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? 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Hello again! - The Year We Turned 40, by Liz Fenton

So you know how when you have a blog online, it has to be “hosted” somewhere?  Well.  This was news to me.  A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Jasen pointed out that my website was no longer working.  “Huh” I replied.  “That’s weird.”  I then forgot about it for several days.  Eventually I made a few half-assed attempts to login, and by that point, even WordPress couldn’t locate any of my stuff.
Jasen asked me if I wanted help.  He approached me in a wary fashion, the  same way I approach wild geese.  I’m sure he was afraid I was going to accuse him of mansplaining, which to be fair, I’ve done about half a dozen times.  Jasen is a very patient man.
 “Who’s hosting your website?”  he  asked. “I have no idea” I replied, assuming that he’d look at my registry information and figure it out in half a second.  But alas, it appears that no one was hosting grownassbookreports.com anymore.  Apparently if you use one of the types of WordPress, someone ELSE has to do the hosting, and, I don’t know, honestly my brain makes a loud BRRRDDDDDDDTTTTT whenever someone starts getting into details about coding, or hosting, or anything tech related.  
“Did anyone else have access to your site details?”  He asked, determined to make me be helpful.  “My ex-husband?  He set it up.”  I said, completely unsure if that was even true or not.  Had I changed my password?  Had I needed to?  It wasn’t like it was my bank account or anything.  Jasen gave me a LOOK, which I totally deserved, given that the week before I’d confessed to accidentally mailing my own house keys to someone.  It’s a long story.  Anyway, I assume that at some point the person who set up my site and who does websites professionally switched hosting services, transferred all his own domains, and mine got lost in the shuffle.  This was an extremely long opening story to try to explain why the site was down.  I apologize.  
I came here to review The Year We Turned 40, by Liz Fenton.  I’m not entirely sure why I checked this out.  The blurb said it’s a book about what you’d do differently if you could repeat a year of your life.  It sounds heartwarming and life affirming and not at all like something that would interest me.  Sappy as maple syrup, would have been my initial assessment.  However, the fact that right after I checked out the book I ended up sobbing to the Practical Magic soundtrack while binge eating salty almonds tells me that my hormones were in control, and the hormones, they make me do things that seem out of character.  Sometimes it’s fun to just let it ride.  
This book opens with three characters who are turning 50 and who are filled with regret over the last decade of their lives.  Gabriella wishes she’d been able to convince her husband to have a baby, Jessi is still hung up on the ex-husband she cheated on, and Claire is struggling with her adult daughter and the death of her own mother.  All three characters feel that the year they turned 40 was the year that their lives started to spiral.  On the evening of their birthday, they meet a magician and are given the opportunity to go back one decade and try to work out some of the mistakes they’d made that year.  Then, at the end of the year, they could choose to stay in their 40s or they can go back to the present.  The women are hesitant, but see this as an opportunity to bring some of their wisdom back with them.  This struck me as hilarious, because I worked with a woman who was in her late 50s who always told me she wished she could go back to when she was younger so she’d have her hot young body but she’d have her wise, awesome middle-aged lady brain.  I wanted to say “going back with your current knowledge only works if you’re not still an idiot at 55, KAREN,” but I did not, because I’m not a complete and total dingbat.  
It would be easy - and bad - storytelling to have the women go back in time far enough that they could avoid their entanglements entirely.  Gabriella could tell her husband she wants children before he’s already adapted to life without them, Jessi could skip her one night stand, and Claire could be more strict with her daughter and get her mom to the doctor for regular tests before the cancer sets in. This book doesn't do that.  The characters go back in time to the day after their combined 40th birthday party, and at this point, the mistakes have already been made.  
The characters talk a lot about the differences between 2005 and 2015, no iPhones being a major adjustment.  I hear that.  I use my google map to navigate everywhere.  I know some Gen X-ers are rolling their eyes and saying that people today can’t think without their phones and that if we were less reliant on them we’d be better with things such as navigation but the truth is that in 2005, even when I didn’t have a google map, I would mostly just drive vaguely in the direction I was supposed to go, hoping I’d hit a major landmark at some point.  I spent a lot of time driving around, insisting that I wasn’t LOST, I was headed NORTH.  I fooled nobody.
One of the best aspects of this book is that the characters aren’t magically any smarter or better because their minds are older.  They still make some dumb mistakes.  They still try to cover their own butts.  They’re just better at confronting the issues earlier because they’ve already lived the life where they did nothing and watched things fall apart.  Because of this, things still go to shit, but they go to shit sooner, and in different ways.  
Obviously things work out, because this is feel good fiction.  They don’t necessarily work out the way the characters think they will, but at least no one is stuck with a decade of regrets.  At the end of the book they decide to stay in their 40s, having learned some things about conflict resolution.  All in all, this was less syrupy than I expected and surprisingly realistic about some of the bad stuff about life.  Some things just won’t change, and you’re going to have to deal with it.  
I have one major complaint about the book, and that’s the windup to Gabriella’s baby storyline.  Gabriella is an author who was very open with her husband and family that she didn’t want kids, until Jessi has a baby.  Gabriella sees the baby and -  boom!  She wants a baby!  Is this a thing that happens?  Women turn 40, see a baby, and decide right there that they need one too, like it’s a fancy purse or something?  I get where the author was going, and she writes a really good storyline where Gabriella, former wonder woman, goes banana-pants and pushes her husband into trying to conceive.  Because after a decade of her husband trying to manipulate her into having kids, of course he’s changed his mind.  They are both dysfunctional people who should probably not be making babies.  I enjoyed the downward spiral here, but the spontaneous baby fever that started it made me roll my eyes so hard I saw stars.  
All in all, a good audiobook, if you’re not a stickler for the authenticity of English accents.
I’ll try not to lose all my work again, but no promises!  I’ll be reposting some older reviews that I had backed up, once I figure out how to do that.  If I could go back in time, I’d be better about password security, knowing how websites work, and organizing all my saved backup work files.  Lesson learned, Liz Fenton, lesson learned.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

Life by Committee: Corey Ann Haydu

 I’m not sure if it’s that my brother is now working for the company that services the Ohio Digital Library’s e-book app and is screwing with my account, or if the makers of OverDrive use some kind of crazy psychic algorithm for book recommendations, but for some reason I’m being presented with an assortment of crazy ass novels every time I log in to choose a new ebook or audiobook.  On one occasion I logged in to see two books recommended to me, one was “What’s Going on Down There” and had some youths on the cover looking down towards their crotch areas, and the other was “The Chocolate Wars.”  Given that this recommendation popped up on the first day of my period I was understandably spooked, and also a little crampy and hungry for chocolate.  
        “Life by Committee” popped up under the mystery/suspense category and while there are some elements of mystery inside, I don’t know that I would categorize it as either a mystery novel or a suspense novel.  The premise is that Tabitha, a 16 year old, is going through a period of depression after her friends all drop her the moment she starts becoming attractive and developing an interest in boys.  As she is feeling socially isolated, she turns to a website where you can vent your deepest, darkest secrets, and you are given assignments or challenges to help you act on the desires that drove you to those secrets in the first place.  The website has a small number of members and they all encourage each other through their challenges.  This provides the emotional and social outlet she needs as she becomes increasingly alienated from her parents and her few acquaintances at school.
        Now those of us who are a little older and wiser will immediately see that right off the bat, expecting people from the internet to help you manage your life is not generally a great idea.  I mean, look at Boaty McBoatface.  I hear that the English government is forcing a re-name of the boat that was initially named through totally legitimate voting, and that’s a crying shame.  I mean, if a country won’t even allow the results of a citizens’ vote to stand when it comes to boat naming, what other results is it ignoring?  The people of England should protest and also make lots of comical signs for my amusement!
        Very few YA books can keep my interest for too long because I find the main characters to be nauseatingly sweet and good.  I feel like many YA authors writing female protagonists feel obligated to write Mary Sue style role model characters, and we all know that this is complete BS.  I believe this trend started with Jane Austen writing about Fanny in Mansfield Park.  Fanny needed to grow a pair, fam, and I don’t know why our culture insists that we have to keep making our female girl characters these austere models of purity and moral decorum. Teenage girls are awful.  I was awful, you were awful, your daughters and your sisters were probably awful.  It’s just how teenage girls are.  This book sparked my interest immediately because the main character is so real.  I read several reviews online where people said that they liked the book but hated the main character, and I have to question why.  Sure, she chose to pursue a boy who had a girlfriend.  Sure, she was a terrible listener to her best friend, because she was too wrapped up in her own drama.  She’s sixteen.  That’s what sixteen is.  And if you sanctimoniously think “I wasn’t like that when I was sixteen!”  you are lying to yourself.  Seriously, go ask your family.   If you think you weren’t an ass at sixteen, you’re probably still an ass now.
        There were some things in this book that were not standard for YA novels, and that’s what sets this one out from the crowd.  First, Tabitha is attractive.  She’s not one of those quirky charmingly clumsy girls who can’t understand why boys like her because she thinks she’s super unfashionable and plain and blah blah false modesty.  Tabitha has developed early and well, and she doesn’t apologize for it by dressing down or pretending boys don’t like her.  She loses her high school friends because they’re jealous of her and the attention that she’s getting, and they’re very sneaky and catty.  They slut shame her so subtly, telling her that they think she’s boy crazy and that she’s demeaning herself with the way she’s dressing.  They pretend they’re so concerned for her, all that typical crap plain or slow developing girls say about the ones who grow up the fastest.  Tabitha knows immediately that this is sour grapes and I like this.  Sure, she struggles with wondering why people don’t like her, but she also takes their words with a grain of salt, and is realistic about what’s probably going on.
        I also love Tabitha’s family.  Her parents are youngish (32) and her mom is pregnant with another baby.  They are a wonderful family and it’s clear that Tabitha’s angst and feelings of separation from her parents have nothing to do with her parents being inadequate or unfair or uncaring, but from her parents having their own lives outside of Tabitha’s immediate day to day actions, and from their own problems within their marriage.  In so many books the parents are used as a foil for the teenage protagonist, and in this book her parents are dealing with real issues, such as a dad who is refusing to take on responsibility because he doesn’t want to grow up, and a mom who has enabled this sort of behavior for sixteen years.  The storyline that plays out between the parents is almost as interesting as Tabitha’s storyline.  
        The way Tabitha stumbles onto the Life by Committee website is mysterious and fun, too.  Tabitha is a voracious reader and loves to read used books with notes and personal musings in the margins.  I googled this and it’s called “marginalia,” and I’m totally going to do it next time I read an analog book, before passing it on to someone else to share and mark up with their own notes.  She mentally makes friends with the people who are commenting in the books and so when one of the books has a URL for the Life by Committee forum in the back, of course she follows the link and signs up.  This appealed to the mystery lover in me.  Will she find her mental soulmate/best friend on this forum?  Is it fate?  How is it that this appears at the time she needs it most in her life?  Will Tabitha finally find some friends and some people who truly understand her?
        Even the concept of the forum where Tabitha becomes a member so she can start sharing her secrets seems fairly realistic and I could see many people becoming swept up by the concept.  This is how it works: your membership beings when you enter a secret on the website and are assigned a challenge, something related to the secret to help you live your best life.  If you don’t complete the assignment, your secrets are publically revealed.  This is an ongoing, thing, one secret per assignment, meant to help you overcome your fears and limitations and live your life without rules.  How romantic is this crap?  It’s like that therapy style where you overcome your phobias by immersing yourself in them.  Only with more boys and fewer spiders.
        Tabitha’s initial secret is that she kissed a boy who has a girlfriend.  She and this dude stay up all night chatting on the internet, developing strong internet romance feelings for each other, but they generally keep their distance at school during the day.   As things escalate, they begin to get bolder in real life, culminating in a kiss.  Tabitha knows that she’s screwed up, because this boy has a girlfriend.  She sends him an email telling him he can’t continue to pursue her unless he cuts ties with the girlfriend, but then she signs up for the website and spills her secret.  Of course her first assignment is to kiss him again.  She feels some moral pangs, but the members of the group encourage her to pursue the relationship.  After all, not all boyfriend/girlfriend relationships end up in a marriage, and many marriages are the result of someone leaving one person for another, right?  They justify this until Tabitha does it, feels a rush of power and control, and posts another secret.  
        The thing about being challenged to confront the things that are deeply secret to you is that sometimes those things are secret for a reason.  The challenges become gradually more and more horrible, and in fact, some of them seem downright wrong.  The group leader insists that there is no “wrong” or “right,” and that the goal of the group is to help them live their best lives – that doesn’t always happen from doing the “right” thing all the time.  He encourages selfishness and even as the group members argue about the method, there are some who insist she has to stick with it, and that it will work out in the end.  It’s a little cult-like.
        As is bound to happen, things fall apart both at school and at home.  Tabitha becomes even more isolated because she can’t talk about the group with anyone, and her activities are now isolating her even further from her family.  She’s being pushed to pursue activities that she knows are wrong, but she’s operating under the principal of “I know I should do this but I waaaaaaant so baaaaaaaadly,” which is how I feel when I’m confronted with large amounts of dairy.  Of course because this is fiction, bringing the problems in her personal life to a boil results in them rapidly cooling off and eventually everything falls into place.  Tabitha finally confronts her biggest fear – that no one will like the real her -  not because she’s a crazy boy chasing slut (according to her former friends and classmates) - but because she’s not a likeable person.  She reveals all of her secrets in a public school assembly and, miraculously, everyone else in the class gets up and follows suit.  Her biggest fear is that deep down she is unloveable, and she learns that EVERYONE does bad things from time to time, or thinks horrible thoughts.   She makes peace with her arch rival, and finds a respect she didn’t believe she deserved.
        This is precisely why I don’t understand how some reviewers can hate the main character so much.  The whole point of the book is that everyone is a little awful, some of the time.  We’re all hypocrites.  We all have secrets.  We all act on impulse.  We need to do some of those things to learn and grow.  
        I really liked this book.  This may actually be one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it was a total left-field recommendation from my crazy OverDrive app.  There were times I identified with the sixteen year old main character and times I identified with her thirty two year old parents.  I even understood the bullies.  There was some great character development and the whole thing was just very real.  I will certainly be reading more from Corey Ann Haydu.  Well done, lady.  You’ve written something that even I can’t snark about.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lois Duncan Book Dump: Daughters of Eve, The Third Eye, and Down a Dark Hallway

 I know this is a book blog and not a personal blog, but I must admit that sometimes the lines blur.  Last night my best friend asked me if I’d considered journaling as a way to experience some relief from some recent personal sadness.  I told her that I’m awful at personal blogging for the same reasons I’ve outlined a number of times already on this book blog, and that I’d been seeking a creative outlet in fiction.  She was pleased to hear about this particular blog, but I don’t think she really considers it “journaling.”  If only she knew that part of my fiction refuge has been teenage thrillers written in the 70s and 80s by Teen Thriller Queen Lois Duncan.  These books have everything a woman in her thirties could want, provided what a woman in her thirties wants is a strong female lead and some spooky drama that eventually gets wrapped up in a pleasing way by the end of the book.
        I picked out Daughters of Eve based on an OverDrive digital media recommendation, and until I was part way through the audiobook I didn’t know that the author was the same woman who wrote “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”  In fact, there were things about Daughters of Eve that seemed incongruous and I later realized that it’s because the book was written in 1979, but the audiobook version had been updated to include things like texting and the internet.  I hate when publishers do that.  Most of us are smart enough to know that time existed before technology.  Reading is a way to get in touch with the past, and sneaking in modern technology just ruins that.  
        If you can remember the moment that you realized that women, no matter how far we’ve come, are still held to the idea that our REAL work is just popping out babies and getting dinner on the table, then this book will fill you with rage.  Obviously, it’s hyperbole, and yes, it’s filled with some over the top preaching on a subject that’s made some progress since 1979.  Still, if you’re a woman, or if a woman you know has ever been told that the thing that’s “wrong” with your life is that she doesn’t have a baby to “put things in perspective,” or that she’d be less confused if she stuck to her traditional role (both things that have been said to me, by the way) this book will make you want to set everything on fire.  
        There’s also a flip side to the gender norm bucking trend here. As the teenagers in this book rebel against old fashioned notions, they slip too far to the other side.  They assume sexism where none exists, and they take action in ways that are vengeful rather than productive.  I’ve read that some people think the mixed ending of this book is anti-feminist but I don’t think that’s the case.  I think it’s a book about using your brains to take appropriate action to rise against injustice.  The characters who crossed the line paid the consequences.  Those who kept their heads down and proved people wrong by improving themselves rather than trying to change others had happy endings.  Sure, you may want to murder someone who has made your life completely miserable, but you’re going to get caught.  Ladies, take it from me.  Murder isn’t the answer.  What you want to do is make this person’s life a living hell. Drag it out, day by day, for the rest of their lives. The best way to do that is by educating yourselves and grabbing little personal power.  If these girls had relied on things like blackmail and damage to their boyfriends’ and dads’ credit scores, they’d have gotten much further ahead.  Or would they?  I mean, obviously I would never encourage anyone to do anything illegal, but…well, crimes have to be proven, don’t they?  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Maisie Dobbs: Jacqueline Winspear

   For those of you who live in Ohio, we have a wonderful lending tool called the “Ohio Digital Library.”  It’s linked to your local library, and if you have an active account, you can rent digital media through their app.  It is wonderful, and although they don’t have every book in the library in electronic format, it’s still a great resource for those of us who need to always be reading, but who are too lazy  busy to go to a physical library.
        The Ohio Digital Media app will recommend books to you based on your checkout history, and its algorithms are slightly more accurate than Netflix’s selection process, but slightly less accurate than that of Amazon.  I have a long history of reading period mystery novels or novels featuring strong female leads, so this book popped up. I didn’t expect much, haven been given some pretty sketchy selections recently, but I was about to start my commute to work and I was pretty tired of screwing around with the app in my driveway and figured I’d give it a go.  For the record, the “screw it, I’m done with this” approach to decision making is also how I’ve selected a number of haircuts and delightful winter work ensembles.  I recommend it for its emotional freedom, but not so much if you don’t want to look like a hobo prostitute.  
        Anyway, the audiobook started out with a pretty standard exposition.  A young woman, pretty, with fancy eyes, is starting up her own detective agency after the first world war.  Our main character, Maisie Dobbs, sounds like your typical Mary Sue character trope for much of the first part of the novel.  She’s got deeply blue eyes.  She was a fabulous nurse who saved many men’s lives.  She has above average intelligence and worked her way up from the most humble surroundings.  She even has flashes of psychic power, something she learned from her brilliant mentor.  She’s like the Mozart of Space and Time!  No – wait – that’s Wesley Crusher.  My bad!
        One problem I sometimes have with audiobooks is that I’m incredibly easily distracted and my mind tends to wander.  Add a subtle change from present tense to flashback, and if I’m trying to navigate around an 18 wheeler while driving into the sunset on a Friday afternoon, I will not be paying attention to the intricacies of the plot.  It’s not the author’s fault that I was completely confused at the flashback into Maisie’s backstory, where we learn of her sad beginnings, her work in service, her intellectual talents and her decision to become a nurse.
        Suddenly what started out as a folksy English historical detective story – my favorite! – turned into a book about the absolute horrors of World War I.  There’s even an attempt to shoehorn a love story in here, something that the reader/listener could tell was going to be ill-fated in the first chapter.  I allowed myself a few mental eyerolls at this, because I’d much rather read or hear about poisoning and fake alibis than hands meeting and lingering across the injured legs of an English soldier, blown partly to bits on a French battlefield.  I mean gross, right?  Sorry, I mean how romantic, for those of you who need some kind of hearts aflame subplot to maintain your interest.        
        I was not expecting the turns this story took.  Reading about the loss of friends and family during the war and the conditions for medical staff on the battlefield was not my intention.  I was hoping for a murder mystery wrapped in fun costumes and descriptions of delicious food, but what I got was a mystery surrounding the treatment of physically disabled and disfigured veterans during a time when plastic surgery and bionic limbs just weren’t an option.  And that love story?  My God.  It was ill-fated all right, but not in the way I expected.  It was gut wrenching.  Very well done, Jacqueline Winspear.  I forgive you for your previous mushiness.
        I often turn to books as an escape from reality.  I have an active imagination, and at times my personal and professional lives can become very stressful.  I usually avoid books about the horrors of war.  When I downloaded this story I did not expect to find myself sobbing in rush hour traffic.  But I did.  And it was OK.  For me, anyway, not for the terrified kids in the van next to me, watching me blow my nose into Dunkin Donuts napkins with both hands, leaving no hands on my steering wheel.
        I really enjoyed this story.  I may have enjoyed it more as an actual book because of the flashback confusion I suffered.  Also, there was a fair amount of singing required of the actress, and while she did a great job with her character voices, listening to long songs in character voice is pretty tedious.  I’m the person who skips the songs in books, so I can at least blame the author for this one.
        When I downloaded this book it had been given a low star rating on the app, and I’m surprised by that.  I suppose it’s OK to classify this story as a detective story, even though it just barely contains a mystery, and it’s really not that much of a mystery as it’s wrapped up in the reading instead of at the conclusion.  It might have fit better into the historical fiction category.  Either way, I’m glad I listened to it, and recommend it if you’re looking for a story that’s a little tragic.  
        This book is the first in a series of novels about Maisie Dobbs, and I’m going to give the next couple a try.  I’m still not sure how I feel about Ms. Dobbs herself, but if she becomes a little less of a Mary Sue and the plots stay twisty, you may be seeing more of her on this blog in the upcoming months.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Witches of Eastwick - John Updike

“You must imagine your life,” Alexandra confided to the younger woman. “And then it happens.” – The Witches of Eastwick, by John Updike
The full title of this book, according to Kindle, is “The Witches of Eastwick: a Novel.”  What the hell else would it be, a pony, amiright? I was a much younger woman when I first read The Witches of Eastwick, and I decided to revisit it after reading an article on the internet wherein the author claims that that John Updike was brilliant and that every word he ever wrote was pure gold.
        The topic of said article was how to make yourself appear smarter, which is interesting because I should know that following random advice from the internet is a pretty quick way to make prove quite the opposite.  For example, I just read (on the internet!) about an online company that is selling herbal sachets for feminine hygiene purposes.  Women are supposed to insert these sachets for “detoxification,” which makes me wonder exactly what the makers of this product think women have been doing that their most intimate and protected parts need detoxification.  Smoking crack, perhaps, or soaking in water from Flint, Michigan.  Regardless, we see what happens when we listen to the internet.  I offer WebMD as exhibit B, never once having visited it without receiving an alarming diagnosis such as Bubonic Plague, or Anthrax.  
        I’m not going to disagree with the article’s author about Mr. Updike’s writing skills.  He uses words quite well, and I enjoyed reading a book where descriptions of people are made briefly, and pages aren’t dedicated to descriptions of the Mary Sue protagonist’s perfect body, brain, or personality.  I also enjoyed the way the more salacious parts of the book were written.  I knew what was going on without feeling like I was reading a romance novel, and I felt comfortable reading the book in public.  
        I even think the basic plot had a lot of potential.  A group of women, divorcees in a time when divorced women still faced social criticism, develop magical powers while living in a small New England town.  They meet a mysterious stranger who stirs their powers, and they attempt to find what they need to fulfill themselves in life.  Sounds great, right?  Don’t we all want that?
        Hell no, I don’t want that, not if “finding myself” means fitting into John Updike’s idea of how women feel about themselves, men, and each other.  
        I believe it’s dangerous for a writer to attempt to write from the perspective of a different gender.  Sorry – I think I mean sex.  Apparently the gender v. sex debate is quite hot right now, to the point where you can’t even see a baby announcement on Facebook without a fight breaking out in the comments section, like it’s a Browns v. Steelers game combined with ten cent beer night all in one.  I would never write something from the perspective of a man and assume to know what men are looking for.  Now, I have written stories from the perspective of a man.  I also wrote one from the perspective of a woman with multiple personality disorder whose other identify is a man – how’s that for progressive sex v. gender thinking for you, hah!  In both instances, I did not attempt to describe the struggles of men, or what men want, or how men relate to each other.  I wrote about people, who want universal things that many other people want.  I wouldn’t presume to know what men feel like in their gender (sex?) norm societal roles, and I don’t really care how they feel in their roles in the whole baby-making process.  Frankly, I don’t care what anyone feels about their roles in the baby-making process.  It’s complicated, messy, and involves tiptoeing around too many of peoples’ feeeeeeeeeeeeeelings.  
        What was I talking about?  Oh yes.  Updike being presumptuous.  So the book starts with Alexandria, our main witch, making spaghetti sauce.  It’s a typical housewifely task, and she’s thinking about her Italian American lover.  She thinks about her weight and how it’s so typical of Italian Americans to love fat women, and how it was sooooo lazy of her to have an affair with him and accept her fat, rather than just diet.  Huh.  She also compares the red sauce to her period, which is disgusting and not something any woman I know would ever do.  We’d make the spaghetti sauce because we like it, and not think twice about it.  Already Mr. Updike has displayed a depth of knowledge about women that he may have acquired at age 11.  Women think about their weight!  They think about boys all the time!  They love to cook!  They have periods!  “Yes, this is all women” Mr. Updike may have thought.  “Also, my name is totally a euphemism for a penis.  Heh.”  I’m guessing, of course.  He’s been dead for some time, so I can’t ask him what the hell he was thinking.
        Alexandria has two friends, Sukie and Jane.  They are characterized pretty harshly.  Jane is angry, mean, a brilliant musician but full of hatred. Sukie is cute, perky and girly.  Updike compares her to a monkey about five thousand times.  Alexandria is somewhere in the middle.  She’s shown as compassionate and sensitive, and is the most fully realized of the characters.  Alexandria has good qualities and bad, and you can’t love or hate her.  She’s just a person.  If Updike had removed all of the talk about fertility, she’d actually be a pretty well written character.  
        The three women are friends, a coven, as they’ve all developed magical abilities.  Later in the book we realize these powers come when a women is left by, or leaves, a man.  They use these powers for small personal gain, but initially it doesn’t seem like they do anything too noticeable or offensive.  The town is most offended by the fact that they all like to take married lovers.  They like married lovers because they don’t have to worry about relationships. The lovers go back to their wives, and the woman can live their own independent lives.  Kind of smart, right?  I mean wrong.  That’s what I should say.  Maybe it would be better if they just took commitment phobic lovers?  I think this would have been easier for them in 2015.
        They live this way quite happily, if bored, until a stranger comes to town.  Daryl Van Horne.  If you’ve seen the movie, Jack Nicholson plays Daryl, and he’s portrayed as a devilish figure.  In the book he reminds me of Mr. Shaitana from Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table.  He’s an outlandish character who recognizes the bizarre in the women, and invites their friendship in such a way that the woman all fall in love with him. A collector.  A collector of women.  BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN!  Wait…no.  
        They meet regularly at his giant mansion and engage in quite intimate bath times together.  The town is outraged by the goings-on at Daryl’s place.  Three woman and one man!  Imagine!  We do have to use our imaginations quite a bit, actually.  Mine must be boring, because I imagine them eating pizza together in the bath.  That’s what I’d do!   Daryl is thought of by the women as someone who is wealthy, desirable and smart, while at the same time the facts on paper show him as fraudulent, pathetic, and a bit of a dilettante.  
        Of course, the friendship of the women starts to splinter the moment a man is involved.  The whole time they’re cavorting naked together they’re starting to resent each other.  When two new people, a brother and sister, join the mix, the situation becomes downright ugly.  Gradually the witches use their powers for evil, until eventually a series of deaths has occurred, and the witches are barely speaking.
        At the same time other coven is arising, and the women of the conflicting factions speak of each other the way teenaged girls might trash talk after school.  Again, Updike displays a breadth of knowledge about women that seems to have peaked in junior high.
        When the final conflict is removed from the women’s lives, they’re not really even friends anymore.  Sad and lonely, they use their powers to conjure up ideal husbands, then move away.
        So what we have here is a book about women, friendship, their desires, ambitions, and the gleeful shanking of societal norms turned a book about women who bicker with each other, get jealous, physically harm other women, and then are only happy when they find men to marry.  How, exactly, is this progressive?  
        Taken as a whole, it’s not.  I can enjoy the writing style, and the small nuggets of universal wisdom.  I can appreciate women who come into their personalities and personal power only after failing at their first attempts to confirm to society in their first marriages.  I especially love how the women are all mothers, but the children really only have about two lines.  They’re almost absent from the book, mostly used as a foil for the opinions of the townsfolk.  For a guy who has his characters go on and on about babies and fertility, the women sure hate the business of actually being moms.  I also appreciated the casual way he blended protestant religion into the story, where people attend services but aren’t crazy religious fanatics.  It’s rare to read a book where religion isn’t either the thing that personifies supreme good or supreme craziness.  
        While I enjoyed the writing style and I always love fiction that blends into the supernatural or sci-fi realms a little, ultimately I was disappointed with the message of this book.  I think in terms of witchcrafty fun, the movie is better.  Also there’s Jack Nicholson, who makes a pretty good Daryl and who is at once both comedic and frightening.  Also, there’s a scene where Cher, playing Alexandria, wishes that she could turn back time.  Brilliant!  That’s what I call clever writing.
        I fear this review may have delved into personal territory again, to which I say: tough shit.  Really, you can get and forget and then suddenly remember your own blog.  Really!  It’s a lot of fun.