Saturday, June 19, 2010

Toshiba, Comments, & Alcott


So, I haven't been on the computer as much as I normally am lately, partly because it's summer and I've been spending most of my time outside, but also partly because I don't have a laptop at the moment. Well, I do have one, and it's a lovely machine called Henry that's functioned perfectly for more than 4 years now, but its particular type of power cord is known for sudden and irreversible failure after the first couple years. The new cord I bought in January stopped working last week and is on its way to Toshiba now to be replaced, but until the new one comes I'm relying on the library for internet access. Incidentally, this library is severely over-air-conditioned, which means this will probably be a short entry as I want to get outside into the warm.


We've been picking up spam comments on the blog, which I will soon figure out how to delete entirely (they're nothing but links to virus-laden websites), but I wanted to share their opening lines with you, dear readers, because they are oh-so-philosophical. So far, we have: "Constant dripping wears away the stone." "Variety is the very spice of life." (Not just the spice of life, my friends, but the "very" spice of life!) And, my particular favorite, "Make yourself necessary to someone."


Full disclosure: I do not like Little Women. I don't like its simplistic prose, easy morality, or pollyanna approach to war and poverty. Not a bad 19th century children's book, I suppose, but I really don't see what made it one of those classics we're all supposed to think of with warm affection and appreciation. It sits squarely in the mental box labeled "Not My Thing," along with all Apple products, beer, and early-morning classes.

That's why when I learned that Louisa May Alcott also wrote sensational thrillers, I was a bit surprised. I suspect, though I don't actually remember, that my jaw may have actually dropped. So when I found this at a used book store, I got very excited:

The cover of Louisa May Alcott's A Long Fatal Love Chase, with a young woman's face in blue light against black, tree-like silhouettes. A tagline reads: He stalked her every step--for she had become his obsession.
Check out that cover! The debossed lettering! The dark mysterious image! The tagline & NYT Bestseller banner! You can't see it, but it was blurbed by Stephen King! You wouldn't think that it had first been published more than 100 years ago, would you?

Actually, you'd be right. This novel, despite being written two years before Little Women, was rejected by publishers and didn't see the light of day again until
just a few years ago, when it was revived and (finally) published as Alcott originally wrote it. The publisher's reason for rejecting it was that it was "too sensational," even after Alcott toned it down and resubmitted it. Scandalous!

Or maybe not. Thing is, even a too-hot-for-periodicals story written in 1866 depends a lot for its shock value on 1866's common knowledge and common social conventions*. When it's revealed that a marriage was performed by an actor rather than by a real minister, it doesn't have the same impact on a reader in 2010 as it would have had on Alcott's publishers. Likewise, it's probably harder for a reader today to understand the profound trauma the protagonist experiences when she finds out, and her subsequent dilemmas may not seem like "that big a deal" if you're not familiar with the severely limited prospects available to her.

That doesn't make it less fun to read, though. Seriously, this is a terrifically exciting little novel made that much better by a strong, independent female lead with a complex interior life and a strikingly accurate portrait of an emotionally abusive relationship that never bothers with the "stalking is okay, 'cause he's showing how much he loves her" treatment that contemporary lit & movies traffic in way too often.**

And if that doesn't get you, how about secret wives, murder, asylums, convents, sexy priests, corrupt priests, international intrigue, and shipwreck? Yeah, it's pretty great.

Which is why it's sad that Alcott had to switch to the sentimental morality tale to make money, because that's how we get stuck with things like Little Women. March, a 2006 novel by Geraldine Brooks that revisits Little Women and re-imagines it from the perspective of Mr. March, who spends the year during which the book takes place away as a chaplain in the Civil War.

This is a book that could almost make me appreciate LW by giving some substance and context to its events and characters. By filling in a backstory for Mr. March and Marmee, Brooks takes the flat figures of Alcott's novel and giving them depth, showing them struggle with each other and with social expectations, react to slavery and the war, and grow and change as people. She also situates their intellectual life in the context of people like Henry David Thoreau and John Brown, who both make appearances.

I don't know how differently I would have read March if I wasn't familiar with LW. I think it does stand alone, that is, you don't have to be familiar with Alcott to understand it.*** I probably wouldn't have liked it less-it was a very rewarding read, compelling and occasionally poetic-but I might have appreciated it less. Reading it in contrast with LW highlights how much Mr. March may have hid from his family, how much real suffering coincided with the sort-of-suffering the girls experienced in LW. It gave me a sense of the world beyond the March home that I think would improve LW for me if I read it again (no plans to, though).

*This is a time when pregnancy in a novel is revealed by things like a character's "increasingly womanly bearing" or the sudden appearance of a baby, and hand-holding is supposed to register as kinda sorta steamy, depending on who's doing the holding.

**I'm looking at you, Twilight.

***As opposed to something like Wide Sargasso Sea, which gives a backstory to Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason. I think WSS really loses something when read apart from JE, because it calls attention to the silencing of Bertha in Bronte's novel and the appropriation of her story into a plot twist in someone else's. But I read JE many times before I read WSS, so I could be totally wrong there.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

More Summer Reading! Iris Murdoch & Michael Moorcock

I know very little about Iris Murdoch. I'd never read any of her books, and friend of mine once wrote a paper about her that I did read but have since forgotten. Also, I think I saw a movie about her many years ago, which I have, likewise, forgotten. So, seeing a copy of The Italian Girl in the free box at my local used book store (several months ago), I picked it up and have finally gotten around to reading it.

The basic plot involves a middle-aged man (Edmund) returning home for his mother's funeral, only to become entangled in the lives and secrets of his brother's family, who lived with the [apparently rather overbearing and nasty] mother after Edmund left home. His brother is a drunk, his sister-in-law seems starved for affection, his niece is in trouble, and in the background hovers "the Italian girl," Maggie, last in a long line of nannies/maids.

I suppose you could describe the novel as a “family drama” or “psychological drama”; the distinction becomes murky as the story is narrated by Edmund, who will be great fun for readers with an interest in psychoanalysis. He is arrogant, misogynistic, and judgmental by turns, which makes him occasionally insufferable and clouds our view of the other characters. He doesn't try very hard to understand them, so their behavior is occasionally a bit surprising or unexplainable to us as readers because Edmund doesn't help us out very much. But. Edmund is not flat. He's actually kind of fascinating and complexly drawn and even, occasionally, sympathetic. Which is nice. I actually think I like the book better this way than I would have through an omniscient, anonymous narrator. I care more because I have a better sense of who he is.

Sympathy is tricky, especially with characters who aren't always especially likable. In the lit class I TAed, I noticed that even the most insightful students resisted sympathizing with characters who annoyed them. This was especially true with characters (such as a young woman with an eating disorder) who were, for whatever reason, unable to see and implement the solutions that students thought would solve their problems. "Why doesn't she stop whining and do X?" they ask. "He really brought this on himself." "She chose this life." etc. Does anyone else notice this with students, or in hir own reading? I can't think of an example at the moment, but I think I tend to do it with highly privileged characters, the kind who make me think, "seriously? Are you just *looking* for something to complain about?" I strongly suspect, with no real empirical evidence, that this is the way I would react to many chick lit protagonists.

Anyway, The Italian Girl is not a very long book; you could probably read it in a leisurely afternoon. The style, though, is intricate, and the descriptions are absolutely gorgeous. For instance, from the first page, when Edmund has arrived home at midnight only to find the house locked:

I moved through a soft tide of groundsel and small thistles to try the two front casements, but they were both firm and a greater blackness breathed at me from within. Calling out or throwing stones at windows in such a silence, these were abhorrent things. Yet to wait quietly in the light of the moon, a solitary excluded man, an intruder, this was abhorrent too. I walked a little, with dewy steps, and my shadow, thin and darkest blue, detached itself from the bulk of the house and stealthily followed. At the side it was all dark too and protected by such a dense jungle of ash saplings and young elder trees that it would have been impossible to reach a window, even had there been one unlatched. I measured, by the growth of these rank neglected plants, how long it was since I had last been in the north: it must be all of six years.

She's got style, that's for sure. The details are precise and important, and we get as much about Edmund's inner life as we do about the house in this paragraph. For a Victorianist like me, this is Great Stuff.

In fact, part of why I like this book so much has to do with how much it reminds me of Thomas Hardy. If Hardy had written short, post-Freudian novels, he could have written this. It's dark and lovely and kind of tragic, but in some ways it's also more complex than something like Hardy's Tess (one of my favorite tragic novels). I say more complex because, whereas Hardy was clearly writing an “individual trapped by social mores” kind of tale, Murdoch resists fixing blame on anyone/anything in particular.** That's not to say that the characters don't place blame--you definitely get the sense that life would be much less difficult for Edmund, for instance, if he would go see someone to talk out his mother issues. Most of the events of the novel appear, to him, to be some sort of spiritual inheritance from that terrible-horrible-no-good woman. But everyone, at some point, seems to be responsible for their own or others' unhappiness, and the complexity of their relationships makes for a really interesting read.

So, not a light-beach-reading kind of book but beautifully written and complicated. Also, despite sad, dark, and tragic moments, it's largely about the revelation of secrets and people's ability to extricate themselves from the momentum of the past and (maybe) do something better (or at least different) in the future. Definitely worth picking up if you're in the mood for that sort of thing and have a free afternoon.

**Not to knock Hardy; he was brilliant and rebellious and wonderful. He was just writing under entirely different conditions and to somewhat different ends.

Also! (Because I may be incapable of reading only one book at a time): Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme. This is the first time I've read Moorcock, and all I really knew about him was that he's a sci-fi/fantasy author and that Neil Gaiman read a lot of his work as a young man. The copy of The Final Programme I got from the library (which I picked because I was looking for something the right length for a bus trip I took this weekend) also has an introduction, and this turned out to be a very helpful thing because it helped me figure out what I had just read in a way I couldn't have figured out on my own.

So, the story (without too many spoilers) goes something like this: a fellow called Jerry Cornelius helps an odd groups of conspirators (led by a Miss Brunner) to break into his family estate to steal some microfilm. The importance of that microfilm is, for most of the novel, unspecified. That group's motivations are, for the most part, unspecified, as are Jerry's. Things kind of go right and kind of not with the strange heist. The story then shifts to chronicle Jerry's episodic and odd adventures in London until he runs into Miss Brunner again and has another strange adventure involving leftover Nazi bunkers. We shift again to Jerry in London, including a several-months-long house party, until Miss B shows up again to take him back to the bunkers for the inception of the titular "Final Programme". Notice a pattern? Throw in some ambiguous incest, vampire-like powers, the social and financial collapse of Europe, and a few corpses and hallucinogens, and you've got The Final Programme.

Yeah, I know.

But weird doesn't bother me. What I kind of thought wasn't working as I read was not the spectacular collage of genres and bizarre images but the way in which this story was being told; it felt kind of like reading a play, where so much of the character and meaning comes from the performance rather than the being explicit in the text. I really, really wanted to know more about Jerry Cornelius and Miss Brunner, but I got very little from them or the narrator (who is very hands-off and seems to know very little hirself). The characters certainly * do * a lot, but motivations and details are kinda fuzzy until the very end.

The end itself, which is a rather compelling set of scenes and images, didn't seem to follow naturally from the rest of the story, either. You know how, in novels with some sort of mystery to them, at some point the little bits of information you've picked up along the way begin to appear connected, then the connections reveal some larger meaning behind it all? That doesn't really happen here. I mean, the final scenes didn't conflict with anything I'd already read, but it felt like so much information was left out early on that the ending wasn't inevitable (which is not the same thing as predictable). It was just one of a number of conceivable endings, any of which might have been arrived at by the vague trajectory of the plot. So, while I didn't * dislike * the book, I was perplexed by its methods.

Then I read Norman Spinrad's introduction. The intro tells me that this is one of four novels, and that Moorcock's plan was “to write the Jerry Cornelius legend four times in four novels using a different style and form each time....In The Final Programme, the opening movement, the themes are completely stated linearly in their simplest forms. The three subsequent novels are all different variations on the first movement.” Which means that my reaction is the result of reading only ¼ of the story, which is, actually, what it felt like to read The Final Programme. And I think, based on this one, that I really do want to give this a fair shot and read the other three novels.

This is, I guess, a hazard of my general approach to summer reading, which involves picking up a book and reading it without doing much in the way of background research (beyond, occasionally, a peek at the publication date). Basically, it's an extension of my policy to never, ever, ever read an introduction to a novel before I actually read the novel**, combined with a dearth of general background knowledge about novels published outside of the time/place I spend most of my life studying.

Next time, though, things will be a little different, because my next summer reading post will be all about Louisa May Alcott, preconceptions, and how important (or not) it is to know what the author knew...

**Partly because I hate knowing what will happen and partly because when a critic suggests that a book may mean a particular thing, it can be kind of difficult to see it through other lenses. You can only read a book for the first time once.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Well, classes just finished up here, and I have no idea what to do with myself. I can travel! I can plan my weekends around farmers' markets instead of papers! I can go whole days without touching a computer! I can read! For fun! Books by living authors!


So, as I sat in the apartment looking at the giant pile of stuff I want to read in the next couple months, I decided to have some fun and write a couple reviews for you guys as I go, in case you also have some free time just now and are looking for fun things to read. (You might want look here and here as well for cool reviews).

First up, (because who doesn't want to start the summer with zombie comics?):

[Spoiler alert!]
I wouldn't call myself a great reader of comic books (although my love for Batman has no bounds), but NPR's write-up of I, Zombie caught my attention:

"[A] mix of zombie girl detective, urban fantasy and romantic dramedy. Which, let's just note, is a lot to chew on already, and that's not even mentioning the wealth of densely quirky elements writer Chris Roberson tosses into the pot, which send the book soaring past merely "high-concept" into ... just plain high."

I mean, who doesn't think that sounds like awesome beach reading? But the bit that really got me interested was this:

"Our lead character? Gwendolyn "Gwen" Dylan. Gravedigger. Zombie.... Gwen must eat one brain a month 'or I go all mindless and shambling... When she eats said brain, she's flooded with its memories. If you guessed that these memories invariably set her on a path to solving mysteries, avenging deaths, etc. you've been reading ahead."

So, yeah. Of course I went and bought a copy. Duh. I love this whole zombie-infected-with-other-people's-memories thing, and I think that strong writing (which _I, Zombie_ may have, once it gets past some slightly shoe-horned exposition) can take it to really interesting places. It isn't doing that just yet; despite the title and cover art (incidentally, although I like both, the gorgeous alternative cover really gives a better sense of the tone of the comic so far), it takes most of the issue just to get to the whole "Gwen's a zombie" spoiler (which I'm kind of doubting will surprise many people who pick up the comic). So, the memory bit is one of the elements where Roberson hasn't yet given me enough to go on as I try to decide if this is a bus I want to ride. As the NPR reviewer says, "So long as Roberson keeps showing us that Gwen's got brains as well as braaaaaaaiiiiinns, I'll keep reading."

It's a very, very quick read. For someone who's more used to Sandman style complexities from graphic lit, this took a bit of adjustment. That's not to say quick and fun a bad thing. Actually, the pace and tone reminded me a lot of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer; despite a certain campy superficiality, there are threads that could lead to something darker and more interesting down the road. The relationship between the living and living-dead in the town and the other-people's-memories thing could bring some dark tension to an otherwise campy idea, depending on how they're handled. And, as with Buffy, despite some groan-inducing horror and comic-book cliches, there were a few self-aware nods to the conventions with-and-within which Roberson and Allred are playing (something I hope will be played up as the comic progresses).

I'm somewhat less optimistic about the vampire side-story so far, which seems slightly less self-aware and slightly more been-done-before than the rest. (Sexy, dominant woman turns out to be vampire, here, let me pretend to be surprised). There are also (of course) fan-service images that I could have done without, and I very much hope the were-terrier thing isn't meant to keep being funny, because really? A were-terrier?

On the whole, though, _I, Zombie_ definitely seems worth another try, and I'm looking forward to issue #2. If any of this seems like something you'd enjoy, first of all, you are awesome, and second of all, it's only $1, so stop by your local comic-book store and give it a go!

Happy Summer!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Politically Correct

I've become sort of used to hearing people, often intelligent, fair-minded people, saying the phrase “politically correct” as though it's some awful bit of food, something nasty and rotting that's been foisted on them, constraining their speech and leaving a terrible taste in their mouths. How are we supposed to keep up with what they want to be called now? But I know [fill in the blank-women, black people, gay people, etc] who are just like that! Or, and perhaps the worst, can't you take a joke?

Here's the thing. I'm a straight, white, cisgender, middle class, citizen of the US. I have only minor, inconspicuous conditions (near-sightedness, for example), not the kinds that make life especially difficult or get me stared at. In other words, I've got heaps of social privilege. But I am also a woman, and that means that I am one of the many people for whom “politically correct” is personal.

Hey, baby, why don't you smile?”

When the man who takes my bus ticket calls me “sweetie” and grins at me, I don't think how nice he is, or how old-fashioned. Instead, I realize that he is trying to make our relationship more intimate than it should be by using a cute nickname*, and I wonder whether he will try to “accidentally” rub a hand against my body as I walk by him. When I ignore a man on the street who looks me up and down and whistles, and he calls me a cunt, bitch, or cocktease, then I have reason to be even more wary of him than I am of ordinary strange men.

What these men do, what makes it so harmful (even if they don't touch me), is that they try to control me, expect me to accept or even like their come-ons, to appreciate the compliment of being hooted at and groped. And when I don't, when I act like an independent person instead of a body for them to enjoy, they get angry. They say vicious and disgusting things, they invade my personal space, and I always have to wonder whether they will assault me.

You wanna hear a funny joke? Women's rights.”

The jokes are sometimes worse because they are more subtle and often come from people we know well. “When your wife leaves the kitchen to nag you, what did you do wrong? Made the chain to long.”What's the worst part of getting a sex change from male to female? When they remove half the brain.” “What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice.”

When your friend, your relative, or the guy at the bar or on the plane tells these jokes, he expects you to laugh, to agree, “Haha, silly woman belongs in the kitchen!” or “Yeah, women are dumb!” or “Haha, you hit her! What an unexpected twist!” If you don't, he'll say you have no sense of humor, that you take yourself to seriously, you humorless feminist. Guess what, world? I don't owe you appreciation when you objectify me on the street, and I don't owe you laughter when you make a joke that demeans me and makes light of violence. And saying “I don't mean anything by it” isn't really good enough, because you know what that tells me? That it really doesn't bother you that your behavior is hurtful. (PS. Guess what lack of empathy is a symptom of?)

The personal is political.

But what happens when I call these men, the whistlers, gropers, and jokers, “politically incorrect”? It sounds so innocuous, as if they had made a mistake on a government form or something. Perhaps half the problem with “politically incorrect” is that it waters down behavior that is offensive, hurtful, even dangerous, into something that's only technically wrong. Like parking in a no-parking zone instead of running someone over.

The thing is, this is not just about me and my experiences, and these behaviors are not just minor infractions. These men (especially the jokers) think of themselves as harmless. “Sticks and stones, right?” But there are consequences. What misogynist jokes and cat-calling do is normalize the violence and psychological abuse experienced by women on a daily basis. They say, “because you are a woman, I don't have to respect you. And it's okay for men to harass you, pay you less, grab you on the bus, rape you, or beat you. Because that's what women are for. It's what they deserve for being shallow, stupid nags.” And even if a joker doesn't consciously think that way, the attitude gets overheard, and repeated, and replicated in the behavior of other men and boys, who will insult, and harass, and assault women because they have learned by example that women don't deserve respect.

Politically Incorrect” does not mean “Courageous, Independent Thinker.”

People use “I know it's not politically correct to say, but” to give their ideas the aura of difficult truths and exempt themselves from submitting to oh-so-controversial mandates like, “respect other people.”

What these people won't understand, what they really need to get on a personal level, is that their willingness to make fun of, say nasty things about, abuse, assault, or shun entire groups of people based on stereotypes does not make them brave. What it does is make them the kind of people we (women, people of color, people with disabilities, people with non-traditional gender expression, men who love men, women who love women, people with accents, and others) cannot trust. Because to them, we aren't really people.

That's the heart of “politically correct” for me. It means making an effort (and not a very strenuous one) to respect the humanity of those who have traditionally been made to feel less than human. Maybe it means changing the language we use to object to offensive behavior, because "politically correct" really isn't doing the trick. It certainly means calling out this kind of behavior in people around us, even if we do get called humorless feminists from time to time. I'd rather be called that than “sweetie” any day.

*A young feminist explains why terms of endearment can be problematic.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Love/Hate Relationship

I miss my students. Even though, when I had them, there were a handful that really tested my patience. I guess that is how it goes.