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EllaMc

"So it goes."

Ella Mc's book blog. Brand new 2018 - Only books read after 1st January 2018

Currently reading

The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike
Progress: 100/307 pages

Dear Committee Members - awesome chocolate disguised as Hershey's

Dear Committee Members - Julie Schumacher

I'm stuck in this weird position where I can't move for the last 12 hours. I can basically use the computer and reach the giant stack of books my friend dragged into the room when she set me up (and thankfully fed the cat - who has knocked over the books...) Anyway, I finished Owen Meany which is a nice thick book and wanted a little diversion, but I keep falling asleep to TV, and it was too early for sleep, lest I wake up at 3 am.

 

This seemed like the ticket: an epistolary novel set in academia at the mediocre "Payne U", featuring the hapless-but-tenured Professor Jason Fitger. The building is crumbling and all the other departments have been evacuated, but English is staying while the unnamed "particulate matter" covers the place. Prof Fitger is sick of writing LORs and really wishes people like me would be more careful with apostrophes. (Time out: sometimes, despite knowing the rule since maybe birth, I find myself making that mistake anyway, Jason, and I still have to recite "i before e except after c or in sounding like ay as in neighbor or weigh" because nobody told me that if I studied German their completely conflicting rules would mix me up forever. And yes, I know I could just think German and do the opposite for English, but English was supposedly my first language and it gets to be a bit much when google insists my profession doesn't exist - at least the way we spell it -and that I MUST put an apostrophe in precisely the wrong place all the time. All this backwards thinking has ruined finely worn neural paths, creating chaos! OK back to the quick funny book where I can laugh at neurotic academia......)

 

So yeah, funny novel, takes maybe an hour to read -- laughter and joy will abound. Prof Fitger will make punny jokes and quotable quotes about college and students (oh, students *shaking my head*), repeatedly relive his tangled love life (about which he wrote at least one poorly concealed novel) and unfortunate reply all situations, apologize to everyone as he sends out constant LORs, and try to keep the creative writing/English department alive by getting his advisee's novel published -- or at least getting said advisee to finish the novel so it can be published, preferably in one of those nice writer-spending-money-to-write retreat sorts of places (known as rehab to those of us who aren't writers) and maybe he can get some prestigious grants for the unfinished advisee in the meantime, which will bring fame (or at least continued existence) to Jason's department. (Google really wants me to change nearly every apostrophe, but NO google - Jason just straightened my spine on this issue for at least the next eight hours until I'm too lazy to reject your horrific spelling and grammar advice.)

 

The LORs are priceless. I really hope that Ms. Schumacher (or is it professor?) has used these in her real life. The one for the plagiarist made my year. The "I'm writing this letter of rec b/c I was asked to" letters are real art.

 

And all the while, the advisee is not getting responses from the most prized literary residency, but Jay/Jason never gives up, working his way down the literary line to the bitter end and moving on to...I can't spoil it. You can read this novel - it's 53 minutes of belly-laughing funny.

 

Then Julie Schumacher tricked me for the last 7, maybe 8, minutes. I wanted to laugh raucously at you silly English professor types with your wit and sharp knives for anyone who crosses you, but this novel -- specifically Professor Jason Fitger -- got really serious and full of heart and even honest (not extremely honest, but much more honest than I expected.) This novel is like a perfect dark chocolate truffle wrapped in a Hershey's label. You think it's going to be just sweet, but there's a richness that you never could have expected given the wrapping.

I Love My Black Hair

Books about black hair, controversy and written by a real book lover who found her power in books and stories.

Dear Fahrenheit 451 - librarians and their loves

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks - Annie Spence

This was SO different than I'd imagined. I keep a BoB - so I'd imagined it would be more like "Life with BOB" (but somehow better - sight unseen I decided this was better based, I'm guessing, on the title.)

 

I started to read it like a regular old plotted book and decided NO! Then I actually kept reading, but what it really should be is more of a reference book about books you might love or want to buy for your nephew or something. 

 

To that end, ideally this book would have a great index of both titles and genres at least. It doesn't, but I decided to keep it because it may be better at conveying why I love The Virgin Suicides than I've ever been (nobody has ever read that book on my ridiculous recommendation, and everyone should!) It's also the most random collection of titles in the world. This woman has no shame. She admits to doing the goofy calculator tricks we all did long before there were things called "computers." Someone who does that clearly has no worries about what we think of her favorite books. 

 

There is a certain glee to her takedown of the 50 Shades books, but best of all are her observations on the people who take home the books - the introduction. Hopefully she'll write the next book of letters to all of us who hang out at the library. People like that woman who pretends she's only getting that book for her husband (then prays they don't look up vital statistics which show her husband has been dead for longer than I've lived in this library's neighborhood...) 

 

Here's to all the librarians, their love of books and lack of judgment on readers.

James Comey in his own words and my poor confused libtard brain

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership - James Comey

I'm a lefty in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I was raised with the holy trinity of MLK Jr, JFK & black Jesus on our walls,  COINTELPRO stories were the first thing I learned about the FBI, and my Catholic grade school taught liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor before I went off to Baltimore City public schools and really got indoctrinated ;). Of course all of this was pre-FOX news and in an era when truth was a real thing. My older sister married a very "law and order" type and most of my family is conservative. Only my youngest sister and I remain the good liberals we were raised to be. At work we usually have CNN in the background, and I've been known to sneak into patient rooms to get a hit of Rachel Maddow. Given all of this, I had a complicated relationship with the idea of Comey before I started this book. It was finally available from the library this week. I'm pretty conscious of the way Democrats suddenly became lovers of the intelligence community when that became anti-Trump, and I try pretty hard not to fall into "I like x because you hate it" and vice versa. But damn it can be hard. 

 

I've completely stopped watching TV news except the Maddow hits and VICE when I remember I have access to it. I start the day with a non-US newspaper and keep online subs to WaPo & NYTimes that I access on a reasonable level (more than 10 times a month though.) So I have been thinking that I'm living in my normal east coast liberal bubble, but at least trying to stay "truth-based." Because of that, one of the first big realizations from this book is how the narrative/propaganda of the president and FOX news has infiltrated my brain despite the fact that I know better and thought it was constitutionally impossible. (I experienced a bit of this earlier this year when I finally could read "What Happened" by Hillary Clinton without dissolving into tears and found it - lacking, but I didn't see that as a case of right/left - more, "I can't listen to another email story" and the book needed a better editor.)

 

All that set-up is to say that I learned a lot about James Comey from this book, and I thought I knew everything necessary before I started it. I honestly thought "do I still need to know anything about Comey? Do I care?" To learn anything given the all-Comey all-day life I lived for that weird year or two before I gave up TV in favor of keeping a shred of sanity says something for the book. Someone had put an idea of Comey in my head - and only a little bit of it seems to be at all true.

 

This is Comey's book, and it's flattering to Comey, of course. One of the first things I learned was that he's human, and his life hasn't been a cakewalk. He was bullied a lot as a kid (and since then hates bullies - you see where this will end up.) Also he and his wife lost a child to a completely preventable disease (and went on to change medical testing policies in the US - letting many more infants live, while theirs did not.) So he's quite human and has a little bit of a sense of humor. I wouldn't call him a riot, but he's not overly religious or preachy. He does, however, have a few lessons he has learned that he's clearly taken to heart in a way that may be less flexible than he imagines. He also has a habit of psychoanalyzing presidents (all three that he worked with) and other leaders that comes off as overly simplistic even while it may be based in truth. It also is sort of jerk-ish.

 

Reading this I learned how Comey ended up being That Guy during 2016. His decisions all make sense even before he explains them because he tells us how he became the person he is. He's a man who seems to be always trying to improve himself - a trait I adore in people. The fly gets into the ointment when he over-learns a basically good lesson - let's just take one example:

 

Between government jobs, Comey worked in the private sector for a company that used "radical transparency." He learned that it's best to always be honest - even when you might prefer to be "nice." In fact, it's not always "nice" to avoid the harder things - reprimands or hard truths. I call this the "spinach in my teeth test." Meaning, if you really respect me, I expect you to tell me when I have spinach stuck in my teeth, not let me continue walking around that way. This basic test can do wonders for close working relationships as well as all the personal relationships we have. It doesn't always work in every situation though - it requires the ability to read people and situations. I'll go out on a limb and say that Trump is not a person who might thank you for pointing out he has spinach in his teeth. Anyone can see that. Anyone except James Comey. Or even if he could see it, he couldn't change his "radical transparency" policy to fit his new boss. He is clearly baffled by Trump from the start.

 

Add to that bafflement and wildly different personal style the culture of DC - these men (and almost everyone is a man, though more on that in a second) who hold massive amounts of power (all the IC chiefs heads of various other government institutions, non-political government bigwigs all) don't seem to know what to do when things don't go exactly as planned. So they all just stay quiet and discuss things later or write memos and cover their arses instead of saying at meeting #1 (which we hear about in this book in detail.) It struck me that if a group of our nation's IC leaders couldn't tell the Trump team not to talk political strategy with them in the room -- all choosing to stay silent and do nothing while looking at their shoes -- then we have far larger problems than any of them are aware of. Or even the childish idea that it would be better for the other IC guys to just send Comey in alone to tell Trump about the "dossier." Why not have all four of them in there - disperse the vitriol everyone knew was coming.

 

Powerful men who can't say, "Hey - we're not political appointees. Let's stick to the topic," even to an incoming president, are already way off course. This happens again and again - silence and furtive gestures instead of awkward but at least instructive basic information: we aren't your political team. We can't hang out, Mr. President. If you won't try to deal with this situation, Mr Atty General, then to whom should I take this issue? It's not just Comey who doesn't speak up - it's every single person in every single room. And of course, it's all blown up or about to. Mr Trump may not want to hear about the spinach, he may choose to ignore the information, but at least give him the benefit of making that decision.

 

So Comey says he's transparent, but that's not the case when he's not the boss. He's still an awkward and fretful kid in those situations. Every country needs people willing to tell the emperor that he's not wearing clothes and he has spinach in his teeth. Radical Transparency goes out the window sometimes, then comes pouring back in when the coast is more clear. (To which I'd say, that's not really radical transparency at all)

 

I'm not being clear b/c it's late and this book has complicated situations, but there's lesson in here for everyone who has ever dealt with sticky interpersonal situations: don't put them off in hopes they will just go away. They usually don't. And don't jump on the high horse AFTER you stared at your shoes instead of speaking up.

 

Some of the good things Comey did while in government were: immediately upon taking over the FBI noticing that the agency was 83% white and immediately starting a big push to change that. So far it's been effective and it's still going on. He also recruited more women. He created a class taught at the academy about the way the FBI treated MLK as a lesson in not being a powermonger that continues to be one of the favorite classes of incoming recruits and does sound like an interesting class.

 

He seems to have liked and respected Obama, of course. But he also learned from him, specifically about language used in law enforcement and how some of these phrases are heard through ears that aren't white, cisgendered and male. 

 

He is willing to learn - to think about things as much as he can from other people's shoes. It was instructive to hear his thought processes about the rise in the murder rates in many (but not all) American cities following the Baltimore uprising (and similar events since Mike Brown's death.) Here he falls down language-wise. I got very upset at the way he relitigated Mike Brown's death - it was unnecessary and cruel, frankly. His editor did him a disservice in leaving that in the book - it is the only time he sounds ridiculously out of touch.

 

He doesn't have the language always for things like race relations in the US, but you can tell he really is thinking and working toward improvement. His speeches were imperfect and headlines only caught the bloopers, but his heart was in the right place, I believe, and even more - the problem still isn't solved and James Comey along with President Obama were the only two people in power who seemed to think about this rising number of dead black (mostly) men with any nuance. Hearing their frank discussion (albeit only from one side) made me hopeful.

 

He ends the book on hope too. Despite what he calls a "time of anxiety" he likens the current administration to a forest fire. Yes it's devastating and destructive, but it may be clearing  the way for new growth. (I'm pretty sure we'd all prefer a different way to grow, but OK.) All in all, while this wasn't the best book ever, it added a fuller picture and new shades to my knowledge of each situation already covered in the press and added a whole person to the idea of James Comey. What makes me most sad is that I considered not reading it because I thought "how much more do I really need to know?" That fatigue and malaise scares me. Maybe I don't need to know about Comey himself, but I need to keep thinking and protesting and writing letters and oh yeah - this week is early voting in Maryland. It reminded me that no matter how much I hear about anything, there's always more to learn, and I need to guard against propaganda more carefully than I've apparently been doing.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack - a comic book of a novel - great fun

The Regional Office is Under Attack!: A Novel - Manuel G. Gonzales

How to describe this... It's about superheroes while they're "off duty" and a specific group of superheroes -- all women. They're recruited by a place that is a travel agency unless you want to go to Akron Ohio, in which case it's the global HQ for these amazing magic women and the people who organize them.

 

And the book takes place while their HQ is under attack.

 

I can't tell you much more than that without spoiling it. It's humorous without being satire and without mocking superheroes of the more usual sort. Clearly written by someone who loves the heroes we all know and love and also completely different in the angle we watch from. The humor isn't at the expense of our usual heroes, it's just that we're in on their inner-most thoughts - stuff like "this is a f-ing ridiculous way to die" etc.

 

A very fast read because it's easy and I wanted to know how it was going to turn out. It started a tad slow, and we get the back and forth from present to past and back again (a gimmick I'm really starting to see as a novelists easy way out, but it works here.) I feared it would be all origin story, but it's absolutely not. There are very few feelings, and the only adjective is the F word - all of this sounds terrible. Maybe it's just my mood. I have been wanting light lately and this hit the spot. There's no great depth, which is exactly why it works. I've read comic books that felt a bit like this but never a novel. It's different and therefore quite interesting as well as just plain fun. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine -- she really actually is gonna be just fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
I liked this because I could relate to a lot of parts, but I don't think my star rating should count as a recommendation for just anyone. It's pretty much like a "beach read" - an easy book where everything is obvious, but it got to my heart. I saw every single plot point coming from a mile away, and the only reason I kept reading is I found her charming in the way that something horrible becomes funny ten years after it happens. (This is a coping skill of mine: "Right, life is falling apart, but in ten years, this will make a really funny story." That's sort of how you have to take Eleanor.)

Thanks, Book Club - because I'd not have touched this without you guys outvoting me once again! And I just made the cut-off for actual discussion time too. 

Seriously, this is a decent look at trauma through a non-victim lens. Eleanor Oliphant can be a difficult woman. She's sure she's right about everything, so has no clue why you might be irritated with her lack of tipping, total candor, rudeness, judgmental attitude, etc. It's clear she has some "issues" and the book is basically about how just a little human contact can go a long way toward healing even horrific damage. She really will be completely fine I'd bet.
 
(Yes, of course that's simplistic - that's why it's a beach read and not a psych textbook.)
 
 

 

We -- a prototypical dystopian novel

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin, Clarence Brown

D-503, a true believer in the authoritarian future he finds himself in, has his faith in the structures of society shaken by love. <-- a quick and dirty recap of We, D-503's diary.

The world-building in these older dystopias is very different from today's, but you can draw a straight line from We (the first novel banned by Soviet censors in 1921) to a TV show I've only seen advertised in recent years about a dome over civilization, and of course everything in between. (The dome in We is described only as something between their society and what lies outside, and it's there so people aren't soiled by nature, not because people have ruined nature.)

 

D-503 sets out in his diary to show an unknown reader how glorious his mathematically logical "unfreedom" is. How happiness can only be found with the help of state doctrine, one that says freedom will lead to complete havoc and therefore ruin the beautiful order in their society, where even sex is organized by the state - lest the mess of personal, private love ruin everything.

 

It's easy to see how this could be attractive in the abstract, and how absurdly comical it is too. Can a perfect, ordered collective actually make someone happy? Can there be a perfectly ordered collective? The knowing me says of course not, but people always want to order things, to make them less complicated and more logical. Humanity is messy, and D-503 learns this when he falls in unsanctioned lust and love. Love is anarchy, both in the book and when I really think about it (which makes my brain hurt.) Love is the most illogical, but biologically imperative, thing humans do.

 

Zamyatin doesn't rail against the state as much as I expected. Instead he reveals through increasingly confused and unsure diary entries what it means to be an individual, one who exists not just as a cog in a wheel, but one who exists also for his own purposes, with his own ideals.

 

This is a deep work that can be seen on a variety of levels, but I found it most gratifying as a rumination on how complication and chaos are vital to living a full, satisfying life, despite how much we'd all like it to be otherwise with our lists and rules. To truly live, must we allow for some disorder, some illogic, some freedom?

 

Laura Bush's WaPo article & a poem for fathers

Collected Poems - Robert Hayden, Frederick Glaysher, Arnold Rampersad

Belated happy Father's Day to all the Father's and mothers and people who act as fathers out there in booklikes world!

 

Two things: A great article by former US First Lady Laura Bush on the horrors of separating children from families found in the Washington Post. Good for her speaking up.

 

And on a less political note - a poem I've always found incredibly poignant about fathers

 

 

 Those Winter Sundays (a poem that could be for Father's Day) by Robert Hayden
 
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
 
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
 
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
 
 
Source: Collected Poems of Robert Hayden (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)

Lincoln in the Bardo (Audio)

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

I think I need to read this book. I know the audiobook has won award after award (as has the book), but it never really grabbed me. I couldn't keep my brain attached to the story. I got annoyed with it and kept rewinding, so I'm going to get an actual book copy of this from the library and try again. I love George Saunders. Honestly, the subject matter didn't interest me a ton from the blurb, so I waited. I'm a fan of his shorter work, though I quite liked Pastoralia (and don't really understand why that's not called a novel, but I digress.) 

 

So---this is a preliminary rating. Some books just don't work for me in audio. I've figured out that my brain likes to create its own sounds and sights etc, so I usually don't do audio on fiction unless it's fairly easy-breezy. Oddly I learn better from listening, but I don't like to read fiction this way as much (however, I adore audio for essays, nonfiction and many memoirs.) 

 

Honestly, I'm not all that pumped, now that I know the story, to read the book, but I feel like I owe George Saunders a decent chance. And I can't believe everyone on earth likes this book except me, so I'll read it eventually and redo this little review.

Ian Fleming's BOND KIndle books all currently on sale & KU

Add audible narration for a few more dollars, so it may be worth it if you're missing any of the series. It took me a while to find the proper links, so poke around if the link doesn't work for you.

 

Also all seem to be on Kindle Unlimited

The Recovering: Addiction & Its Aftermath

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath - Leslie Jamison
nb. I am a recovering heroin addict with decades clean. I lived through it when some medical professionals thought I wasn't worth the effort anymore. (That still upsets me - nobody should ever give up on an addict, especially medical professionals!) My addiction is private, but it's worth a mention here since it affects how I consume recovery literature.
 

I normally stay far away from recovery memoirs, having lived one myself and heard thousands more through the years. This book, though, promised to turn "the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself." My ears perked up and I took note. The blurb goes on to say (from the publisher):

All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, David Foster Wallace, and Denis Johnson, as well as brilliant figures lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here.

That interested me tremendously. I find it endlessly interesting that so many artists are sure their art is linked with their particular dysfunction -- be it mental illness, substance abuse or misogyny. And I know of some writers and other artists who have done their best work only after clearing away the wreckage of addiction (Denis Johnson, Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver to name just a few...) Jamison's theory and examples seemed (from the blurbs) to be about how the stories we tell ourselves about addiction and recovery are, in fact, part of both solution and problem. I've read enough about the hard-drinking writer. I wanted to hear about the writers who got clean and sober and continued or gone on to great success. I didn't want another quit-lit book. I wanted something deeper and more interesting. What I got was mostly (but not all) another literary drunkalog, and this ain't Tender Is The Night, Where I'm Calling From, A Moveable Feast or any of the other rather brilliant drunkalogs we have to choose from.

Jamison has been compared to such iconic writers as Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Yet her utterly singular voice also offers something new. With enormous empathy and wisdom, Jamison has given us nothing less than the story of addiction and recovery in America writ large, a definitive and revelatory account that will resonate for years to come.

Lofty, eh? It promises not just another quit-lit recovery memoir, but something that will alter the landscape.

 

So I was mighty upset when, for the entire first half of the 544-page book, we get precious little that differs from any number of other recovery memoirs, even while she explicitly states in the text that she will not be writing "just another recovery memoir." The language in this part is practically caressed, not just massaged. Every bartender's eyes or hair rates several adjectives, every drink is served with multiple metaphors. Everything is so damned beautiful. It felt -- a lot -- like the glorification of alcoholism and the behavior that comes with it. Eventually, on her own because it seems nobody else really noticed her problem, she will get sober, relapse and start over. It's here that the tone begins to change, but we're more than halfway through 544 pages at that point. In other words, she devoted a massive amount of pages to the glorious drunken Leslie and her oh-so-uniquely artistic pain.

 

At one point she says outright that she has trouble writing without putting herself in the story, and that's clear. She makes mention of the famous writers at Iowa with her, but only in passing because we're busy learning what she likes to drink, how much of it, when and how... Once she decides to get sober, she will fail and there will be a bit more longing for drinking/scheming etc, but the shine has gone, as anyone who has relapsed could tell you in far fewer words. It's after this point that the book starts to be unique. She is an excellent journalist, and I wish she'd excised her own story from this book entirely.

 

Her drinking is written in far greater detail than her recovery. She seems to take an emotional step back the minute she gets sober. I could feel fear at her vulnerability and recovery the minute it stopped being a drunkalog. Once sobriety starts, Jamison introduces journalism, statistics and experts, so we get no "other side of the coin" to the first half of the tome -- there is no honest portrayal of Jamison sober. It's obscured by her fact-finding missions and critical readings. This is where the other writers step in to give an assist.

 

Honestly it felt a bit like she used their stories of relapse and recovery to mask her own fear that she isn't qualified to write about her own recovery. Perhaps, like any smart addict, she has a fear of relapse. If you write a book called "The Recovering" you probably hope not to have to start counting days sober again after the publication date. Instead of saying that outright, though, she shows us other writers who did exactly that. The irony is that her sponsor tells her at one point that this is her problem in life -- it seems to also be a problem in her writing.

 

Jamison leads a charmed life, drunk or not. She is in prestigious writing programs and residences throughout the entire time chronicled in this book, and she's publishing too. High-functioning isn't even close to the right word. That doesn't change her pain or disqualify her sobriety, but it's worth a mention. She says nada about insurance or paying for medical care. When she does make mention of money, it's to do things most of us will only dream of - travel, foreign research, time just to write in exotic or beautiful locales. One could imagine she saw this note coming, since she shields herself from her privilege by mentioning it a few times. 

 

But between all of that extraneous and rather privileged "just another recovery memoir," there are very interesting themes and excellent journalism. She has a great hypothesis that's buried a bit deeply, but it goes something like we are all subject to being seduced by the stories we tell ourselves and it might be good, if scary and different, to tell ourselves healthy stories rather than unhealthy ones. Artists don't have to write with their own blood, and if they do, they'll eventually bleed out. She has an excellent critical eye for reading others' writing and pulling support for her story out of their words. Those parts are extremely compelling, and I really wish that the majority of the massive amount of pages had gone to that.

 

One final thing. While she makes mention of the big names who were known to drink, some of these writers also seem to have suffered from comorbid disorders, and that is never discussed. I can't say, nor can Leslie Jamison or for that matter, her relative, author and psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison, whether many of these suicides were caused by one specific illness - be it alcoholism or an affective disorder. I do wish these rather large topics weren't skipped. They're important, even if they don't fit neatly within the narrative built here.

 

What I would hope is that the personal story be completely excised next time and the researching, critical eye step in. Her best work is when she empathizes with the writing of others and explains it from the standpoint of one who has felt those feelings and lived to tell.

 

 

 

The Fever by Megan Abbott - Mass Hysteria is a real problem in the internet age

The Fever: A Novel - Megan Abbott

At one point I considered throwing this a la Dorothy Parker. It seemed like it was heading to be way more misogynistic than it eventually turned out to be. It also turned out to be less of a thriller than it first seemed. I suppose if I'm forced to choose, I'd rather a modern woman write an unimpressive book than a misogynistic one, so OK. Onward --

 

 

I wanted to read something by Megan Abbott, and this was on Kindle sale. Turns out to be a bad way to pick an author's book. I'll give her another try with a more highly praised book. I didn't look at reviews beyond goodreads until after I was halfway through. The NYTimes really beat her up on this one, and I think they were unfair. They seem to think she just wants to tell a morality tale about staying away from sex IF you're a girl. Here's a quote or two:

 

this book’s punitive view of female sexuality is worth noting for its kinship with nonfiction writers like Caitlin Flanagan, Wendy Shalit and Laura Sessions Stepp, who argue that young women should protect themselves from the complications of sex by treating their sexuality as merely a minor component of monogamy. 

 

perhaps the difficulty many young women have in navigating their sexual choices stems in part from the ­pervasive depiction of lustful girls as hysterical and self-destructive, and ­lustful boys as simply normal; the assumption that sexual responsibility is solely up to women; and the confusing portrayals of vulnerability in girls as both dangerous (“a havoc upon his sweet daughter’s small, graceful little body”) and sexy (“She kept laughing and covering her face,” a boy recalls of the beautiful Lise. “She was so . . . young”), while vulnerability in boys is rarely acknowledged at all.

 

The problem with the Times' take is that this story REALLY happened. Not once, but many times and as the internet has grown in influence and availability, we're seeing more and more of these "outbreaks" of what can only be called female hysteria (technically MPI or Mass Psychogenic Illness.) It doesn't seem to affect boys and men nearly as much as it does adolescent girls. There are some important reasons (all are society-based and stem from gender expectations and conformity. MPI is "caused" by stress, and they aren't faking - these are real symptoms and it's scary. It "spreads" by one person seeing another getting sick, then they "get sick" too and on it goes. As the internet offers teens a ton of ways to communicate and share without anyone knowing, this is becoming more - not less - prevalent.)

 

So, I'd already read this story -- in the form of the multitude of breathless news reports from the 2012 NY events on which this book is based, followed and augmented by medical assessments and papers on that and similar 2002, 2001, 1998, 1992... events (and countless other similar events dating back to the Salem Witch Trials -- mass hysteria ain't nuttin new. BTW, those outbreaks are just the ones I remember.)

 

So, now onto the book and it's very connected. It is the same story with a crime tossed in for good measure.

"Eli couldn't figure out what it all meant, but he knew it meant something."

Dumb character alert! Eli may be the sharpest knife in this drawer, and that's his level of insight and observation.

 

With the addition of one little crime (OK, a bad crime, but it got only a couple paragraphs) that went entirely unexplained or examined, this was another female writer who wrote flat female characters with pale beautiful inner thighs and fragile bodies, but their brains can't hold more than one idea at a time. THANK GOD for the strong silent brother and the father full of vindictive divorce angst who can hold it in while playing father of the year and worrying about his fragile and small girl while seemingly having nothing at all to do with his son except when his daughter demands they take a ride. Oh, and there's a "slutty" mother who I'm pretty sure only exists to scream one of the silliest lines ever about "men and your sperm" through a phone. The whole book was Troy NY played out again in novel form. Instead of writing an ending, we got a page of "news report" that didn't explain anything beyond "a crime took place" - oh, and everyone is now fine.

 

Megan Abbott wrote a very good general interest piece for the Huffington Post on the Troy MPI outbreak, so I'm absolutely sure I'd have preferred to read a nonfiction account that didn't involve stick figure characters and tricks that even *I* know not to use in a thriller: 

It's all a case of mistaken identity that causes a jealous teenaged girl to poison another teenaged girl, then they all start dropping

(show spoiler)

 - that's it, but we get it only from a pagelong "news report." There is nothing much that follows that. Apparently they all just go back to the way things were previously (the book ends, so I don't know.) It would have been nice to read about how on earth this town of panicked kids with insanely panicked parents ended up this way or got back to normal, but much like the mass media - once the crazy stops, nobody waits around to see about the aftermath.

 

I was very disappointed for more than one reason, but I am actively looking for suggestions about Megan Abbott's books that aren't this one.

Great surprise

There There - Tommy Orange

I loved this & wrote a review last night in the wee hours (I should look at the typing...)

 

Today I learned that I'm getting a SIGNED FIRST EDITION in the mail! I'd borrowed my copy from the library, and I seriously argued with myself about buying my own copy after loving it so much (I do this with books I love sometimes.) I was forcing myself to wait a year, then today I learned that I am getting a copy of it -- a signed copy too!

 

Yay

There There by Tommy Orange - Urban Indians and lost connections

There There - Tommy Orange

If this is what Tommy Orange writes for his debut, we have a major talent writing right now. My copy of There There arrived today. It's nearly 3 AM, and I just finished. No food, no sleep; I couldn't put this book down.

"This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there."


That title gathers more meaning with every character, chapter and section. By the end the weight of not knowing exactly who you are or where you come from is a heavy weight even for a reader. All the characters have different experiences and difficulties, but they are all in search of connection to their own community, and none seem sure they belong to that community or if that community will allow them to belong to it. What is the character with an advanced degree in Native American Studies to do when he can't find a job? What about someone born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who wears his face as a constant reminder? What about native peoples who have to learn all of their heritage and how to practice it from YouTube or Google searches? Beyond poverty, unemployment, far too much alcoholism, there is death, devastation and a lot of shame in these characters. While they don't rise above in Hollywood ways, getting through the day - learning and growing and putting one foot in front of the other - while continuing to strive for that connection is pretty triumphant. 

The characters are fully realized. We know why they do what they do, and we get a sense of how they feel about their current and past selves. It takes a minute but we understand their connections to each other better than they do by the end of the novel. We also get a sense of how these people came to be so broken from the proud nations that the Americas have systematically wiped out. What is most clear is that the bloodbath that came to America with the first settlers has left a never-ending trail of trauma. And in case we might miss it from just the stories, there's one of the best essays -- seemingly well-researched and certainly well-written that pulls no punches right in the beginning of the novel. While the characters don't escape unscathed, neither will a reader. In writing this so openly and leaving the sharp edges intact, Mr. Orange has held a mirror up to the Americas - whether the reader is indigenous or not.

There are many major characters in this novel, all in various stages of heading to the Oakland Powwow. While some have visited a Reservation, they are mostly urban or suburban and none seem fully connected to their native culture. This isn't a reservation story or a historical account. These indigenous people live in the here and now, in the cities (mostly Oakland) and do all of the things everyone else in the city does, including riding the subway and not dressing up (except maybe on the day of the Powwow.) At first they don't seem to be related, but as the chapters and parts of the book move along, their connections become clear and that broke my heart even more. Missed connections, searching out parents or grandchildren you've never known, searching for yourself - all of these are explored and there are no pat answers. In fact, the book ends on one of the most wistful non-answers in recent memory. I love a book that refuses to put a pretty bow on top, and had Mr. Orange packaged the ending that way, everything that came before would have been cheapened.

What you get here is a journey, good stories, interesting characters, but no perfect answers. How could there be perfect answers to such a long history of carnage and stolen identity?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier -- Look out Jung & Freud. Du Maurier does it better.

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier, Sally Beauman

I've never read this before, nor have I seen the movie. Not sure how I missed the film, but I did. I was shocked at all the psychological twisty, rather deep and dark Freudian/Jungian stuff found in this novel. I mean, I knew it was a classic and sort of an intertext-something (I really should take a class on how to read a novel) to Jane Eyre, but I'm almost shocked at how affecting this novel was for me..

 

Oddly this is the second book in a row that seems to be a callback or response to another classic novel. I just finished a 2017 "response" (I'd call it) to the Great Gatsby (No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts), and today I read Rebecca which is certainly a fierce response or some better word to Jane Eyre. Both novels stand very firmly on their own. They didn't need the other books, but it's incredibly interesting to see how they respond to some of the material in the earlier classics. If I have the time, someday, I'm going to take a class on how to explain myself better about books. Back to Rebecca...

 

Normally a simpering woman who is dying for a man to just sweep her away from it all (no matter when it was written) would turn me off. The fact that she's afraid to trouble him or speak up to him makes sense, but also made me very sad for her at first. The genius is though I kept thinking "pack it up. Leave him," I felt connected to the nameless narrator through the novel as if I was the one in her position. I felt stuck. I felt nervous. I cringed along with her. I found my pulse quickening every time Mrs. Danvers came near. I was scared - literally scared while reading this in the middle of the day.

 

The dreams that begin and end the book are stunning in the way they set the mood and tell the truth when our narrator can't seem to tell herself the truth. Her daydreams are full of fanciful, childish nattering, but the dreams are the real thing. The juxtaposition of the truth in her dreams v the silliness of her daydreams is very telling and full of foreboding. Du Maurier writes very melodramatic plot without ever tipping into sentimental or soggy language so well that it's almost easy to miss how melodramatic the plot actually is. She's also a master of class and all those games people play, which is a callback to Jane Eyre, but so much of this is in the narrator's fearful mind that it's wildly different from the actual scenes in Jane Eyre. 

 

I also think the nameless narrator is a perfect way to add one more layer of her personality -- added to her hair, the way she dresses, all of her hiding, acquiescing, nail biting, her class and the way they met -- this is a well-built and very believable character. The daydreaming tops it off for me. She can't deal with her life and shunts all of her wishes and fears into fantasy.

 

One more thought is that these women - the two Mrs. de Winters - are like two sides of the same person, and in the end de Winter manages to kill them both (and they're both willing to let him.) Sure, the narrator is technically still alive, but it's just a slower/different form of death. There's a lot to say about that from the world of psychobabble, but I'll spare us all.

 

My final thought was "did Sylvia Plath love this novel?" I don't know, but in her late (mostly Ariel-era) poems, there's a lot  that has the feel (and some of the imagery) of this novel. I tried to do a quick search, but all I learned is that Agatha Christie wrote to du Maurier about the nameless narrator.

 

Anyway, I loved it. It moved me. I'm not sure what I learned but if I'd gotten a degree in psychoanalysis, I would have wanted to use this as some part of my dissertation: especially in the responses of women to the women in the novel. 

No One Is Coming to Save Us -- Black, updated Gatsby? Not really.

No One Is Coming to Save Us - Stephanie Powell Watts

"People can be like home sometimes and that's if you are very, very lucky."

Forget Gatsby. Beyond some names and some lines that go almost in exactly the opposite direction (see above), this is a novel that stands on its own, doesn't need Fitzgerald, and is only loosely related in the most academic of ways.

 

This is about dreams we stifle because well -- life. Life gets in the way of so much. Are we to be constantly disappointed or should we just be happy that we have anything at all? Are we better off in constant search of something better or settling in and cherishing what we already have - be that people, love, books, friends or a big house on a hill.

 

“Haven’t we always done this trick?

If you can’t get what you want, want something else.”

 

It's way better than it would've been if Stephanie Powell Watts had stuck only to the Gatsby story. It's a very worthwhile read, all on its own, with an awful lot of wisdom that doesn't come from Fitzgerald. It times it seems like the anti-Gatsby, and there's something to be said for that.

 

One slightly distracting thing was the copy I read (hardcover from the library) had a ton of strange typos. The punctuation was a mess, and that doesn't ruin a story, but was distracting to me. I hope they'll fix it before a reprint, and I really hope it gets a reprint because this is a good read.