I have blogging about such well-known books. My general M.O. is to simply share all of my impressions of what I've read: to discuss what I liked or disliked about a particular book, and to give anyone stumbling through enough of a sense of character, plot and style to know whether it's one they may want to pick up or not.

All of this is a lot harder when it's a novel that has been admired, respected and beloved for nearly two centuries, like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. After I finished the book, I moseyed on over to Dishin' Dat, who is not only my source for all things Project Runway, but maintains two Jane Austen blogs. And there is a whole world of Jane Austen out there. There were articles on the fashion and design of the period, on ballroom etiquette, politics, women's roles, everything imaginable. There were pop culture references and links to more scholarly blogs. So this presents a pickle: anything positive I say about the book will be pretty stale, as will any attempts at analysis. Anything negative will sound like a tenth-grader dissing Shakespeare.

All I can really do is provide my personal, gut reactions. Basically, I liked this book a great deal. Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series was what piqued my interest in this book. Before that, I'd had little desire to try any Jane Austen, but I hate feeling like I don't understand his jokes, so I decided to give Pride and Prejudice a try.

For those of you who don't know, the heart of the book is basically the world's oldest romantic tale. It probably has its origins in cave paintings and pops up in literary and dramatic works from Shakespeare to sitcoms and all the way through the spectrum. When Elizabeth Bennett first meets Mr. Darcy, a close friend of their new neighbors, she hates him. He strikes her as a typical pompous ass, and she soon hears reports of him that takes her dislike to an entirely new level. He seems to essentially return the sentiments until he comes to her out of the blue, confesses his love, and asks her to marry him. She shows him the door, but it turns out that she's much mistaken about him...and you can most likely imagine the rest.

There is more to the tale than that. Elizabeth has four sisters and comes from a family which is respectable but not wealthy, so the stakes for all five of them to make successful marriages are high. Their mother is constantly scheming to this effect. By the end of the tale, three of the five are married, although each takes a different, twisting path to get there.

I also found it a fascinating glimpse into another era. Modern readers will have it brought home to them once again how thoroughly society has changed. For example, when one of Elizabeth's sisters absconds with a man known to be of low character, the family is naturally hysterical. But while a modern person may be concerned about financial exploitation or domestic abuse, the Bennetts were concerned about the girl's reputation and wanted to see her married to this man as soon as possible. And when the sisters of the man Elizabeth's older sister Jane is in love with attempt to break up the match (due to their own marital ambitions), she has little recourse. Societal conventions forbade Jane from simply writing a letter or paying a visit to get it all cleared up. The language, too, is a little difficult to get past at first: the connotative meanings of certain words have definitely evolved in the past 175 years. But it's worth it. This one deserves to be a classic, and it's enjoyable besides.