Thursday, November 26, 2020

Book 261: The Silence of the Girls


"I hated serving drinks at dinner, though of course it didn’t matter to Achilles whether I hated it or not and, curiously, it soon stopped mattering to me. This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s."

Dates read: September 10-13, 2018

Rating: 6/10

We all know the axiom that history is written by the victors. But it can be easy to forget that it's also written by the people within those victorious populations who have access to the tools that will ensure that their words are marked in the first place. And until the modern era, with a few exceptions, that meant men. When women's stories were recorded, it was almost always through the eyes and thoughts of the men surrounding her. And that's if anyone bothered to think of their stories as important enough to be recorded at all.

Many of us were required, at some point in our education, to read at least parts of The Iliad. Set near the end of the Trojan War, it tells the story of the falling out between Achilles, the greatest warrior among the Greeks, and the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon, which threatened the Greeks with defeat because Achilles refused to continue to fight. The source of that quarrel between the men? A woman, Briseis, taken captive during a raid on her Trojan-allied city and chosen by Achilles as his prize. When Agamemnon laid claim to her instead, and took her from Achilles, that's when the drama went down. Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls explores what it might have been like to be Briseis, or any of the other girls and women enslaved by conquering troops, as the Trojan War turned their worlds upside down.

From the beginning of the book, when her city is being raided, when he kills her brothers, Briseis hates Achilles. This does not change when she's given to him as his reward for valor, but she knows her hatred doesn't matter. She'll be expected to serve at his table and be used in his bed anyways. She has nowhere to run, and they both know it. Although deeply unhappy, she becomes accustomed to her routine with Achilles, becoming close to Patroclus and his own slave girl, as well as the other women of the camp, from whom she hears tales of Agamemnon's cruelty. She's terrified when he takes her, though he mostly ignores her, and is not particularly happy to be returned to Achilles when she eventually is. It's not a pleasant lot, to be an object, a bargaining chip, instead of a person.

Dehumanization, the way it crushes the spirit, is the central theme of the novel. Briseis goes from being a queen in her own right to no more than chattel. The injustice of being expected to serve as a sex object for the men who killed your loved ones and destroyed everything you once held dear is a note struck consistently throughout, though Barker does a good job of keeping it from being the only note or making it feel unduly repetitive. She portrays a range of experiences through the camp women, from those beaten and abused by their captors to those who do their best to work themselves into the good graces of the men who keep them, including by bearing their children. I appreciated that Barker did not fall into the common trap of historical fiction around young women...so often they're written as anachronistically defiant and spunky, but Briseis and her fellow captives feel grounded in reality. Barker doesn't engage in any sort of rhetorical flashiness; rather, the book is an elegant plea to consider the historical voices that we've never gotten to hear.

The lack of flash, though, also works against the book. It's rooted in traumatizing experiences, and if I'm being honest, the lack of a big personality for Briseis or much in the way of hope for her can make it feel like a slog. I imagine this explains why the narrative occasionally leaves the first-person perspective of Briseis and engages in third-person narration of Achilles and Patroclus instead, to try to break out of the rut of Briseis's despair. I don't think it really works...in a novel otherwise focused on giving the viewpoint of the forgotten, focusing on the star characters of the familiar narrative doesn't add anything. It certainly doesn't do anything new or particularly interesting with these characters, leaving their bond open to interpretation. If you want an Iliad retelling that's less technically proficient but has more heart, I'd recommend Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles. The Silence of the Girls, while certainly not a waste of time, doesn't really enlighten or entertain.

One year ago, I was reading: After the Party

Two years ago, I was reading: The Possibilities

Three years ago, I was reading: The Hate U Give

Four years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Five years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Gratitude

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! It's Thanksgiving week, which means that it's time for lists about things we're thankful for. After this strange, tough year, I'm not really feeling up to making a list (which feels insufficient), but I did put together a little narrative below.

 

2020 has been a real rollercoaster. It started out more or less like any other year...I had a work trip to California, my mom came into town to visit, I was planning my summer trip with my best friends to Charleston. And then the world as it had been just...stopped existing in quite the same way. The day after the Utah Jazz game got canceled because of a positive COVID-19 test, which still feels like the moment it became real, I went down to a State Board of Education meeting, which was held live and in person. I stopped at the little secondhand bookstore in Carson City and browsed, the last time I went inside a bookstore for any extended period, listening to the retirees who staff the store chatter among themselves about what the coronavirus might mean. And I stopped at the grocery store, grabbing the second-to-last pack of toilet paper on the shelves, wondering to myself why there would be a run on toilet paper for a respiratory illness but thinking I should probably grab some if everyone else was. That day didn't quite feel normal, but it was close enough that I think of it as the last normal day. The last day when my life looked more or less like it always had before. 

I have been very fortunate during this pandemic in many ways: I am spending my time with my husband and dog, whose company I genuinely enjoy. I have a secure job that I like, that I was able to transition to doing from home fairly straightforwardly, with a boss who continues to give me the flexibility to work from home for large portions of the workweek. This is a relief as case numbers spike in my county. Both my husband and I have remained well, as have our immediate families. We do not have children who we would need to manage care and schooling for. My sister is getting ready to welcome her first child, and I am very excited to be an aunt! In all of this, I know I am extremely lucky. 

Even as I acknowledge and give thanks for these things, for my good fortune and that of my loved ones, I want to take space to recognize that this doesn't mean things have been easy. There have been opportunities lost. The challenge and risk of travel means that living on the other side of the country from my friends and family has been extra difficult. I will almost certainly not be able to meet my nephew anytime soon after he is born. I have long struggled with depression and anxiety, and my usual coping mechanisms have proven unable to compensate adequately for the additional stress and pressure that we've all been experiencing the last several months now. I've been able to access resources to help me cope, which is another thing I am grateful for. 

I try to remind myself that it is okay to grieve for what has been lost, even if my own losses have been relatively minor in the scheme of things. I am working not to get lost in ideas of what could or "should" have been. The future as it seemed it might exist on March 1 is no longer the future that is possible, and dwelling on it will not help me better navigate the world as it exists now. All I can do is wake up each day and try to do my best, and be thankful to be lucky in so many ways.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Book 260: Juliet, Naked

 

"Oh, it was a complicated business, loving art. It involved a lot more ill will than one might have suspected."

Dates read: September 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

The first time I heard a Ryan Adams song was my freshman year of college, when his "Wonderwall" cover was used on The O.C. I actually didn't like it, I tend to be hard to please on cover versions. But it got stuck in my head and I found myself listening to it again and again, which led me to the rest of his music, which was been a part of the soundtrack of my life for about 15 years. Ryan's music was been there for me through parties and fun and breakups and lazy days on the boat and college and law school and moves and everything else. I saw him live four times. I bought every album the day it came out. Which means that it really sucked when The New York Times reported that he'd been predatory towards women, and I decided that I didn't need his music to be a part of my world going forward (though I do still have a sentimental fondness for the songs that meant the most to me).

As someone who experienced my own minor obsession, I know what it's like to be devoted to a musician. But not the way Duncan is with Tucker Crowe in Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked. Tucker was a rocker whose breakup album Juliet was starting to make him famous when suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, he gives up his music career and vanishes. Duncan is so obsessed that he not only runs an online message board where he talks about Tucker's music with other devotees, he also drags his longtime, put-upon girlfriend Annie to America from the small seaside English town where they live to tour the sites most closely associated with Tucker's short career. And then one day, Duncan is sent the acoustic demo versions of the songs on Juliet, which the label intends to release as Juliet, Naked.

Since Duncan is the kind of boyfriend who expects his girlfriend to make sure the home runs without his input, Annie actually gets the new album first when checking the mail, and listens to it, preferring the finished versions. When Duncan puts up a glowing review on his website, she submits her own counterpoint...leading to an email from Tucker himself, the famous recluse agreeing that the original album is better. Tucker, it turns out, is not actually a recluse at all. He lives a normalish life in small-town Pennsylvania with his wife and their small son, the only one of his five children he's actually participated in raising. One thing leads to another, Duncan cheats on and is dumped by Annie, who continues her correspondence with Tucker, whose own relationship has deteriorated beyond repair, and then happens to find himself in England, and you can probably figure out where it goes from there.

I'll be honest: Nick Hornby is a comfort author for me, and I'm predisposed to enjoy his work and let him get away with things I'd be more critical of other authors for. He often uses elements in his work that can get a little same-y: obsessive people, adult man-children struggling towards emotional maturity, sometimes a heart-tugging actual child. But he has a way with characters and especially dialogue that gives his books a sparkle and charm that overpowers his tendencies to hit familiar emotional notes. It might not be clear from the way I wrote about the book, but it's Annie rather than Duncan who's really at the center of the narrative, and her voice as she examines how she got "stuck" with Duncan and how she feels about the time they spent together, is very identifiable. Who hasn't gotten out of a stagnant relationship and felt both the exhilaration of new possibilities and the fear that what you've left behind was as good as it was going to get?

Since I'm already being honest, I will say that this is one of Hornby's lesser efforts. There are a few too many plot points going on, meaning that some of them (Duncan's rebound relationship with the girl he cheated with, Annie's efforts to curate an exhibit for the small local museum, Tucker's other children) get the short shrift. And I think Hornby treats Tucker's poor efforts at fatherhood for all but his youngest child a little too flippantly. More genuine regret there might have given some nice weight to the narrative, and for a book that does deal with some heavy stuff, it could have used it. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable read...as long as you don't think about it too much as you're reading. If you're looking to try out Hornby, I'd recommend About A Boy or High Fidelity first. If you already like Hornby, it likely won't wow you but it has its charms.

One year ago, I was reading: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Two years ago, I was reading: Dark Places

Three years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Four years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Five years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Animals in Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is supposed to be characters we'd name a pet after, but I feel like that's basically all of them? I'm very open-minded when it comes to pet names. So I've decided to twist this a big and highlight my favorite animals from books...not all of these are strictly "pets", per se, but they're all animals that are great characters in their own right.

 

Fang (Harry Potter): This series has some great animals, like Hedwig and Crookshanks, but my sentimental favorite was Hagrid's scary-looking but sweet and dim guard dog.

The Disruptable Dog (Lirael): Lirael is desperately lonely when she tries to make a dog out of magic to keep her company and it doesn't quite turn out the way she expects...the Disreputable Dog is no one's pet!

Solovey (The Girl in the Tower): Vasya's beautiful, mystical horse is just as high-spirited and stubborn and she is.

Charlotte (Charlotte's Web): I mean, Wilbur may be some pig but Charlotte is the brains of the operation.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (The Jungle Book): The brave mongoose is one of the first animal characters I can remember really taking a shine to (though I think I was influenced as much or more by the Chuck Jones cartoon than the Kipling story itself).

Cloud (Wild Magic): Daine's stubborn pony has more sense than just about any other character in the series.

Rosie (Water for Elephants): The titular Polish-trained elephant was honestly probably my favorite character in the book.

Richard Parker (Life of Pi): The tense, uneasy relationship between Pi and the tiger, in which they both need and mistrust each other, is beautifully developed.

Shiloh (Shiloh): Another childhood favorite. Shiloh was a good dog.

Iorek Byrneson (The Golden Compass): The ferocious armored bear (and all of the detail Pullman created about their society) is one of the standout aspects of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Book 259: Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

"But when the sample size of fish food ran out, and I asked Leonie to buy me more, she said she would, and then forgot, again and again, until one day she said: Give him some old bread. I figured he couldn't crunch like he needed on some old bread, so I kept bugging her about it, and Bubby got skinnier and skinnier, his bubbles smaller and smaller, until I walked into the kitchen one day and he was floating on top of the water, his eyes white, a slimy scrim like fat, no voice in his bubbles. Leonie kill things."

Dates read: September 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: National Book Award

It's...interesting how much more we as a culture are willing to forgive fathers, in a way that we're not willing to forgive mothers. Fathers can be physically absent, or emotionally unavailable, or not there for the hard stuff, or bad-tempered, and get a pass for it as long as they can convince us that they tried. But not mothers. Mothers are supposed to be always there with love and support and kindness, and if they're not, it's taken as mark of moral failure. Mothers literally give us life with their bodies, and once we're born, they're expecting to continue doing the hard work of nurturing and woe betide them if it doesn't work out that way.

Wicked, cruel stepmothers are a common enough trope, but literary examples of bad biological mothers are harder to find. Which makes Leonie, in Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, a relatively rare creature. In her late 20s, she is the mother of two children, adolescent Jojo and toddler Kayla, with her longtime boyfriend Michael. Leonie is also an addict, with a special fondness for the meth that's sent Michael to prison. The kids have been mostly raised by her parents in rural southern Mississippi, though their other grandparents have never even met them...you see, Leonie is black, Michael is white, and his parents are racists who helped cover up the murder of Leonie's brother Given when they were in high school, by one of Michael's cousins. 

When she finds out Michael is due to be released early, Leonie loads her kids in the car and drives to Parchman to get him. It's the same prison where her own father, River, once served time in his youth, and his past there becomes important because Michael isn't the only passenger they pick up: they're also joined by the ghost of a teenager named Richie. Only Jojo and Kayla can see Richie, who Jojo's heard about in his grandfather's stories, and when the family arrives back home, Jojo agrees to confront his grandfather to find out how Richie died. 

There's a lot more to it, and that's actually one of the highlights of this novel: it is rich in atmosphere. Ward deftly weaves together the stark realities of poverty, drug addiction, how parents and children can fail each other, and the way the justice system works for the white power structure and against people of color. She brings certain threads to the forefront at times, then others, but never loses track of any of them. She also does beautiful work of characterization, making Jojo an incredibly sympathetic and compelling protagonist, showing Leonie's selfishness and the damage it causes but depicting her as a deeply flawed human rather than a one-note villain, conveying the decency and strength of River and his wife Philomene, doing their best in a world that has not done right by them.

But though it does some things incredibly well, it stumbled hard (at least, for me) in other ways. The most pronounced was that it sets itself in the literary tradition of Beloved...and then doesn't measure up to the incredibly high bar of Toni Morrison's masterpiece. You can't write a story about the stain of institutionalized racism that prominently features ghosts and the mysterious death of a child without knowing that you're going to be compared to Beloved, and if you're going to go there, you better bring it. It wasn't brought. Ward's choice to use Richie as the most prominent ghost in the narrative rather than Given (who Leonie sees only when high), an actual member of the family whose perspective could have been used to give more context to Leonie's youth, is inexplicable to me. I never got invested in Richie, which meant that when Ward brought her threads together for a set of final climactic scenes that are supposed to pack a huge emotional punch, it felt overwrought and unearned rather than profound and cathartic. It has merit, and it's worth reading, but if you haven't read Beloved, read that and skip this.  
 
One day ago, I was reading: The Great Mortality
 
Two days ago, I was reading: Everything Under
 
Three days ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy
 
Four days ago, I was reading: Invisible Man
 
Five days ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles that Would Make Great Song Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books with titles that sound like they would make great songs. So here are my ten titles that sound like bops!

 

"Brave New World"

"Awakenings"

"Rebecca"

"Black Star, Bright Dawn"

"Yes Please"

"About A Boy"

"To Die For"

"Zone One"

"Sing Unburied Sing"

"There There"

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Book 258: Paint It Black

 

 

"She felt like old people who forgot what shoes were for, each gesture calling meaning into question—unbuttoning a button, breathing. Movement slowed to half-speed, quarter speed, as if the air had thickened. She could take nothing for granted, her hand on her shirt, her ability to keep the floor underfoot."

Dates read: August 29- September 3, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Although most people, when asked what kind of baby they're hoping for, will say "a healthy one", I suspect most actually have a gender preference. I think a lot of people hope for the same as themselves...if you're a lady, it's probably easier to think about raising a girl, and vice versa. And I think others think about the ease of raising. I've heard that girls are "easier" until they hit the teenage years, and then boys are. And then there's the idea that while girls "leave" your family eventually to start their own, boys are always a part of their parents' family.

It's this last, I think, that often drives the stereotypical tension between wives and mothers-in-law. But there's a difference between the usual case of being a bit possessive of one's little boy, and emotional enmeshment that's unhealthy. In Janet Fitch's Paint It Black, Josie Tyrell is intimidated by her boyfriend Michael's mother Meredith. She hears his stories of the way Meredith kept him close to her after his parents got divorced when he was a child, and the world he grew up in as the son of a leading concert pianist who traveled the world is wildly different than the one she grew up in and ran away from, on the wrong side of the tracks in an industrial city in southern California. They meet in Los Angeles, where Josie's working as an art model after dropping out of high school, and Michael goes to escape the Harvard education he never really wanted. They fall in love, rent a house together...and then Michael commits suicide.

His death comes at the very beginning of the novel, and over the course of its 400 pages we get the story of his relationship with Josie, and with his mother, as well as the two women's gradually intensifying connection after he's gone. It's tempting for Josie to play along with what Meredith wants, to give in to the ease and glamour of being a replacement for Michael. But there's a sense of a fly being drawn into a spider's web. Paint It Black is a study of grief, and the ways even the ones we think we share everything with remain mysterious to us, and the power of narcissists to prey on the vulnerable. 

Clearly the relationships between mothers and daughters are something Janet Fitch finds compelling, as it was the focus of her big hit White Oleander and is explored in its own way here, with Josie becoming a kind of surrogate daughter to Meredith, who upgrades her from Michael's girlfriend to his fiancee for an air of legitimacy. The terms of this particular relationship, ostensibly between adults although with Meredith holding all the money and most of the obvious power, is an unusual one, and I thought Fitch wrote Josie's grief well enough that we could understand and empathize with how she becomes ensnarled in it. Speaking of writing, it's really the star of this book. I was constantly tabbing passages to come back to, that captured a feeling in an interesting and new way. It's lush and rich and evocative.

It could have used some editing, though. The book's biggest issue is that it's simply too long for the amount of material it actually has. It feels like it drags in the middle because it's just Josie mourning, and drinking, and taking pills, and being unable to help herself from being in contact with Meredith even though she knows she shouldn't be. And while I did very much enjoy the writing, it did at times feel circuitous and self-indulgent. The characters are not as well-developed or interesting as those in White Oleander, so if you're picking up this because you loved that, be prepared for a less fully realized novel. It's got merit, and if it seems interesting to you it's not a waste of your time to pick it up, but it's not a must-read.

One year ago, I was reading: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Two years ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food

Three years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

Four years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Five years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Non-Bookish Hobbies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about what we like to do besides reading. If you like books enough to start a whole blog about it, it's safe to say reading is a top hobby, but we're all more well-rounded than that. So here are ten things I like to do besides mainlining books!

  

Watching figure skating: I absolutely love figure skating (even though I personally can only skate forwards around an oval), and watch all the international events every year. I have a lot of Thoughts about figure skaters!

Thrift shopping: Haven't really done this one in person in the last several months, but I used to love just taking a couple hours and scouring shelves for cashmere sweaters and nifty home decor.

Working out: I feel like a douchebag for putting this on here, but I've been working out at home since March and am doing six days a week these days and I actually really enjoy it. I like to feel like I'm getting stronger!

Watching college football: I'm a big Michigan football fan, which often does not work out well for my emotional health.

Baking: I am not a particularly talented cook, though I am competent-ish. What I really enjoy, and am good at, is baking. You need desert, I'm your girl. 

Playing with Korean skincare: I'll be honest...I didn't really start taking care of my skin until I was in my mid-20s when I moved out to Reno. In Michigan I would occasionally remember to slap on some moisturizer, but when you live in the high desert slacking on skincare can be dangerous! I started using Korean skin care 3-4 years ago and have never looked back!

Watching movies: I'm on a never-ending quest to watch all of the movies that have won in the six major Oscar categories, as well as Foreign film and Documentary. It's been well over a decade I've been working on it and it's still ongoing!

Trivia: Probably unsurprising from a former Jeopardy contestant, but I love trivia. In the Before Times, my husband and I would do occasional bar trivia, but I also do online trivia! If anyone has heard of and/or is potentially interested in a referral to LearnedLeague, I can't get you in this season, but let me know and I'll set aside one for you next season!

Visiting breweries: I can't wait to get back to doing this one when the world is a moderately safe place to be again. I really enjoy beer, particularly sours, and my husband and I have enjoyed both exploring new places around town (Reno is very hipster this way) and finding new breweries when we travel!

Politics: I try not to be overly political in the course of my blogging, just because I don't think it's what most people are interested in hearing from me on here, but politics is how I make my living and I honestly find it fascinating!