Thursday, December 6, 2018

Book 158: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

"There's a highly circumscribed performance of femininity expected at each stage of a woman's life—a certain way her face and body should look. All of these ideals are some form of striving for youthfulness, but only to the extent that it's 'appropriate', and with any part of the body that fails its duty hidden from sight."

Dates read: July 4-6, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Like most girls of my age, when I was little, I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be. And for a while, I (and I assume most everyone else) believed it. But as you grow up, you realize that no matter what you are, girls are expected to not be "too much". Don't be too smart, that intimidates the boys. Don't be too ambitious, set goals that are high but not too high. Don't be too capable, guys like being the ones to "rescue" you from spiders and leaky faucets. Don't be too direct, people won't think you're very nice. Look how big this box is, you have all the room you need in here. Don't get out of it.

I've long-since looked forward to Anne Helen Petersen's work on Buzzfeed. She's so good at not just really looking under the surface of our cultural climate, especially in how we perceive and treat women, but explaining it in a compelling, understandable way. If you haven't read her Cool Girl essay, go read it right now because it's phenomenal. And so of course I was psyched when I found out she was writing a book, Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud, about women who transgress our social norms. Who among us hasn't stepped outside the lines, peeked out from inside the box and felt blowback for it? Who hasn't looked at the women who do get out there and live out there and regarded them with a curious mixture of revulsion and envy? Petersen highlights nine (well, ten technically) "unruly" women, focusing on how each in turn has challenged the expectations we place on lady people. Many of these challenges focus on the body, from Serena Williams' "too strong" frame to Madonna's refusal to cover up because she's "too old" to Caitlyn Jenner's "too queer" gender confirmation surgery. There are also women who make other choices they're not supposed to: Hilary Clinton might be smart and ambitious, but she's "too shrill", and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (the Broad City team) make us uncomfortable because they're "too gross".   

I wanted this book to be amazing and mind-blowing and incredible. And it was good! Petersen's writing is lively and insightful and serious without being ponderous. But I think maybe it would have worked better if it had been split into two volumes, one focusing on body and one focusing on personality. The essays felt like they skimmed the surface, taking a shallow dive into concepts that deserve deeper thought and analysis that I would have loved to read Petersen's take on. In writing about how Nicki Minaj is "too slutty", for example, Petersen refers to and gives some brief background on how black female bodies are sexualized and fetishized. But there's so much there that because the book needed to be a reasonable length and there are eight other subjects, she doesn't really have space to really give it the full context it deserves. I felt the same way, perhaps even more strongly, about the chapter on Jenner and trans issues. It would have felt problematic to leave the gender binary untouched entirely, but to only briefly interact with it doesn't feel quite right either. 

One essay, though, that really made me think was the piece about "too loud" Jennifer Weiner, who won't just quietly accept the judgment of her writing about women and their lives (which, to be perfectly honest, I don't personally much care for) as mere "chick lit" not to be taken seriously. I know I fall into that trap with my own reading, disdaining titles with pastel covers or shoes and shopping bags prominently displayed. It's snobbish, but if I'm being transparent here, I will say that it takes a lot to get me to take a second look at a title deemed "women's fiction". Which is actually pretty bullshit of me. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is just as good as Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, so why is the former a "girl book" and the latter a book for everyone? There's not a good reason why we treat stories about women's lives and problems, written by women, as lesser than books written by and about men. I love Nick Hornby, but he writes lighter fare that would probably be shrugged off if he and his protagonists were ladies. I need to do some work to think about my own internalized misogyny, especially when it comes to my reading choices.

Tell me, blog you think of books by and about women as less important than books by and about men?

One year ago, I was reading: The Games (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

Three years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Wintry Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Now that it's December, it's basically wintertime (I know it's not like "official" winter for another couple weeks but it's cold already). So as the weather outside starts to get are some books where the weather is also frightful!

The Bear and the Nightingale: The first of the four books on this list that are set in Russia, where I basically assume it's always winter. I've picked books where the wintery-ness is an actual real part of the plot and not just assumed! A frost demon plays a central role here, so winter is very much present.

War and Peace: So much of this book happens during the winter, because...Russia.

City of Thieves: That this book, and its central search for eggs, takes place during the winter. The Siege of Leningrad winter, at that, so a bad one even by Russian standards.

Child 44: I read this several years ago now, so maybe it doesn't mostly take place during the winter? But I feel like I remember a lot of winter-ness and snow.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: All the Harry Potter books have Christmas scenes, but the Yule Ball in this one really makes the winter-ness of it memorable!

Lirael: Like to rest of the Clayr, Lirael lives in a glacier, in a world carved entirely from ice.

The Shining: The Torrances head to the Overlook to take care of the hotel during the long winter off-season, and anyone who's lived in an area where snow is real knows how isolating winter can be when you're snowed in.

In Cold Blood: The murder takes place on November 15th, which is technically fall rather than winter, but we all know mid-November is basically winter and there's something about this true crime classic that feels wintry to me.

Snow Falling On Cedars: The snow's right there in the title, and the image of the island community buried, even isolated under its weight, is resonant.

The Golden Compass: The portions of the book that take place at Svalbard, northern and wintry, are the ones that stick out the most in my memory.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Month In The Life: November 2018

What a month! When you work in politics, Novembers in even years are always big ones because of Election Day, and then there's the beginning of the holidays, and I'm actually on my way to my annual girls' trip with my high school besties right now! Busy end to the year around here.

In Books...

  • Seduction: I've been a longtime fan of Karina Longworth's podcast, You Must Remember This, so her book on Howard Hughes was one of my most-anticipated for the year. And it didn't disappoint, I totally loved it! The usual reliable research, insightful analysis, and solid storytelling...a must for fans of Old Hollywood!
  • In Defense of Food: I'm always skeptical when the premise for an argument is that the science in the given field is very conveniently means that you never have to prove your assertions. So while I do think there are some good ideas in here to consider, as a whole, I never quite bought in. 
  • The Gathering: The quality of the prose in this book, about a large Irish family coming together for the funeral of one of the siblings, is exquisite. But it's so busy being gorgeously-written that it forgets to tell a compelling story, and the whole thing feels very self-conciously "literary" in a way that I found off-putting.
  • Everything Under: This debut novel was written by the youngest-ever author to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And while the modern-day take on the Oedipus legend is solidly good, lushly atmospheric, and clearly the product of a very talented writer...I never got hooked into it the way I hoped I would. There were a couple of things that didn't quite come together for me, and kept it from greatness. 
  • Uncle Tungsten: This memoir focuses mainly on author Oliver Sacks' deep love for chemistry during his childhood, and honestly I hated chemistry in high school (sorry, Mom). But because it's Oliver Sacks, it's written with such warmth and humor and understanding that I rather enjoyed it. 
  • Dark Places: This novel explores a woman deeply damaged by the murder of her entire family when she was just seven...a crime for which her brother was convicted mostly on the strength of her testimony against him. When she becomes hard up for money, though, and agrees to investigate that night further for a local true crime enthusiast group, it throws everything she thought she knew into doubt. Bad people abound, including our protagonist, but they're interestingly bad and the novel is compelling.
  • The Possibilities: At first I was a little worried that this novel about a mother mourning the loss of her son, who connects with the girl her son was dating shortly after his death, would be too similar to Paint It Black, which I read only a couple months ago. Turns out, it's mostly similar to Kaui Hart Hemmings' own The Descendants, which shares its themes of families processing grief but does it better. It's fine, it just wasn't any more than that. 

In Life...

  • Election Day: When you do campaigns, this is a big deal. Months and months of stress and planning and work go in behind the scenes...and this year was a great one, because all our candidates won! I truly believe in our candidates and am thrilled they'll be in office!
  • The holidays began: Started off the holiday season with a nice long weekend, trying out a new dessert recipe for pumpkin bars, and a tasty dinner hosted by my in-laws. Thanksgiving weekend wasn't all good news though...both my husband and I watched our favorite football teams lose their rivalry games so that was a bummer. 

One Thing:

I'd seen both the masterpiece Judy Garland version and the kind-of-terrible Barbra Streisand version, so I had to round it out by finally seeing the Lady Gaga version of A Star Is Born this month. It's a familiar story, and Bradley Cooper's never been my favorite actor, so I was a little skeptical, but I really liked it! Cooper's never been better, Gaga was winning, and the songs were legitimately solid. I'm glad that I actually managed to see an awards contender before Christmas, and I'd honestly recommend it, it's very enjoyable!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book 157: My Antonia

"Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."

Dates read: July 1-4, 2017

Rating: 5/10

There's something very powerful about childhood friendships. My best friends are still two girls that I've been friends with since elementary school, even though I live on the other side of the country from them...there's a special-ness to having history that's shared from the time you were really young, the way you got to know each other's parents at sleepovers, the field trips and dances and first relationships you were there for each other for. I feel like I know them, and they know me, in a way that would be almost impossible to replicate for people we've met later in our lives. We've been there with each other as we became adult people, through the fits and starts and steps backward and forward and sideways. It's a strong bond.

In Willa Cather's novel My Antonia, Jim Burden recounts his memories of Antonia Schimerda, the dearest friend of his youth. They arrive in rural Nebraska on the same train: orphaned ten year-old Jim going to live with his grandparents, fourteen year-old Antonia as part of her immigrant Bohemian (Czech) family. They tread similar but not identical tracks...while Jim's family is prosperous and steady, the Schimerdas quickly find themselves mired in poverty and struggle to make ends meet. But they live close to each other (by pioneer standards, anyways) and the two become close. Even when the Burdens move into town, Antonia's there before long, as a "hired girl" to do housekeeping. When Jim goes off to college, Antonia stays, and even so they easily pick up where they left off when they reconnect almost a decade later.

There's not much of a traditional story structure here. It's presented as an adult Jim's recollections of his friend, so it takes a loose and kind of winding way of presenting its narrative. I didn't take much issue with that, since the book is pretty short, honestly, and not super textually rich so it's not like it gets bogged down for the lack of standard-issue "rising action". Where I found myself losing interest was in the last third or so of the book, in which the lively Antonia largely vanishes and we're left mostly with Jim, who is pretty boring and whose straightforward path doesn't have any real tension. We see the world of the novel through Jim's eyes, but it's Antonia who gives it its animating force. I'd argue that Cather's strength isn't so much her prose, which didn't do much for me, but her characterizations. She imbues even relatively minor characters, like Otto the hired farmhand, or Antonia's mother, or fellow young immigrant woman Lena with a verve that makes them memorable. Too bad she couldn't do the same for her ostensible main character.

I will say that I'm glad this book was something I read as an adult instead of in high school. Teenage me would have HATED it because it's kind of boring, and while adult me would agree on the boring part, I was able to bring more life experience to bear that improved the reading of it, for me. I'm able to appreciate the way a significant friendship can loom large in your nostalgic reflections of childhood, and the hesitancy you can feel about reaching out even when you really want to reconnect. And one thing I did really enjoy and think still is criminally underrepresented in literature is the depiction of a genuine mixed gender friendship. As someone who's had strong, completely nonromantic friendships with men that I've really cherished, I feel like so often you only see those depicted as part of a family relationship or one of the two parties is gay, like there has to be some obstacle to "explain" why a man and a woman who enjoy spending time with each other would not want to sleep together. To see an actual friendship between a boy and a girl depicted as just that, in a novel published literally a century ago, is refreshing.

Tell me, blog you believe that men and women can be just friends?

One year ago, I was reading: The Lady Elizabeth (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Three years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Platonic Relationships In Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! While romances may get the swoons, some of my favorite relationships between characters in books are families and friends. So without further ado, here are ten of my favorite platonic relationships I've read on the page!

Vasya and Dunya (The Bear and the Nightingale): The bond between the old nurse and her wild young charge is so warm and loving that it makes the horror of what happens near the end even worse.

Lyra and Iorek (The Golden Compass): The strange, sober bear king and the clever, high-spirited girl make a great team and develop a geniune closeness.

Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility): As the older sister myself, I identify with the steady Elinor, and I love her connection with her open-hearted little sister.

Mariam and Laila (A Thousand Splendid Suns): These "sister wives" suffer through an awful husband together and become each other's rock.

Siskel and Ebert (Life Itself): The real love Ebert felt for the co-anchor who was in many ways his opposite and with whom he sparred regularly just shines through the pages of his memoir.

Madeline, Celeste, and Jane (Big Little Lies): The way the friendships between the main women are built, the realism underlying even the more over-the-top aspects of the plot, really make this book work.

Sabriel and Mogget (Sabriel): The tension between these uneasy allies, the way they vacillate between mistrust and fondness, is an enjoyable aspect of this book and its sequels.

Meg and Charles Wallace (A Wrinkle in Time): The fierce, protective love Meg has for her otherworldly little brother, and his love for her, are the emotional core of this whole series.

Matilda and Miss Honey (Matilda): Obviously this book is wonderful, and this relationship is what makes it so great. Two kind-hearted, cruelly treated people who find in each other someone to care for!

Wilbur and Homer (The Cider House Rules): If this surrogate father and son relationship doesn't get you in the feels, you don't have any.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book 156: The Good German

"Clean. Hardworking. Just like us. Then they'd seen the camps, or at least the newsreels. How could they do it? The answer, the only one that made sense to them, was that they hadn't—somebody else had. But there wasn't anybody else. So they stopped asking."

Dates read: June 27- July 1, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Black and white thinking about the world is tempting. It would be easier that way, to separate it into good and bad without overlap or complication. But the world is a complication, and nearly everyone lives inside a shade of gray. Like most people, I like to think about myself as a good person, but of course (also like most people), I've been rude and thoughtless and even occasionally cruel. I mean girled a close friend in high school and made her cry. I stole a sweater that fell off of someone's laundry pile in college. I've said vicious things to my sister. Those aren't things a "good person" does, and the guilt I feel when I think about them inspires me to try to be better moving forward, to try to at least be on the lighter side of gray.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies found themselves trying to figure out how to deal with a whole mess of dark-gray-but-not-quite-black. There were a few obvious evildoers that were put on trial and executed, but what to do with the vast majority of German people who were on some level complicit with Nazi rule but didn't really do anything? And what about people who might have been more directly involved with the machinery of the Nazi state but have something valuable to offer? Joseph Kanon's The Good German is deeply steeped in these hard, serious questions, which serve as background to a complicated romance and a twisty thriller, both centering on American journalist Jake Geismar.

Geismar arrives in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, but he's not new to the city. He lived and worked there for years, including the early years of the Nazi regime, before the war. His assignment might be to cover Potsdam, but he's really there to find Lena, the beautiful married woman with whom he was having a passionate affair before he left. But before he can find her, he finds something else: a young American soldier, floating dead in a lake with a bullethole through him and thousands of dollars still on him. His investigation of the dead man leads him back to Lena, but along with Lena come questions about her husband, Emil. Emil, a literal rocket scientist, has vanished and both the Americans and the Russians are very, very interested in what might have happened to him.

I've always enjoyed books that go right for the kind of moral relativity that can be very uncomfortable to contemplate, and The Good German is rife with it. Who is the titular good German anyways? Is it Lena and the thousands of others like her who tried to live their lives as normally as possible, pretending they didn't know what was happening, not speaking out or acting out against the regime but not really having done anything affirmatively to participate in it either? Is it someone like Emil, who did have more active participation but has skills that can help the victors achieve great things? Is it Emil's father, an academic who dropped out of public life with the rise of the Nazis but didn't do anything to actively resist? What about the former detective, very much a part of the Nazi state, but who helped his Jewish wife survive until she was spotted by someone else, and providing testimony against the woman who betrayed his wife to her death?

That the betrayer was, in this case, herself Jewish led me down a disturbing Wikipedia deep dive. I knew there was some level of individual Jewish cooperation with the Nazi state in situations like ghetto leadership, but I never knew there were Jewish people who helped "out" Jews that were in hiding to the Nazis. The novel's character seems to be loosely based on Stella Kubler, who initially began her work in order to protect her parents and husband, as well as herself. But even after they were deported to death camps, she continued to catch other Jews for two years! After serving time in Russia, she converted to Christianity and eventually ended up committing suicide but not until the 1990s. So I learned something completely new, which is always interesting.

As for the book itself, I enjoyed it and would recommend it. It sounds like kind of a "dad book" (WWII-era, thriller, older male protagonist) but it's quite good. Kanon draws interesting characters and puts them into difficult situations, and with the thriller elements there's a nice balance of plot and character. I did get a little confused near the end trying to keep track of who was on what side and who was double crossing who, but on the whole the book was involving and prompted a lot of thought. I tend to be a little wary of World War II books because I feel like a lot of them go over the same territory again and again, but this one was a new take (for me, anyways), and is very much worth a read.

Tell me, blog you believe in moral relativity or is it more black and white for you?

One year ago, I was reading: In The Woods (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Families I Would Not Want To Spend Thanksgiving With

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Thanksgiving coming up this week, we're doing a turkey-day inspired freebie! So here's my spin on it...ten families I absolutely would not want to spend Thanksgiving with!

The Torrances (The Shining): The head of household is a violent alcoholic and/or possessed by an evil hotel, so...pass.

The Magnussons (White Oleander): Astrid's got a good heart, but Ingrid...I wouldn't trust anything she'd put on the table.

The Bertrams (Mansfield Park): Dad's kind of a doofus, Mom's useless, the girls are brats, the older brother's a dimwit, and Mrs. Norris is the wooooorst.

The Lamberts (The Corrections): Literally everyone in this book/family is a monster of selfishness.

The van Meters (Seating Arrangements): The family patriarch, Winn, seems like exactly the kind of dad who would get sulky if you didn't compliment his job cooking the turkey lavishly enough.

The Foxes (Where'd You Go Bernadette): Bee is a sweet kid, but Elgin and Bernadette are both so preoccupied with themselves and their own unhappiness that it would be a miserable experience.

The Kitteridges (Olive Kitteridge): Nothing about Olive's trip to New York to see her son made me think that there would be anything worthwhile about spending time around that.

The Chases (The Sisters Chase): Mary is a straight-up sociopath and no one needs that in their house to make the holidays more stressful.

The O'Malleys (The Highest Tide): The parents are like, Exhibit A in why staying together "for the kids" is not necessarily a good idea.

The Battistas (Vinegar Girl): The baby sister is deeply stupid, the older sister is a jerk, and the father is the type that would trade away his daughter in marriage to someone she hardly knows because it would make his own life easier. Yuck.