Saturday, January 26, 2013

Code Name Verity

It's impossible to talk about the plot of Code Name Verity very much because I'm in danger of giving away the whole thing if I get started, so, I'll describe it in broad terms.  It's about these two young women (20ish? 18, maybe?) during WWII.  One's Scottish, her nickname's Queenie and she's a spy (YES!), the other is English, she's a pilot.  They meet while in training and become best friends.  We learn this while Queenie is writing her "confession" to the Nazis, who've captured her in France.  That's not a spoiler, you learn that right away.

So, poor Queenie's captured in France and being held in a hotel turned prison, tortured and forced to write down everything she knows.  I just finished an unputdownable book, So Much Pretty, and then, what do you know but THIS book is keeping me up way past my bedtime because I can't put it down either!  I may have mentioned when I was a kid I loved reading books about WWII - if this YA book had come out when I was a teenager, I probably would've just gone to Spy Heaven.  Forever Young Adult has gone so nuts over this book they even made a style board about it.  (Yes, I would like those shoes, thank you.)

I was a bit disappointed by the end, for reasons I can't really talk about, but something compelling happened that forced me to go back and read about half of the book again, right after finishing it, and I'm fairly eager to put this in the mail immediately for my sister to read.  I wish there had been more kissing.  Oh, if you don't know what "Kiss me, Hardy" means, you'll need to read this in advance.  And this, just for fun.

Elizabeth Wein sprinkles bits of French and German through the book, and translates most of it for you.  I think that's one of the aspects of this book that puts it in the YA category.   (I'm currently working on a complicated theory of what makes a YA book....).  I don't like it when authors translate bits, I prefer to figure it out myself.  Also there's no romance, although there's an implied future between Maggie and Queenie's brother.

So, trust me, if you like spy stuff, and girl-power stuff, and WWII stuff, read it.  The characters are really plucky and terrific; you'll wish they were your best friends.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This is How You Lose Her (2012)

I finished This is How You Lose Her in 2012, but we just had our book club about it this weekend.   Here's a watercolor I made from this scene:
The chief rocker, though, was Doña Rosie, our upstairs neighbor, this real nice boricua lady, happiest person you've ever seen even though she was blind. Halleluja! You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she'd missed the couch and busted her ass - the last time hollering, Dios mío, qué me has hecho? - and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet.

"Boricua" is a person from Puerto Rico
"Dios mío, qué me has hecho" means, My God, what have you done to me?

Monday, January 21, 2013

So Much Pretty

Small towns are well regarded in America as bastions of community and helpfulness, but I've never really shared that feeling, particularly after living in several big cities.  When you're from a small town, something awful happens where some of the people you know and love are also racists and misogynists and homophobics - it's hard to square.  Anyway, I've just never agreed with this pastoral nonsense about the good people of small towns - small towns are full of assholes and criminals, just like any other place, but due to poverty and lower education levels - maybe more.

Cara Hoffman sets her mystery, So Much Pretty, in a small town in upstate New York.  It's a low-income area, where people are perceived to be farmers, but in fact the largest employer is a big box store.  The local dairy is polluting the land.  A girl is found dead on the side of the road.

The story unfolds very slowly.  Wendy is found dead, and, piecemeal, you find out about her history.  It's told from the perspective of various characters.  Another family, the Pipers, mixes with Wendy's.  They moved from NYC to find that peaceful sanctuary of the small town and raise their daughter, Alice. Early in the book, you discover that something is going to happen to Alice, or that maybe she's done something awful - it's hard to believe she might have something to do with Wendy's death, because the more you get to know her, the more charming and brilliant she seems.

A journalist, Stacy Flynn, has been trying to find Wendy since she went missing.  She's a great character that reminded me a lot of Claire deWitt in the other book I just finished, Claire deWitt and the City of the Dead.  She reads like a dude - I love that Hoffman didn't bind her by gender roles.  

I couldn't put this book down - I read it in two sittings.  It haunted by thoughts for about 4 days and a week or so later, it's still heavy on my mind.  I'm about to drop some major spoilers now, so, stop now if you're intrigued enough to read it, or don't mind spoilers...

Major spoilers.  Everything...

OK, then.

When you find out what happened to Wendy, it's terrible.  It's worse when you find out out the book is loosely based on an actual case of an 11-year old girl who was gang-raped by adult members of her "community" in Texas.  (Here's the original story in the NYT, which later required an apology for lacking balance.)  The chapter where Alice unravels what happened mirrors the reader's experience.  She's shocked, horrified, scared, and she wants to do something.  "It would hardly be rational to accept that I live inside a thing made of flesh that people capture, hide, and then wait in line to rape."  Alice, being a supremely rational, thoughtful person, decides that the only way to resolve not just this crime, but to make a stand against further crimes against women, is to kill the men that she knew were involved and let their deaths stand as a warning to others: this is what happens.  So, Alice becomes a school shooter (I think she's a junior in HS) and a murderer.  It was shocking reading it, especially in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting - and came as such a surprise. Girls don't commit school shootings.

I read some of Hoffman's blog and other work after I finished the book. (Here's a good interview.)  She's obviously like, a genius, and has some extremely well-reasoned things to say about violence toward women in our culture.  She's angry, understandably, and doesn't back away from that - I think a lot of people don't appreciate art or thought that comes from a place of anger, particularly from a woman.  I appreciate that she stands behind her anger and her feelings because it's a natural reaction, and women are entitled to be angry, and, aside from that, fury seems to be a pretty good impetus for making art.  There's a scene in her book that shook me as much as some of the more outwardly violent ones - the journalist's predecessor at the newspaper is upset about something she's done and comes to do some mansplaining to her, but she won't hear it.  "And he knew then that people were right about her being ethnic of some kind. He sat down because he wanted to hit her or grab her, and he felt that if he remained standing, he might do it, and then he would be charged with assault."  The idea that this person was so upset with her that he had to sit down to keep himself from hitting her is a perfect example of how quick some men are to jump to violence that they have to fight to "keep themselves" from a physical response.  And I can't tell you how many times I've felt men look like that at me over some small argument, clenching their fists and sputtering and stalking, talking themselves down from... what? Punching me?

I don't advocate violence, in any way, in fact, I'm so anti-gun I don't even think hunters should have guns. They can shoot with bows and arrows.  I really don't like the idea of vigilante justice.  So, I don't accept Alice's actions as a rational choice, but she makes a fairly convincing argument - that horrifies me.  I guess that's what's been on my mind since I read this book - that violence toward women is so pervasive that nothing less than an armed revolution will solve it.  But, today, Martin Luther King Day, I choose to believe that peaceful resistance is the only protest that works.  It works unbearable slowly, but, eventually, it works.   

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Lavinia is a minor character in the Aeneid, Virgil's epic poem, although you might argue that a war was fought for her.  The great Ursula K Le Guin wrote an inspired feminist retelling of the story in her 2008 Lavinia.  Le Guin imagines the Virgil's story of the Trojan  Aeneas, who travels to Italy and is prophesied to marry Lavinia after a war.

In Le Guin's story, Lavinia is a dutiful princess, pious, and faithful to the Gods of her family.  It's time for her to get married, and her greatest desire is to make her father happy.  I was most interested in how Le Guin focused on the familial aspect of the tale - what their home life was like, the relationship of the royal family to the rest of the town.  In an engaging afterward, Le Guin writes about how people at this time (I think it takes place between 12-8 BCE) lived quite primitively, and that she was drawn to "... early Rome; the  dark, plain Republic, a forum not of marble but of wood and brick, and austerer people with a strong sense of duty, order and justice... extended families who worship was of the fire in their hearth, the food in their granary, the local spring, the spirits of the place and earth."  So, Lavinia's life is very much about her role in society - keeping the Vesta fire going in the hearth (her job as the unmarried young woman in the house), visiting her families oracle and performing rites for her family and community.

So, when she  visits the oracle and is told that she must marry a stranger and that a war will be fought, neither she nor her father question it.  That's probably the hardest part for any contemporary reader to swallow, because without laying eyes on this guy, when a ship rolls up the Tiber river, they already know it's got Lavinia's future husband on it.  But, what's interesting is that Le Guin tips the idea of what it is to win or conquer in war - there aren't really any "bad guys", and there aren't especially "good guys" either, although one naturally has an affinity for the narrator.

Le Guin faces the brutality of this hand-combat war straight on.  In an agonizing page-and-a-half, she outlines the series of deaths like ingredients in a dish, "Ilioneus kill Lucetius, Liger kills Emathion, Asilas kills Corynaeus, Caeneus kills Ortygius. Turnus kill Caeneus..." and so on.  A wise, older Lavinia looks back and says,
I had not learned how peace galls men, how they gather impatient rage against it as it continues, how even while they pray the powers for peace, they work against it and make certain it will be broken and give way to battle, slaughter, rape and waste.
Another amazing twist of story-telling Le Guin includes (here gently I'll remind you that she wrote this book at 79 years of age!) is the character of Virgil - he visits Lavinia and tells her the poem, so not only is her life predetermined, but she herself admits her own creationism in the story.  "It has not been difficult for me the believe in my fictionality, because it is, after all, so slight."  So slight!  I'm still mulling that one over.

We went to Rome recently, and two of my favorite things were the wonderful she-wolf sculpture and the Temple of the Vestal Virgins.  I like lady-stuff, and in that male-dominated period, those are two powerful examples of female empowerment.  There were quite a few references to the she-wolf as mother and protector, and, although the Temple of the Vestal Virgins wasn't specifically mentioned, the practice of worshipping Vespa became much more clear to me as related to the hearth fire (and all that that entails).  

You know how sometimes, when you're really into something, it all starts falling into your lap?  I also chanced across a bit of scholarship by a hairdresser/archeologist. She created this video on the hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins (which Le Guin also mentions when Lavinia gets married).

I highly recommend the personal afterward that was, at least, in my edition (First Mariner Books ed. 2009).  I would recommend this book to anyone interested in feminist reclamation of history, Early Roman or Italian history or Ursula Le Guin in general - it's not a casual read but continually challenging, and, at least for me, involved a fair amount of research!

Monday, January 07, 2013

2012 Stats

I read a total of 54 books in 2012
48 fiction and 6 non-fiction
36 were by women
18 were written by men

I wrote 16 reviews for Newcity.

Books I'm most looking forward to in 2013 are:

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (March)

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris (April)

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (April)

Night Film: A Novel, Marisha Pessl (August)

If you're looking for ideas or interested in what other lady writers and editors liked best in 2012, check this out.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2012)

There's a blogger I  follow whose recommendations haven't led me astray yet... I put Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead on my wishlist after I spied it on her site.  And my sister gave it to me for Christmas (thank you!)  It's written by Sara Gran.  All the blurbs are like...

" if David Lynch directed a Raymond Chandler novel..."

" Kinsey Millhone channeled by Hunter S. Thompson..."

"... a cool blend of Nancy Drew and Sid Vicious..."

Settle down, people!  It's like Lizbeth Sander fucked Sherlock Holmes and Claire DeWitt was their illegitimate chid that was raised by gypsy circus bears.   

But, seriously, it IS kind of like all those things.  I've never read Sara Gran before, but her voice is really fresh and compelling.  Claire DeWitt felt like something really original, even though the story followed a fairly normal arc (thank God.  I was a bit worried, as I was reading, that the mystery was going to have a non-traditional ending and I was dreading it.)    Apparently it's the first of a series (oh, snap!  It looks like the next one comes out in June).  I reminded me of two other slim mysteries that are really worth checking out if you haven't already:  Michael Chabon's The Final Solution (which also has a parrot on the cover) and Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno.

Claire DeWitt is a detective - and the city of the dead is New Orleans, post-Katrina.  DeWitt is trying to solve a murder and interacts with all these wackadoo New Orleans characters, particularly some semi-homeless teens.  Claire studied this method based on a French writer named Silette and his thin book, Détection.  She frequently refers to his advice in her quest to find the truth.  Silette's method is circuitous and introspective - for example:
"The detective thinks he is investigating a murder or a missing girl," Silette writes. "But truly he is investigating something else altogether, something he cannot grasp hold of directly. Satisfaction will be rare. Uncertainty will be your natural state. Sureness will always elude you. The detective will always circle around what he wants, never seeing it whole."
Claire utilizes some strange techniques to solve mysteries, like getting drunk and stoned with suspects.  In one hilarious scene, she talks about how disguise, and then comes up with this complicated backstory for a character disguise, and then everyone recognizes her right away.  Even though that scene is pretty silly, however, you're meant to understand that she really is this amazing detective - one of the best in the world.  

Gran's prose is really clean - here's a passage chosen almost at random - look how beautiful:
Terrell came out from inside the house. The windows were boarded up with plywood. Terrell held his pants up around his slim waist with his right hand. The boys who hung out on street corners in New Orleans were so achingly thin, I wondered if it was a fashion trend or they were trying not to exist, even less than they already did in the eyes of the world.
It was a fantastic mystery (I'm becoming a real mystery lover) and I eagerly await the next in the series.