Review: The Ten-Year Nap, Meg Wolitzer; or, My Mumsy enjoyed her chocolate cake (a guest review)

So far my mother has only said overwhelmingly positive things in her guest reviews. I feel like y’all will begin to think that my mother likes every book she reads, and look, she doesn’t. There are many books, including some I initially think are a really good idea for a gift, that my mother doesn’t care for at all. She is pleasingly forthright about this, and then I always know what the book’s flaws are, and I have a good notion of whether I will find them to be surmountable. Here is a book my Mumsy did not care for. (P.S. Chocolate cake here means my sisters and me. We are unfailingly delightful. Of course.)

The Ten-Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer

The “ten-year nap” of Meg Wolitzer’s title is the ten years that each of her female protagonists spends as an at-home mother. And before I review this book, I just want to say this: NAP??? Really, Meg Wolitzer? What an unbelievable insult to every woman (and man) who has worked her tail off caring for infants, toddlers, pre-, middle- and high school-aged children.

The reviewer at Salon suggests that Wolitzer’s “one agenda” is to “tell the truth about the lives” of at-home mothers. If this is a true portrait of their lives, it is a portrait done in mind-numbing, monochromatic, institutional green. We meet Amy, once a half-hearted lawyer, now the mother of young Mason and the wife of Leo, who doesn’t want to have sex with her. Her best friend, the gorgeous blonde Jill, lives in the suburbs and hasn’t made a friend in a year, mostly because all she can think about is her bizarrely disproportionate terror that adopted daughter Nadia may have a learning disability. They are joined by Roberta, the absurdly stereotypical politically active Jewish artist, who has lost her ability to paint; and finally, Karen, (also a walking stereotype), an Asian mother of twins who enjoys nothing more than reciting the Fibonacci sequence to herself. With the exception of Karen, the least-developed of the four characters, all the women are deeply self-absorbed and miserable; each of them believes that her life, and yes, her self, is worthless, because she is no longer doing the job she worked at ten years ago.

Now, forgive me if I sound harsh, but here were my exact thoughts: Okay. You had a choice between chocolate cake and apple pie. You chose the cake. Are you really going to spit out all your cake and fret endlessly about the pie you didn’t choose? Or is it conceivable that you might grow up, acknowledge your choice, and enjoy the cake?

I got so sick of these women. I have to say, this is one of the dreariest, most joyless books I have ever read. If the women and their husbands hadn’t been such obvious cartoons, I would say I would run for miles rather than spend any time with them; but since they never came to life, no worries. Wolitzer has an unpleasant habit of drawing pointless, ineffective metaphors (“‘Mason,’ she cried in a dry, fruitless voice.”), but she occasionally tells a marvelous story: the one I liked was when Roberta was doing a puppet show for some children, and one of them stands up and cries, “Oh, Mommy, when will it be over?” Not only is that a funny story, it perfectly expresses my feelings as I plowed through this novel.

Other reviews:

Linus’s Blanket
She Is Too Fond of Books
Everyday I Write the Book Blog
Booking Mama
Books on the Brain
drey’s library
Books Ahoy!
Small World Reads
A Reader’s Respite

Let me know if I missed yours!

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Nope, not talking about the Senator from Minnesota (that’s weird, right? The lines between entertainment and politics are weirdly thin these days. Was it always thus?). I am talking about the books I have been reading lately, which have been full of people who lack integrity. Now I am ready to read about Betsy and Tacy, whose biggest deceptions involved reading Lady Audley’s Secret on the sly (I just wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That would be legitimately inappropriate for a twelve-year-old).

The Sealed Letter, Emma Donohue

After I read Room (yeah, yeah, I read it), I thought it might be fun to read more books by Emma Donohue, especially after I discovered that she wrote about Sapphic love in Victorian London. I got The Sealed Letter for under two dollars at Bongs & Noodles, and I thought it would be great because it’s about Sapphic love and a scandalous divorce case. In Victorian London! What could ever be bad about that?

The problem is this: Sarah Waters has already sort of nailed Sapphic love in Victorian London. You know how when you have one specific type of book connected in your head with one specific GOD of that type of book, and then you can’t read any other book of that type without comparing it to the GOD of that type of book. This is why I have a hard time with dual timeframe books, because of AS Byatt and Tom Stoppard nailing it so hard in Possession and Arcadia, respectively. Or why I didn’t enjoy The Hunger Games as much as I could have because Patrick Ness was out there writing Chaos Walking.

Anyway, The Sealed Letter is about a lying liar called Helen who tells lies to her friend Fido, and she does adulterous behaviors and eventually she and Fido both become imbroiled in a scandalous divorce case (that Robert Browning weighed in on in a letter to a friend – he thought the two women were carrying on Sapphic relations). There wasn’t nearly as much Sapphic love as I was anticipating. I just wanted to go read Fingersmith. Actually I still do. Fingersmith. Hearts.

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt

So in the first half of this book, events occurred. One event, then another event, then another event. I couldn’t figure out what the point of all the events was! Subsequently, in the second half of this book, stuff was happening that all seemed related (that was a nice change), but it made me feel all weak and depressed and miserable. Like when Milo and Tock end up in the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth but it’s really hard to leave because the Doldrums have gotten into their brains. That’s exactly what reading this book was like. Bother.

I will say, the descriptions of the art were really cool. I love ekphrasis as much as the next person who knows what it’s called (yeah. Latin class. USEFUL.), and it was so interesting to read all the different art things that the characters were making. I wish I could do art. Artists are cool. I’d refer you to this chick, except that the full awesomeness of her art doesn’t come out until you can see her pieces in real life, because they’re mixed media, and mixed media do not always photograph to best advantage.

Oh, yeah, what it was about: It was about these two families. They were all very smart and each family had a son, and there was art and hysteria and psychopathy. It sounds like it should have been great but it just didn’t work for me. Psychopaths are lying liars. You heard it here first. (Well, probably not.)

The Small Room, May Sarton

My favorite of these three books. Litlove and Jodie of Book Gazing both read this recently and spoke of it very persuasively. It’s about a woman called Lucy who goes to work as a professor at a private women’s college; there she discovers that the pet student of a particularly impressive and well-respected professor at the college has plagiarized an article on the Iliad. Questions of psychology and individualism and integrity go flying around, and the characters answer them differently than Dorothy Sayers does.

Speaking of Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books in all the land, and it has to be said that I am more in sympathy with her characters’ unflinching demand for integrity in academia, than with The Small Room‘s professors’ desires to worry about the human element (the girl they would be destroying if her plagiarism was revealed). The thing is, people have to be responsible for the research they do. If they plagiarize, you can’t trust them again, surely, and even if they do some really good research, how could you trust that what they were writing was original?

Well, these were the things I was thinking about. I also loved thinking about the questions Sarton raises about the appropriate amount of distance between teachers and students. When I was in high school there were, let us say, certain teachers who behaved inappropriately with students. When I was watching In Treatment (had to stop because the therapist was being shady), I asked my father how, as a therapist or a teacher or anything, you head off people getting too attached. He said you have to have the boundaries clear in your head, and communicate them clearly (this far and no farther). May Sarton does a great job of exploring where the lines get drawn, and why.

Yeah. Good times. I love reading about jobs I will never have.

Learning about the Black Panthers

Initially I had it in my head that both of the books my library had on the subject of the Black Panther Party (that I wanted – they had some older books, but I wanted shiny new ones with slightly more time perspective and declassified FBI documents, I hoped) were published by the University of Alabama Press. And I was going to say a few words about how fun it was for me to watch the Alabama quarterback being sacked over and over last night by South Carolina, almost funner than seeing my alma mater win after pulling a very sexy fake field goal stunt (when attempted by a less talented coach and team, this kind of play can fail miserably); but then I realized that the cruddy book was published by the University of Alabama Press, and the good one by the University of Arkansas Press, and now I feel like it would be mean to make fun of Alabama’s quarterback for being incapable of getting rid of the ball even when he has a player wide open a few feet away from him, unless I were following up by saying that the University of Alabama Press had done a really good book about the Black Panther Party. Turns out, they haven’t, or if they have it isn’t one of the two that I read. So I won’t say anything at all about football actually.

Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party, Paul Alkebulan

SKIP IT. This book is a hot mess: disorganized, riddled with printer’s errors, and nearly completely incoherent. And very short. And I hardly learned anything from it except a few people’s names, which was useful when I was reading the second, more useful book, Up Against the Wall, because I had an easier time keeping straight who was who.

Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, Curtis J. Austin

Hooray, this was more like it. I learned many, many things about the Black Panther Party from this book. As the title implies, Austin doesn’t try to skate over the episodes of violence and the extremely violent rhetoric of the Party, but nor does he demonize them like my American history classes in high school. Austin discusses the tensions within the Party, the ones that arose naturally and the ones that had a bit of help from the FBI, and explores the work of the leaders, the growth of the Party, and the activities of the various chapters, meanwhile reminding me why I have a hard time trusting the government.

As I mentioned briefly in my review of The Rock and the River, which was the reason I sought out some more information about the Black Panther Party, the view of the Party that you probably got in your American history classes is not all there is to the story. Although the Party initially and repeatedly emphasized black power and the use of guns, including patrolling the cops to ensure that they were not using undue violence against black people, their focus shifted in later years to include social programs like free breakfasts and free medical clinics for the communities in which they were active. The Party received the most media coverage for violent rhetoric, run-ins with the law, and black separatism, but they were actually very willing to pursue alliances with white leftist organizations like the Peace and Freedom Party.

This is not, incidentally, to call the Black Panther Party blameless saints AT ALL. Eldridge Cleaver, for one, sounds like a total nutjob. The Party emphasized black masculinity, with the result that there was a fair amount of misogyny and unpleasantness toward the female members. Arguments among the leadership and between various chapters across the nation made it difficult for the party to maintain a clear message; fear of FBI informants caused many valuable party members to be purged for very slight reasons.

The biggest thing I took away from this book, however, is that J. Edgar Hoover was a terrible person. When he was in charge of the FBI, they did all sorts of shady things to discredit the Black Panther Party. They installed informants in the various chapters who would try to incite the Party to greater violence; they sent anonymous notes (swear to God) to local gangs telling them the Black Panthers wanted to kill them; they sent even nastier anonymous notes to Panther supporters claiming that the kids who attended the free breakfast programs were being sexually molested; and they would do raids on Panther headquarters and break their stuff and destroy their food! The food that they were trying to give to poor children with their free breakfast program! Why would anyone ever do that?

Plus, do y’all know about Fred Hampton? He was the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, and the FBI had their Party informant drug him, and then the Chicago cops raided the Black Panther Chicago headquarters on an illegal weapons raid and shot Fred Hampton in the head while he was sleeping in his bed with his pregnant partner.  They shot him right in the head while he was drugged. And that is why, although it is perfectly possible that many of the Panther leaders did wicked things, I have a hard time believing the claims leveled against them by the government. Because the government was being shady as hell.

In slightly strange conclusion, the Black Panther Party is also now inextricably linked in my mind with Oscar Wilde, for a few reasons. One, the word panther always reminds me of Oscar Wilde saying that his carrying on with London rent-boys was like feasting with panthers, delicious because of the danger. Two, Bobby Seale (co-founder of the party with Huey Newton) has the same birthday as this guy, which means that I will now always know Bobby Seale’s birthday. And three, the Black Panther Party is one of those things, like Oscar Wilde and his crazy life, where all parties involved have such a tremendous stake in lying that it’s difficult to know whom to believe in any given case. I do not know what Oscar Wilde would make of this mental connection I have made (I expect that if he could get past his Victorian race attitudes, he’d be pleased as punch, because Oscar Wilde was a man who could appreciate grand gestures of revolution), but I do not suppose the Black Panthers would be any too pleased. Oh well.

The other two Mary Renault books I got from the university library

I am always trying to think of ways to maximize my reading pleasure when an author has written more than one book. Before I realized it was futile because everyone has different tastes, I used to go on Amazon and try to figure out what a shiny new author’s least popular book was, and then I’d read that one first so it would be all improvements from that point on. This did not work at all with, for instance, Salman Rushdie. I accidentally read his most-acclaimed book first, Midnight’s Children, and when (after consulting Amazon) I tried to read what seemed to be his least popular book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I ended up liking it way better than anything else I’ve read by him since. I have since given up this Amazon-reviews scheme. I have y’all now.

Still, when y’all haven’t read the books I want to read, and in fact nobody seems to have read the books I want to read, I find myself trying once more to predict ahead of time what unread books I will like best.

I checked out two of the three new-to-me Mary Renault books, and placed a hold on the third one. I suspected, without any evidence to demonstrate that this would be the case, that I was going to like the third one least. I began Promises of Love and found I wanted to live in it because that’s how hard I love Mary Renault. And then I was all, oo, I should stop reading this, and read one of the other two instead, because Promises of Love is obviously going to be good, and I should save it for last so if the other two disappoint me I will still have this to look forward to.

And then I remembered that the second book I had checked out already, Return to Night, was the one that won a big award, and I thought that one really was likely to be best because it won a prize, and I didn’t want to start with the best one!, so the one I really wanted to start with was the one I didn’t have, Kind Are Her Answers. But I didn’t want to wait, so I read Promises of Love straight away, and then Kind Are Her Answers, and then Return to Night.

I was at least partly right: Kind Are Her Answers was way the worst. It’s about this doctor called Kit who falls out of love with his wife, because she’s useless and manipulative and needy; and he falls in love with the niece of a patient, this flighty actress girl whose only qualities seem to be that she professes wild devotion to Kit and kisses other men out of pity all the time. Kit is crazy about her, probably because she spends every minute of their time together saying the kind of things I remember Richard Yates mocking rather mercilessly at the end of Revolutionary Road. It occurs to Kit that Christie (her name is Christie; yes, they essentially have the same name) might care as little about him as she professes to care about the other men she is always kissing out of pity; but he doesn’t care because she has big eyes and is manic and pixie and dream. I hated her and hoped that she would drown, but she never, ever did. There is also this, like, cult that Kit’s wife joins. I don’t even know.

When I finished this book, my prevailing thought was that Christie was nauseous (please note correct use of that word) and the adorable name Kit was wasted on this book. Mary Renault, may I respectfully inquire what the hell?

Subsequently I read Return to Night. It was better but still not that great. This doctor called Hilary who is thirty-five and rather closed off falls in love with a young patient of hers, Julian. Julian wants to be an actor, but his possessive mother is dead set against it and doesn’t think much of Hilary either. As in Promises of Love, there are some histrionics relating to illegitimacy. I think I was soured on Mary Renault from how awful Kind Are Her Answers was, because I wanted to stab Hilary and Julian in the face as soon as they appeared. It wasn’t really fair. For all I know, Return to Night was secretly wonderful, but Kind Are Her Answers put me off it.

Please do not think I dislike Mary Renault now. I don’t. I love her nearly always. When I was reading these two books, I kept thinking what a shame it was that all this lovely writing and (sometimes) keen insight was being wasted on two rather rubbishy books. I wanted to go home and read The Bull from the Sea and The Praise Singer, and maybe read the Alexander books again.

Other reviews: There are none. Nobody reads these books. In the case of Kind Are Her Answers, I recommend for your own sakes that you keep it that way.

The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim

Oh Bruno Bettelheim, you silly bunny.  So many things about your book annoyed me until I flipped to your about-the-author and looked at your dates.  Turns out, there is some excuse for your dated Freudian psychology: you were born in 1903!  After I knew that, so many things about you still annoyed me.  I like for writers to use the phrases “oedipal conflict” and “oral incorporative stage” sparingly, if at all.  Your dates are no excuse!  I would have found it even more annoying if I had not suddenly remembered this (warning for language); and then every time Bettelheim said something Freudian, I thought of Robert DeNiro and smiled.

Bruno Bettelheim says very little of value that I haven’t already heard out of Max Lüthi.  Most of the book is intended to persuade modern parents that fairy tales are good for their children because they provide the children with safe outlets for expressing their darkest emotions.  I do not require to be persuaded of this and thus became (unfair of me really) impatient with Bettelheim for continuing to try and persuade me.  I wanted to be all I ALREADY AGREE WITH YOU DUDE!  I wanted him to say new and exciting things that never would have occurred to me otherwise, and he didn’t really do that.

Moreover, I do not know that Bettelheim is right in trying to find one-to-one correspondences between every aspect of the story under discussion and every aspect of a child’s Freudian development.  “The Goose Girl” helps to guide children from the early oedipal stage to the next higher one; “Hansel and Gretel” helps them to overcome and sublimate their primitive incorporative desires, and so on like that.  His notion was that these stories have evolved over many generations in such a way as to reflect children at different stages in their development.  I am not completely convinced.

And then there was this:

Since in response to such direct and obvious seduction [the wolf inviting her into bed] Little Red Riding Hood makes no move to escape or fight back, either she is stupid or she wants to be seduced. In neither case is she a suitable figure to identify with.  With these details Little Red Riding Hood is changed from a naive, attractive young girl, who is induced to neglect Mother’s warnings and enjoy herself in what she consciously believes to be innocent ways, into nothing but a fallen women.

Bruno, Bruno.  I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends.  I’m returning you to the library and reading Marina Warner instead.  I believe that she will not anger me but will indeed have insightful remarks to make about gender, and I further believe that she will not be using the phrase “fallen woman” unironically.  I trust Marina Warner that way.

The Uses of Enchantment was my eighth (if I’ve counted them up right) and final read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, as it ends tomorrow, and I won’t be reading Marina Warner before then because I am too busy with Sea of Poppies.  I was totally successful at this challenge and read more books for it than I anticipated I would.  Some of them surprised me by being wonderful, and some I wanted to love but did not.  You know how that goes.

Other people what read Bruno Bettelheim:

Tales from the Reading Room
books i done read

Did I miss yours?  Tell me and I will add a link!

Review: Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, Lauren Sandler

I was enjoying Righteous well enough for the first half of the book, though I did recognize that I might be burning out on Christian culture.  I feel I am ready to move on and tackle some of the zillions of recommendations y’all gave me for fantasy books (y’all rock, by the way, thanks for those).  And then, oh dear, then I got to the chapter about black churches, and it ruined the rest of the book for me.  The chapter is hella condescending and stereotype-y:

But these days, it’s not pimps but preachers who slip into custom-made three-piece suits and coordinated alligator loafers.  These preachers know that hip-hop [yeah, she says “hip-hop” like fifty times in this chapter], especially when its rhymes promise riches, has the power to draw the masses to their megachurches like teen girls to an Usher concert.  The result isn’t simply converting new black Evangelicals – rebirthing a nation – but escorting them directly into an increasingly biblical institution: the Republican Party.  The holy trinity of faith, finance, and fame has begun to pad voter rolls with a new crop of Southern, urban blacks.

Ick, right?  Sandler devotes at least half of this chapter to the prosperity gospel, with the implication that it’s a black thing, this prosperity gospel, for black people (you know, Usher fans).  She doesn’t do much exploration of the demographics of prosperity churches, though I really think she should have; see here if you like for an interesting article about these churches and their demographics.

A sentence from Righteous apropos of prosperity churches and the collections they take up that made me feel awkward for its author:

Prick up your ears on any given Sunday, and you might just hear the sound of bills rustling in black hands all across America.

Oo, and if you’re wondering who is cooler, white people or black people, it will be explained unto you.  Here Sandler’s talking about a black Christian group performing to an all-white audience in rural Georgia:

This is hardly a stretch of land living out King’s dream today, but when Goodside takes to the stage, you’d never know.  The white bands that precede the group onstage have failed to capture the crowd’s attention with their honky-tonk droning.  Even in this hick demographic, hip-hop has the power to electrify an audience….before long, the bleachers have emptied of seated patrons…just like the [mainly black] kids at the [previously discussed] “Gathering” show.

In case you missed it just there, the point is that even racist hick white kids can enjoy black music because black people are cool and good at music.  There’s more that unites us than divides us.


Review: Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

Every time I have checked out a Jeeves book from the library, it has been because I went looking for something in the W section and failed to find it.  In this case, the library claimed they had several Jeanette Winterson books in, when what they meant was that they had absolutely no Jeanette Winterson books in at all.  In particular they did not have Sexing the Cherry, which is the one I was after.  I drifted gloomily down the shelves and checked out two Jeeves books instead.

I do not advise this as a strategy.  It invites comparisons, and comparisons, as they say, are odious.  Thank You, Jeeves is no Sexing the Cherry.  (Or anyway it is no Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is the only book by Jeanette Winterson that I have read.  I assume that Sexing the Cherry is of similarly high quality.)  However, I am afraid that I would not have liked Thank You, Jeeves, even if I hadn’t checked it out as a poor alternative to Jeanette Winterson.  It repeatedly uses a racial slur of which I am particularly unfond, and Bertie spends at least half of the book in blackface.  Because apparently to PG Wodehouse, THAT IS HILARIOUS.

Hey, guess what I hate?  Minstrelsy!  Aaaaaand racial insults!