Monday, July 28, 2014

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution

Let me say this up front:  I thought this book was excellent.  I understand now why she has such a large following for her blog.  She has a powerful voice as a writer, and what she says throughout the book is compelling.  She is rattling the cages of those who have become complacent, or those who think that all gender issues have been resolved--like the person who told me there is no racism anymore.  Sexism, asymmetrical power relations, and a culture of violence against women, Penny argues, persist, and the case she makes is very persuasive.

Penny focuses on the fact that women continue to be seen as bodies only, suggesting that this has gotten worse, not better, over the last fifty years.  She writes "You are a body first, and your body is not yours alone; whether or not you are attracted to men, men and boys will believe they have a claim on your body, and the state gets to decide what you're allowed to do with it afterwards."
One consequence of being seen as a body intended only to attract men, she asserts, is that women wind up participating in violence against their own bodies: "When you grow up to find yourself trapped in a body that seems to invite violence, a body that seems to be all you're good for, a body that is suddenly and forever the most important thing about you, there is a grim logic to the attempt to cut your way out of it.  To discipline it and bring it under your control.  The body that hurts, and hungers, and ceaselessly wants things.  The body that betrays you."

Ultimately the root of the problem is uneven power relations:  "Women, like any oppressed class, learn to fear our own rage.  Our anger is legitimately terrifying.  We know that if it ever gets out we might get hurt, or worse, abandoned.  One sure test of social privilege is how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion, and so we force down our rage like rotten food until it festers and sickens us."  I'm not sure I need to add to what Penny says, except to say that this book should be required reading for teenage boys when they hit the age of fifteen.  Many of them would hate it, some would say ugly things about what's she's arguing, and some would likely fall back on received misogynistic notions about women.  Regardless of all that, the book would be deeply unsettling for almost all of them.  In teenage male culture, how boys behave towards women is often informed and determined by the dumbest guys, and reinforced by constant peer pressure.  To give teenage boys a book like this, and ask them to think about the challenging ideas in it on their own, would mean creating a different space for boys to shape their understanding of gender and sexuality in society.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Edward St. Aubyn's Lost For Words

I had never read any of St. Aubyn's novels before, so when I saw Lost for Words on the "new books" shelf at the library, I grabbed it and looked forward to familiarizing myself with St. Aubyn.  Now that I've read it, I think it was probably not the best choice to introduce me to his work.

Lost for Words by Edward St. AubynSt. Aubyn's writing is sharp, concise, and precise, and I can certainly see why he is highly regarded .  Having said that, the topic and the premise of the book are thin and seem misaligned with his style.  He exhibited tremendous skill as a writer in the service of a spoof that seems, frankly, cranky and mean-spirited.  The novel revolves around a prestigious literary award, clearly intended to be the Man Booker prize.  The novel follows several novelists and judges through the selection process, from the submission phase right through to the final dinner at which the winner is revealed.  There are things that happen with the judges that shouldn't be surprising to us:  the judges take up favorite novels and try to push their favorites through; not everyone reads all the submissions; they all have different ideas about what counts as a relevant, important novel; and they all bring some kind of political agenda to the process.  I thought that the judges were simply types, not people who would interest us.  We have an academic who speaks as the worst kind of academic and pushes for abstract ideals in art; a former Foreign Office employee-turned-(awful) novelist; a journalist looking for gritty novels that will "matter" to "the People" as she defines them; an actor who is charming and never participates in anything; and the elitist former diplomat who is above it all.  They are all stiff characters and at times really ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the authors are equally ridiculous and petty.  The Indian author from an upper-class background is obnoxious and arrogant, and another author sleeps with everyone.  One of the submissions that advances--I won't spoil it--makes everyone look like a buffoon; it's a situation that seems utterly impossible.  Again, the inclusion of that submission is petty, and suggests that St. Aubyn resents the Booker and his fellow novelists.  It positions St. Aubyn as above it all, better than the rest of his peers.

Now some might accuse me of not reading the novel in the spirit of a satire.  I would disagree.  The best satires make one think seriously and perhaps in a new way about the text they are satirizing.  In Lost for Words, the satire is not sharp, insightful, or interesting; it's heavy-handed and predictable.  I came away from reading the novel feeling like I had a greater respect for the Booker prize (which is deeply flawed, I know).  Mission, therefore, not accomplished. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Lauren Owen's The Quick

Note:  This review reveals details about the plot of the novel that might spoil it for those who might want to read it.

The QuickLauren Owen's novel The Quick evokes convincingly 19th-century London and the world of amateur Victorian science, and it's a novel that works at several levels.  First and foremost, it's a vampire story with a cast of quirky, interesting characters.  It's also a story about the unwavering faith of a subset of Victorians in the ability of science and reason to cure or solve any problem.  James Norbury, poet-turned-vampire, is the problem that needs to be cured, and his sister, with the help of vampire "scholars" Shadwell, Adeline, and Howland, spends much of her life trying to find the cure.  And it's a story about alternative forms of relationships:  the relationship between Christopher and James; the relationship between Adeline and the much older Shadwell; the marriage of Charlotte and Howland, which remains unconsummated for an extended period; and of course the relationship between the vampire and his victim/source of life.

Owen's novel raises provocative questions, but it seems at times like he is trying to do too many things.  For example, the short section of the novel which consists of the notebook of Augustus Mould, who is studying vampirism, is an interesting narrative strategy, but looking back from the end of the novel, I'm not sure why we get that, other than that it emphasizes the scientific approach to understanding vampires.  I was also never entirely sure of how Mrs. Price and her crew were directly relevant to the story, though that narrative thread was interesting in its own way. 

The novel rips along at a quick pace, and I often found myself completely immersed in the world Owen creates.  It's a great read, and Owen is clearly a big new talent to watch in the coming years.

Monday, July 7, 2014

John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps

I learned an important lesson today, one which I knew generally, but was really driven home:  disregard the average rating for books, whether it's on Goodreads or Amazon or another website with ratings.  John Buchan's novel Thirty-Nine Steps doesn't score very well among those who've read it and rated it on Goodreads--in the 3.5 range out of 5.  Thankfully, I didn't see that rating before I considered reading the novel--I was guided to it by Robert McCrum's ranking of it in The Guardian as one of the best 100 novels (number 42 on his list).    After reading his account of it, I found a free copy and downloaded it.

I should say here that, like many of you, I tend to be a little too spontaneous at times, and my Kindle books list can attest to moments when I had a powerful initial urge to read something, but then didn't read much of it after I bought it.  Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is one of those--I enjoy Pynchon, and finished his longer works (Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, V.), but when I downloaded Against the Day, I was not really in a place to read 1,000 pages of Pynchon writing.  Nevertheless, it seemed pressing at the moment I bought it.  My spontaneity sometimes doesn't align with my commitment to reading something, so I bought the free version of Buchan's novel.  Had I not found one, I would have put it on my "to-read" list, and probably forgotten it for a while.

Boy, I am glad I found the free copy.  I started and finished it this morning.  I've said before that I'm a pretty slow reader, so it is no small feat for me to polish off a 215-page novel in a morning.  I just couldn't put it down.  The story is interesting and the writing is crisp.  There are some interesting twists to the story, but ultimately Buchan makes the narrator, Richard Hannay, a compelling, complex character.  As the story unfolds, you want to know not only what is going to happen next, but also what it will reveal about Hannay.

Buchan also plays with the theme of identity and disguise throughout the novel.  Near the end of the novel, so much of what happens depends on the idea that people can disguise themselves not by making physical changes to themselves, but by placing themselves in new settings.  It also seems to pick up the fundamental premise of Poe's "The Purloined Letter":  that the best place to hide is out in the open, in the middle of things.  Hannay himself is a chameleon who is very aware of the different identities he takes on throughout the novel.  By the end of the novel, it's clear that, to Buchan, seeing is not a reliable way to know someone's identity.

Don't be scared off by the low ratings:  Thirty-Nine Steps is a great read that belongs on McCrum's best 100 novels list.  But don't start it unless you can carve out the time to finishing it in one sitting.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Home again--the road trip is done

It's hard to believe that my last post was more than a week ago.  Since then, we drove almost 1,500 miles, attended a wedding in Charlotte, NC, stayed with friends in Raleigh, NC, and drove 14 hours in a day to get back home.

The driving was tolerable, especially the last day--I kept thinking about getting back to my favorite reading chair, and my books, and drinking coffee while reading first thing in the morning.  I also couldn't wait to see the progress of my big veggie garden--as it turns out, there was lots of rain while we were traveling, so there were lots of weeds to pull when I returned.  Still, when you finish the first four hours of driving, and realize you still have ten hours left, it feels pretty stark, and all those things seem very far away. 

Any bibliophile knows the feeling of leaving one's books, the sense of being separated from a major part of one's life.  One also knows that the reunion with one's books is exciting:  it feels like seeing them all anew.  The morning after our trip, I sat down in my chair and, looking at the books on the shelves nearest to me, time spread out in front of me:  no more trips this summer, seven more weeks until the fall semester begins, and no other major time commitments in the offing.  I imagined myself reading all the ones that suddenly interested me again in the open time that lay in front of me.  It was an exquisite feeling, though temporary.  In that moment I felt, in part, the euphoria of returning from a trip; I always want those first few hours to last for a long time.  They are the reward for the long trip home.  But as time passes, and the reality of life at home breaks through the surface of that euphoria, the reward fades.  But the books are still there . . .