Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advice

If you're not following the "This Day in Lettres" portion of The American Reader, you should be. It's such a great site. They post letters, mostly written by authors to other authors, but sometimes between other important/famous people. I love reading them, because no one really writes letters anymore. They're personal, so it satisfies my voyeuristic inclinations. But it also gives me insight into the minds of people I admire, allowing me to better appreciate their works.

Here is a quote from a post on The American Reader today. It is from a letter written by Anton Chekhov to the aspiring writer Maxim Gorky. He first praises Maxim (which is always the best option - praise first, then criticize), and then levels this criticism at him:
"I’ll start by saying that, in my opinion, you lack restraint. You are like a spectator in the theater who expresses his delight with so little restraint that he prevents himself and others from listening. This lack of restraint is especially evident in the nature descriptions you use to break up your dialogues."
This is obviously excellent advice for all writers. I can't tell you how many times I've read a book and thought the same thing. The most recent example being In Cold Blood. (I actually plan to do a review of this soon. Yeah, I know it's not really believable given my track record. Give me a break.) But it's also good advice for me and the legal writing I do. I know it will surprise no one when I say that there is a tendency in legal writing to dramatize and complicate fairly simple issues. We could all use a dose of restraint.

I've been thinking about writing a lot lately because it's been kind of a rough year for me, and I've been encouraged by several people to write about what's been happening. Not to show anyone else or to do anything constructive with what I write, but to write solely as a vehicle for feeling. For processing feelings. For understanding my feelings. And for healing. I've been doing it some, and it really is a great process. I never know exactly how I feel until I spend some time writing it all out. In this sort of writing, there is no need for conciseness and word vomit is actually the point - to say everything as many times as you can and in as many ways as you can.

I say all this, not because it is something new or surprising or even interesting, but because I think that's why letter writing is an important and wonderful thing. It causes one to stop, shut out everything else, and concentrate on one thing. In putting thoughts into words meant for someone else to read, the writer is more careful about what he is communicating. Writing letters is nice for the recipient, but it's important for the writer too. I'm writing a letter today.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Paris Wife

Hello. Three months. That's how old this cutie pie is.

Mother's Day, 2013
Also, that's about how long it took me to read The Paris Wife. I had one week off of work before she was born, and I took another five weeks off after the birth. I had all these great plans about how much reading I'd get done during that time. I knew I'd be tired and recovering and adjusting, etc. But I also knew there would be a lot of time sitting and breast feeding and recovering, etc. I had no idea that the week before the birth I would only want to lay on the couch and fall asleep to old episodes of Dexter. That holding a book up in the air while lying down would be exhausting. That breastfeeding takes two hands and full attention. That reading before bed would be impossible, because every time my head hit the pillow I instantly fell asleep.

But, I am finally getting some things figured out. I can read while feeding her now. Also, I am blessed with a child who sleeps all night already. I'm not sure if it will last, but I'm enjoying it while I can. She sleeps from about 11 p.m to 6 a.m. every night. It's a miracle and I love it.

My personal reading isn't the only thing that's suffering. My book club has basically ceased to exist while I've been in the land of diapers and sore nipples. I suppose I need to get around to setting a new meeting date and pick a book to read, but I keep putting it off for some reason. I really need to do it, though, because I could use a night out and a reason to read something new. I really miss talking to people other than coworkers and family.

In light of that, I'm deciding between two books to read for book club. Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Any opinions?
 

Reflective of my current struggles, I'm currently reading "Stress Management for Lawyers" by Amiram Elwork. It's been a stressful first year as an attorney, and there's been a lot of adjusting. Throw in an infant, and I'm all out of ways to cope and function like a practical human being. I don't know how much help this book will be, but I'm giving it a shot. So far, the first few chapters are all about why being an attorney is so stressful. It's a bit Captain Obvious, and I'm hoping the chapters about how to manage stress will actually be helpful. I read the first of them last night, and the advice was to keep your body healthy, because good physical health = good mental health. Again, Captain Obvious. I'm starting to lose hope. But because I am a glutton for punishment, I'll keep reading it.


But, I did enjoy The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain. It took me three months to read it, but not because it wasn't good. It's just that I was so tired I could only read a page or two at a time. In case you don't know, this is a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage to Hadley Richardson. It's told from Hadley's perspective, and it takes place during their time in Paris in the 1920s. There's lots of drinking, money problems, and miscommunication. In the end, of course, he and Hadley divorced, and probably for the better. But she was there to observe, encourage and maybe even cause his emergence as an artist. Maybe he would have become what he did with or without her, but I'm sure that without her he would have been different. And I like my Hemingway just how he is, thank you very much.

I've read A Moveable Feast about three times (maybe four). I love it. As far as memoirs go, it's practically perfect in every way. It (sort of) tells a story, but more than that it makes the reader feel what it was like to be there in that time and place. In 1920s Paris. With F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda and Gertrude Stein and all the artists, etc. Admittedly, I'm more a fan of British Literature, particularly the Regency and Victorian periods. But there's something dreamy and wonderful about American literature in the early 1900s. I've written about this before, in my post about the movie Midnight in Paris. I'm a huge fan of that movie.

Reading A Moveable Feast is like being in a dream. It seems glorious, but just underneath the surface, there's something lurking. Nothing sinister, but something is off - a bit of dysfunction, a bit of being this close to teetering off the edge.

Reading The Paris Wife is not like that. It's very matter of fact. It's clear from the beginning (even if you didn't know their story) that the relationship is doomed. Therefore, plot isn't going to carry this thing, and there is more pressure on the author to make the journey through the marriage compelling. Paula McClain did a fairly decent job, but she's no Hemingway, that's for sure. 

I know there's probably a lot I should be saying about feminism and how Hemingway basically just used Hadley up and took advantage of her very supportive presence. How she gave him everything he had, and all he gave her was heartache and grief. He took everything and left her dried up on the floor. And in reality, I have really strong feelings about this sort of thing. I am really lucky that I found a husband that is majorly supportive of all I want to do. He didn't blink an eye when I told him I wanted to go to law school, which meant a major upheaval in our lives. He didn't hesitate to support me when I told him I wanted to spend an entire summer studying abroad in Europe - away from him. And I like to think I've been supportive of him too. I couldn't have done what Hadley did, and I'm glad I don't have to.


I've often said that getting married shouldn't mean you lose yourself. It just means that you gain a partner. That's not how it was for Hadley and Ernest. Theirs was a very unequal relationship, and yet, I can't be totally angry with him for failing her so much. Maybe it's just because I'm such a fan of his work. But I think it's more than that. Hadley was smart. She knew how to read him and support him. She knew how he was when she agreed to marry him. She knew what he needed from the beginning and she made the conscious choice to give it to him - to be what he needed. She made the decision to give herself up and at the same time give the world the gift of Hemingway. That was her contribution to art and letters. It's what she could give, and she gave it. Sure, it hurt her. Sure, HE hurt her. But I'm grateful to her, and the rest of the world should be too.

Someone I know recently pointed out an article by The Millions which made the argument that this is not really an interesting story. The only reason we're interested in this marriage at all is the fact that it involves Hemingway. Hadley's role as a supporter is important, but that doesn't make the story compelling. I think that's why I don't feel that sorry for her. She's not a compelling character in her own right. If she was, she could never have been that foundation on which Hemingway could build his career. So ultimately, we read her story, not because we're interested in her particularly, but because we're interested in whatever else we can find out about Hemingway. This is not the first time I've done this. I once read a biography about Ted Hughes just to find out more about Sylvia Plath from a different angle. 

Anyways, the point is that I liked this book, but it wasn't extremely compelling. I think I liked it more because it put me back in that 1920s Paris setting, and it involved a lot of characters I know and like. On its own? About people I don't know anything about? Probably not that great. Which is sad, because there is a lot of potential for human drama.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

I like Candy

Satire. I'm not always a fan. Reading it is hard work, and actually requires thinking. I'm not sure I always get it, and it's not always done very well. Jonathan Swift was pretty good at it, I guess, but maybe that's because I had professors explaining it to me at the time.

So, when a friend of mine (you should check out this blog, even though I won't tell you which of the great contributors is my friend) recommended the book "Candy" to me, and told me it is a satire of Voltaire's "Candide," I was a bit hesitant. First, I've never read "Candide," and I wasn't about to try to read it right now. I've always thought about it as one of those difficult books that requires a professor, lots of literary criticism and other background information to understand. I don't have the slightest idea what it's about, who the characters are, the plot, the importance, etc. Somehow I made it through a degree in Literature without any of this knowledge. So I was afraid I wouldn't really get the satirical remarks or nuances of Candy. Second, it's satire, and ...

But I was eventually sold on giving it a try because of one little word: sex. I'm human. And sometimes interested in the baser pleasures of life - my favorite of which is food. Sue me. So now my interest is piqued, but I'm still not sold. Then he actually gave me his copy of the book. This did it. It must be great if he wanted me to read it THAT much. Also, hey, a new free book!

So, after all my hesitation, did I like it? Short answer: Yes. Long Answer:

 Candy

by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

Let me say that the story of "Candy" stands on its own. It's pretty good without knowing anything about "Candide" or Voltaire. I kept meaning to do a little research on Voltaire and his famous creation before reading Candy. But I always thought about it when I was not near a computer or when I didn't have time, etc. So the other night I just picked up Candy and started reading. Before I knew it, I was 100 pages in. I finished it two evenings later.

The simple story is this: a young girl with serious daddy issues encounters several different men, each with varying degrees of sexual perversions and needs. Each man does what he can to manipulate Candy into being with him, and each goes about it in a different way. She, of course, goes for it every time, not because she's completely stupid (although she's obviously not bright), but because she's overly accommodating. She wants to be nice, and she thinks really highly of herself for being so giving and generous with herself. However, she's still kind of proper and she knows that all of these sexual encounters are kind of wrong, but doing the wrong is forgivable if she's doing it for someone other than herself. Right?

One incident in particular shows Candy's willingness to give without taking. When she decides to lose her virginity to the gardener, he sneaks into her room in the middle of the night. They begin kissing and things begin to move forward. As soon as she starts to feel pleasure, though, she feels guilty. She has this moment where she realizes that she is willing to suffer pain for this man , but she does not want to suffer pleasure.

One thing I wasn't prepared for was the comedy. I know satire means a lot of ridicule, and examination of human folly. But that doesn't always mean comedy. Does it? I don't know. I'm going to have to read some more satire, I guess. In any event, every scene of this book is comical. Events unfold comically, the characters do and say comical things, and more than once I actually laughed. Well, the sort of soft, grunt of laughter one does while reading alone.

To tell you any more of the plot would do nothing other than tell the entire story, so I won't do that. It's really much better if you let the events unfold on their own. This is a fast, fun read. It seems silly and if you only read it for the story, it certainly is as empty and unsatisfying as some of the sex in the book - pure sweet, unnourishing candy. But it is also very adept, as a satire should be, at examining human nature, with all of its ignorance, innocence, embarrassments, shame, darkness, and the way strong desires of any kind - especially sexual - can bring out the worst in all of us.


Now that I've finished the book, I spent some time and looked up some information on "Candide" and Voltaire to see how things compare, and to see if it enriched my reading of "Candy." By which I mean I spent ten minutes on the Wikipedia page for "Candide." Imagine my surprise when the first sentence told me that "Candide" is also a satire! If I totally understood irony, I might be able to call this ironic. It is the story of a sheltered young man who is indoctrinated into the religion of optimism by a mentor. But he spends the bulk of the story experiencing bad things to the point he becomes disillusioned with the idea of optimism.

The description of Voltaire's novella on Wikipedia could also be an exact description of "Candy." The story is that of "a more serious bildungsroman;" it "parodies many adventure and romance clich├ęs," and the events are "caricatured in a tone that is mordantly matter-of-fact." Also, like "Candy," "Candide" was banned when first published. Where will the similarities end?

Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg have apparently done a wonderful job of mimicking and modernizing "Candide." But they've also written a work that stands on its own and makes an impact. And beyond all of that, they've made me want to actually read Voltaire. Well done them. Although, just looking at him, I can't believe it's taken me this long to get to his work. What a nice piece of man Candy he is. I'd like to trade notes with him on skin and hair care.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Unlikeable Characters

I'm just going to pretend that it hasn't been months since the last time I posted, and that I haven't been neglecting this blog. A lot of life stuff is happening, but I don't really want to talk about all of that right now. Right now I want to talk about something I've been noticing in my reading lately.

One of my least favorite things about being pregnant is the fact that I can't sleep very well. I wake up several times a night and then sometimes it takes me a long time to go back to sleep - sometimes it's because I can't get comfortable, sometimes it's because the baby thinks that 3:00 a.m. is the perfect time for some strength-training exercises. During this time, I usually obsess about everything I have to do at work, or money, or whatever else is worrying me. But last night I started thinking about unlikeable characters.

You see, I just finished reading "Remains of the Day," by Kazuo Ishiguro yesterday morning. Then last night I watched the movie "Rampart" with Woody Harrelson. And I disliked the main characters in each so much.  The confusing thing is that I liked the book, but disliked the movie. I'm still trying to figure out the reason for my different reactions to these unlikeable characters. Maybe it's because I like Kazuo Ishiguro more than Woody Harrelson. Maybe it's because "Remains of the Day" is a book, and "Rampart" is a movie. But I think it might be a bit more involved than all that.

Woody Harrelson plays veteran LAPD officer Dave Brown. He sees himself as the last renegade cop who's out there just trying to make sure the good guys win. But he doesn't fit in with the new culture of the LAPD - what he sees as over sensitive, too politically correct police officers who are more and more concerned about police brutality lawsuits, and less concerned with getting the crooks. He gets in trouble for a couple things - like beating the crap out of a guy who crashes into his car, and killing a couple of guys who were robbing a poker game (which, oh by the way, he was trying to rob too).

I don't dislike Dave Brown just because he's a bad cop. There have been plenty of movies where I liked the bad cop character - Training Day is the first example that comes to mind. Dave Brown just can't do anything right. He's a terrible father, a terrible husband, a terrible cop and a terrible person. Absolutely no redeeming qualities. But that's not even the worst part. The worst part is that he lacks self-awareness. He doesn't realize that he's a bad guy. He thinks the world is out to get him and that he was dealt a bad hand with his daughter is so angry. When his daughter tells him that he's hurt her and her sister, he is genuinely surprised. He can't understand why they don't know he loves them. But all he does is push them away, belittle things that are important to them and treat their moms terribly.

The bad cinematography aside (someone was trying a little too hard to be artistic and make a statement with images), this movie might have been really great if there had been any sort of resolution, or even a moment of self-realization on the part of Dave Brown. There was nothing. I was so angry when the movie just ended, feeling like I wasted my time. Woody Harrelson's acting was so great, and this movie had a lot of potential. I wanted to like it. I think the real problem with this movie was the plotting. There was no arc. No climax. It just ended on the edge of a cliff, and with no change in the main character's way of thinking or looking at the world. He didn't learn a darn thing. He remained stubbornly obtuse, and I still don't like him.

As for "Remains of the Day," Kazuo Ishiguro gives us another unlikeable character who is similarly obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. Stevens is the butler of Darlington Hall, a great English estate. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks as Stevens is on a sort of road trip through England. (I saw the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson a number of years ago, and what I remembered from that viewing was the love story between the butler and the housekeeper. But there was so much more to the story this time around. Of course, this could be the difference between the movie and the novel, but I'll have to watch the movie again just to be sure.)

Stevens is an unlikeable character, specifically because he is the perfect embodiment of everything he wants to be. He is dignified and proper and basically nothing else. To him, dignity means keeping one's composure no matter what the situation, and maintaining one's professionalism at all times. In describing to the reader his idea of dignity, he tells stories of great butlers (including his distinguished father) handling uncomfortable situations, like finding a wild animal in the dining room, or dealing with overly drunken house guests. Stevens actually realizes his dream of perfect dignity during a large gathering at Darlington Hall one evening, when he succeeds in handling everything professionally in spite of the fact that his father died right in the middle of the evening.

But what Stevens can't figure out is that his "dignity" also makes him an inhuman shell. Rather than being of comfort to his father in his last moments, or returning the love that his father expresses to him he simply excuses himself saying he has things to attend to. This "dignity" to which Stevens is always aspiring is really a defense mechanism. We see him deploy it on many occasions with Miss Kenton. He can never let her see how he really feels, or what he really thinks.

I might as well warn you that there are spoilers here. The novel is really two parallel stories - the relationship (or lack thereof) between Stevens and Miss Kenton, and the downfall of Lord Darlington. Stevens cannot let himself get close to Miss Kenton, no matter how much she tries to build a genuine friendship. His defenses go up every time they get anywhere near some sort of intimacy. She teases him, he gets defensive. She tries to bring him flowers, he forbids her to enter his office. She lets her guard down, his goes up more. The best he can do is admit to himself that she is very professional and is good at her job, but he never says this to her. Instead, when he gets defensive, he nitpicks at her job performance.

As for the Lord Darlington story line, Stevens always defers to his former master, whom he respects a great deal. Until the end of the book, he denies that Lord Darlington did anything wrong other than attempt to bring about peace in Europe. Lord Darlington's actions were only ever out of gentlemanly and honorable intentions. Of course, it's easy to see later on that getting involved with Hitler's most trusted confidants was probably not the best idea, but Lord Darlington only wanted to facilitate peace and keep things civil, as any respectable gentleman would do.

Stevens spends a great deal of the book standing up for and defending Lord Darlington's actions, but he betrays his true inner feelings in a couple of instances where we see he wants to distance himself from Lord Darlington. He denies having been Lord Darlington's butler on two separate occasions. He meets several people on his travels, and does not correct them when they presume he is a gentleman himself. He does not identify himself as working for Darlington Hall if he does not have to, etc. But even to the reader, he will not admit that these deceits are related to embarrassment or shame at being associated with someone who has become a national disappointment and disgrace. It's because of dignity. It is beneath his dignity to reveal anything personal to strangers, or to discuss his past with people, or to embarrass someone because they misunderstood something. This is all very convenient and allows him to deceive himself - but the reader is not fooled.

Occasionally, Stevens will admit to having made a small mistake. After Miss Kenton receives word of the passing away of a close relative, he leaves her crying in her office and realizes he forgot to offer his condolences. He worries about this all day, but when he finally has another opportunity to express his feelings, he instead picks a fight with her about some trivial housekeeping matter. Similar things happen on several different occasions, and this is why the two of them never actually hook up. It's such a perfect situation. They clearly have a lot in common, and there is certainly chemistry. But though she makes herself available and is obviously open to a relationship and makes several efforts to that end, he is too dignified to entertain the idea.

So, like Dave Brown in "Rampart," Stevens is stubborn, stuck in an old rut, has failed to evolve with the times, fails to be honest about the mistakes he will admit, and makes mistake after mistake, without realizing it. Both characters are obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. Neither can be honest with himself. Neither can be honest with the other people in their lives. Both are terrific at their jobs - Stevens runs a flawless household, Dave Brown rids the streets of as many bad guys as possible. Both are unlikeable. So why do I feel so differently about both of them?

I think it's because of one single paragraph towards the end of "Remains of the Day." Stevens has gone on a long road trip to see Miss Kenton to see if she wants to come back and work at Darlington Hall. When they meet, there is finally a conversation where the feelings between them are addressed by Miss Kenton. She says something simple along the lines of "we could have had a future together." (Sorry, I don't have the book with me, and I can't look up the exact quote right now.) Stevens' internal reaction to this statement is perfect. He admits to himself (and the reader!) that in that moment his "heart was breaking." In that one sentence the reader is treated to a single glimpse into Stevens' soul. Not only does he have one (he's not a robot!), but it is a good one! He has regret, he has sorrow and pain. For a moment he realizes that his life could have been so different, so much fuller. In that one second he admits to himself that he maybe hasn't done everything right. For a moment we feel that pang of regret with him and we can finally empathize with him. Of course, on the outside, he remains stoic and "dignified" and does not reveal this inner turmoil to Miss Kenton (now married and with a new name, but again I don't have the book with me, so I can't remember it).

If there had been one single moment like this for Dave Brown, I think I would have liked the movie "Rampart" a lot more. I just wanted one hint that he had regret for some of the things he's done. I don't need him to be sorry that he killed a date rapist or that he killed and stole from thieves. But I did want him to be aware of how his actions affected his family and friends and others around him. I don't need to know everything that happens to him in his life. I don't need to know if he was eventually convicted or at least fired. But if there's no plot resolution to the film, then it exists solely as a portrait of Dave Brown's character. And it's an incomplete portrait at that. I think that's why the movie failed for me.

Any thoughts? What do you think about unlikeable characters?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Busy-ness as Usual

I know I haven't posted in quite awhile, but I've had a couple things going on lately, OK? For one thing, I've been moving. Which is exhausting. Especially when I have to work 10 hours, then come home and try to unpack. I think I finally know where just about everything is right now. Except all of my books.

I mean, I know that all of my books are in a giant stack of boxes piled up in the loft of my new apartment. But if I wanted to find a specific book, I would have a tough time of it.  I will forever be grateful for the friends who helped us move all those heavy boxes of books up three flights of stairs into our apartment, and then up another set of stairs up into the loft!

There are a lot of other big things happening in the world of Brooke, including craziness at work and my six-month review coming up, as well as a trip to New York next week to visit family and attend the first year birthday party of the cutest little girl in the world - my niece. Look at this face, and tell me you disagree! 


In my reading world, things are going pretty well.  I'm smack dab in the middle of the most recent addition to the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde - "One of our Thursdays is Missing."  It's excellent, of course. He's so clever and funny and goofy. And British. What's not to like? 

I have a lot to gush about, so that post will be coming soon.  I waited awhile to read this one for a lot of reasons. I'm really glad I did, though, because coincidentally, the next book in that series will be out in October. Yay!  I don't care who you are, if you don't like the Thursday Next series, then you don't like books. I think I may have just come with the title of my next post. 


In addition, my book club picked The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for our August read, and I'm excited to jump into that. I've always wanted to read it, so this is as good a time as any.  There is some early buzz from some of the group and it's mostly positive, so it looks like it's shaping up to be a good book club meeting. 

And speaking of clubs, if you didn't know about it, you should check out The Classics Club. I'm in the process of compiling my list - I have been for months. But now that there is a separate, official blog for it, I've become motivated to finalize my list and add my name to the long list of bloggers who are participating. The moderators have worked really hard and made an excellent site. You should really check it out and consider participating. I think at the top of my list will be Sherlock Holmes. :)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Catching Up on Down Time

Right now Mike is watching some UFC fighting. There is a man with his chest hair shaved into the shape of an arrow punching the crap out of another man. One could call it a Hairrow. Ha. I kill me.  Here's a picture:


Is this what men think is cool? Does this guy think the Hairrow (I kind of want to copyright that word) will make him seem tougher? Does he think it will get him laid? I mean, I'm sure he's a decent person, and he basically was kicking the other guy's butt, but still.  Boys are weird.

Meanwhile, while my husband watches the gladiators punch, kick and choke each other in a blood-stained arena, I figured I'd stop by to say that I have made absolutely no progress and I have basically resigned myself to not finishing my book club book. Book club is on Sunday and I'm only 25 pages into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. 

I'll admit that I started the book with a bit of a bad attitude.  I just wasn't in the mood for it, and it seemed like it was going to be an effort to read. It's summer, and I'm pretty stressed out about work and some other personal things happening in my life. I didn't feel like reading a great philosophical memoir. 

I will try to read some more of it before Sunday, and I'll look up some stuff for conversation, but I just don't have the energy for this right now.


Usually I love what our group chooses to read, and I love how we pick things. Normally, everyone brings suggestions about what they want to read, and we vote. The past few reads have been more difficult, intellectual books. Normally, this is something I like. Especially when its with a group of people I like and respect so much. I get so much out of our discussions.

But it's summer! I need a beach read. I need to get lost. I think that's why I enjoyed the 50 Shades of Grey books - there was nothing to think about, just a place to get lost. An escape. A fantasy so far removed from work and stress. I need that. Having said that, I am having a difficult time coming up with fun, light books to suggest that would also allow us to have a good discussion.  Anyone who happens upon this blog in the next day or so, please give me some suggestions!

As a matter of housekeeping, I'm going to finally delete that post-it on my desktop that has the list of all the books I've read since last October. It's clear I'm never going to get around to writing reviews of all of them. And even if I ever did, too much time has passed and I won't remember anything more than general impressions and feelings anyway. So I've decided to just make some notations on here and on Goodreads, and move on. Every time I open my computer, that list judges and mocks me.

So Book Club will be the highlight of my weekend. I've got to work tomorrow - that's three weekends in a row. It's exhausting and overwhelming, and I'm so tired lately. BUT, there are some fun things on the horizon too.  First, I'm going to Las Vegas with all the girls at work next weekend. Our boss has a house there, and his wife has invited us all for a weekend of fun and sun. I am really looking forward to a weekend by a pool. Second, my husband and I are planning on taking a road trip to Colorado in a couple weekends to my family reunion. I haven't seen a lot of those people in YEARS. I am super excited about this trip! 

So, just to wrap up a random and mostly non-bookish post, here is the list of books on my virtual post-it note, that I am going to purge from my desktop. Tell me if you've read any of these:

1. P.S. I love You - 2011 (not as good as the movie)

2. Dirty Secret - 2011 (A memoir about hoarding? Yes please.)

3. Amaryllis in Blueberry - 2011 (Not that good. Apparently I should have read The Poisonwood Bible instead.)

4. The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - 2011 (cute story told through letters.)

5. Sex with the Queen - 2011 (Not as interesting as Sex with Kings - and not just because I prefer dudes)

6. Sex with Kings - 2011 (Very interesting book about the politics involved in being the King's mistress)

7. The Bell Jar - 2011 (I really enjoyed this, and not just because of my morbid interest in Sylvia Plath's suicide. It's the best thing I've ever read about a descent into mental illness. Most interesting is how I totally identified with the protagonist, feeling what she felt - confusion as to why others couldn't understand what it was like to be her. Ok, I apparently still have a lot to say about this. Maybe I'll write an actual post.)

8. You Don't Look Like Anyone I know - 2011 (GREAT memoir about a woman with a condition that makes her unable to recognize people's faces - like the kind where she didn't recognize her mother or her husband. Fascinating.)

9. The Help - 2011 (Brilliant. Fun. Good movie too.)

10. Wicked - 2011 (It could be because I listened to this on audio (the reader was very difficult to listen to), but I was bored to tears. It took me a LONG time to get through this one. (Do you like the parentheses within the parentheses?))

11. Lolita - 2011 (This, I think I enjoyed more because it was on audio and read by Jeremy Irons. Fun fact: Jeremy Irons is the voice of Scar in The Lion King. So then I pictured Scar reading Lolita to me, and it was awesome. Jeremy Irons's voice is perfect for Humbert Humbert.) 

12. The Family Fang - 2011 (FANTASTIC! Read this immediately if you haven't. I won this from my participation in #FridayReads on Twitter, and it's the best gift I got last year.)

13. One Hundred Years of Solitude - 2012 (I liked this much more AFTER I discussed it win my Book Club.)

14. The Tudors - 2012 (I always like reading books about The Tudors, and I appreciated how this author was careful not to treat the Tudor family like they are gods. He's right in saying that too often history casts them as great leaders (mostly Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) - they were both selfish tyrants, and they both got their country into a boatload of debt. But my appreciation for this waned as I read through the book - he gets a little to aggressively anti-Tudor, and I didn't appreciate that. It's a non-fiction book, and I appreciate a point of view, but not an agenda.)

15. The Memory Keeper's Daughter - 2012 (I loved the themes of forgetting and forgiving throughout this book. Word images brilliant enough to rival the photographs described.)

16. Norwegian Wood - 2012 (REALLY liked this book club pick. Must. Read. More. Murakami.)

17. Her Husband - 2012 (It was kind of dumb of me to read a book about Ted Hughes when all I am really interested in is the tidbits about Sylvia Plath. Therefore I blame myself for the fact that I found this book very boring. 

Find me on Goodreads if you haven't already!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Defense of 50 Shades of Grey

I read 50 Shades of Grey.
And the two sequels.
In less than a week.

And I'm not ashamed to admit that I liked them. Unfortunately, despite the enormous popularity of the books (as evidenced by huge sales numbers) most articles I've found on the books do not feel the same way. 

DISCLAIMER: Obviously people are going to like some books better than others, and that's fine. It's more than fine, it's great! I am in no way trying to undervalue the opinions of those who do not like these books. That is an opinion to which every person is entitled. The point of this post is NOT to state that everyone who did not like the books is wrong.

There are just a few things that I've seen popping up fairly often in posts about these books that get under my skin a little. Indeed, most of these are things I would find irritating no matter what the book is.  

Apologies:

A lot of people start off their post or article with some sort of apology, along the lines of - "I didn't want to read 50 Shades of Grey, because it's not REAL literature, but it's had such a huge impact on pop culture, I HAD to."

I had lunch with a friend last week, and we basically spent the entire lunch talking about this series. One of the first things he said, when I brought up my concerns regarding these apologies was, "NEVER apologize for what you read!" Alright, maybe that reads a little more angry than he meant it, but in essence, I totally agree. I also agree with his dislike of the term "guilty pleasure." Why should I feel guilty about something I enjoy? Things that are fun and make me feel good aren't automatically something to feel guilty about.

Besides the guilt which is inherent within such apologies, there is also the snob factor. I know a lot of book bloggers take pride in what they read and what they choose to feature on their blogs. This is as it should be. It's your blog, write about what you want. But know that if you look down on me or judge me for reading something I found enjoyable, I probably won't continue to read your blog, or recommend it to others. You are not the end-all, be-all judge of what other people enjoy. Especially in the case of 50 Shades, which is enormously popular. Clearly there is something there that many people find appealing, and that doesn't change just because you didn't enjoy it. State your opinion (good or bad) but leave out the value judgments. That's all I ask. 

The Writing:

Most of the criticism coming from the blogs and articles I've read about 50 Shades is that the writing is terrible. I am fully ready to admit the writing is not very good. Surely the author could have come up with more than one way to describe the taste of wine, and I'm not sure the phrase "holy shit" was appropriate all 2587 times it was written. Also, I could have done without Ana's Subconscious and Inner Goddess.

Sure, I think it's safe to say that she's not Shakespeare or Austen or whatever, and the book could have used some better editing. But that's not really enough to make me stop reading a book if the plot, characters and overall feeling of the book are interesting to me. And I think that's what E.L. James got right.

What E.L. James Got Right: The Fantasy

E.L. James is a woman, and she has honed in on what appeals to women. 
 
     A. The Character of Christian Grey

Christian Grey is a brilliant characterization of a woman's fantasy. First, let's get this out of the way: he is immensely wealthy. When you're with him, you don't have to worry about anything you don't want to think about. A woman with him could be free to pursue almost anything she wants. I spend about 85% of my time thinking about money. What would I think about and do with myself for all that time if I didn't have to think about how I'm going to pay bills, when I'll get a paycheck, etc.? Ok, I would still probably think about money a lot.   

But beyond the money, he's smart, capable, confident and in control. He thinks of and takes care of everything. He's strong, fit, and can do anything. He manages a large corporation. Let's not forget that he is clear about his needs and desires, and he's not ashamed of who he is and what he wants out of life. This is appealing to every woman on at least some level.

On the other hand, Christian is also emotionally damaged, scared to let someone in, and afraid of getting hurt. This makes him human and sensitive - aware of others and their needs and wants. It also makes him someone who needs saving. And who's there to do the saving? Anastasia, the sweet, innocent book nerd with little to no world experience and no prior relationships. She rescues him, and THAT is the real fantasy here. What's that line from Pretty Woman? "She rescues him right back."  That's the fairy tale ending that appeals to so many women. He's got everything, but it's all so empty until he meets her. What's better than giving meaning to someone's existence?


     B. The Sex

The combination of these two elements that co-exist in Christian is why the Dominant / Submissive sex is so appealing to female readers who would probably not all go for this lifestyle in reality. Christian Grey is sexy. He's not just capable at the office, he's more than capable in the bedroom. Or playroom. It's exciting to imagine being "in bed" with someone who knows so much and who can intuit the exact desires of the woman. It's very easy to imagine being submissive to someone if you can trust that 1) he won't cross the line; and 2) he is sensitive and intuitive enough to know what will make you "happy."

Also, the sex scenes in the book are not really that scandalous. There's some sort of kinky stuff, but it never gets crazy.  He occasionally ties her up, blindfolds her and generally puts her at his mercy. But more often, they have "vanilla sex" - romantic, passionate, and even sweet sex. They take a lot of baths and showers - they are probably the cleanest dirty couple ever. This is also where E.L. James got it right. She made their connection and emotion the focal point of their passion. Maybe some readers would have liked some harder stuff, but I'm guessing it was just naughty enough to be enticing to a large number of women, and to sell a lot of books. Smart move.

 Other Criticisms of 50 Shades of Grey with which I do NOT Agree:

This post is already getting much longer than I anticipated, so I'll try not to drag this out. The criticism of these books that I hate most is that the lifestyle depicted is dangerous, psychologically damaging, and anti-feminist. I find these statements to be ignorant and intolerant. Also, it's clear that those people didn't read all the way to the end of the series.  

It's totally fine if you don't want to partake in any of the activities portrayed, and if you don't find it appealing, you won't read the books - which is also fine. Your life isn't over if you don't. But trying to stop others from reading something fun and enjoyable by depicting it as dark and dangerous is rude. Also, haven't any of these critics had teenagers (or been a teenager for crying out loud)? The dark and dangerous depiction brings way more attention to the book, and it makes people like me want to read it even more. First thing I heard about this book was someone talking about it on the radio calling it dangerous and misleading and people shouldn't read it because this is not what a real relationship should be. My interest was piqued immediately.  

Christian and Anastasia are adults. They are both smart. Christian is clear from the beginning about his needs and desires. He doesn't try to hide or trick Anastasia into being something she doesn't want to be. There is no manipulation, just a contract - clear and all laid out in black and white. Then he gives her ALL THE POWER. Ana has the power to say no. She can decide it's not for her, and she is free to admit that she wants more than he's offering. Maybe it's the lawyer in me, but I wish more relationships started this way - with negotiation and a clear understanding of expectations.

Also, Christian is responsible. He always uses condoms. He always considers the other person. He has manners, and he's polite. He never does something that will cause physical harm to his Submissives, and he provides for them long after they are no longer in that role. I don't really see what about him or his initial proposal is so "dangerous." All "play" is done in a safe, controlled environment. This lifestyle is a choice and anyone can change their minds at any time.  

I don't know a whole lot about the world of BDSM, but I do understand that there is a fine line between pleasure and pain. And I also understand that true submission can only be done when a person feels comfortable and trusts the Dominant. As a person who has a few control issues, and as a professional who has to be organized and in control at work all the time, the idea of being able to really let go is somewhat appealing. I don't consider this to be anti-feminist. Indeed, it seems like the person giving up the power is really the one with all the power. And, is it still a dangerous and anti-feminist lifestyle if the female is the Dominant?   

Product Placement:

One final note about this book, and then I'll let these books go and move on to the next thing. I got the feeling more than once while reading that I was being sold some products. This was distracting, like when you're watching TV, and the camera stays a little too long on the Lexus logo. But then I got to thinking ...  

There are tons of products mentioned by name in the book. Some of it was done, I assume to prove to us what a baller Christian Grey is - no off brands for him! It's not enough that he has his own helicopter, we have to know the manufacturer and what great features it has!

Audi sure did get a lot of great mentions in these books. I lost track of how many times the characters (and their bodyguards) got in and out of an Audi, how often it was touted as being the safest line of vehicles out there, how luxurious they are, and how fun and sporty they can be to drive (especially during a car chase) - whatever model it is (SUV, R8, etc.). The Audi sex scene in book three is enough to get some good attention. 

Also, Anastasia was never just wearing sneakers, she was always wearing Converse. I'm sure Converse didn't mind that Christian was always taking off Ana's shoes and kissing her feet. Let's be honest: no one really wants to kiss a pair of feet that have been sweating in Converse all day.

Other honorable mentions go to different types of top shelf alcohol and champagne; The Heathman Hotel in Portland, Oregon (do you think they were happy about how it was portrayed as luxurious and how accommodating its staff always were? Of course they were!); Neiman Marcus was the go-to place for clothes (not to mention designer shoes like Loubitans or Jimmy Choos); and the list goes on and on.

Did E.L. James get paid by any of these companies to mention their products in her best-selling novels? Maybe, maybe not. But if she didn't, why isn't this a thing? Maybe I watch too much Mad Men, but I do know that advertisers are always looking for a new way to sell their products - especially now that everyone DVRs everything and fast-forwards through the commercials. I'm not sure exactly what a book product placement deal would look like - I guess it would have to be a percentage of books sold or something, because you can never quite predict how well a book will do. But it could be great for authors and even better for advertisers.  

On the other hand, this type of deal would certainly change the way authors write. I wonder how many authors think they wouldn't sell out? I will admit that knowing a book contains product placement would absolutely affect which books I choose to purchase. I don't want everything I read to be full of placed products. I often read to escape and it's hard to get lost in a story when every other sentence has a brand name in it. But with commercial, entertainment value books like this one, maybe it's not such a big deal. 

So there it is, (most of) my thoughts on the publishing phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey. Is it going to win literary awards? Of course not. Is it something that will last through the ages? Probably not. But did I enjoy the week I spent in the world of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele? Abso-freaking-lutely.  

Am I aware that I started this post off being angry about others' judgments, but this post is full of judgment? Yes. I can fully see my hypocrisy, and I make no apology for it. It's the human way.