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!

Review: Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

They cut my head off in Titus Andronicus.  When I write plays, they’ll be like Titus…I liked it when they cut heads off, and the daughter mutilated with knives.  Plenty of blood.  That’s the only writing.
–John Webster character in Shakespeare in Love

Oh, Tom Stoppard.  You are so great.  I wish you would write screenplays for thousands of movies.  I wish you would have your own television show, and it would be called Tom Stoppard Is Not Ha-Ha-Funny But Everybody Loves Him Anyway, and on it, you could make wry comments about hermits who read newspapers and John Webster and the history of aviation.

Why am I talking about Tom Stoppard when I am meant to be talking about Titus Andronicus?  Because ever since I started this project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order, I have thought a lot about the chats Shakespeare and I are going to have in heaven; and I am afraid that I have been too negative about him as a young writer, and he will remember it and be upset with me.

Me: But you were young!  The pressures of being a writer for the Elizabethan stage were many!  You had to give the people what they wanted!
Shakespeare: Those considerations didn’t deter you from employing the phrase “racist, poorly plotted, bloodbathy crap”!
Me: Bloodbathy isn’t even a word!
Shakespeare: It would be if I had used it.  Now run along and bother somebody else.

Or maybe he’ll say, I didn’t write it!, and we can spend a happy hour abusing its real authors as well as the fools who ascribed it to him.  That’s the better outcome.  Either way, like apocryphal George Washington, I cannot tell a lie.  Titus Andronicus is racist, poorly plotted, bloodybathy, and crap.  All the characters are perfectly hateful, though none is as hateful as – can you guess? – the black guy!  Aaron the Moor likes his son, but his only regret as he is led off to be executed, is that he hasn’t done ten thousand more wicked deeds than the deeds he actually did.  His soul, you see, it is as black as his skin.

Dreadful.  Absolutely no excuse for it.

Have you ever seen Titus performed?  Is there any excuse for it?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

Review: The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates is about the Puritans, John Winthrop and his lot, who came to America, and all the stuff they did.  Vowell admires their courage and intelligence without giving them a pass on all the things we don’t like about Puritans – the intransigence, the praying for American Indians to die of plague, etc.  It’s more of an essay collection than a history book, with Vowell speaking to her own life and how she has found strength in the writings of the Puritans, plus some fairly predictable party-line remarks on American politics.  Plus all the stuff about the Puritans.

Disclaimer: There were no chapter breaks.  I may have been put in a bad mood about this book by the dearth of chapter breaks.  I depend on chapter breaks.  Not because my attention span is short – it may be, but this doesn’t prove it – but because I need chapter breaks to have a stopping point at which to go to bed.

That disclaimer made, I didn’t like this book.  I found it cutesy, condescending, and unreflectively simplistic at the beginning, so much so that even when it got more interesting I couldn’t be bothered with it.  I inspected Amazon to see if anyone agreed with me, and the people who agreed with me mostly seem to feel that Sarah Vowell is anti-Christian and anti-American and advancing a liberal agenda in order to brainwash our kids.  I don’t think any of those things.  Just that, whether you share her politics or not (and I expect I often do), The Wordy Shipmates is not very funny, and not very original.

(S. Krishna, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, and Sandy Nawrot seem to have liked it better than I did, by the way, so listen to them really.)

Never mind all that!  Here is a picture that I feel perfectly expresses my mum’s family.  We did this one time at Thanksgiving.  Every time I walked by the table, someone had made additions.  I feel the pitchforks were particularly inspired.

Winter Rose, Patricia McKillip

I simply cannot get on with Patricia McKillip.  I don’t know what it is about her books that displease me.  The writing is lovely, her characters are likeable, the plots are interesting – and still, every single time I pick up one of her books, I end up stewing in displeasure and finally asking myself, Jenny, why are you torturing yourself like this?  Just put the damn book down and read something else.

Winter Rose is a retelling of Tam Lin.  I love that story!  As previously mentioned, I am reading a bunch of retellings of that story.  And there was nothing wrong with this book.  Rois is a clever and inquisitive heroine, trying to find out what kind of a curse Corbet Lynn is under, and whether his father killed his grandfather, and why he’s come back to rebuild his family estate.  I was interested in knowing all of these things!  I was interested in Rois’s demure sister Laurel, happily engaged yet strangely drawn to Corbet.  At least, I was for a while.  Then after a while, I didn’t care enough to finish the book, or even to read the end.

Riddle me this: Nobody was boring, but I got bored.

Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, Pamela Dean

I do not appreciate casual slaps at the South for being racist.  I do not mind delineations of particular racist things the South has done and continues to do (that’s fair, although I don’t know why the North always gets such a pass), but I just can’t stand this unsupported assumption that the South is full of people ten times more racist than the rest of the country.  So I didn’t like it in this book when the Mysterious (read: deeply aggravating and nobody in her right mind would ever bother with him) Boy Next Door, Dominic, says a few racist things to Gentian and her friends, and then says he’s from “south of here,” and Gentian thinks, I’ll just bet.  Since they’re in Minnesota, everything is south of there, but they of course assume that he’s from The South.

However, I didn’t like Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary even without that.  In Tam Lin, I was willing to be entertained by the vagaries of college life in between waiting for the plot to show up, and I didn’t mind so much that the plot points were few and far between.  In Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, I was bored by the plot points as much as the not-plot parts.  The omphaloskepsis (yeah, I went there) of Gentian and her friends was enough to drive me crazy all by itself.  I couldn’t summon up any interest in Dominic.  It’s not that I couldn’t believe any fourteen-year-old would be interested in him, it’s just that I was so bored by him myself that I didn’t want to read anything else about him.  These things, combined with the skimpy plot, have put me off Pamela Dean.

Things to consider: I am rereading Strong Poison now, having thought about it so much while reading The Case of Madeleine Smith that I realized I couldn’t live without it much longer, and I find Harriet and Peter much more tolerable than Pamela Dean’s characters.  Why?  They quote things at each other all the time too.  Do you ever find yourself aggravated by something in one book and thrilled by it in another?  Is it just the way the author presents it?  I feel very muddled about this.

Walking Through Walls, Philip Smith

I picked this up at the library a little while ago, and realized when I got it home that I had read about it here before checking it out and completely forgotten.  Weird.

You wouldn’t think I’d be able to manage being uninterested in a memoir about someone whose father was a faith healer.  But I just never got interested in this.  For someone with such a colorful life, this guy has written a book that was surprisingly bland (yeah, I mixed that metaphor.  Got a problem?).  Even before I began to suspect that Mr. Smith genuinely believes in his father’s faith healing ways, I was a bit tired of the book.  I didn’t finish it.  Maybe I’ll try again some other time.