The Problem With THE GOLDFINCH, or In Praise of the E-reader

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I’ve been slogging my way through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for several weeks now.

I set up my work space in the living area and it sits on the edge of the coffee table. All 534,854,354,350 pages of it. All 50 pounds of it. I go to bed and I set it right next to me on the edge of my desk. It’s only a matter of time before it falls those few inches and gives me a concussion.

I use it to kill flies and small rodents  from time to time.

Even this R.o.U.S. is no match for The Goldfinch.

It’s fantastic, of course. It’s full of characters I love (and a couple I love to hate), gorgeous detail, and, even given my love of economical writing, I feel it meanders beautifully.

I just. Can’t. Finish it.

When I bought it I was insistent on buying the hulking hardcover. I still love the feel of a huge book in my hands. I love the idea of curling up on the couch or in the bed with multiple pounds of reading material in my lap. “The idea of.”

I was anti-e-reader for a long time. Huzbin bought me my first e-reader for Christmas a couple of years ago in an effort to salvage our living space. (That hasn’t worked; I still buy hard-copy books like crazy.) But the e-reader wormed its way into my daily routines, and even moreso when my parents gave me another the next Christmas that was much more conducive to my needs.

Which is easier to carry?

I always carried books everywhere, which made purse-buying a pain. I read while waiting for appointments, walking the dog, and in stand-still traffic (don’t judge – you just wish you’d thought of it first). This is so much more convenient with an e-reader, though, and now I’m able to read in ways I wasn’t able to before.

I actually fall asleep reading, but not in such a way that I have to wake up again and turn off the light. I actually lay down, turn off all the lights, and hold my e-reader next to my head on the mattress so I can actually read until I fall asleep. The e-reader goes to sleep and it’s in a nice cover so when I roll on top of it or it falls off the bed it’s fine. I probably do most of my reading this way now.

I still dig a paperback and even a nice, lightweight hardcover, but I’ve become fairly fussy about the format of my books. I’m heartbroken that I apparently can’t handle a hefty hardcover anymore.

I took The Goldfinch out for a walk with the dogs but that was a disaster. I needed both hands to hold it and keep the pages from flipping while the dogs pulled and wrapped around my legs. (Multitasking is not a problem when the tasks are limited to no more than one limb per task.) I tried falling asleep with the book but book lights are clunky and when I conked out so did the book. Nearly broke my nose.

So. I’m not proud of it. I feel like a bit of a traitor, in fact. But if it means I’m able to read more, and more comfortably, I guess embracing e-readers is… okay. Especially in place of 500+ -page books.

And maybe I’ll actually finish The Goldfinch by the time the 2015 Pulitzer is awarded.

Dressing Down GETTING DRESSED

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I love Drexel University’s The Smart Set. I get their regular e-mails in an effort to keep up. I had never read anything by Paula Marantz Cohen before, but I love the sound of Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism and I’ve heard of one of her novels (do you feel the “however” coming?). While Paula Marantz Cohen’s Getting Dressed sounded very promising (Confession, Criticism, Cultural History, right?), I think it’s safe to say I was not the target audience.

I was hoping for an investigation of the “clothing” element of appearance as it relates to identity and how it has evolved through history. But 30 pages is barely enough to scratch the surface, especially when the 30 pages are divided into five different categories of appearance (of which clothing is only one) plus an introduction. Rather, it felt like a transcript of Gossip Girl‘s Blair Waldorf’s collected musings on style. Which can be fun in the right context, but put forth by Drexel University and The Smart Set it was off-putting.

Listed below are some tidbits that troubled me:

      • Women have a long history of being expected to create themselves through what they wear. Why should they not take ownership of this tradition? 

        Consider it shackle-chic: think of all the bondage chokers and pants we wore in the early 2000’s, for example. It’s like that. (This would be less troublesome if the rest of the text didn’t blindly embrace gender-based expectations.)

 

      • The idea of applying makeup may seem weird to the sorts of people that shop at L.L. Bean and love to go camping, but for many women, it is as integral a part of their daily routine as combing their hair or brushing their teeth.

        So basically there are two types of women: those who camp and those who ‘do.

 

      • Lipstick can range from practically indelible to the sheerest gloss, in flavors from watermelon to key lime pie (an ideal snack for the anorexic), and have secondary functions…


        For those of us who can’t manage the extra calories in low-fat sugar-free yogurt.

 

      • I suspect that men are more violent than women because they don’t have these “time-outs” in which to take stock and put their masks in place. If they wore makeup, they might think twice about going to war where, moreover, the opportunities to put on lip gloss are decidedly curtailed. 

        And here I thought it was sugar and spice and everything nice that made us so docile.

 

      • Some of the conventions of what we conceive of as lady-like (quiet, prim, stoical, regal) might have their origin in simple vanity. The lock-jawed sophisticate may just be hiding a set of bad teeth. Which only shows how body esthetics can deeply influence one’s bearing and even, ultimately, one’s personality. 

        We snuck up on something significant here but don’t worry – it doesn’t go any further than this. In this excerpt the problem of gender expectations pertaining to appearance is all but identified, and glossed over. (Get it? Gloss?)

 

      • The phrase “bad hair,” often used in black communities to refer to their hair as it compares with white hair, is not fair to those of us who are white and don’t have so-called “good hair.” 

        #BlackPrivilege am I right???

 

      • … To say anything regarding the body is “bad” fails to take into account how difficulty can spur improvement and even greatness.


        That started out so promising, but at least it inspired me to embrace halitosis.

 

      • I can only remember one man, an Iranian with a salon on Madison Avenue in New York City, who seemed to understand my hair—but he disappeared not long after I discovered him, presumably to evade the authorities with regard to the disappearance of his second wife.

        Raise your hand if you think he disappeared when the “narrator” called INS on him? (In isolation this comment is maybe on the less sketchy side, but the text is just really on an offensive roll at this point so I have trouble overlooking it.)

 

      • To go gray, would be to succumb to looking old. One can be old, one can even look old by default, but to succumb to looking old—that is simply not acceptable. 

        Because a Joan Rivers look is better than Meryl Streep, obvy. And if you come out looking like Michael Jackson, at least you tried!

 

      • If you wear Birkenstocks, let’s face it, we know all we need to know about you. 

        Not all you need to know but maybe all the “narrator” has the ability to retain?

 

      • Sometimes a careful, high-heeled step can empower, while a fast, sneakered walk can diminish. Does one want to be regal or ragtag? 

        Scenarios in which I’d prefer to be “ragtag”: a moshpit, working out, running from a bear. In all seriousness, I feel far more empowered moving freely and quickly than I ever do in pumps.

I don’t necessarily want to dissuade anyone from reading the text but I definitely take issue with it. There are a couple of interesting historical tidbits, most of which aren’t news to most people. I do not doubt that Cohen could potentially compose an enlightening book-length work given more than 30 pages to work with. There are interesting points that have no room to expand and, perhaps, even the more troublesome excerpts would be less so with some explanation. Ultimately, however, I find it reads like a How to Be Audrey Hepburn primer… and there is definitely an audience for that.

LOOT 4.17.14

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Know what’s great about clearing out any old books you can bear to part with? It makes room – and gets you store credit – for more books!

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

In the novel that won her the Booker Prize and established her international reputation, Anita Brookner finds a new vocabulary for framing the eternal question “Why love?” It tells the story of Edith Hope, who writes romance novels under a psudonym. When her life begins to resemble the plots of her own novels, however, Edith flees to Switzerland, where the quiet luxury of the Hotel du Lac promises to resore her to her senses.

But instead of peace and rest, Edith finds herself sequestered at the hotel with an assortment of love’s casualties and exiles. She also attracts the attention of a worldly man determined to release her unused capacity for mischief and pleasure.

 

The Dinner by Herman Koch

A summer’s evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the delicate scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of politeness – the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But the empty words hide a terrible conflict and, with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened… Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. Together, the boys have committed a horrifying act, caught on camera, and their grainy images have been beamed into living rooms across the nation; despite a police manhunt, the boys remain unidentified – by everyone except their parents. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children and, as civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

 

Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman

Her boyfriend said she was quirky but it was more than that. Some things were important in life. You had to fight for them. Helen was prepared for that. Only she wasn’t as strong as people thought. She tried to be but didn’t always succeed. Nobody does, not all the time.

Trust, love, friendship; the lives of others, relationships; parents, children, lovers; and death, and the rich, and poor; safety, security; home and homelessness. The ordinary stuff of life but extraordinary too when you think about it. As Helen did, each waking hour, as day follows dawn, till that strangest of moments on the way home from work this tall, skinny down-at-heel guy crossed the road in front of her taxi. Brian? Her long-lost brother? How could it be? But it was his shape, his way of moving, his very presence. Could it be? So begins this twenty-four hours in the life of this ordinary young woman, as ordinary, as unique, as each and every one of us.

 

Tenth of December by George Saunders

George Saunders, one of our most important writers, is back with a masterful, deeply felt collection that takes his literary powers to a new level. In a recent interview, when asked how he saw the role of the writer, Saunders said: “To me, the writer’s main job is to make the story unscroll in such a way that the reader is snared-she’s right there, seeing things happen and caring about them. And if you dedicate yourself to this job, the meanings more or less take care of themselves.” In Tenth of December, the reader is always right there, and the meanings are beautiful and profound and abundant. The title story is an exquisite, moving account of the intersection, at a frozen lake in the woods, of a young misfit and a middle-aged cancer patient who goes there to commit suicide, only to end up saving the boy’s life. “Home” is the often funny, often poignant account of a soldier returning from the war. And “Victory Lap” is a taut, inventive story about the attempted abduction of a teenage girl. In all, Tenth of December is George Saunders at his absolute best, a collection of stories and characters that add up to something deep, irreducible, and uniquely American.

 

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Pa`nop´ti`con ( noun). A circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times. [Greek panoptos ‘seen by all’] Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform. Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is a counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts and a pillbox hat. She is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met. The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad hoc family there. Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leave her job for an elephant sanctuary in India but is determined to force Anais to confront the circumstances of her birth before she goes. Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a liberty – a fact. And the experiment is closing in.

Men, Women, and Children by Chad Kultgen

In this, his most ambitious and surprising book yet, Kultgen explores the sexual pressures at work on two different generations navigating the same Internet landscape: junior high school students and their parents.

Among the families traced in Men, Women & Children:

•Kent, a recent divorcé re-entering the dating world—and his son, Tim, a football star-turned-World of Warcraft-addict, who learns via Facebook that his mom is getting remarried.

• Dawn, a single mom who charges anonymous men $12.95 a month to view suggestive online pictures of her daughter, Hannah—who wants to lose her v-card before any other eighth grader.

• Don, who sneaks onto any available computer for his daily fix of streaming porn—and his son, Chris, whose porn tastes make his father’s look like Disney.

• Patricia, who is determined to keep the demons of the Internet from preying on her daughter, Brandy—who uses her secret MySpace identity to try on an alternative Goth identity and blog about threesomes she’s never had.

Whether thirteen or thirty-five, Kultgen’s characters inhabit a world where privacy is non-existent, sex is currency, and information never disappears—yet happiness is still a dream.

Family Album by Penelope Lively

A big shabby Victorian suburban house, the smell of raincoats and coq au vin in the hall, the six mugs for the children slung from the kitchen dresser hooks: for destructive Paul, difficult Gina, elegant Sandra, considerate Katie, clever Roger and flighty Clare, Allersmead was the perfect place to grow up. But was it? Now grown-up and off in different directions, one by one the children return to Allersmead, to their home-making mother and aloof writer father and a house that for years has played silent witness to the secrets of a family, and one particular secret of which no one speaks…

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father’s ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura’s best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents’ respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro Accord, a plan for their lives together that’s now thirty years old and has largely come true. He’d left screenwriting and Los Angeles behind for the sort of New England college his snobby academic parents had always aspired to in vain; they’d moved into an old house full of character; and they’d started a family. Check, check and check.

But be careful what you pray for, especially if you manage to achieve it. By the end of this perfectly lovely weekend, the past has so thoroughly swamped the present that the future suddenly hangs in the balance. And when, a year later, a far more important wedding takes place, their beloved Laura’s, on the coast of Maine, Griffin’s chauffeuring two urns of ashes as he contends once more with Joy and her large, unruly family, and both he and she have brought dates along. How in the world could this have happened?

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.

When ex-NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.

No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel

In 1939, the families in a remote Jewish village in Romania feel the war close in on them. Their tribe has moved and escaped for thousands of years- across oceans, deserts, and mountains-but now, it seems, there is nowhere else to go. Danger is imminent in every direction, yet the territory of imagination and belief is limitless. At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and a mysterious stranger who has washed up on the riverbank, the villagers decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known and start over from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child, are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope. But the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one, eventually overtaking it, and soon our narrator-the girl, grown into a young mother-must flee her village, move from one world to the next, to find her husband and save her children, and propel them toward a real and hopeful future.

Attending Aphra Behn’s THE ROVER

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I lucked into a couple of tickets to the Mason Players’ production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover at GMU. My boss couldn’t use the tickets and gave them to Michelle (“Ann Perkins, you priceless, expensive gem”) and me. Michelle then realized she was supposed to be at a wine tasting/painting class (Worst Excuse Ever? How Picasso Happened? you be the judge), so I was left with two tickets to a play I knew nothing about and no one to go with.

Huzbin, for starters, would rather listen to 10 hours of “Everything Is Awesome” in its entirety than see any play I would be interested in. Then again, he’s the same person who made it two hours into this just to see if he could get through the whole thing. Work was slow at the time.

I was hesitant to invite Poof because I knew she would feel obligated to go whether she wanted to or not, just so I would have someone to go with.

When I was home from college once, I set out to go to the movies alone to see Alpha Dog. No one else was interested. Poof asked me to wait, threw on her shoes and a jacket, and came with me just because she thought it so pitiful to see a movie alone. I didn’t want to tell her no because she was doing a nice thing, but I did not want to see that movie with her. It was a little too nudity-and-implied-threesomesy to watch with her.

 They performed in what was more large room than theater. Leave it to my boss to get the kind of front-row-center tickets that can only end in audience participation. I had to tuck my feet under the chair to keep my toes off of the “stage” and Sharpied masking tape marked the seat numbers.

Here’s my copy. It’s very sophisticated.

Watching the production required some adjustment. I could see the sweat on the actors’ upper lips as they were playing as if to the back of the Kennedy Center. Their costumes certainly would have been more effective in that setting, but it’s not their fault I could see the spiderweb threads of hot glue hanging from the ribbons on their shoes.

Ultimately, though, it was awesome.

In the literal sense of the word: awe-some.

As I was watching the play – and positively howling with laughter – I considered my luck. I studied medieval and Renaissance literature in college but never made it as far as The Rover, so I downloaded it the night before (whatup public domain) in preparation for the performance. Not only would I probably never have read it without happening upon these tickets, but what are the chances I would have otherwise seen it performed in my incredibly limited financial and social sphere?

And the performance was everything. While Chelsea Townsend played a deliciously feisty Valeria, Briana Ortiz a pleasantly fussy Moretta, and Nerissa Hart a charming Callis, I think I figured out why theater frequently grates on me (blasphemy, I know): there is a fine line between projecting and being positively shrill, especially for the female voice.

The men had an easier time of it. Justin Hashagen as Belvile was an immediately commanding presence and a perfectly charming/never simpering man-in-love. Calil Davis made me wish (so hard!) that Frederick played a bigger part in the events of the play… and for me to wish a change to the original text is saying something.

Now HERE’S a Willmore.

The show-stealer, however, and the entire reason this production is even worth recording for my own memory if for no other reason, was Aaron Sulkin’s Willmore. In reading The Rover the night before (granted I read through it quickly), it was not immediately clear to me why the play was named for Willmore. In my initial reading, he seemed no more or less important than Belvile, for example, or even Blunt (who, acted by Bradyn Heck, was adorable – really, the guy made an attempted gang-rape close to adorable). So I don’t know if Willmore merited more attention than I initially gave him or if it was just Aaron Sulkin himself, but Willmore was suddenly the axis on which everything else turned. Many of the other actors were a real treat, but I found myself enthralled by Willmore when he was present, and when he wasn’t I was waiting impatiently for his next appearance.

Needless to say, I was deeply frustrated when I researched the actors’ work and couldn’t track down Song of Roland. I hope Sulkin continues acting. He’s a charming cad. I could totally see him as the next in the tradition of unconventional-looking red-headed actors who are so incredibly winning as villains and/or antiheroes that they become major sex symbols, à la Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The moral of the story…? Hm. See more plays? Support college theater? Read Aphra Behn? I guess it’s that one. It was just so thrilling to read and see a new play, especially after teaching Romeo and Juliet for the tenth time.

Why has this play not gotten more attention?!

LOOT: 3.18.14

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Thank god for tax refunds! On my celebratory outing with Huzbin, we swung by the bookstore and here’s what I picked up:

 

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning novel imagines Australia’s youth, before its dynamic passions became dangerous habits. It is also a startling and unusual love story. Oscar is a young English clergyman who has broken with his past and developed a disturbing talent for gambling. A country girl of singular ambition, Lucinda moves to Sydney, driven by dreams of self-reliance and the building of an industrial Utopia. Together this unlikely pair create and are created by the spectacle of mid-nineteenth century Australia. Peter Carey’s visionary brilliance, and his capacity to delight and surprise, propel this story to its stunning conclusion.

 

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

Dirty Work is the story of two men, strangers�one white, the other black. Both were born and raised in Mississippi. Both fought in Vietnam. Both were gravely wounded. Now, twenty-two years later, the two men lie in adjacent beds in a VA hospital.Over the course of a day and a night, Walter James and Braiden Chaney talk of memories, of passions, of fate.

With great vision, humor, and courage, Brown writes mostly about love in a story about the waste of war.

 

 

Unless by Carol Shields

Forty-four-year-old Reta Winters, wife, mother, writer, and translator, is living a happy life until one of her three daughters drops out of university to sit on a downtown street corner silent and cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap and a placard round her neck that says “Goodness.”

 

 

 

 

Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx

The stories in Annie Proulx’s new collection are peopled by characters who struggle with circumstances beyond their control in a kind of rural noir half-light. Trouble comes at them from unexpected angles, and they will themselves through it, hardheaded and resourceful. Bound by the land and by custom, they inhabit worlds that are often isolated, dangerous, and in Proulx’s bold prose, stunningly vivid.

In “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” rancher Gilbert Wolfscale, alienated from his sons, bewildered by his criminal ex-wife, gets shoved down his throat the fact that the old-style ranch life has gone. Several stories concern the eccentric denizens of Elk Tooth, a tiny hamlet where life revolves around three bars. Elk Toothers enter beard-growing contests, scrape together a living hauling hay, catch poachers in unorthodox ways. “Man Crawling out of Trees” is about urban newcomers from the east and their discovery, too late, that one of them has violated the deepest ethics of the place. Above all, these stories are about the compelling lives of rapidly disappearing rural Americans.

Through Proulx’s knowledge of the history of Wyoming and the west, her interest in landscape and place, and her sympathy for the sheer will it takes to survive, we see the seared heart of the tough people who live in the emptiest state. Proulx, winner of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and many other prizes, has written a collection of spectacularly satisfying stories.

 

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Its doomed hero is Arthur Phillips, a young man struggling with a larger-than-life father, a con artist who works wonders of deception but is a most unreliable parent. Arthur is raised in an enchanted world of smoke and mirrors where the only unshifting truth is his father’s and his beloved twin sister’s deep and abiding love for the works of William Shakespeare—a love so pervasive that Arthur becomes a writer in a misguided bid for their approval and affection.

Years later, Arthur’s father, imprisoned for decades and nearing the end of his life, shares with Arthur a treasure he’s kept secret for half a century: a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, titled The Tragedy of Arthur. But Arthur and his sister also inherit their father’s mission: to see the play published and acknowledged as the Bard’s last great gift to humanity. . . .

Unless it’s their father’s last great con.

 

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley

This reissue of Grace Paley’s classic collection—a finalist for the National Book Award—demonstrates her rich use of language as well as her extraordinary insight into and compassion for her characters, moving from the hilarious to the tragic and back again. Whether writing about the love (and conflict) between parents and children or between husband and wife, or about the struggles of aging single mothers or disheartened political organizers to make sense of the world, she brings the same unerring ear for the rhythm of life as it is actually lived.

Other sweet deals I’ve gotten recently:

 

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She’s undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her.

But Celeste’s devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsession—fourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfill her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning.

In mere weeks, Celeste has chosen and lured the lusciously naive Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his teacher, and, most important, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after school; rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works late; body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods.

Ever mindful of the danger—the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind—the hyperbolically insatiable Celeste bypasses each hurdle with swift thinking and shameless determination, even when the solutions involve greater misdeeds than the affair itself. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress driven by pure motivation. She deceives everyone, and cares nothing for anyone or anything but her own pleasure.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

In the fields and forests of western New York State in the late 1960s, several dozen idealists set out to live off the land, founding what becomes a famous commune centered on the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House. Arcadia follows this lyrical, rollicking, tragic, and exquisite utopian dream from its hopeful start through its heyday and after. The story is told from the point of view of Bit, a fascinating character and the first child born in Arcadia.

 

 

 

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

 

 

 

 

 

The Death of Fidel Perez by Elizabeth Huergo

On July 26, 2003, the 50th anniversary of the Moncada Army Barracks raid in Santiago de Cuba, something unexpected happens. When Fidel Pérez and his brother accidentally tumble to their deaths from their Havana balcony, the neighbors’ outcry, �Fidel has fallen,” is misinterpreted by those who hear it. The misinformation quickly ripples outward, and it reawakens the city. Three Cubans in particular are affected by the news—an elderly vagrant Saturnina, Professor Pedro Valle, and his student Camilo—all haunted by the past and now forced to confront a new future, perhaps another revolution. Their stories are beautifully intertwined as they converge in the frantic crowd that gathers in La Plaza de la Revolución.

 

Electric Literature No. 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

A wealthy and notorious clan, the Bellefleurs live in a region not unlike the Adirondacks, in an enormous mansion on the shores of mythical Lake Noir. Written with a voluptuousness and immediacy unusual even for Oates, Bellefleur was hailed upon publication as the culmination of her work.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger

Yuan Zhao, a celebrated Chinese performance artist and political dissident, has accepted a one year’s artist’s residency in Los Angeles. He is to be a Visiting Scholar at the St. Anselm’s School for Girls, teaching advanced art, and hosted by one of the school’s most devoted families: the wealthy if dysfunctional Traverses. But when their guest arrives, the Traverses are preoccupied with their own problems. Cece—devoted mother and contemporary art enthusiast—worries about the recent arrest of her son, Max. Unable to communicate with her husband, Gordon, a psychiatrist distracted by his passion for genealogical research, she turns to Gordon’s wayward brother, Phil. Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Olivia Travers is just relieved that her classmates seem to be ignoring the weird Chinese art teacher living in her pool house—at least until a brilliant but troublesome new student appears in his class.

The dissident, for his part, is delighted to be left alone. His relationship to the 1989 Democracy Movement and his past in a Beijing underground artists’ community together give him reason for not wanting to be scrutinized too carefully. The trouble starts when he and his American hosts begin to see one another with clearer eyes.

I Have an Op-ed Issue

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This is old news, but the other day I read for the first time Anna Gunn’s op-ed for the New York Times (who can collectively burn in hell, by the way—the New York Times, not Anna Gunn).

Anna Gunn was disturbed by the public’s reaction to her infamous character, Skyler White. Gunn notes, “The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.’ “

However, Gunn finally comes to the following conclusion:

But I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.

Anna Gunn’s piece reminds me of Vera Farmiga, who plays a stunning Norma Bates in A&E’s Bates Motel, explaining to Entertainment Weekly some time ago that she feels protective of her character. (” ‘I got into this wanting to defend who that woman was,’ Farmiga says.”) Farmiga plays a stunning Norma Bates because she understands Norma deeply enough to be protective of her. Certainly that must be why Anna Gunn plays an amazing Skyler White, despite popular adverse reaction.

This popular reaction, it’s worth noting, should be credited to her talent as an actor. Unfortunately, though, Gunn doesn’t seem to realize that she’s suffering from Joffrey Baratheon syndrome. Her “villain”—as much as one can label Skyler the villain to Walter White’s “hero”—is so well crafted that it’s generalized to her own person. This is unfortunate, but should it be unexpected for a “villain” like Skyler White? Rumor has it that Jack Gleeson is simply a joy to be around but, for better or worse, he’s such an incredibly gifted actor that the sight of his face actually provokes nausea and anxiety in me.

But there’s the issue, isn’t it? Walter White, the “antihero,” is still the hero of his story. And while, objectively, Skyler may seem to be innocent (at least initially), Breaking Bad is not an objective story, casting Anna Gunn as a genius “antivillain.” My own hatred for Skyler White (and oh, how I hate her) is based on her inability to control the story. Walt controls the story; Walt is my hero. Skyler is his opposition. Skyler even attempts to gain control of the story, but fails; Skyler is my villain.

There are feminist issues that come into play here, as Gunn suggests, but I don’t see what she’s seeing. Gunn wonders, “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?”

I see the complete opposite. In Skyler, I see a woman who is in so far over her head that her attempts to gain control of the situation are pathetic at best, and often downright stupid and dangerous, and certainly fall short of admirable when she attempts to continue the illegal activity.

It’s difficult to use Skyler to gauge viewers’ stance on a woman’s role, as Anna Gunn tries to, because the story itself turns us against her. In fact, Breaking Bad doesn’t tend to do women any real favors: while the females are dynamic, the show certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (created by brilliant graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home).

That’s an unfortunate flaw, but I guess the show’s gotta have one.

Needless to say, I completely disagree with Jessica Gelt’s opinion (printed in the Los Angeles Times) that Skyler eventually becomes “boring” as Walt’s opposition. As the tension mounts in seasons 4 and 5, Skyler suddenly becomes only one of many forms of opposition that Walt must… surmount? Or choose not to?

Point being, aside from obvious issues with the show’s writing that are neither Skyler White’s nor Anna Gunn’s fault, Skyler is the complex and extremely hateable antivillain the show deserves. This, after all, is Breaking Bad‘s great accomplishment. Can viewers love and sympathize with a morally questionable “hero”? Apparently. Can viewers hate and condemn a “villain” for no other reason than trying to stop a morally questionable hero? Yes, we can. The story succeeds, with Anna Gunn’s help, in pitting the viewer against what we know is “right,” and as far as storytelling goes, it’s an age-old tradition.

LOOT: 3.9.14

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I love checking out other people’s loot, so here’s what I picked up when I spent the rest of that gift card (thank god for the clearance shelves):

 

The Art Thief: Noah Charney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Swan Thieves: Elizabeth Kostova

Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe has a perfectly ordered life–solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient. In response, Marlowe finds himself going beyond his own legal and ethical boundaries to understand the secret that torments this genius, a journey that will lead him into the lives of the women closest to Robert Oliver and toward a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.

 

Snow: Orhan Pamuk

Dread, yearning, identity, intrigue, the lethal chemistry between secular doubt and Islamic fanaticism�these are the elements that Orhan Pamuk anneals in this masterful, disquieting novel. An exiled poet named Ka returns to Turkey and travels to the forlorn city of Kars. His ostensible purpose is to report on a wave of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their head-scarves. But Ka is also drawn by his memories of the radiant Ipek, now recently divorced. Amid blanketing snowfall and universal suspicion, Ka finds himself pursued by figures ranging from Ipek�s ex-husband to a charismatic terrorist. A lost gift returns with ecstatic suddenness. A theatrical evening climaxes in a massacre. And finding god may be the prelude to losing everything else.

 

Tigers in Red Weather: Liza Klaussmann

Nick and her cousin, Helena, have grown up sharing sultry summer heat, sunbleached boat docks, and midnight gin parties on Martha’s Vineyard in a glorious old family estate known as Tiger House. In the days following the end of the Second World War, the world seems to offer itself up, and the two women are on the cusp of their ‘real lives': Helena is off to Hollywood and a new marriage, while Nick is heading for a reunion with her own young husband, Hughes, about to return from the war.

Soon the gilt begins to crack. Helena’s husband is not the man he seemed to be, and Hughes has returned from the war distant, his inner light curtained over. On the brink of the 1960s, back at Tiger House, Nick and Helena—with their children, Daisy and Ed—try to recapture that sense of possibility. But when Daisy and Ed discover the victim of a brutal murder, the intrusion of violence causes everything to unravel. The members of the family spin out of their prescribed orbits, secrets come to light, and nothing about their lives will ever be the same.

 

Netherland: Joseph O’Neill

In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, Hans–a banker originally from the Netherlands–finds himself marooned among the strange occupants of the Chelsea Hotel after his English wife and son return to London. Alone and untethered, feeling lost in the country he had come to regard as home, Hans stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country. Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure who is part idealist and part operator, introduces Hans to an “other” New York populated by immigrants and strivers of every race and nationality. Hans is alternately seduced and instructed by Chuck’s particular brand of naivete and chutzpah–by his ability to a hold fast to a sense of American and human possibility in which Hans has come to lose faith.

 

Money: Martin Amis

Time Magazine included the book in its list of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. The story of John Self and his insatiable appetite for money, alcohol, fast food, drugs, porn and more, Money is ceaselessly inventive and thrillingly savage; a tale of life lived without restraint, of money and the disasters it can precipitate.

 

 

 

 

The Collected Stories: Amy Hempel

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel gathers together the complete work of a writer whose voice is as singular and astonishing as any in American fiction. Hempel, fiercely admired by writers and reviewers, has a sterling reputation that is based on four very short collections of stories, roughly fifteen thousand stunning sentences, written over a period of nearly three decades. These are stories about people who make choices that seem inevitable, whose longings and misgivings evoke eternal human experience. With compassion, wit, and the acutest eye, Hempel observes the marriages, minor disasters, and moments of revelation in an uneasy America.

 

The Fermata: Nicholson Baker

This is the story of Arno Strine, a modest temporary typist, who has perfected the knack of stopping time in its tracks and taking women’s clothes off. He is hard at work on his autobiography, The Fermata, which proves in the telling to be a very provocative, very funny and altogether morally confused piece of work.

Lammily Is Not About Lammily

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This is not about Lammily.

Meet Lammily. Again.

We know Lammily already. She’s been all over the news, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogs. We’ve all heard about how a real-life Barbie’s proportions would force her to walk on all fours, and no real woman walks in invisible stilettos all the time. We’ve all heard about how Lammily has the proportions of an average 19-year-old girl.

I definitely appreciate this, but the female body is so goddamn political that you almost can’t do anything right anymore in terms of body image. We’re kind of stuck in that regard. I think what Nickolay Lamm has done is fantastic, but body image is such a sensitive issue that approaching it at all—in any way—is going to be “wrong” in some way. While the so-called “Average Barbie” (though not called so by Lamm) is really pretty great, my next issue is with referring to proportions as “average.” Average is a mathematical concept, of course, but it is also taken to mean “normal.” The problem I have is with implying any kind of normalcy when it comes to body shape or type… or condition or skin color or ability and the list goes on.

What I found troubling, however, was Slate‘s handling of Lammily. Normally I love me some Slate, and I realize that being a little sassy is part of the job description over there, but so is being more than a little smart, and Amanda Hess’s commentary on the “Shorter, Fatter ‘Average Barbie'” is anything but.

Full disclosure: I apparently lack competency in wielding the “F” word. I’ve been accused of fat-shaming in the past for assuming the negative connotation of the word “fat.” I grew up knowing the word “fat” to be indicative of an extremely unfortunate, unattractive, and unacceptable condition—and isn’t that the problem? So when I use the word “fat” it’s not an attempt at “fat-shaming,” but rather a comment on the way a supposedly “overweight” or “out of proportion” person is regarded.

I’m not attempting to be critical of the condition of being “fat”; I find the word “fat” to be critical of the condition of being a size other than “Hollywood.”

For obvious reasons, then, I take issue at first glance with this article that refers to Lammily as “shorter and fatter” with no ironic quotation marks of its own.

Hess quotes a mother (quoted in Reuters) saying about Iranian Barbie-and-Ken alternative Sara-and-Dara, “My daughter prefers Barbies… She says Sara and Dara are ugly and fat.”

That information alone: fine. But this is Hess’s horrifying lead-in to an article about why Barbie will continue to dominate as the doll preferred by children everywhere. Fair enough; I don’t think anyone has predicted otherwise, including Lamm himself. He’s quoted as having said, “If there’s even a 10% chance that those dolls affect [body image], let’s make it.”

I like to think there’s always a chance.

Hess doesn’t seem to understand that no one has predicted the fall of Barbie; that isn’t what Lammily is about. She points out the fact that the Only Hearts Club and Journey Girls pre-date Lammily as realistic doll alternatives, but this is also irrelevant. Lammily is about options. The more options there are, the better… on a number of levels. And Lammily is a pretty good deal in terms of Barbie alternatives.

Behold the standard of masculinity.

The problem is bigger than Barbie. In discussing this with my husband, I told him that I personally had never had a conscious problem with Barbie, and he said, “I always saw Barbie as a caricature. Her features are too cartoon-ish to be taken seriously. I never felt the need to look like a Ninja Turtle.”

While male and female body image issues do not always overlap, I was in agreement with my husband on this one. As a child I put on zany dress-up clothes and thought “Now I look like Barbie,” not “If only my legs had the proportions of two pieces of uncooked spaghetti, I would look like Barbie!” And maybe that’s just me.

I suppose the point is that if Barbie were an isolated phenomenon there would be no problem. But the reality is that Barbie is a drop in the bucket, and it is the collective drops that have done such damage. So kudos to Nickolay Lamm for addressing one drop, because isn’t one drop at a time the only way to even begin digging ourselves out of this hole?

I’m so frustrated I’m mixing metaphors now.

Barbie is not lifelike, but she is a spectacle. There is not much to her besides the way she looks, regardless of how that is, other than her sexy vocation of the month. Feminine spectacle is the problem, and Lamm sounds like someone who can contribute to the solution. In the spirit of promoting non-spectacle-based females, it is said that Lamm does not intend to market the doll to children by emphasizing anything about her appearance, and I guess we’ll see how exactly that works.

As for Hess’s mishandling of Lammily, I suppose it got under my skin less because of her general ignorance and more because of her knee-jerk desire to turn Lammily herself into a matter of spectacle: “Credit where it’s due: Lammily’s got an impressive ass.”

Case in point.

THE AFTERMATH: A Savage Wilde, Book One: The Trail

Collected here are the live-ish tweets of A Savage Wilde, Book One: The Trail. Keep an eye out, because the lovely Rebecca Kimbel has agreed to do a little interview exclusively for this blog. Hurray!

Warning: there are no outright spoilers below, but if you are like me and unreasonably obsessed with avoiding spoilers at all costs no matter how indirect or un-spoiler-y they actually are, you may not want to see some of this (but you sane people out there will be okay):

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