Tuesday, July 4, 2023

The Villa by Rachel Hawkins & Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

Today I'm supposed to be celebrating America but honestly, no.  To quote Bartleby, "I would prefer not to."

It was recently brought to my attention that I'm a blogger.  I know what you're thinking.  "You idiot, you only remember you have a blog when other people say it. You're like a weird reverse Rumpelstiltskin, or a demon being summoned only the demon is self absorbed and mostly just wants to talk about themselves."  Accurate.  

Since I last posted I've been doing a lot of reading.  A Lot.  Of Reading.  I've fallen into a kind of rut where many of the things I read are derivative of other things and that's OK!  It's fine to be entertained.  It's fine to read things other people think are pulp, or trash, or artistically worthless.  Sometimes I WANT trash.  Sometimes I want to read some he said/she said drama about people who really just need to grow up and get their shit together.  Sometimes I want to read the book the show is based on and see if it's better.  I don't mind a sex scene from time to time.  Not every book has to Be The Discourse. 

Some of this rut was algorithmic and I blame technology for that.  I used to use Overdrive and they had very decent recommendations based on what you were checking out.  Then Overdrive switched to Libby and even though it's the same (is it?) the new reccs are terrible.  Goodreads is better - people add books they read to shelves, so if you're into the tone of a novel you can see what shelves it was added to and you can click on "yearning dark academia" or whatever odd niche category you're presently on and find other books.  But that's also not perfect - it's based on others and not necessarily your own taste.  This is the second part of the problem - my own tastes can be limiting.  I've always prided myself on being open to diversity of style and genre in my media consumption.  You don't know what you like until you try new things.  But over the last couple years we've had a lot of uncertainty from so many areas of life and it's possible things might get worse before they get better.  So my need to slide into reading things that are the same as other things I liked before is high.  Starting a new TV series or risking wasting my time on a book that I may quit partway through feels exhausting.  I need to save my energy for arguing with people on the internet!

This year I've been more into sharing book recommendations with other people. I joined an online Discord based book club with the people I live tweet with, and we've been reading cozy mysteries set in different countries, with diverse authors, sometimes with supernatural elements so that's been going well.    And recently I read two books that came as recommendations and they were both fun and interesting enough for me to plow right through them.

The first of these was The Villa by Rachel Hawkins.  An internet friend messaged me to ask if I'd read it.  He said something along the lines of having never before read something he both loved and hated so much. I'm paraphrasing, I can't find the messages because I'm a dinosaur.  But that was enough of a hook for me to read it totally blind - going in without looking at Goodreads or googling it first.  It's a fun book, one of those books where you're not really sympathetic to any character.  It also jumps timelines - a trend I've noticed that can be annoying if you're doing an audiobook - but it does so in a way where a deeper story is revealed and runs parallels to the primary plotline.  It's well done.  I've seen it done in books to add tone or filler and gross, just write a short story.  I am happy to report this was done thoughtfully.  It's also one of those books where the bright sunny setting is at odds with the story being told, and I like a bit of discord in a book setting. My friend and I had different takes on this - he hated the characters but loved one of the plot twists.  I didn't like the final plot twist  because I thought it was unnecessary.  Thus is another trend I've noticed where a book will end or wrap up and then there's this final chapter tacked on that's like BUT WAIT! and it feels so out of place, like they're adding word count.  I also happened to like that the main characters were terrible.  I don't need to visualize myself as the main character and I don't want a morality play when I read a book.  Life is filled with hard moral choices and so I think it's cool when a book really lets it all hang out.  Let me see the trash, baby.   I guess what I'm saying is I liked it.  Even though  I liked it for different reasons than the person who recommended it to me, we both found it engaging.  It reminded me of Verity by Colleen Hoover in some ways so if you're a fan of either book, the other is similar. 

The other book came to me through social media.  Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou.  This book is BONKERS.  One of the dangers of being a book gobbler is that every book reminds you of another book and at some point it feels like nothing is original anymore, but this book is very much its own story and  I loved it.  It has everything.  A woman becoming empowered.  Family dynamics.  An interesting and engaging cultural discussion.  A mystery. A scandal.  Humor.  I loved that it took me on a ride.  I started the book thinking it was about one thing and it very quickly amped up and went in a fun different direction.   There are some Goodreads reviews criticizing it for being advertised as literary fiction because they think it's somehow too fluffy but it seems like a weird purity test to say that humor and absurdism should keep something from being called literary fiction.  It's fine not to like a book but gatekeeping the genre because you're the tone police is a weird take.  Sometimes I forget how miserable people are on the internet. Probably because I'm one of the people who likes to save my misery for real life where I can really spread it around and get sympathy in the form of snacks, or where I can express it through my love of playing depressing Lenten music.  It's really hard for me to capture existential dread in a Tweet, but I guess some people have mastered it through their Goodreads reviews.  

As I type this I'm supposed to be looking up gathering times and preparing to be social outside, but it's  a truly miserable 96% humidity out there and I'm one of those weirdos who feels the seasonal depression in the summer rather than the winter. With so many hours of daylight it's harder to fall and stay asleep and so I'm more tired during the day because I'm incapable of napping.  Perhaps this is why I liked The Villa so much, because I also feel gloomy during the time of the year when we're most pressured to go out and do all of the fun expensive things on top of the every day things we're already supposed to be doing and paying for.  I mean I'm not going to do crimes about it, unlike in The Villa. "Never admit to crimes in your blog" is one of my rules for living.  

On that note I am logging off, to go be miserable in person and ironically patriotic in a very annoying way.  


Friday, March 26, 2021

My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh

Welp, what a year it's been!

My last blog post was in February of 2020, and who could have foreseen what would happen next?  Well, the scientists for one.  Doctors, epidemiologists, virologists, people who know about tourism activity, basically anyone paying attention to the news.  Honestly I'm surprised we didn't have a raging pandemmy much sooner, given how little regard many people have for the safety and wellbeing of others.  There's also the fact that our security (especially here in the U.S.) is based almost entirely upon commerce.  The last year presented us with many lessons, none of which we will take to heart in any meaningful way.  

This novel felt so suited to the barge of dysfunction that was 2020. Do you like to read about people dealing with grief?  Do you like to compare and contrast how privilege and physical beauty can alter how a person is able to respond to that grief?  How wealth can allow a great deal of flexibility in behaviors that would otherwise be seen as abhorrent in the working class?  What is it that makes one person's doctor shopping and pill popping seem glamorous while another person's eating disorder and alcohol use disorder seem pathetic?  How is individual grief felt differently than grief felt across a family or society as a whole?

These are some of the broad themes of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.  

I'm a sucker for books set in New York City where bright young things have to scrap and scramble to survive the big city.  Personally I'd hate to live in a big city for any length of time.  I don't want to have a shower in my kitchen, and I don't like sharing walls with neighbors.  But I do enjoy reading about other people having these experiences, if only so I can sit on my gilded throne aka the $60 secondhand couch that I bought from a church whereupon immediately afterwards I slightly damaged my car by doing donuts in the parking lot. 

This may be the perfect novel for social isolation.  The main character is responding to loss by holing up in her apartment and trying to sleep through the depression caused by mourning.  She's a trust fund baby so she doesn't have to try to work though her grief, which sounds lovely at first until you realize that forcing yourself to work or maintain social connectedness through the rough patches in life are the healthiest ways to recover from trauma.  There's definitely an element of wallowing, like actual physical wallowing, where our narrator takes to her bed except for the periods when she's sleepwalking.

I have a friend who sleepwalks so this is familiar to me, so there were several chapters where I was internally screaming "USE A SLEEPING BAG AND WEAR OVEN MITTS," which would have made for a much more boring novel. 

There's also a vibe of only needing a few basic things to be happy, which feels nice after a year of mostly staying home.   You start to look around and think "why do I have so many shoes?" Silly feet, remember going to stuff?  Remember high heels?  Yes they do, and they do not like it.  This is a great book to read if you're interested in doing a little spring cleaning and being grateful for what you do have: shelter, friends and family, food, and some entertainment.  

Anyway, reading about voluntary isolation after a year of involuntary isolation may not sound like fun to everyone, but it's Lent and we're still waiting for everyone to be vaccinated, so buckle in for what will hopefully be the final few months of this saga.  Because let's face it, you've already watched everything on Netflix already anyway.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Fair Maiden: Joyce Carol Oates

I have a bone to pick with my librarian friends and it is this.  How is it that I have so many librarian friends and yet not one of them has taken me by the shoulders and shouted "Read Joyce Carol Oates now, you lazy cow!  She's the modern gothic queen that your heart has been craving!"  Some friends, I'll tell you what.

I came to JCO in the same way it appears other people have found her: by accident.  It starts innocently enough.  You decide that you're into thrillers, because they're the only thing that get your cold, bitter heart pumping.  Eventually you start to feel like the plots of the books are starting to blend together.  So you start to check out the "you may also like" section of the library or app or Goodreads, however you get your recommendations.  This is a risky business because sometimes the books or authors don't actually have very much in common except for a setting.  Sometimes "thriller" gets loosely defined as horror, or suspense, or hard boiled crime.  Listen, I'm not here for hard boiled crime.  Do not bring me bureaucratic procedurals or long courtroom dramas.  What I want are good storytelling, a narrative twist, and just enough cynicism that you can't tell which characters you're supposed to sympathize with.  Maybe a light murder, or a morally vague extortion.  You know, something uplifting!

I downloaded my first Joyce Carol Oates book of short stories,  The Doll Master, because it was short.  This may make you think that I'm lazy but the truth is that I had a huge backlog of podcasts and other things on my plate and I wanted something I could jump in and out of without having to remember any long narrative arcs or too many characters.  I wanted something I could read in two lunch breaks.  The Doll Master was the perfect fit.  Each story sucked you right into the action.  Not a lot of exposition or people whining about how their spouses don't understand them anymore.  Just BOOM, right into the dysfunction, much like a family Christmas when you show up and everyone's already two drinks deep.  I couldn't put this little book own.  When I finished, I knew that the next thing I wanted wasn't a podcast or a booooooooring work related video on the new PACER site.  I needed more JCO.

I picked A Fair Maiden almost at random for my next choice.  The blurb compared it to Lolita so I was wary, but also interested to read how the subject would be presented by a woman author.  I was fully prepared to jettison this book the second it turned into statutory rape porn.  You all know what I'm talking about.  An author will cover a taboo subject in such a way that makes it seem very appealing and glamorous.  I am delighted to report that this did not happen in A Fair Maiden.  This is a story about more than just an age difference.  Sure, that element is there.  You have your world weary teenager who has already figured out how to get whatever she wants from men, and you have your rich older man who has sexual designs on the teenager.  But this book is also about social class and family structure.  A 16 year old with a stable home life and parents who care, or a 16 year old who doesn't need to figure out how to pay for college or move away from her abusive cousin doesn't need to play dangerous games with much older men.

I've read some reviews where people complain that Katya the teenager and Marcus the rich old man are just character archetypes, but it worked for me.  Tropes exist for a reason, and in this case the tropes are largely true.  Rich old men can buy their way out of trouble and into whatever they want, and poor young women who've been exposed to sexual violence early on can compartmentalize feelings of danger and shame in order to survive.  If you think that sounds cynical, you're probably a dude and could learn from this book.

The teenager, Katya, is written so that she seems to have a pretty good grasp of how the world works on the surface, but underneath it all you see she's still a child and is driven by a desire to be loved and accepted.  She's shrewdly trying to calculate how much money she can get out of the wealthy Marcus and internally gloating about how she knows how to give men what they want to hear for her own benefit, but at the same time she really is persuaded by his over the top compliments and his grooming.  Because that is what he's doing, even while she's completely aware that it's happening. I think it makes her more vulnerable, because she starts to question if it's worth it to keep doing things that make her uncomfortable in exchange for the financial and emotional benefits.  I think knowing that she's underage and he's so much older and more socially respected makes her feel like he's the one who has everything to lose, so she has more leverage than she does.  I don't think it occurs to her that she could just be a teenager and do her nanny job and make friends her own age who aren't criminals.  Her own life experience is so limited that she thinks her only choices are between two men who seem different but who are very much the same.  She's comparing her life with two men, Choice A - to be forced to take drugs, beaten, and raped by someone who enjoyed causing physical and emotional pain, or Choice B - still given drugs and raped, but treated gently and with tenderness, and even benefitting financially.  Katya, you don't have to choose either of those idiots!  You can choose type C, a medium man.  Maybe he won't be rich and he spew romantic nonsense at you, but he also won't hit you or make you take drugs, and he'll believe in consent.  Also he will be age appropriate because my God, 68?  Katya, do better please. 

There were definitely a few moments of me wanting to squeeze my eyes tightly shut while reading this, not because the few sex scenes are graphic, but because JCO does a great job of writing Katya as someone who will push forward with a bad decision even while she's cringing with revulsion on the inside.  There's just so much cringing, even when everyone is fully dressed and out in public.  The few sex scenes in the book are brief and clouded over with literary writing, so I really don't understand reviewers who classify this as en erotic novel.  It's the OPPOSITE of an erotic novel. 

In fact, the weirdest and grossest theme of this book isn't the attraction a 68 year old has for a 16 year old, it's the way he sees himself and his place in the world, and his attitude that he can buy whatever he wants right up until the end.  There's another thread of this book that pulls it right into the gothic genre, that sort of deep atmospheric tension that lets you know more horrifying things are ahead, and this book goes right there. I won't spoil this bit, because it's what pulled the book into wonderfully weird territory and saved it from being just another book about an old dude who wants to sleep with teenagers.   You have youth, regret, mortality, violence, sexual longing, and even an element of fairy tale that make it an absurd read. Goodreads reviews are very polarized, but  I loved every minute of this book. 

The one criticism I read was that this book could have been shorter and had less internal dialogue.  I'd agree with that - teen angst is nothing new, and we get that point pretty quickly.  But then the book would have ended sooner.  As it is, I was left with many questions about Marcus, the rapist, and the people in his life who allow for his behavior.  Has he done this before to other girls?  The book alludes to other victims but never gets into his past.  He seems like someone who is beloved largely for his wealth but I'd like to know if he was a monster his entire life.  Sometimes you want to know if justice has been served, even if you don't really believe in justice. 

I'm not sure how to end a review about a book of this sort except to say that even if a teenager is considered worldly or engages in risky behaviors, that teen is still a child and does not deserve to be taken advantage of emotionally and ESPECIALLY not physically by a grown ass adult.  That is a CHILD, sir, she cannot consent, and paying her doesn't mean it's not still rape.  Unwanted touching! 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Possessions - Sara Flannery Murphy

At the risk of sounding like a cooking blog writer, I'm going to start this entry with a personal and only vaguely related anecdote.  When I was an impressionable youth attending a liberal arts college at the tender age of 18, I had the brilliant and economically sensible idea of taking a course in Canadian women's literature.  I think it was supposed to be my fun elective, since I liked reading and had already proved the semester before that I was terrible at art.  I don't remember much about the individual books that I read, but I do remember that the overarching theme of the class seemed to be women aged 21-35 who had a lot of issues surrounding fertility and motherhood.  Every book had some brooding heroine who liked to hang around water and dream about babies.  At 18, this was unfathomable to me.  Having had the mantra of "DON'T GET PREGNANT" drilled into my head from all directions from 6th grade onward, the idea that at some point people actually tried to get pregnant on purpose seemed false.  I thought to myself that hanging around water and imaging the lake as my uterus wasn't going to make me want a baby anytime soon, and also that it was fairly unhygienic.  Maybe the water or the babies were metaphors, I don't really know.  I was 18 and had moved from one farm town to another even more farmey town, so I knew nothing at all.  

The Possessions is not written by a Canadian author, but it does feature water, brooding, dreams, and babies.  I loved the premise right off the bat.  The setting is almost recognizable as our own modern day world, but with slightly less reliance on technology.  The main character is a medium, and her job is to channel the dead for her grieving clients.  No one seems to think this is quackery, and the entire process is facilitated by a drug called "lotus."

At first this seemed to be a mostly gothic story with slow pacing, but with the plot of a murder mystery. One of the rules the mediums and clients are supposed to adhere to is that they're not to channel people who've died by suicide or violent means, The main danger appears to be that the spirits might come through with a desire to hurt their host bodies, or they might just take over permanantly. 

Our main character, Edie, has been working this job for about five years and appears to have no real life of her own outside of the lives she lives for her clients.  It's obvious from the first chapter that there's a Big Dark Secret Past she's hiding from, and I was very excited to learn why someone else would choose to spend their entire lives blacking out and letting dead people use their bodies.  It would be a different story if the medium could experience the spirits' lives during the sessions, but in this story the medium disappears entirely while the encounters are taking place, and if they do remember anything of their spirit visitors, it's usually a pretty bad sign.

Naturally, Edie starts having hallucinations and dreams almost as soon as she channels her handsome, mysterious client's dead wife.  The wife is said to have drowned as part of an accident, but Edie is smart enough to realize almost immediately that there's got to be a lot more to this story.

Let's go to spoiler town here, so I can can get to my outragey rant.  The dead woman (Sylvia) was clearly not the innocent drowing victim she appeared to be, and the husband (Patrick) was less than forthcoming with the society of mediums when he told them why he had to contact his wife.  There's a whole sequence of Sylvia taking over Edie's body without the aid of the lotus, and soon Edie is channeling the wife in an effort to build a relationship with the husband, Patrick. This is like a love triangle gone competely bonkers.  Is Edie really in love with Patrick, or is is it the dead wife living through her body?  Was Sylvia having an affair?  Was her death an accident?

Both.  Yes.  Maybe but probably not?
Sylvia turns out to be living a double life, and she attempts to break up her lover's marriage when she finds out his wife is having a baby.  Sylvia has come back through Edie to seek her revenge from beyond the grave.  Because, surprise, she's not just pissed that her lover has dumped her for his pregnant wife.  Sylvia ALSO has baby fever. Of course she does.  
And guess what?  Edie has baby fever, too!  What are the odds?  
I had to google the author to see if I'd accidentally stumbled across my old nemesis, Canadian Womens' Lit again. Surprised to find the author is from Little Rock, I briefly entertained the idea that SHE was the real medium, channeling an author from the Great White North.

Naturally, Sylvia's former lover decides to crack the seal on Edie's secret life in order to separate her (and Sylvia) from Patrick.  Revenge for revenge!  This novel goes from gothic thriller to Lifetime Original in about two chapters. To redeem this, I needed Edie's deep, dark, secret past to be something terrible.  Something grotesque.  Some kind of plot twist.  Anything other than....

Edie, suffering from severe depression, had accidentally miscarried months after a suicide attempt, and it was unclear if the suicide attempt was the cause of the miscarriage.  No evidence.  So naturally she was given the treatment she needed and appropriate counseling.  

Hahahahahaha!   Because this book is just a little dystopian future, not one person offered comfort or sympathy for Edie and her mental health.  No, she was pretty much just reviled, blamed, and chased from her former life for "murdering" a baby.  She was arrested and almost charged with murder.  
Patrick finds this out and leaves her.  Rather than telling him to go jump in the lake and drown like his dead wife, she APOLOGIZES to him.  

It gets worse.  Patrick accuses her of lying to him, and of keeping a secret life from him.  Yes.  The man who lied about his dead wife's violent death despite knowing of the risk to the medium, the same man who seduced the medium and had sex with her as both herself AND his dead wife, that man is mad that she  didn't prostrate herself at his feet and weep tears of forgivensss for having 1. clinical depression and 2. a very common type of miscarriage.  An illness and miscarriage that happened before he met her, and which had nothing to do with him.

When. Did. This. Become. Atwood?  I signed on for a thriller!

I realize that the author was probably going for feminist outrage here, understanding that it's far more terrifying that ghosts who need drugs to take over the living.  Women face this kind of horrible puritanical fetus worship constantly.  In real life, women are seen as little more than host bodies to channel the unborn.  Much like Edie is little more than a host body to channel the dead relatives of her clients. If I were back in freshman English, I'd be high-fiving myself as I typed that last sentence. Of course Patrick is a trash bag, and almost all of the men in this novel turn out to be garbage humans.  Sylvia, still lurking and occasionally possessing Edie, knows that Edie is now pregnant with Patrick's child.  And Sylvia, who also wanted Patrick's child, uses her ghostey powers to protect Edie from her illness so that they can have the baby.  

There's a strong thread of sisterhood running through this book.  The mediums and the most complex characters are women.  The few male characters are either horrible, or barely described at all.  Throughout the novel women are helping each other survive in what seems to be a tough economy.  In the few instances where it seems like a man may be coming to resuce one of the female characters in some way, he fails spectacularly.  There's also a thin murder mystery thread separate from the Sylvia/Patrick story that turns out to be one of those moral grey areas when we finally discover who did it and why.    

This book also feels like it's a commentary about how women give so much of themselves to help others.  Not just as mothers, but for other people in general.  Even as Edie is planning to run away with Patrick and have his baby while also channeling his dead wife for his sexual pleasure, she feels guilty that she's letting her other clients down by not allowing them to use her body anymore.  In the end, Edie realizes she's only happy when she's giving herself to others.  And this is...good?  Good that she's happy?  Messed up that her sense of self is entirely dependent on her giving up all of her autonamy for others?  Is this supposed to be a compromise?  

The good:  I loved the writing and the tone, and I like that it didn't end with some trite love story.  It ends with a woman starting a successful life on her own tems, if by "on her own terms" you mean that she's still sharing her body with another woman.  

The bad:  I just don't know that I can forgive the fact that the murders of the grown women in the book seemed less dramatic in the end than the (accidental) miscarriage.  For that kind of build up, I'd been hoping for a Psycho style ending, with her keeping Sylvia's bones in her living room or something.  The Atwood style ending wasn't what I was expecting from the creepy start of the novel. 

When you've braced yourself for almost supernatural horror, it's hard to reconcile a social commentary ending.  

I rarely find myself so conflicted about a book, which is why I wanted to write about it.  I both loved and hated parts of this story, and I'm still thinking of it a few weeks later.  I suspect this is the mark of good writing, and my reaction to it was probably what my literature professor was going for all those years ago. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger

I know this post is about 16 years too late, but sometimes it's fun to go back and re-read something that you've already read, just to get a fresh perspective.  So what was my first thought upon my re-reading (well, re-listening) to this book?  TEXTING.  That's right, this book, which is so centered on a woman who is basically glued to her cell phone, was written in the days before texting was widely popular and available.  So many of her interpersonal problems could have been resolved if she'd possessed a smartphone.  I think I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The Devil Wears Prada is rumored to be loosely about Anna Wintour and the demands she placed on her assistants at Vogue.  I'm not sure if this is true or not, and it doesn't matter, since the personalities involved would have had to be embellished enough that no one ended up being sued for defamation. Or maybe not - I know I've worked for some wackadoos, and I certainly recognize a lot of the behavior demonstrated by antagonist Miranda Priestly.  Sometimes people get so used to having their asses kissed that they forget it's because the people doing the kissing WANT something from them.  I want to shake those people and shout "you're not special, you just have firing authority!"  Which of course I won't do, because I do not have firing authority.

I don't think this is a hot take, and it's certainly not a snappy one because I've consumed two of Costo's finest house brand night time sinus pills and I feel like I'm typing through a soft layer of cotton balls.  I'm on the fence about whether this medication actually relieves sinus pressure, or whether it just makes me kind of soft and foggy and occasionally weepy with just the tiniest sharp edge of paranoia so that I don't notice it anymore.  This may be a just me thing, but last time I took these pills I ended up noticing that one of my dogs had more grey on his muzzle than I'm used to seeing.  This alarmed me enoumously, and I sobbed about the relentless and merciless freight train of time for about two hours.  I group texted my girlfriends and called my boyfriend and was an emotional disaster until I ended up crawling into bed and snuggling my grey boi, who was decidedly not pleased with my sweaty cuddling since I'm what is known politely as a "hot sleeper."  You'd think I'd have thrown the medication away, but I don't like wasting money and I still have most of a bulk case left so here we are!  Hot mess express!

Anyway, not a fresh or particularly sharp take on this book, but here are my thoughts:
1.  Everything seems dramatic at 23.  Andy, our heroine, agrees to take on an insanely demanding job for a woman who is, to use today's favorite unprofessional pop sych terminology, a narcississtic sociopath.  I realize that was the longest sentence in the world.  I'm also not going to go back and spell check that, because in my head I started to type Mississippi and I just went with it because it felt fun!  THANKS, KIRKLAND COLD & FLU.  She's lead to believe that if she can stick out this absolutely horrific job for a year,  she'll get a reference to work anywhere she wants.  She has dreams of going to The New Yorker, and this will save her years of work and is an almost guaranteed job.  I think this is a pretty mature decision for 23, and she went into it with a great attitude.  Unfortunately, because she's 23, she's not yet emotionally equipped to handle confrontation.  Instead of rolling her eyes and knowing that it's temporary, as people keep telling her to do, Andy lets it eat away at her and feels herself morally superior.  Listen, Andy.  You're the one using someone you hate to get a job you want.  It's a business decision.  Treat it as such. 

2.  Andy's friends are dicks.  She tells them repeatedly, and specifically, that she is on-call 24/7.  Her boss is insane, she's not allowed to have a personal life, she's going to have to cancel plans, she's going to be too exhausted to do things.  Her friends, boyfriend, and family all refuse to believe her.  They assume she's exaggerating because she works in fashion, which they consider frivolous.  This leads to Andy, who isn't good at confrontation or boundaries (see #1), to go on guilt trips that make her even more passive aggressive and bitter at work.  Listen.  If someone in your life expresses the reasons why their life is hard?  BELIEVE THEM.  It doesn't matter if you think you have it worse.  It doesn't matter if you think the reasons their life is hard are stupid.  This isn't the struggle Olympics.  Her boyfriend gets a special place in boyfriend jail for being annoyed that she can't have phone conversations in the middle of the day, and for not caring about her boundaries because he feels his job teaching is more important than her job assisting someone who's running a large sector of the local economy.  He's pretentious and self important, Andy.  Dump. His. Ass.

3.  Andy's internatlized guilt makes her blame herself when her best friend Lillie, who is struggling with depression, downward spirals.  She blames herself for not being there for her friend and she feels like she could somehow have prevented the incident that follows.  In re-reading this book, I call shenanigans.  Despite being busy, Andy still regularly sees her friends and boyfriend.  She shares an apartment Lillie in the second half.  No, they're not spending all weekend together, but she's there.  She even brings up Lillie's self destructive behavior and asks if she needs help. Lillie brushes all of this off, and blames Andy for not being "supportive," while at the same time criticizing how seriously Andy takes her job - the temporary job that Andy has made clear is going to land her a fantastic career for the rest of her life.  Yeah, Andy, I don't think you're the problem.  Also, serious note, if someone you love is struggling with depression, you can be supportive and listen and try to help all you want, but it won't cure the condition.  You can't good-listener someone out of depression, and you can't force them into therapy.  Sometimes the closer you are to them, the harder they push you away.  It's not the popular thing people want to hear, but it's true.  Andy is 100% not at fault for Lillie's issues, and Lillie isn't either.  It was a crappy situation for everyone.

4.  Just like you can't cure a friend with depression, you're not going to passive-aggressive your boss out of being demon spawn.  Sure, you may present your boss with a clock or calendar and try to explain the concept of linear time to them, or you may try to explaint that you're not a mind reader.  They really don't care.  They just don't.  You can have one or two conversations about managing expectations right off the bat, but if it doesn't take at the start it's never going to happen.  You're either going to have to live with it or move on.  In Andy's case, she didn't quite make it the full term but it didn't really hurt her in the end.  There's a very fictional quitting moment that reads as pure fantasy, as though all of us collectively walked out of all our worst jobs.  She lands on her feet - not really a spoiler, since she's from a well off family in Connecticut.  The Andys of the world always land on their feet. 

If this book had been written today, Andy would have had a calendar and her email right at her fingertips.   Instead of her needy boyfriend dumping her because she couldn't make personal calls in the afternoon with her boss in the next room, Andy could have just texted or sent him a quick emoji here and there.  She could have vented her rage on Twitter instead of internalizing it and suffering all kinds of mental anguish.  She could have handled many of the communications issues much more quickly and efficiently.  Of course, I can also argue that if her needy boyfriend didn't respect the difficulties of her job in the first place, she should have just dumped the boyfriend in chapter four. 

I'm also much less interested in fashion than I was when this first came out.  I've been listening this book and its descriptions of late 90s/early 2000s clothing in the background while I do domestic chores in a pair of men's sweapants that I've custom cut up to fit just the way I like. The secret is to remove the elastic at the ankles so that the pants can lay flat over the top of  your slippers.

This was a fun, light re-read now that I'm older and have more experience with with workplace.  I don't know that I would have had the guts to stick it out as long as Andy did, because at 36 I have something that Andy did not have at 23:  cynicism.  Andy took it for granted that she'd get her dream job in the end.  I wouldn't have trusted a boss that awful to do anything as beneficial as writing a reference. 

Until next time, readers, I leave you with these words of wisdom:  every boss will be terrible at some point in your career.  And if she's really terrible, you can write a tell all book and sell the movie rights. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

NaNoWriMo Thoughts - Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Have you ever found yourself faced with a writing project and no idea how to start? Have you ever experienced the uncomfortable realization that everything you write is going to be a reflection on your personal life in some way and that people won’t believe you’re writing a character, even if that character doesn’t resemble you in any way? Have you ever written something for a creative writing class that started along the lines of “the author put pen to paper, but words wouldn’t come.  She bounced a tennis ball against the floor ten times, trying to come up with a different character name on each bounce.  She slept with her pen under her pillow and showered with her tablet in a plastic bag.  One glorious autumn day she awoke to the sounds of geese calling overhead on the migration route, and their brazen honking acted like a tissue might on a stuffed up nose.  She ran to her computer and without preamble, started to write....”
My god, we’ve all done it. We are all GUILTY of that bilge. We’ve all been that self-inserted character, writing pure garbage with the hope that at some point, something of value would emerge.  We’ve all discovered that the best way to write something good, or memorable, or even therapeutic, is just to sit down and do it.  Just write.
This is the whole point of NaNoWriMo.  Stop telling everyone how much you’d love to write a novel one day and just sit down and write one.  No deleting, no editing.  30 days, a beginning, middle, and end, at least 50,000 words.  It won’t be good, but it will be written. 
I’ve tried to convince a number of people to participate in this madness with me every year since I started.  Most people say the same thing - that they don’t have time, or that every time they’ve tried their work has turned out nonsensical.  Listen.  I managed to complete NaNoWriMo one year while working full time and going to night school, and I did it in the stolen moments.  In the times you’d take a cigarette or snack break, a full lunch at work, watch TV before bed, spend scrolling Twitter, sitting on the toilet, all of those minutes add up.  Those stolen little minutes can create a whole life within your life.  I wrote my novel using Google Docs, although I’m sure any cloud-based writing program would work.  You can do it on your phone or tablet while standing in line at the store, or waiting in the doctor’s waiting room.  It helps, of course, to have a good outline beforehand so there’s no wasted time. You just glance at your outline for the next scene or plot direction and write for five minutes.  
I wrote a lot of terrible things that year.  Because the goal is to write 50k words, sometimes my characters would do things like debate what they were going to eat for lunch. I could easily write a couple hundred words debating which was the best menu option at Taco Bell (the beef nacho cheese chalupa if you’re not counting calories, duh).  It didn’t matter exactly what I was vamping about, somehow that chalupa would turn up in later chapters and become central to the character or the plot.  Just the act of writing something down turned into ideas for future scenes, and somehow I got to 50k in about 1667 words a day.  Some days more, some days less.  It’s just like eating a pie.  Most of us don’t sit down and eat a whole pie at once, but I sure can finish a pie if I’m telling myself I’m just having a nibble with each meal.  
This brings me to Scarlett Thomas. Scarlett Thomas writes books that you will either love or hate, depending on your mindset and where you are in life.  They tend to lean heavily on philosophy and have elements of fantasy or mystery in them.  There are also personal insertions that pop up from book to book and seem to run parallel to what she’s told us about herself in various interviews.  I remember reading PopCo and rolling my eyes pretty hard at the strong push to veganism - it was so heavy handed I wanted to hurl the book across the room at the time - but there was also a really interesting spy element, and overall I loved the book.  Interestingly my least favorite of her books is a dystopian/utopian YA style novel where a bunch of people end up stranded on an island.  I remember thinking that a new utopia isn’t really all that great if they don’t strand a good surgical dentist on the island with everyone else. Nothing can make you miserable quite like persistent worsening tooth pain. I found this lack of dental care to be completely unrealistic, and yet I wasn’t bothered at all by the completely realistic book with the talking mouse and mental video game simulations.  I may be critical, but at least I’m inconsistent!
Our Tragic Universe is a book I really hated the first time I read it.  It’s about a writer struggling to write - looks like someone took a MFA writing class, har! - and who completely deletes and re-writes her novel based on whatever is happening in her current life at the time.   It’s about “storyless stories,” a phrase that I still loathe, even though I’ve come to love the book.
I’ve never claimed to be the fastest racehorse, but my perception of the book changed completely when I re-read it and realized that the book about the self-inserting author, which is written by a self-inserting author in real life, is a metaphor for how we live our lives.  That every time we change our circumstance or pick up a skill or learn something new, we can rewrite our story from the new perspective we’re in.  
There are large chunks of dialogue between the main character, Meg, and her intellectual friends where they talk about plot devices and storytelling in general, and each of these conversations makes it back into the book in some way.  They discuss Chekov and the gun - if you introduce the gun in the first act the the gun has to go off in the third.  Within the book, there is an obstacle that is brought up in the beginning and is revealed at the end of the book.  There are plotlines that seem to go nowhere.  Is that sloppy writing, or is the author telling us one of those “storyless stories” they all keep banging on about?
It’s easy to hate Meg, to say she’s unmotivated, whining, and capable of making all the changes she needs to in her life.  It’s easy to hate the deus ex machina resolutions to some of the plot lines.  You can hate her all you want,  but she’s very real.  A person who is living with people who are immersed in depression can pick up the traits themselves.  It might  not be chemical, but unhappiness is contagious and can really sap anyone of basic decision making skills.  If you hate Meg, please take a look at some of your own non-choices.  And as for the deus ex machina element, I think that’s extremely realistic.  So many big things in our lives happen randomly.  It’s the difference between taking the plane that doesn’t crash, or interviewing for the job that turns into your career.  
There’s also an element of moral ambiguity to the characters, which I always like.  What’s the point of saying you’re going to write a novel and then spending the whole time trying to push everyone into a modern morality play, with everyone acting in ways that are always mature and healthy and good for everyone? That would be one boring ass book.  
The last time I reread this it reminded me so much of participating in NaNoWriMo that I had to tie them together.  Meg is dealing with deadlines, a personal life she feels trapped in, and she feels creatively bankrupt.  But she keeps trying.  
As much as I enjoy this book, there is one MAJOR NO NO.  Meg deletes.  She writes, deletes, and restarts over and over, year after year.  This is the number one cardinal sin of NaNoWriMo.  Never delete your word count, Meg.  January is for editing.  For now, just shut up and write.  

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Emma - Jane Austen

Is there anything in the world more deliciously fun than rubbernecking other people's personal drama from the outside?  I'm sure that there are a few pearl-clutchers amongst my readers who may be saying sanctimoniously to themselves "Well, I never gossip or judge other people.  You just don't know their circumstances."  I'm here to tell you, pearl-clutcher, that you are a hypocrite.  Just because you're not saying it out loud doesn't mean you're not thinking "If I had a fight like that with MY sister in law, I certainly wouldn't put it on Facebook!" And that may be true - you might not put it on Facebook.  But you're sure as hell reading Facebook and rubbernecking the drama, just as the rest of us do.  Sometimes I like to go in and stir up drama, then sit back on my heels and watch it all play out, just for kicks.  "I see that you don't want to talk about it, but you sure love posting it on Facebook" I might type on a young cousin's status, then I sit back and watch the angst.  I'm so glad that I got old before social media became a THING.

In Jane Austen's day, there was no Facebook.  Their gossip was spread through an in-personal social network.  An analog Facebook, if you will.  It wasn't instantanous, but because people lived in small communities where they saw each other every day, gossip and speculation could still spread pretty quickly.  Your whole life could be confined to this very social circle and because people had to take care of each other, your business was automatically everyone else's business.  

I know that readers generally either love or hate Emma.  I think that it's her most modern story, and that it holds up to the test of time better than many of her other books.  This is especially apparant when you watch the movie Clueless, which is a cinematic masterpiece disguised as a silly high school love story.  Watch it, I'm serious.  

Emma is the story of a young woman who was basically the OG of young women in her small community of Highbury.  When I say small, I mean that there were only a handful of families in her social class within a reasonable distance from her home.  Emma has never left this home, where she lives with her doddering father and until recently, her governess.  

Emma's dad, Mr. Woodhouse, is written as a charmingly eccentric, gentle soul.  He's prone to health anxiety.  If Mr. Woodhouse was here today, he'd be that middle aged dude who says things like "back in MY day we put butter on burns, and I see no reason to stop it now!"  He's also the type of person who thinks that if he doesn't like something, that no one else could possible like it or should do it either.  Mr. Woodhouse thinks that he's perfect and everyone should be just like him - stay at home, wrapped in quilts, and never have any excitement or fun.  He's profoundly against marriage because he's widowed, and since he can't imagine remarrying, he doesn't see why anyone else should marry either.  

To Jane Austen's credit, her characters know that he's a kook.  They like him because he's genuinely concerned for everybody and wants everyone to be happy, but because he can't imagine any happiness other than what works for him, they make allowances for his piss-poor behavior.  Mr. Woodhouse in 2018 might benefit from some medication.

Emma has sworn she'll never marry, party because she really hasn't met anyone eligible.  Of course, it would also upset her dad, and she's a total daddy's girl.  Despite this, she's considered very eligible and thinks quite highly of her station in life.  She's the richest, most accomplished ingenue in town, although Austen as narrator admits that this is largely because town is so small.

The drama starts when Emma's governess decides to get married, as you do.  This upsets Mr. Woodhouse a great deal, and as Emma has spent most of her time with her governess, she becomes lonely and bored.  A bored, arrogant young woman is a dangerous person.  She soon turns her attentions to a woman of lower social rank, a Miss Harriet Smith. 

Harriet is described as a total babe, but she's of dubious parentage and basically lives at a boarding house.  She's not very smart, but she's incrediby sweet and kind.  As she is also young, she's in the habit of falling in love with every man who bats his eyes at her.

This is another odd Austen quirk.  Because of the short window of marriagable age and the small communities, people pretty much made up their minds to marry people within a six week period.  I won't get into the social class structure of the time, because it's complicated and very boring.  I won't criticize it  either, because there were good reasons for it back in the day.  The point is that you might meet a half a dozen people who were considered "eligible" to marry, and if you didn't want to or couldn't live with your family forever, you'd end up with whomever sucked the least.  This is not really all that different from modern day dating.  

Anyway, Emma gets her claws into Harriet and decides to improve her.  She drags Harriet from the boarding house at every opportunity and invites her to social mixers.  She teaches her an appreciation for a finer life, and gets Harriet to set her eyes on the eligible bachelor of the moment, a Mr. Elton.

Mr. Elton is a ridiculous man.  He's over the top in his gentlemanly manners.  We all know the type, don't we? The guy who thinks he's a ladies man - his manners are so obvious that we know they're for show, and we know that he thinks he's making panties drop across the room whenever he slides out a chair for a woman.  Men - just be normal, please.  Well, in Austen's day, panties didn't quite drop, but there was quite a bit of flirting through conversation and games.  Unfortunately, because most of this happened in the presence of other people, this could be ambiguous.  To flirt outright would be too forward and rude AF, but if you were too effusive in your manners to everyone, people might get confused as to who you are flirting with.  

Emma's longtime family friend, Mr. George Knightly, warns Emma about this outright.  "I know you think you're pushing Harriet in his way, but we don't know who her parents are, and you're setting her up to fail" he might say.  Or "are you sure Mr. Elton isn't really in love with you?"  I'm paraphrasing, of course.  Emma rejects this and tells G-Knight to stop criticizing her.  

One of the most perplexing things about this book to me is that G-Knight constantly tells Emma she's too big for her britches, too sure of herself, too arrogant, while being exactly the same himself.  He's 17 years older than she is, and has seen more of the world, so it makes sense that he's often right about things.  But when he criticizes her personality, it's hard not to snort.  Yeah, dude, Emma's the only egotist in this book.  Hah!

Because this is a pretty universal trope, of course Mr. Elton IS in love with Emma.  Emma, who finds him ridiculous, rejects him in what I thought was a very appropriate and modest fashion.  Mr. Elton, who thinks very highly of himself, does something I have personally witnessed from modern day men a number of times:  he throws an angry tantrum.  Moments after declaring how wonderful she is, he turns abruptly and starts screaming about how she's beneath him, anyway.  It's the olden times version of a man calling a woman hot, and then screaming that she's an ugly c-word the minute she says she's not interested. 

Harriet, who has been pushed into this drama by Emma herself, and who has actually rejected someone she was really interested in but who Emma deemed lowly and crude, is crushed.  Emma realizes that her meddling is terrible and it has to stop.  Immediately!  She will turn over a new leaf.

Hah, amiright?  Mr. Elton storms off and returns several weeks later, with a new bride.  The brand new Mrs. Elton is the best character ever.  She's from another small town, smaller even than Highbury.  Her brother in law is the wealthiest household in their town, and so she constantly compares everyting at her new home to her old home.  This is mostly funny because she's so obvious and horrible about it, but also because the people at Highbury (Emma) who are offended that she'd DARE compare Maple Grove to Highbury (Emma) are themselves being snobs for assuming that Maple Grove ISN'T just as nice.  Mrs. Elton is horrible for other reasons - she knows the Emma/Harriet love triangle story and goes out of her way to shun and embarrass them socially, and so does Mr. Elton.  Harriet really dodged a bullet.  My favorite bit of snobbery by Mrs. E is the way she constantly name drops her brother-in-law's model of carraige.  The baroche landau.  This is like the way my former smarmy boss used to hand me the keys to his very, very used car and say "don't dent my Mercedes!" as loudly as possible, so that the guy who managed whatever gas station we were at could hear and be impressed with his third-hand finery.

Fortunately for Emma and Harriet, there are other new people in town upon which to fixate.  Mr. Frank Churchill, the son of the man Emma's governess has married, and Jane Fairfax, Emma's imagined rival. 

For family status and snobbery reasons, blah blah blah, Frank Churchill has been raised away from his dad and has developed an outrageous personality quite independent of his dad. Frank has been riased by rich relatives, so while his own birth is rather modest, he's been moonlighting with an upper class aunt and uncle, so his social status is a bit ambiguous.  When he comes to town from London-adjacent, he's a breath of fresh air to Emma, who is instantly charmed.  They flirt openly and brashly, and for a time, Emma is infatuated with him.  Mr. George Knighly, G-Knight, dislikes the foppish Frank instantly.

Jane Fairfax, our other newcomer, isn't really new.  She's from Highbury originally, but has been living out near Frank and claims to know him slighly from parties out yonder.  Jane is everything Emma isn't, which means that Emma is insanely jealous of her except for one fact - Jane is poor, and will be resigned to having to work for a living, after being raised amongst finery and the upper classes.  This is sort of simliar to Harriet, who was raised amongst the working class but who is now being introduced to higher society.  The difference between them is that Harriet is quite simple and happy amongst the lower classes, and Jane is brilliant, reserved, and very musically talented, and so she doesn't fit in with the lower classes to which she'll be resigned.

One of the overwhelming themes of this book is that status jumping can be very, very difficult, except for the opportunity of extrordinary circumstance.  It's easy to want to say this was the snobbery of old England, except that it's still pretty true.  Every time I attend a professional function and overhear people talking about how they worked their way up in the world because they had to pay for their own law school becaue their parents were ONLY paying for undergrad, I know that I am out of my depth.  This was even something I discussed with a therapist, the additional difficulties heaped on relationships when there are different backgrounds shaping your values and expectations.  This shit was REAL, and Jane Austen was a pretty good judge of human nature.  It's no wonder she never got married. 

Anyway, as immature as Emma is, she's incredibly self aware.  She knows she doesn't like Jane because she's jealous, and she knows that she should pity Jane for her social position, but she doesn't care because she's young and petty and used to getting her way.  I really identify with Emma. 

Frank and Emma even mock Jane from time to time, although through the course of the book Emma realizes that she's really more friends with Frank than in love with him.  They both love to gossip, and they both speculate wildly about why Jane has left the bosom of the wealthy family who was educating her and why she's back at home now.  They both predict that it was SCANDAL! 
Interestingly, as Emma cools a little towards Frank, his behavior becomes more brazen towards her.  It's not consistent, though.

G-Knight, our old friend, asks Emma if she thinks this is weird.  "Do you think he's making fun of Jane because maybe he's concealing something?"  G-Knight asks.  Emma declares that G-Knight is an old bossy pants and tells him to mind his business. 

Mrs. Elton, too, senses that Jane and Emma aren't the best of friends, and has taken Jane under her wing.  Mrs. Elton goes out of her way to make sure everyone knows how charitably she feels towards pooooooor Jane, and also goes out of her way to try to get Jane a job.  This might be nice, except for the fact that Jane tells her no REPEATEDLY, and although she's too polite to throw Mrs. Elton out of her house, she's pretty direct in saying no. Mrs. Elton disregards this and SIGNS HER UP FOR A JOB ANYWAY.  God, Mrs. E., no means no!

G-Knight and Harriet, meanwhile, have struck up a bit of a friendship.  He feels awful about the way the Eltons are treating her and also feels that Emma has My-Fair-Lady-ed her into a position where Harriet will not be fit for any spouse, being raised above her rightful station.  Harriet, so damaged by the Eltons' public abuse, falls in love with G-Knight. 

When Harriet tells Emma this, she loses her shit, inwardly.  She's forced to confront the fact that she loves G-Knight, as he's been the only person in the world not to spoil her or tell her how fabulous she is when she's really only average.  As I've said, Emma is pretty self-aware. 

Frank ends up confessing that he's been engaged to Jane the entire time and was hiding it by acting like an ass.  Harriet ends up with the first man she was in love with, the one Emma thought was unworthy of Harriet even though they both loved each other and were of simliar stations.  And Emma ends up marrying G-Knight, and they decide to live at Highbury with her dad while he is still alive, to avoid rocking the boat. 

Mrs. Elton is HIGHLY critical of their weddings, not being nearly so fancy as her own.

I love this book and I've loved every adaptation I've see of it.  There's a 70s BBC version that's way too slow paced, but has the best Mrs. Elton I've ever seen.  She shows up at every event bedazzled out the wazoo, like a drunk gold-digger on a cruise.  At the end of the story, Emma, Frank, Jane, and G-Knight laugh at the parts they played in the drama, but forgive each other, because they know that human speculation is part of life and is inevitable.  They do promise to be less outwardly deceptive, but they don't really apologize for the gossip.  They all know that they're going to continue to gossip forever, because there's nothing else to do.

I vote that from now on we re-brand gossip as "human interest," and try to villify it less.  Who's with me?