Jane Austen January – Emma – some early thoughts

I decided to do something a little different this year and start out my annual Jane Austen re-read with Emma, which is never in the running for my favorite Austen novel and sometimes finds itself in the position of least favored.  It’s been several years since I last read it, and I don’t think I have ever done it justice, as a reader.

Let me see if I can explain.  I read Pride and Prejudice first, and then I spent so much time watching the 1995 BBC adaptation that it supplanted the original; when I read the book, I was most often struck by its deviation from the adaptation.  Sometimes I took the trouble to read the book carefully and critically, to consider new (to me) ideas and challenge my assumptions about the book.  Sometimes I read it for the comfort of a familiar and amusing story.  But no matter what I sought from the reading of it, I have always approached P&P with respect.  I know it’s brilliant, and I know that after 20 or so readings (and God knows how many viewings of the various adaptations) that I have just scratched the surface of all the truth and wisdom Austen crammed into it.

Emma, on the other hand, I have never — ’till now — bothered to read carefully and critically, nor have I ever found it particularly comfortable (or comforting).  When I read it, I did because I thought I should, not because I particularly wanted to or anticipated any benefit from it.  I was first introduced to its story through the movie adaptation Clueless, and I very incorrectly assumed that the original was a bit frivolous.  Emma is such a difficult character to like, and there are so many troubling aspects to the story (Mr. Knightley’s being vaguely creepy, perhaps, or Emma’s and Harriet’s friendship being so unequal — and frankly awful — or the entire Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill comedy of errors story seeming like such an interruption to the main story line), that I honestly could not be bothered to take it seriously.  Emma is a fun, light, and entertaining comedy of manners and nothing more, I thought.

I was wrong.

Now about halfway through the book, I am not finding anything particularly fun and light about it.  In fact, the whole thing seems overshadowed by impending doom.  The action opens with loss — the loss of Miss Taylor — and with Emma seeing her future stretching out before her, bleak and lonely.  Emma, in desperation, seeks an unequal friendship with young, naive Harriet Smith, whom Emma pretty much captures and isolates like a pet, removing her from the company of good people among whom Harriet could have a happy and prosperous life and setting her on a path that cannot end well.

Later in the story, when Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax are introduced, the story grows darker still.  Miss Bates is a natural foil for Emma, except that Miss Bates is poor where Emma is rich, and Miss Bates loves and approves of everybody (while viewing herself in a somewhat self-deprecating sort of way) where Emma is contemptuous and critical of everyone, including herself, at times (moreover, most of Emma’s criticisms of others apply directly to her, so I read her criticism of the neighborhood as an extension of her dislike of herself.).  Take away Emma’s wealth and shift her twenty years into the future and she’s actually in a much worse position than Miss Bates, who is at least harmless and well liked…

And then there’s Jane Fairfax, whom Emma avoids and abuses simply because Jane, out of everybody in the neighborhood, best demonstrates the sort of young woman Emma knows she ought to be but isn’t.  When Jane Fairfax is around, Emma cannot escape from her self-disgust (though she does try to take Jane Fairfax down a peg or two by inventing the notion that Jane, a much prettier woman than Miss Campbell, the girl with whom she was brought up, either supplanted Miss Campbell in the affections of her husband or nursed an unrequited affection for him; Emma then shares this invented notion with Frank Churchill, which action is one of the most ridiculous and dangerous things Emma does in the entire book.).  Moreover, Emma fears not only that Jane Fairfax acknowledges Emma’s deficiencies of character and application but also that other worthy people (Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston) do as well.  Honestly, none of that is fun and light.

Jane Austen does not have to be sparkling and enjoyable in order to be interesting, however, and I am finding in this reading of Emma that it might be the most interesting (read: thought-provoking) of all of Austen’s novels.  Here is a story about a woman who is allowed to be perfectly awful, whose sterling qualities are difficult to find amid all the jealousies and pettiness of her youth and pride.  But I honestly don’t believe that Emma is in any way more awful than I was at 20.  Emma isn’t nice, kind, or pleasant; she doesn’t inspire pity (she is, after all, “handsome, clever, and rich.”); and she doesn’t actually suffer all that much on her road to love.  Given all of this, it seems typical for readers to dislike Emma just as much as she dislikes herself; however, I find myself, on this read-through, at least, giving Emma (and, through her, myself) the permission to be unpleasant.  We’ll see how that continues as I progress to the novel’s second half.

Let’s discuss!  From the conversations I’ve had with some of you on Twitter, I don’t think I’m alone in my habitual approach to Emma.  What do you think Austen was about with this book?

(I’m planning another post on some of the perviness to be found in Emma, by the way.)

This week in reading…

I was a little bit light on reading this week.  I spent so much time writing posts and checking out other blogs (and commenting) during Armchair BEA that I didn’t read as much during the day, and I barely read at all this weekend (all that gardening!).  All told, it was a bit of an indifferent week in reading.

Cover image, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

Yeah, I read it.  I don’t really get the Texas thing, but there are a butt-ton of romance novels dedicated to cowboys and/or folk from Texas.  Don’t get me wrong,Texas is A-OK with me, and I’m certainly not messing with it, I just don’t get all kinds of excited about books set in Texas.  But it was free, and I was curious.  My favorite thing about this book is the little kid, even though she totally has a trailer-park name (Sammie Jo).  The kid is 15 months old at the start of the book, and although it’s tough to track the passage of time across the length of the book, I suspect she’s about 17 months old at the end of the book.

I have a 3-year-old and a 16-month-old, so I was automatically drawn to Sammie Jo, and I really think Hestand nailed her portrayal of the toddler.  Maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed this sort of thing before I had kids, but it really bugs me when authors include kids and then get all the details wrong.  12-month-olds can’t jump.  Seriously.  Babies who are just starting to talk can’t hit final consonants and can’t properly enunciate combination consonants “br,” “sl,” etc.  Hell, my 3-year-old still can’t do any of that stuff (all combination consonants become “f” for some odd reason…).  So I was beyond thrilled to meet Sammie Jo and discover her doing things an actual 15-month-old would do.  I was also charmed by the relationship between Emma, Sammie Jo’s guardian (and the actual main character of the book…), and the little girl.  Actually, I loved everything relating to Sammie Jo in this book.  All of the characters responded to her exactly as you’d expect, from the grandpa-like older man to the ‘gonna-be-very-good-dads-one-day’ brothers of the main male character.

I didn’t like very much else about the book.  The pacing was strange, and the character development left a bit to be desired.  If the book didn’t keep on telling me how attracted the main characters were to one another, I’d never have guessed.  It annoys me when a narrator has to tell me what’s going on rather than my finding out through action or dialogue.  The ending was rushed and awkward and didn’t really tie-up all the loose ends. And, seriously, it ends at a cow birthing…  Maybe that’s totally sexy to people who get the whole Texas thing, but it just irritated me.

Awesome cover image, The Bride and the Brute by Laurel O’Donnell

Just had to show this cover full size…  I love the lightning-struck castle.  My remarks on this book require a preface: it’s a novella, and it was free.  Most of the novellas I’ve read have been terrible.  You get the idea while reading them that the author started out hoping to write a full novel and just didn’t have enough story (or time).  They don’t have to be bad (Once Upon a Winter’s Eve by Tessa Dare was pretty great), but they usually are.  This one was pretty bad, but not for the usual reasons.  It was obvious that this book was designed from start to finish to fit within novella length, so what went wrong?  Well…

1.  In a book set in England in 1392, I was a bit surprised to encounter characters named Jayce, Reese, Nicole, Morse, and Dylan.  Jarring, that.
2.  Reese, the male character, is a prize asshole for most of the book, and I just didn’t feel like rooting for him when he finally decided to overcome his own issues and chase down his girl.  And, in a novella, it shouldn’t have felt like “finally,” but it did.
3.  Jayce, the female character, is almost completely flat.  She really only has two character traits: she’s afraid of storms, and she feels strongly about the correct way to break in difficult horses.  I am not kidding.

So why did I keep reading it?  Honestly, when you’re reading a book that’s so short, there’s no reason to DNF the thing, and usually a sick curiosity comes over me.  I want to find out what happens at the end.  The Bride and the Brute rewards you for your patience (ish… it depends on how you define reward), and that was enough to make me glad I finished it.

Cover image, One Week as Lovers by Victoria Dahl

I finished this book last Monday, and I think I’ve decided that I liked it, but I had to overcome some reservations in order to reach that conclusion.  I do recommend it as an interesting and somewhat edgy romance novel (that’s an unusual word combination right there… when was the last time ‘edgy’ was associated with the romance genre?), but it’s fairly intense and probably wouldn’t suit everyone.  I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy it when romance authors push the envelope with their characters and give them real problems to deal with.  Dahl did that with both of her characters, particularly Lancaster, the male character.  Part of the fun of the book is slowly uncovering all his issues, so I won’t go into any of that.   (I felt like a total voyeur when I was reading this book, but it was very interesting to put together the puzzle of his behavior with the knowledge of what caused it.)  Suffice it to say that both characters are lugging around a metric-ton of baggage, yet the writing doesn’t suffer from all of that emotional weight.  The characters are well-written and their choices and actions make sense given their experiences.

Anyway, the real problem I had with the book was the sex scenes.  I get it: if you have characters who have both suffered sexual trauma of some sort, you’re going to end up with somewhat messed-up sex scenes.  They make perfect sense, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoyed reading them.  There’s zero comparison between One Week as Lovers and Fifty Shades of Grey, really, but I am even less inclined to read the latter now that I’ve read the former. If I had such a strong reaction to the relatively mild stuff that happens in One Week as Lovers, there’s no way I’d be able to get through Fifty Shades of Grey.

This week in reading

Cover image, To Seduce a Sinner by Elizabeth Hoyt

I mentioned in my last reading post that I have been somewhat obsessed with Elizabeth Hoyt of late.  After finishing the Prince series, I snatched up books 2-4 (not sure why I didn’t grab book 1… perhaps the blurb didn’t quite capture my attention) of the Legend of the Four Soldiers series to read on my road trip (I didn’t drive, somewhat obviously).  Unlike the Prince books, these four books are closely knit together by the harrowing event that connects all four of the male characters and by the reading, translating, transcribing, and binding of a book of fairy tales (the Legend of the Four Soldiers), all of which connects each of the female characters.  In addition, each book weaves the story of its hero and heroine with one of the legends from the book of fairy tales.  The result is an interesting, multifaceted series that is superbly constructed.  Elizabeth Hoyt could write anything, I’m convinced, but I’m so glad that she devotes her considerable skills to the romance genre.  There are so many terrible romance novels out there in the world, and it’s fantastic to be able to read a book from my favorite (definitely guilty pleasure) genre and know that I’m actually reading a genuinely good book.  At some point, I’ll pick up the first book in the series so I can have a better understanding of how it all begins, but these books really do stand alone quite well, despite all the interweaving legends and the overarching plot line.

To Seduce a Sinner tells the story of two believable, messed-up people who marry fairly early in the book and then muddle through their relationship.  There is a whole sub-genre of romance novels devoted to the notion of marrying a stranger (not sure what that says about the women who read them, but I can’t judge: I have some of those books myself), and most of them are either creepy or lame.  This book manages to be neither because it relies on the strength of its characters.  What does it mean to trust someone (or, more importantly, to trust yourself)?  How do you build trust?  What is the difference between a person’s true self and the self he/she presents to the world?  These are not the sorts of questions one would expect to encounter in a romance novel, but this one is full of the meat of interpersonal relationships and all their messy glory.  As an added bonus, the secondary characters are fabulous as well.

Cover image, To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt

This book, already rich with interesting characters, clever plot points, well-written children, and POV from multiple characters and bolstered by a fascinating legend, draws upon the familiar beauty and the beast story to great effect.  I’ve always had a soft spot for beauty and the beast stories.  They represent women rather well, right?  The beauty, far from being repulsed by the beast, nurtures and heals him, restoring him to his proper self.  That is a very positive representation of the feminine.  This book merges certain qualities of the beauty and the beast archetypes into fully fleshed characters whose backgrounds and motivations go far beyond what one would expect from a retelling of a popular fairy tale.

Cover image, To Desire a Devil by Elizabeth Hoyt

Back story… it can be necessary to a book, especially one that references a past event in its major plot, but it’s very difficult to manage.  Isn’t it annoying to read a book that spends more time catching you up to the characters than it does advancing their story (the one you’re actually interested in reading)?  My favorite thing about To Desire a Devil is that the back story is delivered in such a clever way.  The other two books in the series delve a bit into the past – that harrowing event that I mentioned in my discussion of To Seduce a Sinner – but the events of the past are more important to the development of the hero’s character in To Desire a Devil, so there’s even more of a need to share the events that helped shape him into the man he is when the heroine meets him.  Hoyt manages it in a truly lovely way through believable dialogue delivered here and there throughout the book.  Think how lame it could have been: Reynaud thought back to his time as a captive – how horrifying it was.  He shuddered, thinking about the frigid winter, the lack of food, the fear of imminent and ignoble death.  That’s how most romance authors would have handled that bit of exposition, but Hoyt lets Reynaud tell Beatrice, the heroine, and you the reader what he experienced during his seven years of captivity.  What is particularly interesting is that his telling of the tale is absolutely believable coming from a male.  There’s no mention of feelings, no shuddering in horror, no dwelling on how awful it was.  Instead, he tells just the facts and leaves it to Beatrice and the reader to figure out (because women must) what the emotional cost of all of that horror must have been.  Brilliant.

 So… have I convinced anyone to check out any of these books?

This week in reading…

Cover image, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Over the weekend, I read the second installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy.  I started the third book last night.  I am not quite sure what to say about this book.  It was thrilling and entertaining and a little bit annoying.  I suppose my real problem with this series is that it’s really just one big story split up into three books.  Catching Fire is a continuation of The Hunger Games.  It pretty much picks up where the first book left off rather precipitously, and it wends its way through the middle portion of the overall story arc until its own untimely end.

As a society, we seem to expect that a story will require several volumes to be told in full.  I wonder how much of this expectation goes back to the decision to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, not because they are three separate books but because there were printing limitations that prohibited the work from being published in one volume.  However strange it is, I think I would like this series more if it were told in one, perhaps long book rather than split into three books.  It’s one story.

Anyway.  When I was twenty, I took a class on Proust at my local community college.  When we got to Within a Budding Grove (the English title from the translation I used, the Modern Library version), the professor gave a lecture on sequels – why do they exist?  When are they tolerable?  He asked us to think of all the terrible sequels we knew, and together we discovered that the fatal flaw that often besets a sequel is that sequels are often just do-overs of their well-received originals.  Saturday Night Fever was AWESOME!  Let’s make Staying Alive!  I bet it will be SUPER awesome!  Oh, wait… no, that was a mistake.  In order for a sequel to be worthwhile, it has to contain a story that needs to be told, one that wasn’t told in the original story.  Something needs to change.  In Within a Budding Grove, it is the narrator who changes, who enters adolescence and now has to explore and discover how those changes within himself affect the relationships that are established in the first volume (Swann’s Way) and affect the ways that he will establish new relationships (all those budding young girls…).  Even though it is the second volume in a single overarching work, Within a Budding Grove contains a story that needs to be told.

Not so, Catching Fire, which merely continues unabated from where The Hunger Games leaves off.  And that’s why it annoyed me… I know I’m expecting way too much from a popular book that is marketed for young adults, but I was irked by the lack of character development in Katniss.  Gale changes, Peeta changes, Haymitch changes, but Katniss is as whiny and irritating as ever, except now she has nightmares.  I enjoyed the book, but I wanted more from it.

Anyone else love Pygmalion stories?  I sure do, and I really enjoyed this one.  To be honest, I don’t know what it says about me that I enjoy stories in which a male character molds and forms a female character into a vision of perfection and eventually (very eventually, as the case may be) grapples with the Mr. Darcy struggle–is she good enough for him?  Can he turn his back on his duties and follow his heart, even though it means betraying his principles?–and realizes that the important point is not what he can stand to give up in order to have her but what he will gain with her.  These stories are almost always about the male character’s internal struggle, because he’s obviously so awesome that the female character falls in love with him in the very beginning, even when he’s being a tard.  To the female character is relegated all the heartache that attends knowing she is not worthy of the affections of the man she loves–why is she not worthy?  Well, because he says so–but she doesn’t generally undergo any change at all.  She is loving and steadfast at the beginning, and she is loving, forgiving, and steadfast at the end.

However incongruous it might seem, A Perfect Bride seemed to me to be very close to an Austen-what-if? story that decided to pair Darcy with Jane in a situation in which Jane was alone in the world and utterly destitute.  I enjoyed the book, but it was a little strange.

Let me complain about covers some more.  This book is great, but you’d never guess from this lame cover.  One of the best things about the book is that neither character is particularly attractive.  In fact, the male character is covered with small pox scars.  Now look at the dude on the cover… is he seriously giant, black haired, and covered with scars?  No.  So why the hell is he on the cover?  And what’s with his collar?  He looks like he’s wearing a dress I used to have when I was a little girl.

I hate (HATE) it when romance authors try to write complicated characters and fail.  One of the easiest ways for an author to fail at a characterization attempt is to write a less than perfectly attractive character and not know how to make that character react to relevant stimuli.  (If you want a great example of truly abysmal characterization, check out The Ugly Duckling Debutante by Rachel Van Dyken.)  The Raven Prince explores the deep insecurities that each character has about his or her appearance but does not make those insecurities the primary focus of character development.  It’s fabulous.  I don’t know anyone who is perfectly happy except for one physical flaw… we are all a mishmash of insecurities relating to a wide variety of causes.  The characters in The Raven Prince reflect that complexity, and that’s what makes the book so good.

Now, I have to say that I don’t mind love scenes in the books that I read, but this book was a bit… over the top.  That said, I’m happy to get through a few jarringly steamy love scenes in order to read a book that is written by an author who so obviously takes her craft seriously.

Speaking of terrible books…

I have already established that free books are often bad books, but I was faintly shocked this morning when I delved once more into nook’s free books section and discovered all the nonsense that is available.  I understand that it isn’t nice to make fun of people, but seriously, who are these people who write these books?  What in the world motivates them?  Anyway, I haven’t read any of these (yet), but it really makes me happy to ‘own’ a copy that I ‘purchased’ for free.  Besides, my sister would really get a kick out of some of the titles and covers.

I’ll start with the least bizarre and make my way down the list to the coup de grace.

Cover image, Love's Magic: Book One in the Boadicea Series by Traci Hall

I’m fairly certain I’ll actually read this book.  From the publisher’s description, it seems to be a combination of medieval romance/fantasy, and I hold a soft spot in my heart for fantasy novels.  I’m hoping for a dragon, but we’ll see.

Cover image, Undeniable by Gayle Eden

I picked this one up because it was free and because the cover image was distinctly creepy.  Doesn’t that dude kinda look like Keanu Reeves?  Isn’t it strange that his intense scowly face is superimposed over the image of the skinny chick holding an oddly demure pose?  And there was a hint of mystery involved–Barnes and Noble did not offer any information about this book except that it’s a “sensual regency romance,” whatever that means.  Even the reader reviews–usually full of delightful phrases such as “I’d read this over and over, if I could” (seriously… what’s stopping you?)–were unnaturally slim on details.  I want to read this book to find out if it’s as creepy as it appears.

Cover image, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer by Rita Hestand

And now it starts to get ridiculous.  Readers who have liked Undeniable also liked Rita Hestand’s Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.  Why?  I have no idea!  I don’t think I can stand to read this one, but the fact that it exists really makes me happy.

Cover image, Tristan's Loins by Karolyn Cairns

When the book is named Tristan’s Loins, you know it’s got to be bad good.  When the book is about an author who creates a twelfth century hero character who somehow comes alive and peppers the author with complaints about of her writing choices–why is the heroine so annoying?–it’s even worse better.  Honestly, the only reason I purchased this free nook book was so I could send it to my sister as a recommendation.  This one might just beat Truly Madly Viking for the title of  lamest most awesome romance story ever.  Well, it would win if the following book didn’t exist.  But it does.

Cover image, I Married an Alien by Emma Daniels and Ethan Somerville

Honestly, what is there to say about this?  It took two people to write this book?  What manner of crazy went into designing that cover?  Is the lead character named Broncanous? Broncaho?  So here’s my real response: WTF mate?!

Also, I Married an Alien reminds me of this:

Sometimes I read terrible books…

So for this post, I’m doing a review blog… sort of.

Lately, it seems that I mostly read terrible books.  My lately includes only the last week.  I read quickly and often, so I clear a book every day or two.  Normally I don’t read so many truly awful books, but I “bought” a bunch of free books on Barnes and Noble and, well, you get what you pay for.  Here’s a full accounting of all the books I read in the last seven days, counting backwards from today:

The Wary Widow by Jerrica Knight-Catania (I hope that’s a pseudonym).  If the author is younger than 20, this book makes some sense.  I suspect it would appeal to teen girls who really enjoyed Disney’s The Parent Trap.  It doesn’t appeal so much to me.  I’m halfway through this book, and I can tell it’s about to go from bad to worse.  Here’s how I know: the hero, who is engaged to the cousin of the heroine, and the heroine have just been interrupted from a brief garden tryst by the cousin (that’s the fiancee of the hero) who has magically just received an urgent letter from the sister of the heroine, conveying the plot-moving information that the sister is deathly ill and that the heroine needs to leave London with all due haste to rush to Essex to be with her before she dies.  The heroine and cousin are at a family dinner party… how did the letter arrive?  How did the deathly ill sister write such a letter?  And I know, even though I haven’t read that far yet, that the heroine will rush off to be with her sister, and the hero will follow her, even though he’s betrothed to her cousin.  Did I mention that the hero has a twin and they do the swapping places thing several times in the book?  Yeah… it’s awesome.

Cover image, The Wary Widow by Jerrica Knight-Catania

All’s Fair in Love and Seduction by Beverley Kendall (wow, it was just shocking how awful this one was…).  In this book, the author sets up this whole dramatic (and fairly stupid) trust crisis–the hero does not trust the heroine because he suspects she has misled him, and the heroine does not trust the hero because he purposefully sets out to seduce and ruin her and does so quite spectacularly–and then just drops it when it no longer suits her purposes.  The hero finds out he was wrong, and everything just comes together as though he wasn’t a total asshole for the first two-thirds of the book… I wanted to smack the heroine character silly for being content with his sheepish, “whoops, my bad” apology.  Terrible.

Cover image, All's Fair in Love and Seduction by Beverley Kendall

Wicked Mourning by Heather Boyd.  This one was billed through Barnes and Noble as a regency historical romance, but the author’s note called it historical erotica.  It is neither, really.  It’s more like a glorified short story with a couple of really lame sex scenes and an abrupt end.  It was about 60 pages in length on my nook, and I read it in 40 minutes.  The cover… well…  I don’t even know what to say about that.  There wasn’t really a story, and that’s sort of a problem.  The first page gives a brief synopsis that I skipped, but it turns out that the one-page blurb actually gives you the information you will need in order to understand the next 60 pages of crazy.  I guess the moral of the story is: free doesn’t mean good.

Cover image, Wicked Mourning by Heather Boyd

A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare.  This book was actually really well-written and well-conceived, and I had a blast reading it.  It’s funny, on purpose!  I’ve read a lot of Dare’s books over the last few months (but not Legend of the Werestag… I’m not going there unless someone promises me it’s worth my time), but this one is my favorite.  What I love about romance novels is that they tell love stories, and they have happy endings.  I know that life isn’t like what you find in the romance novel–that’s a fantasy–but after dealing with life all day long, the last thing I want is to read something that’s going to make me feel worse about it all.  Hell, sometimes the last thing I want is to read something that’s going to make me think big thoughts.  So, yeah, romance novels are never going to give me fodder for interesting conversation at dinner parties, and they won’t lead to my being well-respected in the academic community, but they make me happy.  And this book accomplished that goal more than most by being funny as well as charming and heart-warming.

Cover image, A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I’m certainly not the only person who liked this book.  There were, of course, times that I wanted to shake Katniss like a rag doll, but on the whole I found the story to be good in all the right ways.  Did it change my life?  Nope.  Did it entertain me?  You bet your booty!  From the time I opened the book until I finished it, I was in a state of suspense, desperate to know what happened.  I haven’t felt that on-the-edge-of-my-seat about a book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Strangely, though, I feel no real urge to rush to read the other two…

Cover image, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

You might wonder why I continue to read books even after I’ve determined that they’re terrible?  I don’t, always.  I stopped reading The Charterhouse of Parma when I was about halfway through because there was a suggestion of sexuality between the hero character and his aunt, and I just couldn’t handle it, and because I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters–zero personal investment.  But when romance novels are bad, they’re usually really funny.  So I’ll probably finish The Wary Widow even though it’s abysmally bad, because it’s bad in funny ways.  From a review that I happened to catch online while I was hunting down the cover image, I have reason to believe there’s a miraculous cure after one instance of the doctor bleeding the sister, and I can’t wait to see how the author handles it!  I don’t really know what all that says about me, except that I love a train wreck.

The Liberation of Alice Love and why I bought makeup and painted my nails

Cover image, The Liberation of Alice Love by Abby McDonald

I finished reading this book last week, and I really liked it (with a few reservations).  It’s about a woman whose identity is stolen–along with a whole heap of money–by someone she knows.  Once she discovers the theft and gets over the initial shock and grief, Alice goes on the hunt for clues to how she could have been so blind and who that person was, really.  Along the way, she discovers that expensive lingerie can actually make her feel better about herself, that clothes that fit and flatter are a worthy investment, and that no life is truly safe from calamity.  She also discovers that lying is destructive to relationships and that it’s ok to go on a journey of self-discovery as long as you eventually end up discovering something and calling it a day.

I promised at the beginning of this venture that I wouldn’t do a review blog–there are plenty already out there that do that job much better than I ever could, including my two favorite book blogs, http://lifeand100books.com/ and http://heidenkind.blogspot.com/ –but I might as well give in to the temptation to mention a few items that stuck out.

1.  It drives me wonky when folk use words that contain unnecessary syllables.  Hey, “preventative”: I’m talking about you.  “Preventive” isn’t good enough, is it?  No, you’ve got to add another silly syllable in there for shits and giggles.  Well, in this book, Alice doesn’t “orient” herself after stepping out of the Tube station; she “orientates” herself.  And after a rather confusing run-in with the Law (in Italy, no less), Alice is “disorientated” rather than “disoriented.”  Maybe it’s a Brit thing?  Anyway, it was distracting to me.

2.  The ending…  This book had a very Jane Austen a la Northanger Abbey type of ending.  It was as though McDonald just got tired of writing this story and figured she might as well just be done with it.  Maybe I just read too many romance novels, but I found the lack of closure very annoying.

OK, review over.

While I was reading the book, I didn’t completely identify with the main character.  I’m a bit of a control-freak, sure, but I don’t organize my life with the sole purpose of being safe, of being steady.  Alice Love is steady to an unusual degree, and the result is that most of her friends and family take advantage of her all the time.  That doesn’t exactly explain my situation (I’m usually the one taking advantage).  What did resonate with me about this book was Alice’s discovery of her own femininity and the power that is connected to it.  While tracking down the thief, Alice discovers that the woman used Alice’s money to purchase a whole lot of self-indulgent items: fancy lingerie, crazy jeweled dildos (Hi Mom!), beautiful clothes, etc.  Once Alice gets some money back from the bank, she starts buying these items for herself and is able to discover that her formerly stable, safe life was really missing something.

There’s a little teaser line, an attention grabber, on the cover of the book.  “Whose life are you living?”  Throughout the book, Alice slowly discovers that she life she led before the identity theft wasn’t actually sufficient, and she starts to lead new lives until she (maybe?) settles on one–the ending is a bit ambiguous, but I like to believe that she picked a good one.

I had two kids somewhat recently, and I sort of let myself go.  I lost all the preggo weight, but I was still wearing maternity shirts because I couldn’t be bothered to shop for clothes, and my hair had gotten grown-out and crazy, and I never wore makeup.  For a year now, I’ve looked really terrible, because I just haven’t put any effort or energy into looking good.  Hairy legs, caterpillar brows, bags under the eyes, awful toe-nails… it’s a whole package of yucky, and it’s just sad that I’ve been so content to wallow in it for so long.  Whose life was I living?  When I really lay it all out to look at it clearly, the answer’s not a great one.

While I was reading this book, I got to thinking: I used to wear bras that fit and underpants that weren’t falling apart; I used to shave my legs and pluck my eyebrows… why did I stop?  When I look in the mirror, do I ever actually feel pretty?  Don’t I want to feel pretty?  So I went out and bought new underpants (a lot of new underpants), a slew of new bras.  I painted my nails.  I bought makeup, and I even put it on occasionally.  I’ve been attempting to keep my hair under control.  I’ve been shaving my legs a tad more often (it’s such a pain…).  And do you know what?  I feel better.  I feel happier, more female in all the good ways, more relaxed, prettier.

The Liberation of Alice Love is not the only impetus to this random beauty revolution… I also got some great advice from a wonderful friend (and fellow blogger: http://beautyinbudgetblog.wordpress.com/) that forced me to consider some of the motives behind my purposeful dumpiness (Thank you!).  But even though it wasn’t the only reason I’ve decided to kick them nasty thoughts, the book helped to solidify my objective and was entertaining to boot.  If we’ve a mind to pay attention, even silly chick-lit can change our lives for the better.

On a quasi-related note, does anyone else find it annoying that books written by women with female main characters are always considered chick-lit?  Does anyone else find it annoying that chick-lit is always considered silly and shallow?  If a man had written this book about a male character, even with the exact same story elements and character traits, it wouldn’t be called chick-lit.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Book cover image

Cover image, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

I’ve never before tried to participate in a book club with strangers, but this book really caught my attention, so I decided to join a book club.  The Office of Institutional Diversity at the college where I work hosts a diversity-related book club twice per year.  This semester, they timed the book club meetings to coincide with Black History Month and selected this fascinating book that discusses the lives of the women pictured–what’s happened to them over the past fifty-five years?–within the context of race relations in America.  I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I think it’s an amazing read.

In my last post, I mentioned all the photos I had on my wall when I was a teenager, including a photo of Elizabeth and Hazel taken on September 4, 1957.  David Margolick’s book focuses on a view of that moment captured by photographer Will Counts.  The photo I had on my wall was by Johnny Jenkins, and it showed the same scene from a different perspective about a second or two before Will Counts snapped his famous photo.

Photo by Johnny Jenkins (Bettmann/Corbis)

This is the photo I had pinned to my wall (above).  In it, Hazel Bryan is just another member of the crowd of angry white people.  Now check out Will Counts’ version of the photo.

Photo by Will Counts

In Will Counts’ version, Hazel Bryan is the central figure, and she seems to be the only member of the crowd around Elizabeth Eckford who is angry about Elizabeth’s attempt at integration.  From this angle, the leering lady that I mentioned in my last post is completely blocked from view by Elizabeth.  There’s no one to distract the viewer from Hazel’s expression of distaste and hatred.  It isn’t accurate, really, to say that Hazel became the accidental villain.  After all, she was present among the mob that day, and she did shout rather horrible things at Elizabeth.  But a picture only tells a certain story, locked in time, unchanging, and this picture tells a very different story from the other image (Jenkins’) shown above.

We all do plenty of stupid things when we are young.  Most of the pictures I have of myself from the time just show an extremely awkward child who is uncomfortable in her own skin, but there are moments of my life that, if captured by photo, could haunt me more powerfully than they currently do, muffled as they are by those distorters: time and memory.  What if there had been a photographer to catch that moment in eighth grade when twenty (or forty?) girls surrounded me and threatened me because I was wearing a pale blue denim dress and pigtail braids–a very Little House on the Prairie homage.  The only girl from that crowd that I can remember with any sort of distinctness was dressed in white leggings and a black t-shirt.  Normally I might not recollect someone’s sartorial choices, but under those white leggings the girl was wearing bright green underpants, and they showed.  The idea that someone whose own clothing choice was so awful would shout at and threaten me for my own, admittedly odd, clothing choice always struck me as being an important point to remember.  In my life, that moment stands out as memorable because it demonstrates that people really do fear those who are different and that a mob mentality can break out no matter how apparently innocuous the cause.  A photo of that moment might not tell the same story.  It just so happens that I am white and that all the girls who stood in that crowd are black.  Maybe none of the undercurrents, the bits that seem so important to me because I was there and am aware of them, would show in the photograph.  Maybe for the rest of my life I would be that girl in the photo, unable to change or grow, when, in reality, I am so much more.

I suppose I identify with both Elizabeth and Hazel because they have at least one thing in common: they are both forever stuck in that photograph, in that moment in time when they were fifteen, in that image that only tells one tiny part of the whole story of that day.

Regarding the book club, it is so odd to me to actively participate in a discussion with a bunch of people that I don’t know.  I have grown accustomed to stifling my personality and remaining silent when among strangers for fear that they would misunderstand me (Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood) and take offense where none was meant or belittle me for being different.  I am still that girl who stood in the middle of that crowd and didn’t back down, but I have learned to be wary.  I am so sick of that wariness, so sick of being afraid of people, of being unable to trust that adults don’t act like twelve-year-olds.  The book club is a challenge, but so far it’s going OK.  There are definitely a few women in that room who have taken a dislike to me, but there are also a few women (and one man) who feel positively towards me, despite my opinions and decisive manner of speaking.

I was trying to make this post less of a downer than the previous one, but I’m not quite sure that I succeeded.

What is analysis anyway?

Right now, I am reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolis, The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae by Stephanie Laurens, and The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal.  As I have time, I’ll post about these books and any others I pick up.  I am not certain that I will finish Charterhouse.  120 pages in, I still hate all the characters, and I don’t really care what happens to them.  I am reading Elizabeth and Hazel for a book club at work, and I am really enjoying it.  Glencrae is pure fun–not much to analyze about it, per se, but self-analysis is possible regardless of the quality of the stimulus–but fluffy books of its ilk give me blessed relief from my ever-churning thoughts.

There are a lot of very good book review blogs out there, but reviews aren’t precisely what I’m going for with this blog.  My starting perspective is that everything that we experience in our lives changes us in some often ineffable way so that, every day we have the opportunity to get to know ourselves, to incorporate these changes and figure out where they leave us.  I have this horror of waking up one morning, looking in the mirror, and seeing a stranger.  It is so easy to allow habit and mental laziness to work their magic on our lives, to slip into mental somnolence until we no longer know our own minds.  It is easy to hide things from ourselves, to fool ourselves into believing that we are better than we are.  I am absolutely terrified by the very real possibility that I could, one day, be a stranger to myself.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m quite neurotic!

Analysis, then, is my means of making sure that I never get away from myself.  And, since I spend an awful lot of time reading every day, a good deal of my analysis is directed at what I’m reading: what I think about it, how it changes or challenges my beliefs, how it might be changing me.  So this isn’t really a review blog, although I will doubtless give my opinion of what I’m reading.  What I am interested in is having a record of my thoughts and, if possible, entering into a dialogue with others about those thoughts so that I can move forward with the ones that make sense and have a certain universal (ish) applicability and reject those thoughts that don’t.

Abrupt subject change: I made a wonderful and dangerous discovery a few months ago at work: there is an automatic espresso machine on campus that doles out free custom-made cappuccinos (or lattes or americanos) all day long.  In addition to the three cups of brewed coffee that I had this morning, I have had three of those lovely cappuccinos, the last of them with an added shot.  It is wonderful to have no real limit on the amount of caffeine I consume, now that I am no longer pregnant or nursing.