The new site is live!

This is not a proper post, just a quick update to let you know that the new site, ReadingtheEnd.com, is now live! I’ll be duplicating posts for a little while on the old site, but I’d like to stop that fairly soon. So please update your feed readers and bookmarks with the new web address. The new feed is here, and the podcast feed will be here. Our first podcast, in which my friend Jenny and I discuss Claire Messud and Where’d You Go, Bernadette (among other things) drops this Wednesday. We will be insanely excited if you download it.

Other than that, nothing much is changing! I will still be posting the same sorts of things on the same sort of schedule, and I will still be coming round to your blog to chat to you.

The first post in the Browning letters readalong occurs tomorrow — my Mumsy and I had a conversation about the first five months of letters and I will be posting that here for your edification and delight.

Review: Slammerkin, by Emma Donohue

The interesting thing about working slowly through my TBR pile(s) is that quite often, I find that the reason I haven’t read the fiction books is that they are not quite my jam. It’s all these books that I want to be my jam — like Emma Donohue or CS Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy — but something inside me knows that they will not be. And that is why I have been putting them off. But no longer, friends! I have three huge stacks of TBR books, and I am going to READ THEM ALL BY GOD.

What Slammerkin is not: Steamy. At all. My coworker who gave it to me said it would be, and I think now she was basing that on the cover, rather than having read it. Which is fine. But I was just expecting it to be more like the sexy parts of Tipping the Velvet, and less like the sleazy street parts of Tipping the Velvet.

What Slammerkin is: A book about the damage inflicted by limitations on women’s choices in ye olden days (the 1700s). The protagonist, Mary, is a clever, independent-minded girl born to poor but honest parents. One part dreams of pretty clothing plus three parts RAPE lead her into a life in prostitution in London at the age of fourteen, which is (with gin) okayish until she has to skip town to save her own skin. Thereupon she goes to live in a small town in Wales, working as a servant and assistant to a seamstress who was once a friend of her mother’s. Though Mary perpetually dreams that her life will be more, there is never any way of putting her ideas into practice. And eventually she (spoilers) kills her mistress and gets hanged. The end.

I did not enjoy Slammerkin but writing this review has talked me into it a little. I’ll tell you why that is.

Mary is a basically ideal historical fiction heroine. She’s clever; she likes to read; she’s witty and smart-mouthed; she’s not intimidated by people and their bullshit; she wants her liberty, and she wants to have nice things. She even has a historically useful marketable skill, as she’s a gifted seamstress and is quick to pick up new embroidery patterns and methods. All this is par for the historical fiction heroines course.

But Mary, unlike many heroines of historical fiction, is not ExceptoGirl. Mary lives in a time where these characteristics are far more likely to get a girl killed than rich. Her desire to get more out of her life serves her ill, ill, ill. She’s raped and thrown out of her house, and because she has no money and can’t make money any other way, she turns to a life of prostitution. Maybe she could make her living as a seamstress, but we’ll never know because she cannot get together the capital to make it happen. A smart clever lower-middle-class woman in the 1700s who resents bending her will to people stupider than she is does not, realistically, attain great heights. She ends up in jail. That is how it really probably would go.

Given this, I found it interesting that the reader’s guide at the back of the book seemed to think Mary was such an extremely unlikeable character. The questions were all like, What were the things Mary did that you liked the least? When do you think was Mary’s doom sealed? On a scale of one to ten how much did you hate Mary? (I am exaggerating but not that much.) I kept thinking, yeah, but if she’d been able to get her shit together and open her own dressmaking shop — staying at this same level of ruthlessness, this same level of friendliness — there would have been no talk at all of unsympathetic characters. She’s totally sympathetic, but she’s just in a super shitty situation all the time. Her most relatable, modernest characteristics are often the ones that destroy her.

Basically, if you are ever feeling frustrated with the ExceptoGirls of literature, Slammerkin can be your antidote. You can read it and think about the wretched miserable life your most frustrating ExceptoGirl would actually have had. And either that will vindictively please you, or else (as in my case) you will be like, “You know what? ExceptoGirls are maybe not so bad after all. Maybe I do not want all that much realism in my historical fiction.”

YES. MAYBE YOU DO NOT.

Review: Illyria, Elizabeth Hand

Two-thirds of the way through this book I wanted to buy it for everyone on my Christmas list. At the end of it, I no longer did. I felt sort of depressed and unfinished.

That right there is my untrammeled reaction. I am writing this post (responsibly far in advance!) on the evening of the second day of the hurricane. Very very unusually I am writing it only a few hours after finishing the book, so please forgive me if my thoughts on it seem a trifle unorganized.

Ana has sung the praises of Elizabeth Hand extensively, and although I do not like every book Ana likes, I tend to like the authors she likes. I tried Mortal Love a while ago and couldn’t get through it, and my plan has always been to find and read Illyria, which is short and in a genre I like (deniably magical fantasy books; see also Among Others) and features plot points I like (weird family dynamics, the Theater). And that plan was put into effect today, and I — still am not sure what to make of Elizabeth Hand. Hence my above remarks of “huh”.

Illyria is about two cousins, Maddie and Rogan, who belong to a large, strange family all descended from a famous actress, Madeline Armin Tierney. Rogan, who is beautiful and gifted, comes in for particular bullying and mockery by his family, lest he turn out “spoiled”. Rogan and Maddie are secretly in love (deal with it!) and semi-secretly interested in theater, and the family do not tend to respond with favor to any hints of such ideas. Only their aunt Kate appears to want to nurture their interest in the theater, taking them to see plays in New York and encouraging them — Maddie, especially — in their desire to explore their gifts as performers.

I’m making it sound lame which it is not. I mentioned Among Others advisedly: These are very different books, but they both have the same feeling that there is more magic floating about in the book’s atmosphere than you will necessarily be let in on. Maddie and Rogan discovered a hiding place to, yes, come to terms with it now, to have sex, a secret room that apparently belonged to their great-grandmother, and in it is a small replica theater that is lit, somehow, and gets snowed on, somehow. They never feel exactly sure of what they are seeing when they look at it, and the book lets us have the same uncertainty and sense of wonder that Maddie and Rogan experience.

This same uncertain sense of otherworldliness — manifest this time in Rogan’s odd, beautiful, chilling singing voice — overlays the high school production of Twelfth Night in which Maddie and Rogan are cast. (This play is, roughly, the central event of this small book.) Elizabeth Hand describes the putting together of the play extremely well — how the play comes alive in response to Rogan’s voice, as well as the way that Maddie tries to make herself into the kind of performer she wants to be. The description of the play itself was a little more awkward, which is okay, I suppose; it is tricky to describe a play in a way that’s interesting and doesn’t lag. Mostly this part was very lovely.

In the end, though, I felt a smidge unsatisfied. Elizabeth Hand makes a point of certain small moments of ambiguity, questions Maddie has about her family and their history, and doesn’t resolve any of them. There’s an extent to which this was okay — I’ve said before that I like a book that can leave questions open — but I think what bothered me is that nobody said Hey this is weird. Nobody ever said that even though a lot of stuff was obviously weird. Aunt Kate occasionally seemed to make a tacit acknowledgement of the weirdness, but nobody else does even though, I say again, everything is obviously weird. I mean that the book was set in the real world (1970s New York), but the people in it didn’t behave like real world people.

The verdict, then, is this: Lovely writing, beautifully atmospheric. Would have benefited by a small amount of lampshade-hanging.

How do y’all feel about letting weirdness just sit there unacknowledged in a book? Good or not good? Creates an atmosphere or stops you suspending disbelief?

Other reviews here.

Programming note: I am off to celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones. Americans have a wonderful Thanksgiving; non-Americans have a wonderful week; and we’ll talk again soon at which point it will be OFFICIALLY CHRISTMAS SEASON YESSSSSSSS.

Thoughts about Blue Angel, Francine Prose

(I haven’t called this a review because it isn’t one. I have some thoughts, but mostly I want to know what y’all think about some stuff.)

Says a Boston Review review of Blue Angel: “If Francine Prose’s latest [it was her latest then but is not her latest now] novel, Blue Angel, were written by a man, its author would surely be called a sexist.”

Boy it sure would. I only finished it because I wanted to talk to y’all about stereotypes and satire. Francine Prose, set off I guess by a friend of hers getting suspended without pay for two years because he was talking about students’ breasts, has written a book about a creative writing professor who lives in terror that he will accidentally sexually harass a student and get fired forever. Cf. this. Then he has sex with a student and gets fired. But you can still sympathize with him because the student is a calculating vixen who’s just using him to gain access to his publisher and have her own novel published.

Our hero Swenson has written two novels in his career, the second of which was a wild success. But that was many years ago, and now he is floundering, trying to finish a third novel (alas! to no avail!) whilst he teaches a creative writing class at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The college is very concerned about sexual harassment, and Swenson — whose students perpetually turn in stories about giving blow jobs and sex with chickens and incest — is concerned about it too. When he meets a young, gifted writer called Angela who I swear to God is writing a novel about having sex with her teacher, he simply cannot resist the sexytimes temptation anymore. Matters unfold from there.

Because people I like are Francine Prose fans, I am giving her the following benefit of the doubt: I was not paying attention to the mid-1990s zeitgeist she is satirizing. At that period in my life I was big into this game I used to play with Social Sister and her best friend where I was the mother bird and they were the baby birds and I would hatch them and then teach them the ropes of being a bird, such as how to escape from cats (the cats were Legal Sister, if she could be convinced to play with us) and how to take shelter during storms. It is perfectly possible that everybody was having kittens about sexual harassment in 1995, and all the college girls were possessed of a Crucible-esque (GOD that was an annoying article) fervor for destroying the lives of innocent men; and I just didn’t know about it because I was playing this awesome bird game. And maybe if I had been politically and socially aware at the time I’d have been giggling helplessly at stuff like, for instance, this:

Just as Swenson suspected from the inverted bowl of gray hair and the tense, aggrieved shoulders, it’s Lauren Healy, the English Department’s expert in the feminist misreading of literature and acting head of the Faculty-Student Women’s Alliance. Swenson and Lauren always fake a chilly collegiality, but for reasons he can’t fathom — a testosterone allergy, he guesses — Lauren wants him dead.

And this:

Deconstructionist Jamie shoots daggers at harmless, ga-ga Ruth, while Lauren Healy glares at Jamie, protecting the older woman from his patronizing, oppressive maleness.

Maybe in another time I would have found it hilarious.

I sort of doubt it, though, and here’s why. The plot “Vixen uses her womanly wiles to bring about a good man’s downfall” is a plot that can happen. But if you are going to use that trope as the basis of your book, it behooves you to be exceptionally careful in how you play it out. For one thing it’s been done a trillion times so it does run the risk of coming off (as it does in Blue Angel) predictable. In more important concerns, it is a trope that has been trotted out as an excuse to oppress women since before the days of Moses, and the world has not yet scooted itself out from under the burden of that history. The story of men being victimized by lady sex fiends is not the actual story of the world, but it’s a story that has had and continues to have remarkable staying power. It has been told so often and to the detriment of so many people that if you’re going to tell it again, I think you have to have something new and interesting to say about it. I mean that you have some responsibility — in a way that you don’t necessarily have with other types of stories — to explain why you are retreading this ground.

I do not think — Francine Prose fans, if you are going to fuss at me, don’t let it be for this! I have already disclaimed it! — that Francine Prose is a sexist bastard. She has, however, written a slightly sexist bastard book. It satirizes a historically disenfranchised group (young women) by employing one of the stereotypes that has historically disenfranchised them. And not even really subverting it, but playing it straight all the way through. That is rather ick.

Anyway. I did not wade through this entire irritating book just to hear myself talk. I want to know what y’all think about this. What elements have to be present in a book or a book’s author for it to be okay that the book employs historically oppressive stereotypes to make the plot go? Should an author have to worry about the history of a trope s/he is using in his/her own personal book?

And another question that came to mind while I was reading this book, and to which I have no good answer: How do you feel about satirizing historically disenfranchised groups? I don’t feel great about it, and I was definitely having a reaction while reading Blue Angel of like, Really, Francine Prose? You’re going to satirize college girls for complaining about sexual harassment? There’s nobody else you could satirize who deserves it more? I was a bit surprised at myself for reacting that way, so tell me what y’all think. Is it cool to satirize anyone, any time? Or is satire only good when directed at the powerful? If you think that satirizing a relatively unpowerful group is less like satire and more like kicking someone when they’re down, what differentiates the former from the latter?

Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow, Robin Wasserman

I have a weird, specific pet peeve which is that Latin should sound like Latin. There is a way that translated Latin sounds, and if you’re writing something that’s supposed to be an English translation of a Latin manuscript, it should sound like it was Latin before it was English. I get antsy reading something that’s supposed to be a translation of Latin, and thinking, Wait, how would that go in Latin? Wouldn’t there sometimes be some ablative absolutes? Wouldn’t a lot of those words have been left out because that would all get conveyed by the way the nouns are declined?

These are real questions and you should feel free to see in them my deep regret that I stopped taking Latin after high school. I loved Latin! I have no idea why I was so hell-bent on getting a degree in English when I could have gotten one in classical studies and taken cooler classes and hung out with cooler people. (This is not a referendum on English majors or classics programs everywhere. I’m talking about my university only.) And then I could have said with authority that a protagonist in flight from the terror behind would just translate it as “Philosophers and mathematicians ask how the universe is arranged” because that’s what the straight translation would be and she would be much too frightened to start getting cute with appositives.

(Sometimes when I wasn’t crazy about a book I take a really long time to start talking about it in the blog post I am writing about it. I know that’s a thing I do.)

The Book of Blood and Shadow is about a girl called Nora who’s working on a translation project with her best friend Chris and her boyfriend Max, and it turns out the book they’re translating is of The Greatest Significance to History, so much so that people would kill for it. So one day Nora comes over to Chris’s and finds him dead and his girlfriend in a state of catatonia, and Max has vanished and is under suspicion of murder. Nora knows that he did not do it and embarks on a journey across Europe to clear his name by translating important letters that uncover a conspiracy stretching across space and time.

I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to rehearse the manifold sillinesses of a book like this. It’s a Dan Browny sort of thing where religion and history are involved, and everyone wants to find a MacGuffin and destroy it or release it upon the world. Nora could go to the police but she never does because they wouldn’t believe her (of course), and she thinks that her getting more involved in the MacGuffin hunt will convince the crazed killers to leave her alone. She has information they will kill to get their hands on/destroy, but she does not Xerox her original manuscript copy of the information and distribute it on street corners so that her possessing it will cease to be of specific interest to the crazed killers. There are so many things a sensible person would do that Nora does not do! Once she and her friends get to Prague they are always splitting up (despite the ongoing threat of crazed killers) and I felt like that part in Cabin in the Woods where they suggest splitting up and the stoner guy is like, “…Really?”

What I’m doing right now is complaining about the silly aspects of a book I read because I wanted to read something silly and fast-paced. I can do that. I am capricious that way. Besides, there are fast-paced books in this world where the protagonists at least try to go to the police. Or at least where they do not withhold from the police key pieces of evidence and send each other cryptic coded graveyard messages when it would be much much easier to get a burner phone and call from that.

Many other reviews exist. I was not early to this party.

Some stuff I read on public transportation

Y’all, I wish I could teleport. If I had back the two hours a day I currently spend getting to and from work, I would be the awesomest book blogger instead of the very lamest. I have been going back and forth and forth and back to work and to visit friends-and-relations, and these are good times to read but it is not the funnest reading time because I’m slightly on edge from being in transit (trains are very peaceful and pleasant, but buses and subways are not). And I would like to be using that time to catch up on blog reading and writing because I love you guys.

Anyway, here are some of the books I read on public transportation and forgot to write up as full posts:

Woman, Natalie Angier – Finally. I have tried reading Woman several times and been utterly put off by Natalie Angier’s writing style, which is close to unbearably florid and precious at times. I feel fine about, for instance, my Fallopian tubes. I do not need to see them compared to beautiful beautiful flowers:

The tubes are exquisite, soft and rosy and slim as pens, tipped like a feather duster with a bell of fronds, called fimbriae…To me they look like sea anemones, flowers of flesh, the petals throbbing to the cadence of blood.

Gag. And, throbbing is a word you should use as little as possible because it’s gross.. However, as noted by many other book bloggers, Woman contains lots of good information about women’s biology, sexuality, evolution, and so forth, and it’s worth reading for that reason. You just might have to give yourself some time to adjust to Natalie Angier’s love-letter-to-an-ovary-style writing. I reiterate that I am a sex-positive girl who does not have a problem with any part of her body, but I nevertheless think that Natalie Angier’s imagery can be a trifle overblown. It was distracting. Moar science, less flourishing.

The Uses of Enchantment, Heidi Julavits – As often happens when I want Book B by a certain author and am forced by circumstances to get Book A instead, I was disappointed. (I wanted to read The Vanishers.) The Uses of Enchantment is about a girl called Mary who may or may not have been kidnapped and raped as a teenager and had a book written about how she was indeed not kidnapped and raped but was just a liar, and now many years later, she’s back in town for her mother’s funeral. Eh, it was fine, I guess. I wanted the plot to be twistier, the reveals to be more interesting, the sister relationships to feel more like actual sisters. Heidi Julavits uses one of my favorite literary techniques, an unreliable narrator, to utterly boring effect.

Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby – Juliet, Naked is about a woman called Annie who breaks up with her boyfriend Duncan who is obsessed with a musician Tucker Crowe who has not produced any new music since 1989 or something; Annie and Tucker Crowe happen to strike up a correspondence, and events proceed from there. Again, fine. If Nick Hornby were a woman no one would give him two seconds of their time, but I suppose that is not Nick Hornby’s fault. As much as I want to like him, his books leave me feeling vaguely unfulfilled, like below-average vegetarian sushi.

Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, Danielle Ganek – An artist dies on the night of his first big show, a show in which the primary piece is a picture of his niece Lulu as a little girl. That piece, entitled “Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him”, becomes the subject of great interest in the New York art world, and we see all this unfold through the eyes of gallery girl and unsuccessful painter Mia McMurray. The book is interesting in its use of ekphrasis — I love me some ekphrasis — and for its depiction of the New York art world.

Nightingale Wood, Stella Gibbon – Stella Gibbon! Would do business with her again. Cold Comfort Farm never quite altogether does it for me, which I’ve always chalked up to having seen the extremely faithful movie before reading the book. But in fact I think it’s that Stella Gibbon is very close to, but not exactly, the author for me. I enjoyed Nightingale Wood while not taking pure pleasure in it the way I do when reading, say, Elinor Lipman. Matters ended well for everyone, but none of the characters was nice enough for me to be enthusiastic about his or her marital or professional success.

So that’s it! I now consider myself all caught on all the things. Probably by the time this post posts, I’ll be behind again, but what can you do? I am a bad blogger and I have not been good in ages. I wish I didn’t have to commute. If I could teleport I’d never have to commute to work ever again, and that would be amazing.

Nonfiction

I have been reading a lot of nonfiction this summer. It’s been fun, but I am also a little starved for fiction, and I have a massive backlist of books to investigate when I get home.

Juliet Gardiner: The Thirties and Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here

When I read Gardiner’s Wartime, I wished it had said more about the experience of being an American GI in England during World War II. Turns out the reason it didn’t is that Juliet Gardiner wrote a whole book about being an American GI in England during World War II. Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here (the book in question), a short book with lots of pictures and excerpts from diaries, letters, and journals, held me over until The Thirties got in at the library.

At which point I’m afraid I was woefully disappointed. I gave up on The Thirties about a third of the way through. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or just aimed in the wrong direction. Gardiner writes a lot about labor and the dole and other bleak, depressing economic things, and I got bored. I persevered ages longer than I wanted to, because I had whined so much about the library not having the book when I wanted it.

William Harris: Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity

Harris examines classical texts from Homer on forward to get a grip on what kind of dreams the Greeks and Romans had and what their dreams meant to them. He devotes a whole chapter to discussing what he calls “epiphany dreams,” dreams in which an authority figure shows up, gives a message to the dreamer, then leaves again. These appear to have been very common up until around the eleventh or twelfth century, at which point they declined precipitously. All very interesting.

A. D. Nuttall: The Stoic in Love (essays) and Dead from the Waist Down

I’m going to be getting Nuttall’s last book, Shakespeare the Thinker, in the mail pretty soon. I got it because I want to be friends with Shakespeare again. I hate that we’re in a fight. But once it was already ordered, I started to worry that I wouldn’t care for Nuttall, so I went to the library and got a few of his other books. Y’all, as I was reading these books, I kept thinking that if A.D. Nuttall hadn’t died tragically prematurely of a heart attack in 2007, I would have move to whatever university he taught at and become his disciple.

Nuttall read Mods (roughly, that means classics) and English Literature at Oxford, and The Stoic in Love warmed the classics and English literature ventricles of my geeky little heart. There is an essay on Virgil’s use of the causal-but-simultaneous dum (generally translated as “while”) in the Aeneid, which, Nuttall argues, reveals a lot about Virgil’s perception of life-after-death. I also particularly liked the essay on Hamlet and the sources of its uncertainties in previous Hamlet stories as well as in Latin and Greek sources.

Dead from the Waist Down was weird but entrancing. Nuttall writes about sexuality and scholarship in literature and life, taking as his subjects two real scholars (one, Isaac Casaubon, an early modern, and one, Mark Pattison, a contemporary of George Eliot) and the fictional Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch. Fortunately the half of Middlemarch that I read was sufficient to carry me through this with a reasonable measure of comprehension, and Nuttall doesn’t assume the reader’s familiarity with the other two dudes. He also discusses three things I did not get enough of during college: Robert Browning, Tom Stoppard, and image clusters. In particular I appreciated his compliments to the (wonderful) Stoppard play Invention of Love: “It is a work of breathtaking brilliance….knockabout comedy laced with intense pathos,” etc.

The word [scholarly], I think, connotes a quality of completeness: at the lowest level, complete literacy (never a colon where a comma should be); complete, though not redundant documentation; complete accuracy even with reference to matters not crucial to the main argument, and, together with all this, a sense that the writer’s knowledge of material at the fringe of the thesis is as sound as his or her knowledge of the core material.

Exactly what I like in Nuttall, although he could just be giving the impression of being sound without really being, and I do not know enough to be sure. Though just as I was contemplating flinging myself in the river so that Nuttall could teach me classics in heaven, he said:

It will be said that I am describing the literary canon, which has been shown to be an instrument of oppression. I would have had none of that then and I will have none of it now.

Come on, dude. At least give some respect to the arguments of the people who are completely unrepresented in and disempowered by the literary canon. You are part of a privileged group, and the literary canon hasn’t been an instrument of oppressing you. Hrmph. But apart from this, I think A.D. Nuttall is very, very brilliant and interesting. He talked briefly about a Greek writer called Diogenes Laertius, who wrote gossipy, bitchy lives of philosophers and bad poets, so y’all should expect to be hearing from me pretty soon about that.