Yarn Along

Yarn Along 2 3.3.15

Jill’s scarf is coming along nicely, and this photo finally does the colors justice. I am reading Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature. I’ve only read about 40 pages but am enjoying it so far. If you look closely, you’ll see that it cost $9.99. I bought it on Monday at Costco.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

Happy Wednesday!

Posted in Yarn Along | 9 Comments

Initial thoughts on Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, as well as a reading technology update (by Jill)

The Road Home cover

 

It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to read after finishing The Best of McSweeney’s. I usually have a plan, and this time I really didn’t. I usually read one of my boss Cathy’s booksm, then one of my Indiespensible books, then one of the myriad hardcovers that I’m supposed to read before they are released in paperback. Occasionally I deviate from this rotation, like when Cathy gives me books from her friend Jerry and I need to get them read before she sees him again, and I’ve read three of those books already this year, which may be why I’m feeling like my rotation has become discombobulated lately. I ended up deciding to start another of Cathy’s books because it’s fun to return books to her that she doesn’t remember ever reading since I’ve had the ones I’m reading now since mid-2012.

My current Cathy book is Rose Tremain’s The Road Home. It’s the story of Lev, a widower from an as-of-yet unnamed Eastern European country, who emigrates from his home country to London in search of work. I’m not very far into the book yet, but Lev strikes me as a likeable fellow who is overcome with grief of all kinds: grief for his wife, for the loss of his old life and friends, for leaving his home for a country where he barely understands the language and knows no one, for losing time with his mother and young daughter while he forges a new life for all of them. I find myself feeling awful for Lev and hoping that he is able to make a good living for his mom and daughter. Much of the novel has been told in flashbacks to happier times in Lev’s life, with his wife, his friend Rudi, so far. I’m not sure if the story will begin to focus more on the present day or if it will take place primarily in the past, but I expect I’ll find out soon enough.   Tremain’s style is straightforward and emotional and lovely. Take this paragraph: “And he could feel it overwhelm him then—at it seemed to do from time to time—his sorrow for the death of Marina. Just thirty-six years she’d lived. Thirty-six years. She was a beautiful woman with a voice that was full of laughter. She went to work every morning at the Procurator’s Office of Public Works in Baryn, wearing a clean white blouse. In the evenings, she put on a striped pinafore and sang as she cooked supper. She rocked her child to sleep in her tiny bed, patient as a Madonna. She danced the tango on a summer’s night, wearing red shoes. She fashioned a rug from rags, over months and months of time. She made love like a crazy Gypsy, with her dark hair falling around Lev’s face. She was perfect, and she was gone…. (55).” I got such a vivid picture of Marina, just from these few sentences. I also knew how much Lev loved her, and how happy they were together. I’m looking forward to the rest of The Road Home, but I hope things start looking up for Lev soon. It’s going to get hard to read about more than a few nights of him sleeping in stairwells.

In other news, my parents bought me a Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday this year (it’s in about a week)! I don’t know that I ever wrote on the blog about my mother and my first Kindle, a first generation Kindle Fire, that sat in a drawer at my house for almost a year before my parents went to Europe in the fall of 2013. I lent it to my mom to use on the trip, and never got it back, despite multiple requests. I’m not trying to voice my anger at my mom, just stating important background information. My dad’s sense of right-and-wrong decided that it was time to make up for me being short an electronic device, so he asked me if I would use a Kindle if he bought me one. I said I would, and there you go. I’m the proud owner of a Kindle Paperwhite! I am glad I got the Paperwhite over the regular Kindle—the screen back-lighting makes it look more like I’m reading on actual paper. And I was torn between the Voyage and the Paperwhite initially but now that I’ve used the Paperwhite I think that the resolution on it is just fine and I’m glad I didn’t spend (or ask anyone else to spend) the extra close to $100 for a few extra ppi of resolution. My Kindle came with a free month of an Amazon service called Kindle Unlimited, which is like Amazon Instant Video for books. Amazon has a ton of books available for download on Unlimited which are included in the cost of membership. And there are actually quite a few that I want to read. So I’ve put quite a few books on my Kindle for free. I’m sure the second I discontinue my Kindle Unlimited membership they’ll disappear, but for now I have lots of reading to do. My first reading project on my new Kindle is one of those Kindle Unlimited books, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a young adult dystopian novel from back in 1993. I’ve only read a few “pages” so far, but it seems to be more well-written than Divergent. I’ll let you know how things turn out.

Posted in Fiction - general, Reviews by Jill, Rose Tremain | Leave a comment

A Review of Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly (by Bethany)

Miller_Gadfly_lo

Books often present adolescent angst as more organized than it actually is. Books for and about teenagers are full of secret societies, secret passageways in the bowels of high schools, passwords and codes that are passed along through the years as student leaders graduate and others take their place. These societies always seem to have at their core some unrealistically grand and idealistic purpose like “eliminating hypocrisy from the universe” (that’s an exaggeration of the purpose of Prisom’s Party, the secret society in Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly, but it’s close enough), but their methods generally involve a lot of good old-fashioned bullying.

I was puzzled as I read this book about whether it was meant as a young adult novel. No one will tell me (and by ‘no one’ I mean neither Amazon nor the copyright page of my copy of the novel – the only two places I looked), which probably means that it is not meant specifically for teenagers. I think this novel might be a tough sell to some teenagers because some of its key characters are in their late twenties and early thirties, and thirty year-old characters are a bit of a turnoff for teenagers – especially when said characters have sex. Still, the tone of this novel is more appropriate for a young adult novel than for a work of general-interest fiction (and it follows the typical plot format of the young adult novel as I laid it out here), and I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had known from the outset what I was in for.

This story has two plot lines. In 2012, the protagonist is Iris Dupont – an anxious, wounded high school freshman with a passion for investigative journalism. After her best friend commits suicide, her parents decide to move to the small town of Nye, Massachusetts, where Iris can attend a rigorous private school called Mariana Academy. Iris is frustrated at the student editors of the school newspaper, who fail to recognize her journalistic talent, and she is intrigued by a young teacher, Jonah Kaplan, who is also new to the school. She and her parents are living near the school in a house owned by family friends who are temporarily out of the country. She sleeps in the bedroom of these friends’ daughter Lily, who attended Mariana Academy about a decade earlier, and she enjoys studying the collection of mementoes Lily left behind.

The second plot line takes place in 2000, when Jonah Kaplan, Jonah’s twin brother Justin, and Lily were all students at Mariana. In both plot lines, themes of belonging and not belonging are at the forefront. Lily is the daughter of the headmaster, and she stands out for this reason. She is also an albino, and her parents have always protected her fiercely. She’s known for being sheltered and naïve. She dates Justin Kaplan but has an antagonistic relationship with his twin, Jonah. Lily also idolizes a quartet of mean girls called the Studio Girls, who are artsy-fartsy and pretentious, as per usual. She keeps detailed notes on their behavior and personalities – notes that Iris later finds and reads.

In both plot lines, the students are aware of an underground organization called Prisom’s Party, which was supposedly created by the school’s founder as a way of making sure the real power in the school stayed in the hands of the students, not in the hands of any faculty or administrators (as if any founder of a school would do that). Officially, the group was disbanded decades earlier after a scandal that seems cribbed from Fred and George Weasley’s rebellion against Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Unofficially, there are rumors that the group is still around. Of course there are rumors that the group is still around.

Other plot elements include a girl named Hazel, friend of the Kaplan brothers, classmate of Lily, and key player in the Prisom’s Party mystery in both the 2000 and 2012 plots; an initiation rite Lily endures at the hands of the Studio Girls; lots of gratuitous Orwell allusions; a bunch of nonsense about microbiology that seems to be trying to say something symbolic about people who are different from the norm; and Justin Kaplan’s accidental-death-or-possibly-suicide, which took place in 2000 and is still relevant in the 2012 plot. Oh, and also: Iris also channels the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. He’s her hero as a journalist, which is well and good, but when he materializes in physical form to lecture Iris on ethics and remind her that no one is perfect, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little.

I think it’s true that secret societies sometimes exist, and it is certainly true that teenagers (like children, like adults) are manipulative and cruel toward one another. It is also true that people are wounded by the deaths of close friends. Yet I can’t remember the last time I read a book with one of these plot lines that didn’t strike me as contrived and forced. I think that in most cases adolescent angst doesn’t have a focal point. Grieving over a dead friend or feeling ashamed and hurt at having been the victim of a cruel prank are perfectly rational feelings, and in most cases I think adolescent angst is nowhere near this rational. I remember wishing I had an enemy to fight so I could have something useful to do with all the anger and frustration I felt for no reason. But writing well about feelings that can’t be rationally explained is not an easy thing to do, and readers of fiction want plots to proceed in rational ways. It takes confidence and skill, then, to create a character who is as wounded as Iris Dupont without having had a friend commit suicide, or a character as driven and manic as Jonah Kaplan who doesn’t feel guilty for his role in his brother’s death and enraged by the betrayal of his friend Hazel. But the majority of writers of young adult fiction are adults, and they feel uneasy inhabiting rooms of pure emotion not catalogued or contained.

I’m a little surprised by the tone in this review – I did not expect it to be this negative. I enjoyed the first half of the book, and while I rolled my eyes often in the second half and was happy when it was over, I found it generally to be a quick and mostly pleasant read. But when I was summarizing the plot, I caught myself wanting to skip over huge chunks of it because I didn’t want to admit that I spent four days of my life reading something so silly. I recommend this book to young adult readers (don’t worry, kiddos – there really isn’t that much thirty-year-old sex in it) and to adults who like and/or are in the mood for a quick read that says lots of things about adolescence that we have all already heard many times before.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Young Adult, Jennifer Miller, Reviews by Bethany | 2 Comments

Abandoned Books Report: February (by Bethany)

I’ve always been a fickle reader. If I’m not enjoying a book at any point, I have no problem putting it down. Sometimes I even abandon books I am enjoying – maybe because I have other reading I have to do for work (this was back when I was teaching – unless one counts this blog as “work,” which I don’t) or because I need to switch to something lighter to accommodate a stressful or busy schedule, or even because a new book comes out and I don’t want to wait and finish the first book before moving on to the new one. As I said, I’m fickle.

About three years before we started this blog, I started keeping track of every book I read. After adding two books (Lalita Tademy’s Cane River and Jason Brown’s Why the Devil Chose New England for his Work) to the list and then not finishing them, I made a rule that I could not add a book to my list until after I had finished it. This was the first time in my life that I even considered being hard on myself for not finishing books.

I know so many people who say they feel “guilty” for giving up on books. I can’t sympathize at all. I don’t see reading as a moral activity. We can improve ourselves through reading in the sense that we can learn new information, develop patience, learn to empathize with other people, etc., but we can learn these things in other ways too. Reading itself is value neutral, and while I abandon fewer books now than I used to, I still don’t feel “guilty” or otherwise unpleasant when I do so.

I do, however, have the tendency to drive myself crazy by reading lots of books at a time. This blog contributes to this habit, since we always have multiple challenges going on – and even when I’m not enjoying a book I sometimes want to finish it so I can be all scathing and witty in my review. But lately I’ve been thinking that I’ll be a little happier if I’m less hesitant to declare a book abandoned. So at the end of each month or the beginning of the next month, I’m planning to report in on the books I abandoned over the course of that month. This way, I’ll get a chance to be witty and scathing if I so desire, and I can provide some comfort and encouragement to other book-abandoners out there who might be feeling guilty. Because really, there’s no reason for that.

Books Abandoned in February (in no particular order):

bonfire of the vanities cover image

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. To be honest, I abandoned this book long before February – I think it was December or even November – yet this is the only book on this list that is still sitting spread-eagled and spine-up (on top of a pile of yarn, no less), waiting to be picked up again. I really did enjoy the first half of this book, although some of its characters were much more interesting than others, and the chapters containing the less interesting characters could be awfully interminable. But the main reason I abandoned it, I think, is that in the time since it was written in 1987, its plot has become very familiar. This is a novel in which two black teenagers in the Bronx start out about their day while an obscenely rich white Wall Street asshole starts out about his day (and other characters do too – this novel gets off to a slow start), and fate leads these characters to a road running under a freeway overpass and a series of events leads to a situation in which one of the black teenagers has been killed by the Wall Street asshole’s car (which is being driven by his mistress). I have a history of enjoying this kind of novel (and this kind of movie too – there have been several; the most famous is probably Crash), but I’ve just read too many of them, and I know that nothing good is going to come to any of these characters. I’m not the sort of reader who wants books to have happy endings, but it’s hard to read a book that follows such a predictable plot structure and offers its characters not even a chance at vindication. I abandoned this book at the halfway point. Of all the books on this list, this is the one about which I most resist using the word “abandoned.” I still entertain a small hope that I will finish it. But I have been entertaining that hope for a very, very long time.

the executioner's song

Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. This book (which Mailer called a “true-life novel,” which sounds so fifth-grade-girlish coming from such a hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ novelist that I had trouble taking it seriously) is about the life, crimes, punishment, and eventual execution of Gary Gilmore. I was engrossed in the first hundred pages or so, in which Gilmore is released from prison and moves to Utah to live with a cousin he hadn’t seen since childhood and ingratiates himself into the lives of any number of sad, pathetic people. Gilmore soon finds a girlfriend – Nicole, a twice-divorced nineteen year-old with two kids – and a handful of lowlife friends, and he unenthusiastically has a couple of jobs and gets drunk on just about every page and never, ever learns anything. I suppose this is a problem implicit to a “true-life novel” about an executed criminal – the reader understands that the protagonist will not experience the growth and change one usually expects from a protagonist. I suppose the growth and change in a novel like this one happens more profoundly in the reader, as we get inside the consciousness of an unrepentant criminal. But in the 200 or so pages I read of this novel (which is over 1000 pages in length), I never felt that I was inside Gary Gilmore’s head. Mailer’s style is half early Hemingway and half police report. Just the facts, ma’am – when in fact no novel needs more than this one to transcend the facts. I enjoyed a certain voyeuristic thrill in the first hundred or so pages, but then I stopped being to tell the various drunken lowlifes apart and I had to stop. This is the third Norman Mailer novel I’ve abandoned in my reading career; I’ve yet to finish a single one.

Noah'sCompass

Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass. Recently a new acquaintance told me that Anne Tyler was her favorite novelist, and I realized that for years and years I had forgotten that she exists. I loved her books and read many of them for pleasure when I was in college: Saint Maybe, Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist, and so forth. The late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s were sort of a golden age for Anne Tyler, and I lost interest when I started reading her earlier and later work. At some point, though, I ended up with a hardback copy of her 2010 novel, Noah’s Compass. I had no idea whether this novel was generally well reviewed or not; in fact, I still don’t know. But recently I thought that in honor of her most recent novel – which I’ve read about on Amazon but haven’t bought and don’t plan to – I would pick up Noah’s Compass. This novel is about a somewhat-elderly man (maybe 60? Not super elderly) who retires from teaching and moves into a tiny condo. He hires a former student and some other local kids to help him move, and then when the helpers have left he unpacks everything he owns (in maybe two hours!) and then has nothing to do, and then he goes to bed. That’s the end of chapter 1, and that’s where I stopped reading. It all came rushing back, and I remembered why I stopped reading Anne Tyler: she writes about adults with nothing to do. I find absolutely no common humanity with adults who get bored. I don’t understand the concept. I know that as someone who reads and writes and knits, I am perhaps more comfortable with down time at home than other people are – but my God! There’s a whole world out there. Get in the car and go to a movie. Take a walk. Go to a store. Get a couple of cats and only one litterbox and watch them fight each other over restroom privileges. Whatever. This is the same quality that makes me churlish when I read Margaret Drabble – in fact, I abandoned one of her books for the same reason back in maybe October.

Heidi_Julavits_The_Vanishers

Heidi Julavits’ The Vanishers. You’re going to laugh at this one. I bought this novel a while ago at a used-book store on the basis of the blurb on the back cover, which seemed to say that the protagonist attends an elite school for physics. I was intrigued at the idea of a single-subject school – and while I was never much of a physics student myself I often enjoy novels with scientific themes. I thought this novel might be yet another addition to the rapidly-growing canon of dystopian/apocalyptic fiction, and, if so, more power to it. One day last week I was looking for a book to stick in my purse in case there was a nuclear meltdown and I ran out of reading material in wherever I was waiting it out – and I picked up this book, read the back cover, was intrigued by the elite academy for physics all over again, and popped the book in my purse. But then when I pulled it out to read it, it took me all of two paragraphs to realize that the elite academy for physics is actually an elite academy for psychics. At which point I wanted nothing more to do with it. The book is back on the shelf and will likely remain there for a long, long time.

the eyre affair cover image

And finallythe book that fried my Kindle: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. In October of last year, Jill and I each recommended two books to each other, with the goal of reading them and writing about them sometime between now and Purgatory. The books she recommended to me are Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which I have owned for some time as a Kindle book. I probably bought it on a $1.99 sale at some point, even though I suspected that it would not quite be my cup of tea. But I did sit down to read it at some point before February – either December or January – and the minute I opened the Kindle book my screen went blank, and then it went to its usual screen saver except that the screen saver was blinking, and then it went to my home page, except that all of the books were displayed as being about 50 pages long (for non-Kindle users, this involves a series of dots under the book title – a short series of dots for short books and a long series of dots for long books), and then finally I got back to The Eyre Affair, except that I could only access the first few pages and turning from one page to another took about 20 seconds. Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to The Eyre Affair; all of my Kindle books are now only a few pages long – which is why I’m in the market for a new Kindle.

But enough complaining. Electronics come and go – whatever. Soon after my Kindle meltdown, I checked The Eyre Affair out from the public library. I hoped that the unpleasant parts of this reading experience were behind me – but unfortunately this was not the case. I am treading lightly here, because I really want my friendship with Jill to survive this book review – but I really can’t stand this book. It just has no basis in anything real for me. The premise is that the protagonist is a low-level bureaucrat in some kind of pseudo-Orwellian world (it’s set in 1985 London, and there are lots of creepy Ministries with euphemistic names), and the protagonist is tapped to join some special-secret ministry where she somehow gets to go inside Jane Eyre and rescue someone. Obviously I am being flip – there is more to the book than this. But reading it (and I only made it through about 50 pages) was like sitting down to an interminable dinner with someone who is convinced that he/she is extremely witty and funny and pauses after every sentence to give you a chance to laugh but never seems to notice when you just sit there and look at your watch. I’ve barely even stepped inside his world (as you probably know, this novel has many sequels), but I can already tell that Jasper Fforde thinks he is very, very funny. I can see his big exposed horsey teeth now, waiting for me to join in his self-induced mirth. And while we’re on the subject of Jasper Fforde, what’s the deal with the two F’s? “Ford” only has one F. Is that not just a thing people know?

So, Jill – I really, really do want to finish this book. I promise that I will try again. But first I’m going to read every single other book in every single other challenge we’ve set for ourselves, including the Numbers Challenge and the Countdown to Concision challenge, and let’s not forget Paradise Lost from the A.P. challenge. Once I’ve finished every other book challenge, I will come back to this one, I promise.

P.S. Please don’t be mad.

P.P.S. Disregard what I said earlier: maybe I do sometimes feel guilty about abandoning books. But only sometimes.

Posted in Abandoned Books Reports, Reviews by Bethany | 11 Comments

Final Thoughts (for now) on The Best of McSweeney’s (by Jill)

mcsweeney's cover

I just checked to see how long it took me to finish this book and essentially I spent the entire month of February with this lovely anthology. I was surprised; because usually when I spend this long on one book I’m pretty darn irritated by the end. But not this time. For a couple reasons. First, February is a short month. It’s not like I spent all of, say, December on it. But more importantly, I actually enjoyed this book a lot. I think that the constant variety in subject and author made it so I never did get sick of carrying it around. And that’s quite a feat: this book is really awkward.

I could spend the better part of two months writing about every single story, essay, memoir, and cartoon in this volume, but I think no one would visit our blog again if I did that. And yes, some stuff was better than others, and yes, at times I couldn’t help but be annoyed at how thick the pages are, because that just makes the book seem that much longer (and heavier). I read a bunch of new authors, and may have found a few new favorites. I am having a hard time not going to www.mcsweeneys.net and subscribing to Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern right this minute, that’s how much I enjoyed The Best of McSweeney’s.

Overall, I found the fiction to be superior to the nonfiction, and definitely superior to the few essays that were present. It’s entirely possible that when I read the essays I was not in the correct frame of mind (what I actually mean is I was reading them five minutes before I fell asleep in bed) to appreciate them. There were some poems as well, of an old style, called a pantoum. It’s a fairly complicated, with repeated lines and variable rhyme schemes in each stanza. I had a hard time with these, likely because I haven’t really read poetry in years and I’m really out of practice.

There were also a few “Twenty Minute Stories” mixed in. Famous writers set a timer an only work on a story for about twenty minutes and then they send in their products. One is a to-do list by Jennifer Egan that entails what a soccer mom thinks about. It’s awesome. One section is “Investigate poisons.” And the last one is, “Remember, NO ONE CAN SEE YOUR THOUGHTS.” There’s also a brief screenplay with Neanderthal men as characters having some sort of business meeting about whether or not fire will be a beneficial commodity for the cave. That one was sort of funny.

There are a couple of stories I wanted to mention specifically. The first is one by Jonathan Ames, called “Bored to Death.” It’s about a writer named, coincidentally, Jonathan Ames, who is between writing jobs, and decides to post an ad on Craig’s List as a freelance private investigator. This story was the basis for a TV series on HBO starring Jonathan Schwartzman from a few years ago. I watched a few episodes of the show, and found it somewhat entertaining, but not entertaining enough to sit and watch more than a couple episodes. And that was back when I did a lot of sitting and watching TV. I remember the series Bored to Death being quirky and noir and sort of funny. This short story was noir. Like noir as midnight on a deserted, foggy country road with a creepy graveyard and there are strange animal noises coming from somewhere ahead of you. That being said, I found the mystery/suspense story gripping and would definitely read more by Ames down the line.

Another story that I think is worth mentioning is “Four Institutional Monologues,” by George Saunders. I haven’t read much by Saunders, though I own three or four of his short story collections. I think I’ve read another of his short stories in the Ecco Anthology I read a couple of years ago, and I remember liking it, but thinking it was kind of weird. And that’s exactly how I feel about this story. The story is divided up into four chapters. The first is an email written by a mid-level manager to his staff about how everyone needs to be more enthusiastic and hit their sales goals and all that nonsense. The second was essentially written in a language other than the English that I know. It’s a proposal for incorporating something called a “Fenlen Space” into an office building. I never did figure out what such a space was, or why it was needed, besides to confuse me. The third is a semi-threatening email from one department to another department requesting that members of the second department stop calling members of the first department derogatory names. And the last one is probably the most troubling, and I wonder if it’s somehow related to the “Fenlen Space” discussion. It’s a scientific paper detailing a toxicity study performed in monkeys. It’s never said what exactly they’re testing, only that it’s universally fatal with the exception of one monkey (and I kept having visions of The Planet of the Apes as the one mutant monkey continued to live while all the other monkeys were writhing in pain and dying of kidney failure), who continues to live despite increasing doses of whatever toxin they are testing. It was kind of upsetting, actually. This story didn’t annoy me like David Foster Wallace’s one that I talked about last time. Both stories are absurd and random and weird, but Saunders didn’t seem to be trying to confuse his readers like Wallace was. I do want to read more George Saunders, but I now know I can’t do it when I’m not a hundred percent involved in reading and concentrating.

One last story, and I’ll stop. But I suspect I’ll be talking about The Best of McSweeney’s more in March because Bethany and I are going to do a post-a-day challenge again this year and short stories are good for post-a-day challenges! Clancy Martin’s “How to Sell” takes place in the shady world of jewelry salespeople in Texas. The narrator, interestingly named Clancy Martin (I don’t like it when people do this. Why not come up with a new name? What are you trying to say by giving your protagonist your full name? Is this a memoir? Based on true events? What? Or are you being unkind to your readers?) goes into the jewelry business with his brother Baron, after years of selling Kirby vacuums. Clancy is a good vacuum salesman, but I’m not clear how good a jeweler he is. But his brother is a terrible businessman, though a good jeweler. I learned about Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 11 bankruptcies while reading this book. There is also a female character whose name is Emily, but everyone calls her The Polak. She is even shadier than the Martin brothers, but is an interesting character.

What I do love about these stories, all of them, is that no matter how weird, they do manage to encapsulate a little world into twenty pages or less. I never knew how good short stories could be until recently. In high school whenever we read a short story I was like, “Why can’t we be reading real books?? Short stories are for little kids!” Maybe if we had gotten to read short stories like the ones in The Best of McSweeney’s, or that Ecco Anthology, I wouldn’t have minded as much.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Short Stories, Fiction - short story anthologies, Fiction - short story collections, Reviews by Jill | 1 Comment

Yarn Along

Yarn Along 2.24

I’m finally almost finished with the two green sweaters! This is the smaller of the two, and it’s all pieced, and all I need to do is knit the neck. The larger of the two is all ready to piece too. It’s been forever since I’ve finished a knitting project, and it’s fun to see these sweaters come together. I’m reading The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller. It’s more young-adultish than I was expecting, but it’s good. It’s like The Fault in our Stars but without the dying children. Well, without any dying children yet. There’s been a bit of foreshadowing.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Parallel Lives of Jay and Grey (by Bethany)

gatsby2

When I used to teach The Great Gatsby, I spent the better part of a class period on the vehicles depicted in the first three chapters. My goal, of course, was to prepare the students for the climactic scene when Daisy Buchannan – at the wheel of Gatsby’s yellow car – kills her husband Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson shortly after a long, tense day in New York City. But even without this collision in mind, there is plenty to say in the early chapters in this novel about how its characters get from place to place. Tom’s mistress’s husband, for example, is a mechanic, and Tom stops to pick up Myrtle for a rendez-vous at her husband’s station, which couldn’t be any more torpid under a layer of gray ash that settled on it from the railyards on the edges of the city. When Nick Carraway meets Gatsby, Gatsby’s first remark is to give Nick an open invitation to come up with him in his hydroplane, and on the same evening, dozens of drunken partygoers bumble through the process of getting their stalled cars to start. And then there are all the emotions attached to cars – freedom, the thrill of spontaneity and recklessness and power, the tendency of a car to serve as a physical representation of its owner’s personality – and the fact that to drive a car is to wield a deadly weapon.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I made the connection between all the conveyances in Gatsby and the even-more-impressive cache of vehicles owned by Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Grey’s collection is more impressive than Jay’s, of course, although he has the advantage of about 90 years on his Prohibition-era opponent. Grey’s collection includes several cars and SUV’s, plus a helicopter, a jet, a glider, and a yacht – and probably a few more that I am forgetting. This one perhaps-coincidental parallel between the two characters made me look for others, and each connection let to still others – and also, of course, to some areas in which the two fail to align with one another – which, of course, led to some interesting insights as well.

Both Jay Gatsby and Christian Grey were born into poverty in the north-central United States: Jay in South Dakota and Grey in Michigan. While Christian was adopted by an affluent family while still a child, both characters began to construct their adult selves through the help of mentors in early adulthood: Dan Cody in Gatsby’s case and Elena Lincoln in Christian’s. Both become impossibly, almost comically, wealthy – neither is ever depicted actually bathing in money Scrooge McDuck-style, but it’s a good bet they thought about it – but retain a hollowness inside them. Both are generally understood by the people who know them as lonely and sad. Both construct lavish homes for themselves. Gatsby becomes known for the extravagant parties he throws at his Long Island home – parties intended to lure Gatsby’s beloved, Daisy Buchannan, into the reunion that is Gatsby’s sole desire – and Christian’s home contains his “playroom” – a fully-equipped BDSM studio into which he brings, before the series opens, an ongoing series of petite, brown-haired submissive women who help him enact his fantasies. Gatsby gazes out over Long Island Sound at the green light he knows is attached to Daisy’s dock; Grey – who is always associated with aboveness: his penthouse apartment, his helicopter, his glider, his jet, his position at the apex of the economic ladder, the height differential between him and his submissives – fixes his gaze on Anastasia.

I know that many of my readers are probably screaming that this comparison makes no sense – how can I compare two works of such uneven literary merit? You’ll hear no disagreement from me on that front: The Great Gatsby represents the English language at its most graceful and inspired while the Fifty Shades series is barely written in complete sentences. Yet I’ll also argue that these works succeed equally at the goals they set out for themselves. Gatsby is meant as an examination of the American capacity for renewal, as both a celebration of its era (the 1920’s) and an exposé of the hollowness at that era’s core, and as a work of linguistic art; Fifty Shades is meant as a work of erotica aimed at a mass (though primarily female) audience. Evidence of Gatsby’s success is found in the fact that of all works of literature written in English, The Great Gatsby is the one that is taught as a core text in just about every American high school. I’ve never seen an American literature syllabus that leaves it out. Evidence of Fifty Shades’ success was palpable in the weird summer of 2012, when it was barely possible to eat in a restaurant or spend time in a crowded public place without hearing the series mentioned. Once that summer I was in line in the grocery store behind a grandmotherly white-haired lady who stopped to check her phone, which had beeped with a text message. “Oh, good!” she announced to half the store. “It’s the library! Fifty Shades of Grey is finally available! I’m going to go pick it up RIGHT NOW!” The same enthusiasm is ever-present today, one week after the movie adaptation premiered. I don’t think I’ve heard a single positive statement about the movie (which I haven’t seen), but still – the world (and by that I mean the internet) is abuzz about it.

Both novels are fairy tales, of course, and at least in part they are fairy tales about money. Both Jay and Grey acquire gigantic fortunes while still young, under dubious circumstances. Gatsby lost the fortune he inherited from Cody as easily as he gained it and soon amassed an even greater fortune on its own, in a manner Fitzgerald hints was likely illegal, involving gambling, the smuggling of illegal liquor, and/or other back-alley pursuits. Grey’s rise is even more shadowy and took place under the tutelage of Elena Lincoln, a friend of his mother’s who seduced him (and had sex with him, and made him her submissive) when he was only fifteen. He explains that her forceful presence gave him the discipline, focus, and confidence he needed to become a billionaire by his mid-twenties. Gatsby’s career is motivated by his desire to win Daisy back from Tom Buchannan; Christian’s has a somewhat less clearer purpose but seems connected to his panicked, desperate need to keep himself and the people he loves safe – a need that rises out of his traumatic childhood as the son of a “crack whore” (a phrase used in the novels with almost-comic frequency) who nearly starved to death when she died in their apartment and no one found him for several days.

Traditional fairy tales in which princes save princesses or other women are usually told from the perspective of the women who are saved. Fifty Shades adheres to this structure, more or less – although one could certainly argue that Ana saves Christian just as much as (or more so than) Christian saves Ana. The Great Gatsby, though, is told through, of all things, the perspective of the “prince’s” next-door-neighbor, a hapless but verbally gifted stockbroker from the Midwest. For this reason, the reader is kept at a distance from Daisy, who is as morally opaque when she runs down Myrtle Wilson in chapter 7 as she is in the novel’s first few pages, when she announces a propos of nothing that the best thing a woman can be is a “beautiful little fool.” Many of the complaints I’ve heard about the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades (interestingly enough, I don’t remember these sorts of complaints about the novels) have to do with the fact that Ana’s sexual initiation at the hands of Christian isn’t entirely consensual. The modern reader’s insistence on absolute openness, honesty, consent, and communication in sexual relationships balks at both the interior doubts Ana experiences and at the way Christian always takes such an assertive role in the progress of their sexual relationship. On the other hand, I’ve never heard anyone accuse Gatsby of sexual aggression, in spite of the fact that his initial coupling with Daisy (years before the novel begins) is described in the following terms: “He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously – eventually he took Daisy one October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand.” It’s true that this statement would have seemed somewhat less untoward to one of Fitzgerald’s original readers than it does to a more modern sensibility, but nevertheless this is a harder statement, a more aggressive depiction of sexuality, than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey. The word ‘ravenously’ even comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘rape.’

It wasn’t until I started thinking of Jay and Grey as parallel characters that I realized how profoundly non-sexual Gatsby is. He has more in common with a plastic groom on top of a wedding cake than with an actual husband or lover. In Daisy’s presence he stammers and moves spasmodically and can barely carry on a conversation, so much so that Nick Carraway – no paragon of suavity himself – has to take him aside and say, “You’re acting like a little boy… Not only that, but you’re rude.” Christian, on the other hand, exudes sex. His home is built around his sexual proclivities. For a while (in the second book, I think) his former submissive sex partners pop up around every corner. He is as confident and efficient at bringing Ana to orgasm as Gatsby is pathetic when he shows up for his reunion with Daisy “pale as death, his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets… standing in a puddle of water gazing tragically into [Nick’s] eyes.”

This essay represents the point-and-grunt method of literary criticism at its finest. I don’t have a theory, and I have nothing to tell you about the Great Truths of our Time. I am certainly not going to use the word zeitgeist. Nevertheless, the connection between these two fictional characters intrigues me. Is the fact that Grey is largely sexually appealing to readers and audiences while Gatsby is not simply the result of the fact that Grey’s creator is a heterosexual woman while Jay’s is a heterosexual man, or is there something more beneath the surface that impacts the way these men are perceived as lovers? Is wealth a more reliable indicator of sexual desirability than physical appearance? What about confidence? Which of the two characters is more dysfunctional from a contemporary pop-psychology perspective? (The conventional wisdom would say it’s Grey; I’m not sure I agree.) I wonder, too, what The Great Gatsby would be like if Fitzgerald had been writing in our era, when he would have more freedom to write explicitly about sex – and how Fifty Shades would be different if it had been written in an earlier era, when its author would have had to conceal so much of its life-force behind innuendo? I am reminded also of the recent movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby – of its near-cartoonish hyperbole and nonstop action. What would happen if Fifty Shades or one of its sequels were filmed in this manner, to emphasize the fact that, like Gatsby, it’s a fairy tale and not meant to be taken as a realistic depiction of a sexual relationship?

And that’s it. I have no answers. But, as always, it’s been fun formulating the questions.

Posted in Authors, E.L. James, Essays about literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, TV/Film Adaptations | 1 Comment