Saturday, January 31, 2009

Give Aways!

I like that old adage: one person's trash is another person's treasure. Must be why I like thrift stores and garage sales so much!

So, these weren't my favorite books, but I ain't gonna judge you if you want to read them! If anyone wants All Is Vanity or Kiss My Tiara, leave your email address in comments - I'll get your real address and mail it to you!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

No Fond Return of Love

No Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym, is something of an ensemble story. As the title implies, hardly anyone's love is fondly returned. There were some standout moments in this book, but overall it did not excite me the way Excellent Women did.

The main character, Dulcie Mainwaring, is similar to other Pym heroines - perpetually single, seemingly selfless, a good friend. But her character really frustrated me because she cast herself as an observer in her own life. Writes Pym:

It seemed - though she did not say this to Viola - so much safer and comfortable in the lives of other people - to observe their joys and sorrows with an air of detachment as if one were watching a film or play.
Although Dulcie's clearly fascinated by a man she meets, instead of acknowledging her feelings, she practically stalks him. She invites him and a few other folks and her young niece, Laurel, to dinner:
Laurel looked at the two women scornfully. If only they could realize how ridiculous and embarrassing they were! She began to clear away the soup plates rather noisily. There was something so depressing about the culture of middle-aged people.

Now, that's funny.

Now doubt Pym knew what she was doing - Dulcie's character exemplifies a type of person who waits for things to happen to her. She may seem "sweet" and "nice" - but I think Pym's (not so subtly) mocking her.

However, what's really interesting about Dulcie's character is how she doesn't match the typical stereotypes of the female heroine. What Dulcie lacks is any kind of eroticism - she doesn't seem to desire love, and people find it vaguely impossible that she could be a romantic person. In the midst of this "romantic" novel Dulcie is the one who never seems to long for that fond return of love. I love how Pym balks at the traditional by turning the novel on it's head - now I've read three of her books in the last few months and each one in unconventional. Read this conversation between Dulcie and her cleaning woman:
"You could make so much more of yourself, Miss Mainwaring," said Miss Lord almost on a despairing note, "if only you would."

"What should I do?" Dulcie asked.

"Well, you could have your hair restyled by one of those Italian hairdressers - in the bouffant style, they call it - it would add fullness to your face, make your head look bigger."

"Do I want my head to look bigger?" Dulcie fingered her fine, smooth hair. "Would it be an advantage? Anyway, I don't think my hair would go like that."

"You could have a perm - to give it body," said Miss Lord eagerly. "They use rollers to set it, you know. And you could use more eye make-up. It would make your eyes look bigger."

Dulcie laughed. "Goodness! Head bigger and eyes bigger - then what?
"You read too much, that's your trouble," said Miss Lord, seeing Dulcie settling down at the table with a book. "They [men] don't like it."

"No, I don't think they do," said Dulcie, but absently now, as the world of the book began to seem the real one.
Finally, my favorite passage - from the perspective of the object of Dulcie's fascination:
He read the notice on the front door - "JUMBLE SALE - IN AID OF THE ORGAN FUND". This was really too much! The things women did to men! Had anybody ever really made a serious study of the subject, of the innumerable pinpricks and humiliations endured by men at the hands of women? How could he enter the house with flowers for his wronged wife when the place was crowded with women buying and selling jumble in aid of the organ fund!
Yes, well, it's all for the best that Dulcie never got to know him...

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I just finished Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth for book club. I'm a big fan of Atwood, I love her short stories, her poems, her novels, I've even read a kid's book she wrote. This is the first non-fiction book of hers I've read (I was sort of shocked to see all the non-fiction she's written - I thought I had read all her work) and I really (surprise!) loved it.

What Atwood's written is a lecture - an argument - about debt. How it came to be (shortly followed by the invention of language, to keep track of transactions), how money and debt are conceptual and theoretical (a point not unclear to those of us who are watching the financial crisis playing out right now.), what it means to carry debt (throughout time). Atwood is thorough - she writes: humans have debt... now, what is a human? The only reason debt is possible is because we have an innate sense of fairness. And then she'll list half a dozen examples of how children (and monkeys!) seek fairness.

She does a rather in-depth analysis of The Mill on the Floss, which I just read last year. I thought her reading of the book in relation to debt was spot on. I was less enraptured by her frequent returns to the story of Scrooge - I'm not a big Dickens fan.

It was exciting to talk about the book with some folks who haven't read Atwood before and I hope that we've hooked a few more fans!

Kiss My Tiara

I wish I'd read Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess, by Susan Jane Gilman 10 or even 20 years ago. Although, since it was just published in 2001, I guess that isn't possible. But, for my 34 year old self didn't learn very much, while by 24 and definitely 14 year-old self could have really stood to read this. Kiss My Tiara, a "guide for intelligent women" reviews many of the various ways women are discriminated against or culturally disadvantaged and has some smartass ways to deal with them, and urges us to drastically overhaul our thinking on some issues.

Alas, basic things like supporting other women and not beating ourselves up about the shape of our bodies are the sort of things that bear repeating. Also this prize piece of wisdom, which nobody told me until I turned 30: The twenties basically suck. Dang it! I wish someone had told me that so I didn't spend a whole decade wondering why I wasn't having the time of my life and feeling bad because I wasn't.

One thing I didn't like about this book was how Gilman casts the snide remark around about our feminist foremothers. Take this paragraph from her introduction:
For in certain ways traditional feminism just isn't cutting it with us. For women today, feminism is often perceived as dreary. As elitist, academic, Victorian, whiny and passé. And to some extent- Goddess forgive me for saying this - it's true. I'm not knocking the women's movement of the past years. I'm a huge advocate and beneficiary of choice, workplace-protection laws and domestic-violence legislation. But...

Eek. "I'm a feminist, but"??? I'm proud to call myself a feminist, but it's pretty clear Gilman isn't, because she skirts around it all through the book. For one thing, there's no such thing as "traditional" feminism - there's not a feminist handbook out there that says Feminists hate men; Feminists don't shave their legs; Feminists burned their bras (they didn't) - much as so many people think. So what, exactly, isn't cutting it for Gilman? For a woman who uses the term "Goddess" over and over, and apparently without irony, I can't understand why she can't proudly proclaim she's a feminist when she so clearly is. This is a semantic issue, but I'm a feminist who plays close attention to language - it is, after all, male-centered. (Did you notice, for example, how I wrote she "skirts" the issue? Why are skirts such a great example of avoiding and passively ignoring?) A book that does a great job at explaining the roots of feminism and it's future among young women is Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner. That was the book that helped me understand the women's movement better than anything I'd read before. I'd recommend it to persons young and old who are interested in a more intellectual approach to women's issues, and I can't imagine finishing that book and not being proud to label yourself a feminist.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Best of 2008

Just did a little inventory of my reading in 2008. It was a good year for books - I started a book club, which gives me no end of satisfaction - there's a great crew of people and we have really terrific conversations.

I read:
21 Fiction books
9 Non-fiction (that's a lot, for me)
20 books by women and
10 by men

Hmm... that list seems pretty small to me. You know what's funny? I either ride my bike to work or take a quick ride in the car in bad weather, so I no longer have a reading commute. Also, sometimes at night I listen to a short story podcast rather than read with my eyes. Usually when I think about retiring, the thing I get most excited about is having all the time I want to read!

My top five for 2008 are:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz;
Fun Home (A Family Tragicomic), by Alison Bechdel;
Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym;
Murder in the Dark, by Maraget Atwood;
The Gathering, by Anne Enright

Friday, January 02, 2009

An Academic Question

I fell head-over-heels in love with Barbara Pym after reading Excellent Women, professing to read everything she ever wrote. It turns out the book I somewhat randomly pulled off the library shelf turns out to be "not her best". Oh well. It was quite good, but wouldn't have turned me into a Pym fan.

This one is called An Academic Question, and was published posthumously from several drafts. Uh-oh. It lacks the wittiness of Excellent Women, as well as the positivity of the main character, who is so charming, intelligent and strong. An Academic Question centers around a wife who's husband, an academic, puts her in a very awkward position. The book does have some interesting aspects, such as the very straightforward way she writes about the main character's gay friend, or her sister's abortion:
"...What is Coco exactly?-- I mean, sexually."

"Well, nothing, really," I said, embarrassed.

"But he must be something," A note of irritation had now come into Iris's voice--irritation and impatience at my ignorant stupidity.

"You mean hetero or homosexual?"

"Of course that's what I mean," she mocked. "Surely you must know."

"We've never talked about it. In any case, are people to be classified as simply as that? Some people just love themselves."

It's a perfectly fine book, but it just didn't make me laugh the way her other book did. Next up for me is her No Fond Return of Love - review to come soon!

All is Vanity

I didn't finish All is Vanity, by Christina Schwarz. I'm sure many an author has written about a character who is an author and dealing with a massive dose of writer's block, but it's pretty uninteresting to read about, isn't it? Reading about how this character distracted herself from writing (and admitting she had nothing to write about) was just too depressing. The implication that she will soon start stealing her friend's words was laid on pretty thick, but she hadn't started doing it at least by the time I gave up.

Water for Elephants

There are just too many books in the world to read one for which the highest recommendation is a reticent Meh. Why it is that practically everyone I know has read this book, and all shrugged their shoulders and said Meh at me when I asked them if they liked it, and I nevertheless tried to read the damn thing? Never again, my friend. Never again.

Perhaps it was it's title and mildly appealing cover art, reminding me for Like Water for Chocolate (I frequently referred to it as Like Water for Elephants).
I had also heard that this Sara Gruen book started out as a Nanowrimo book. These things drew me in, but make no mistake, this book is rotten, and rotten to the core.

Do not be swayed by old-timey circuses, titles vaguely familiar to good books or that misleading "prize": #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Now, there is a captivating short story about there about an old-timey circus elephant who was hanged (based on a true story!) in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (ed. Michael Chabon) called "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" by Glen David Gold. That whole anthology would be a nice alternative to anyone looking for pulpy stories of bygone days.