Monthly Archives: February 2014

the f word

Selfies and F-bombs: The F Word edited by Jesse Sheidlower

This review is dedicated to my friend Eh!

Updating this review after Alexis and I had a selfie-off with books about cussing. She began with a photo of herself with the Encyclopedia of Swearing; I countered with one of me holding up this book. So, who (s)wore it better?

Two women in selfies with books on cussing


Original review: I have a love affair with the f-bomb, so much so that my mother gave me this as a birthssdayyy pressenttt, my preciousss. This is pretty much the best book ever written, at least for me, because it combines my love of the dictionary with my love of cussing. And not just any cussing – there are plenty of curse-words in the sea of profanity, all of them fine words in their own rights, but none of them roll off of my tongue with the same regularity and fervor as the venerable eff. It sounds good; it has punch; it’s volatile, useful, emotive. But more than that, the effenheimer is so explosive, so everywhere. It’s one of the few words in English that can used as all parts of speech, up to and including the infix, a bit dropped between syllables, as in absofreakinglutely, which one almost never finds in English. These four letters go where no word has gone before.

The intro to this book is a piece of scholarly beauty. Sheidlower begins by exploding the myth that the f-word begins life as an acronym, usually “Fornication Under Consent of the King” or “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”. (This last one was used as by Van Halen as an album title, natch.) I was told this as a teen by other credulously whispering teens, and I didn’t believe it then. Given how completely illiterate most of history is, the acronym-word is something of a modern invention, one that our four-lettered friend is happy to be a part of in new coinages like OMFG and MILF.

He chit-chats a bit about early usages, winding toward the pretty well-supported theory that probably frak didn’t evolve from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you want to get into a big fighting match about what to call these languages). Frig was probably was a later borrowing from various Low Germans, and the earliest reference in writing is in the mid-1400s in…get this…a cipher. There’s good evidence that Shakespeare is making a coded reference to the f-bomb in the funny French-talk scene in Henry V, along with…get this…the c-bomb. The difficulty in charting the history of forbidden speech is that it’s forbidden of course, and while everyone may be saying it, no one writes it down.

Here’s where I freak out, of course. (You knew I was going to.) The history of profanity is so incredibly fascinating to me because it’s this incredibly common thing, and I mean that with all of the double-ententes. It’s not that classes of people don’t swear – they pretty much all do – but they swear only when with specific people. You can see this in the copious amount of military f-slang in this book – men will swear with other men, but not with women or men of the wrong class. (Actually, not everyone swears: there’s a really funny reference to a Browning poem where he misuses the word twat, thinking it’s a kind of hat. Muhahahaha.)

There’s a whole twin history of c**t and f**k though, culminating in the legal wranglings over the the publications of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And I think the basis of the upset, on some level, was that Joyce and Lawrence were writing about the elevation of everyday experience, in Joyce’s case, and a love affair between people of different classes, in Lawrence’s case. Each in their own way, they were reworking what kinds of stories were acceptable, valorous, important. I can just see the monocles pop. “You there, Joyce, you’ve mired the Epic in the street-filth of everyday life; put it down now and back away. You there, Lawrence, it’s bad enough that you describe the possibility of female pleasure, and with someone outside her class, but did you actually have to go and name the dreaded thing? Eeeek!” The profane words – often coded themselves, pushed down so that they squish out into all kinds of codes, ciphers, and allusions – become a kind of cultural metaphor for unspeakable people, unspoken lives and stories, the word that cannot be named as a sign for people who should not be mentioned. Joyce and Lawrence couldn’t be taken to court for their filthy ideas, but they could be taken to court for using bad words. The great benefit of learning language, for the slave Caliban, was in his ability to curse.

Whoa, that got a little heavy. Seriously though, I think maybe part of the reason I love swearing so very much is that I can’t figure out whom I’m hurting by doing so, and if I am indeed hurting someone, I would like to know why. I have plenty of words that I feel are taboo, something I cannot speak aloud, and in some cases can’t even type out: retard, kike, the n-word. Much of this is based on identity, because these words are meant to slur and smear. They use marginalized identities as their own insult. (And honestly, I’ve heard all the arguments about retard being just a funny word and non-threatening – and/or “medically accurate”; fools – and this is all b.s. that continues to discount the disability community because disabled is disarmed. But whatever, say what you will, of course.)

Now that I’ve slipped into arguing against the usage of certain words, I’m all in love with this book again. Words have power, yes indeedy they do. Say it with me now: fuck you.

 

P.S. Jesse Sheidlower, who wrote this book, is incredibly adorable.

 

Jesse Sheilower sitting in a chair

 

grim

Young Adult Anthology: Grim

I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.

Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.

Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.

It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.

Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):

The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”

Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.

Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.

And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.

Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.

Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.

“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.

“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.

“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.

“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.

“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.

“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.

“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.

“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.

“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.

“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.

“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.

“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.

“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.

“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.

“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.

“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)

In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.

 

 

dark witch

Magickal IreLand: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

When I read romance, I tend to gravitate to the paranormal ends of things – steampunkery, werewolves, (less so) vampires, superpowers, alt-histories. Some of this is just basic reading proclivities. I’d rather read science fiction or fantasy in general, so it makes sense I’d go for that edge of a genre. The other thing, for me, is that paranormal romance often allows the writer to slip her bonds and do a bunch of crazy ass shit. One a writer can start messing with the rules of physics or magic(k) or whatever, she has the opportunity to pull some compelling gedankenexperiments, but you know, about sex and the interpersonal, not about whatever SFnal idea. A lot of these thought experiments can seriously, seriously piss me off, but they tend to produce a lot of friction, a mainline down into the hind brain. When writers can rearrange the rules of the world, or your body, or the history of it all, what they reconstruct and reconfigure can be really telling.

Take, for example, Breaking Dawn, which includes about a 50 page span that is hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever read. The rest of that novel is a Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light painting wrapped in a snuggly blanket of No Narrative Danger, and ends, for this reader, in the most chillingly inert vision of family perfection I’ve ever seen. The mate-for-life trope gets me chuffed every time I see it – why would the removal of emotional agency be a desirable thing? – but it’s especially fucked in Meyer’s universe. There’s all this weird heat in the narrative, this danger that might just claw out of your stomach like a blood-covered baby with a mouth full of teeth. That you could look down on that and become suffused with love, like Bella does, is a deeply kinky thing to admit to, which is likely why the second half of that novel is an arm-wheeling attempt to cauterize the bloodletting through a bunch of speachifying and absolutely nothing happening.

Whether I like all this is not my point; my point is that is fascinating. I could reel off a dozen other examples of paranormals that have gotten my blood boiling, dropped my jaw, or otherwise surprised me with the parameters of their wish-making and the oddities of the wish-fulfillment. Which is why Nora Roberts’s Dark Witch is notable, in a way. Dark Witch is the coziest, most frictionless paranormal I’ve ever had put me sleep. The heroine is literally given a pony in maybe the second chapter she’s in, after being given a family, a love interest, her dream job, just the cutest little apartment in a cottage she’s ever seen, best friends, a sense of purpose, and magic(k)al abilities. This all occurs in the first half of the novel. By the time she’s given a new car – a Mini Cooper, squee – I was straight up laughing. I guess there’s some bother with a Voldemort-ish sorcerer, but I wouldn’t be too fussed with him until book three, when he will be – spoiler alert – defeated.

Dark Witch opens with a couple of chapters of 13th Century Ireland, where, apparently, all the kids are amazing, precocious and well above average. I mean, there’s a baby riding a stallion! I know! Anyway, housewife slash dark witch Sorcha is having problems because the evil witch Voldemort wants to fuck her or something. I’m not entirely clear on what this will accomplish, other than the obvious, and it’s the usual mumble mumble magic POWER mumble RULE THEM ALL of paranormal bunkum. (Even Tolkien, I hesitate to say. Quick: explain Sauron’s motivations, and “he wants power” is not a motivation. Why does he want it?). I’m also not entirely clear why Voldemort’s constant offers to impregnate Sorcha make her even slightly consider his offer, which it does. Sorcha has three children under the age of 7 and lives alone in a cabin in the woods with no running water in 13th Century Ireland. I would imagine that not being impregnated by an evil sorcerer would be like a get-out-of-death-in-childbirth-free card in medieval Europe, but what do I know.

Fast forward to the here and now, when Iona Sheehan has arrived in Ireland to find her extended family and, like, herself. Her parents have always been withholding jerks, but she’s still irrepressibly optimistic and zesty. She heads out to find the O’Dwyer siblings, Connor and Branna, who are third or fourth cousins of some stripe. Branna runs a candle and hokum shop called The Dark Witch, and Branna is a falconer. (I know!) Iona is immediately adopted by the siblings, who are all like, you’re our lost sister, would you like to live in this adorable room and have a pint of Guinness and scones, sláinte, Irish Irish McIrish. Then they do a jig and play the fiddle, and shamrocks explode into sparkling green confetti. It’s really cool, very Irish.

My friend Mike has this theory that we should just turn England into a theme park which would be called EngLand. There would be people in plushy Queen Elizabeth costumes (both original and New Coke flavors) hugging babies, and rides around sets of various historical periods. It would all be clotted cream and nevermind all the bother of Thatcher and Blair and the fact that England isn’t frozen in the mythic past full of stallion-riding babies. And that’s more or less what the tourist trade will sell you, if you want them to, and you probably do. Mike’s theme park is more-or-less a reality in certain tourist districts, this Disney cottage sold to visitors who pay well for its clapboard authenticity.

This is even more fraught when it comes to Ireland, as the Irish diaspora after the Famine “returns” to the Old Country looking for connection and explanations, often bumbling into political realities that surprise. My sister-in-law whose maiden name has a Mc in it was blithely amused that her family in Ireland had been Catholic, and that they were a little taken aback by her family Protestantism. How would I even know that? she asked me, and I was like, um, because…just…nevermind. There’s a great album called “The Crossing” by folk musician Tim O’Brien (no relation to the writer), which is about the immigrant experience several generations on, the Return to Ireland, and what a bust it can be. Ireland will not adhere to your grandparents’ extremely suspect idealizations of lies their parents told them, mixed in with a bowl of Lucky Charms. In the song “Talkin’ Cavan,” an Irishman says to O’Brien, “A Cavan man then…you know, a lot of people wouldn’t admit to that,” after O’Brien cheerfully relates his family line.

“Then the very next day in the hardware store
I found a cousin ten times removed or more
But he was no apparition, he wasn’t a haint – he was sellin’ nuts and bolts and paint
I told him about our family connection, and he kinda stood there still, reflectin’
I could tell he wasn’t that much impressed when he asked me with nary a trace of jest
He said, ‘How exactly may I help you, sir?
I just bought some nails and got the hell out of there.”

The Ireland that Iona has traveled to, the one with the Branna and Connor hawking and making their little charms and soups and playing fiddle certainly must be a magic(k)al one, because ain’t no Ireland ever looked like that one, not in the here-and-now, not ever. How exactly can I help you, Iona?

But it’s a cozy painting nonetheless, this IreLand. All of the characters are relentlessly kind and decent people who enfold Iona into the warmth of their collective bosom. (Not that the guys have bosoms. Maybe it could be said that the love interest enfolds her onto the warmth of his collective…well, you catch my drift.) Everything anyone says to anyone else is devoid of subtext, just a bald and accurate statement about their internal state. Even Iona’s second act “misunderstanding” with her lover is handled with maturity (despite the stupidity of its underpinnings). I did really get a hoot out of the guys’ night/girls’ night out after said misunderstanding, and that I just called it a “hoot” is indicative of how much of a hootenanny it was. Gosh, those Irish know how to have a bottle of wine split between three women and joke about becoming lesbians and wake up with killer headaches. Golly.

It’s funny to me to read a paranormal novel so completely without high emotions of any kind, this soporific round of walks in the misty Irish spring and mature, adult conversations. There was one chapter, in particular, that detailed the making of a soup so closely that I thought maybe the soup was significant and it would burst into flames or something. No, it was just soup, which they then ate. Later I breathed a sigh of relief when a visitor interrupted a similarly detailed assembly of a pan of scalloped potatoes. (O, would that he had hailed from Porlock.) The wish-fulfillment is all front-loaded, not functioning as narrative reward. And if it’s not narrative reward, then what is it? I just don’t get it.

Dark Witch is a strange one, to be sure, almost tired of itself, of its forgone conclusions and lack of real conflict. Let’s just give the heroine a pony first thing and see what happens. It’s sweet that Roberts portrays this battle between good and evil as so forthright and cheerful, but it also isn’t any fun. Codladh sámh, dear reader.

Gospel-of-Z

The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones

There is no other monster more contested than the zombie. Call any creature which doesn’t adhere to strict Romero-style zombie epistemology – it runs, or it’s not exactly dead, or it can talk, or whatever – and someone will jump down your throat. I tend to take a functional definition of your fictional monsters, meaning I’m less interested in static attributes, and more interested in how those attributes are deployed in context. Meaning if it walks like a duck even though the text calls it a chicken, you might as well treat it like a duck in terms of how that fowl functions.

Take, for example, the vampires in Twilight. There is very little to the creature called vampire by Meyer that adheres to the folklore. They’re undead, and contagious, but they sparkle, cross running water, and can go out in sunlight with no deleterious effects. (I’m not even clear on whether they drink blood, or if they consume flesh too.) No one questions whether they’re vampires though, because the whole functional definition of a vampire has to do with predatory aristocracy, sexual and class politics, and certain kinds of body horror, especially as regards to procreation. (Maybe this last isn’t in the traditional folklore, but since Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, it’s definitely a thing.) Her vamps are just ducky, even if their attributes are only vampish.

But call the creatures in I Am Legend zombies, and you will get into serious trouble with the neckbeards, even though they (the zombies, not the neckbeards, though  them too, kinda) adhere to the functional definition of the zombie. They’re relentless; they outnumber “normal” humans (the opposite is almost always the case with vamps); they presage or have caused the end of the modern world; their body horror is not based on their sexual attributes, but on revulsion and rot. (Also, bearing in mind I’m talking about the Will Smith and Vincent Price films, not about the source novel. Those creatures are an interesting inversion.) Additionally, those movies have lots of the motifs of a zombie narrative: besieged homesteads, traumatic loss of loved ones, the slow madness of the lonely.

I guess my point is this: I’ve gotten into a lot of pointless, stupid arguments on these here Internets about the definition of the zombie, and I wonder why the definition is such a big deal to people. I wonder why people police that definition so narrowly. My pet theory is that zombie narratives are often about race and class, and we’re all pretty kinked about those definitions as well. Like when I see idiots say things like “Obama is half white, so I’m not being racist when I say this racist thing about him.” Race isn’t like swirl ice cream, but a complicated slurry of competing functional definitions. In other words, race can’t be defined by attribute; it can only be defined by function. But holy god do we want it to be defined by attribute in our biologically deterministic little hearts. Ditto zombies.

But pet theory aside, I think the other things about zombie stories is that they are new on the scene, relatively speaking, so they have a kind of same-same to them. Although the whole sexy aristocrat thing is new to the vampire – older folklore has vampires as more zombie-ish ghouls who are decidedly unsexy – the folklore is old enough to allow wide latitude in definitions based on attribute. We’ve got at least a hundred years of sexy aristocrat blood-drinkers. You can date the modern zombie to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, no question, which was filmed not long before I was born, cough cough. The motifs have yet to fully differentiate through a century of reiteration and reimagining. We’re still working out the tropes, collectively.

Which is why The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones is notable. No, the zombies are more or less your granddaddy’s Romero zombies – neckbeards take note – but there’s a fundamental weirdness to the proceedings that stretches the motifs, moves the markers, and fucks with the same-same. It’s ten years after the zombie apocalypse – or zombie apocalypses, as the end of the world was a slow, bleeding affair in this this novel, a series of last nights before the very last night. We pop into the life of the “more or less white” Jory Gray, low level schmuck who lives in the militarized encampment of what’s left of half of humanity. His girlfriend left him recently for the Church on the hill, the other half of what’s left of humanity.

It’s whispered by the working stiffs that the Church both worships and has neutralized the zombie threat, but this is the kind of whispering that occurs between all working stiffs, and it’s both envious and disbelieved. Jory works building Handlers, a kind of superzombie built out of mad scientry and bureaucracy. The Handlers are used to differentiate zombie flesh from the edible, human kind, scrambling in the dirt to eat our remains unless our remains want to eat right back. They’re also fucking terrifying, in a way, this barely restrained weapon used for the most prosaic ends. Everyone can see how they’re going to go wrong, and spectacularly, but everyone is just some asshole trying to get by

Everyone is shades of Jory Gray, trying hard not to be noticed until they are, and then fuck, maybe I’ll have to come to terms with that thing that one time. Maybe the apocalypse has more to do with one moment with a hammer than it does with anything that goes on later. Maybe we’re all working though that one trauma, and the zombies and superzombies and everything else is a memento mori, but a memento mori with teeth and a descant. Jones’s prose is nasty, pointed, that kind of horror writing that runs everyday until it escalates, and then it’s well over the fence. Catch up; keep up.

I thought the climax was confused a bit – what the fuck was that one thing – but the parts that ran everyday honestly wrung me out. So much of the end of it all is the end of the one true thing, the thing you keep trying to find once it’s lost, and when you find its reminder, you sit on the floor of the bedroom and weep. You kill something with a knife made of bone. You go to work everyday like a schmuck, because that’s what you’ve got in you. That’s the only thing left, until it isn’t. Who even knows.

The Gospel of Z feels non-functional, in a way, this fucking weird, armadillo-ridden narrative, too personal, too specific. This is something left out of the canon: a side story, an apocrypha, a letter to the Galatians. This is a vision on the road to Damascus brought on by epilepsy. This is a parking lot with a good vantage. Which makes it somehow perfect for the zombie narrative, giving you good, Romero zombies that no one could argue to do this crazy thing on the edges. God bless, and good night.

If you like that sort of thing…

 

Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada - Richard V. Barbuto

As it is, the War of 1812 is a barely-remembered chapter of American history. If it is recalled at all, the most prominent images are the British burning of Washington DC (including the White House), and the battle of Ft McHenry, as memorialized by the Star Spangled Banner.

 

But there was an entire other theatre in that war: the Western theatre, which in those early days of the Republic referred to the Great Lakes region. War hawks in Congress dreamt of glory, and imagined a campaign in which the US could wrest all of Canada from British hands, more than doubling our nation’s land area. This book is dedicated to examining that fight.

 

One might be forgiven for thinking this book was written in present day, and that it contains thinly-veiled commentary on U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the ingredients are there: war-hawk Congressmen who had themselves never fought in the military, yet were eager to gamble the lives of their fellow countrymen;  an ill-conceived war of aggression on foreign soil; and an American public who gradually became less enthusiastic as the conflict ground on.  …But no, this book was written in 1999 by a thoughtful and apparently impartial retired Army former Lt.Col, (Richard Barbuto) who presents the material in a meticulous and dispassionate style.

 

 

 

What I enjoyed most was Barbuto’s thorough discussion of how the conflict was shaped by geographical factors.

 

 

British forces were supplied solely through their one unassailable North American port, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Troops, munitions, and food were shipped down the St. Lawrence seaway to strongholds in Quebec City and Montreal (the real prizes American warhawks coveted). There were very few roads west of Montreal at that time, so further projection of power depended on shipping on the Great Lakes- which was disputed by the American Great Lakes fleet, ably (for the most part) led by Issac Chauncey. As one proceeded Westward, British supply routes became more and more tenuous.

 

American forces were much more diffuse, and better developed in the West. Thus, the US faced no such limitations. This advantage decided the battle of Ft Erie, and kept the Great Lakes west of Buffalo NY firmly under American primacy (with the temporary embarrassing exception of a needless surrender of the American fort in Detroit, 1811).

 

A few factors helped balance the equation in favor of the British:

 

1) American forces comprised a much smaller percentage of “regulars” (i.e. full-time active duty soldiers). Most soldiers were short-term (usually from 6 months to 2 years) volunteers with no former battle experience.   In contrast, the British North American army was composed nearly entirely of full-time professional soldiers, who had been unified, disciplined, and battle hardened in the recent ongoing Napoleonic Wars.

 

2) For reasons not entirely explained in this book, the British seemed to have much better relations with the local Native Americans, who fought on the British side in much larger numbers than they did for the U.S.  Indian guides with their knowledge of local geography, flora, and fauna provided priceless advice to British commanders traveling overland, along the northern shore of Lake Ontario.

 

3) American leaders- particularly those aforementioned Congressional war hawks- failed to take into account  the attitudes of the Canadian populace. After the Revolutionary War (only 35 years prior) British loyalists moved en masse to Canada. Thus, the larger portion of Canadians ranged from indifferent to rabidly hostile toward American invaders. When (U.S.) Gen. Jacob Brown landed his forces on the Niagara peninsula, the opposing (British) Gen. Gordon Drummond had little need of spies to assess the Americans’ numbers and movements; average Canadian citizens were willing and able to report these to him.

 

This is probably the largest strategic flaw behind the American attempt to conquer Canada:  whereas it may have been reasonable to imagine that the U.S. could conquer Canada (e.g. -if only the Napoleonic Wars had lasted a little longer, tying up the bulk of British military power in the European theatre), it was completely unreasonable to imagine that America could ever HOLD Canada.  It was simply too large a landmass for our nascent military to occupy, indefinitely, in the face of Canada’s openly-hostile population.

 

 

Having said that, American forces- particularly the U.S. Navy, acquitted themselves admirably, throughout most of the war. The U.S. Navy completely dominated the British in Lake Erie, and fought on par with the British on Lake Ontario, even in the face of superior firepower, when the giant warship St Lawrence  was completed at the Kingston shipworks, towards the end of the war.

 

The American Army didn’t do quite as well, on the lower Niagara peninsula- where most of the Canadian campaign took place. Part of this is due to the failure of the U.S. Army and Navy to work together. Chauncy failed to support Brown’s defense of Ft. Niagara or Ft. George, and so both were lost to the British.

 

A lot of tactical blow-by-blow narration describes the Battles of Lundy’s Lane and the defense of Ft. Erie. It’s a bit too detailed for my tastes, but you may be into that sort of thing.

 

The end of the war contains several cliffhangers:  As soon as Napoleon concedes Waterloo, a massive British force (over 10,000 shock troops) file into Canada, and poise to take the Adirondak region of northern New York State.  It is only through a tactical blunder that British forces on Lake Champlain face the American Navy before the Plattsburgh navy base falls under ground attack. In a devastating route, American Navy vessels obtain a complete surrender of all British forces on the Lake, before turning to support Plattsburgh’s defense with shipfire. (British) Major General George Prevost got a courts-martial for that little incident, which saw the massive British force running back over the Canadian border to reconsider strategies.

 

This stunning turn of events severely altered the peace negotiations: to that point, the British were demanding a revision of the US/Canadian border further southwards; a change that would have made Maine a Canadian province, along with much of northern New York State and Vermont.

 

Barbuto touches on actions along the Atlantic coast, to include the burning of Washington, and the defense of Ft. McHenry- but the book is solidly focused on the campaign for Canada. Overall, it is an informative, if sometimes dry, account. I particularly recommend it, if you are native to Buffalo, NY, as a lot of familiar places show up, and some place names have their origins in this era.

 

The town of Ft. Erie is mostly known today for having the region’s largest strip club, but was the site of a hard-fought battle which was unexpectedly decided by the explosion of an American gunpowder reserve, just as the British were capturing it. The massive explosion killed over 900 British soldiers in one swift blow- a slap which they never recovered from.

 

Lundy’s Lane today is mostly known for garish Niagara Falls souvenir stores:

 

 

but was the site of the largest conflict of the 1814 campaign- an unsatisfying affair which counted as a technical victory for the Americans (having captured more guns, taken a strategically-important hilltop, and having killed more enemy soldiers), but a strategic victory for the British (causing American General Winfield Scott to overextend himself before General Brown’s support units could arrive- resulting in the Americans being unable to hold their hard-fought gains, and ultimately driving them back to refuge in Ft. Erie).

 

 

 

Porter Road in Buffalo is named after the Congressional war-hawk Peter Porter, who asserted that the capture of Canada would take “no substantial effort”, and Williamsville, NY- the upscale area where people with money live in Buffalo today- was the site of the area’s largest military hospital.

 

Good stuff,  and the best book I know of on this subject.  3.5 stars because the order-of-battle stuff about Lundy’s Lane just goes on forever, and is just a bit too detailed.

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Review: Wallbanger by Alice Clayton

Like many – or maybe even most – romantic comedies, Wallbanger bumps along cheerfully until its third act, where the whole thing descends into unearned sentiment and willful stupidity. Situation comedies are almost always characterized by mistaken identities and misunderstandings – meaning the characters often have to be irrational, clueless or foolish to make the situation work – but the third act turn in Wallbanger towards just breathtaking stupidity and a frankly bizarre understanding of a woman’s sexuality felt egregious. This was one of a long list of fictions I’ve read ruined by its ending.

My husband asked me about this book right as I was mid-way through the third act turn, and I groused about the ending unfolding. He asked if I thought maybe I was just an outlier – lots of people like descent into treacle, obvs, or it wouldn’t happen as often as it does. And that’s a factor, sure. As with all comedy and romance, your mileage may vary. I guess I’m just annoyed with how stupid that third act turn was, incommensurate with the level of stupidity preceding. What I would like from my fluff reading is an even level of stupid and unbelievable so I can be prepared. Writing characters with a modest level of competence and humor only to abandon that for completely weird confounding action makes me sad.

Simon and Caroline meet cute after Caroline sublets an apartment from her boss. In her first week there, her sleep is interrupted by the neighbor in the next apartment having several loud assignations with several different women. (You know, not all at once, but serially.) Eventually, after weeks of trash talk with her lady friends and interrupted sleep, Caroline goes banging on the wallbanger’s door in the middle of the night to get him to STFU. It eventually turns out that Caroline and the wall-banging neighbor, Simon, are in a six degrees of separation situation, and her friends and his friends hook up while they razz each other and banter.

So far, so good. Again, comedy is personal, and this could certainly be the kind of humor to put you off, but I thought the middle sections of the novel were the kind of breezy, silly shenanigans I’m looking for from my lazy chick lit. No, it’s not particularly deep nor well written, but in terms of light entertainment, it got the job done. Simon is not a huge asshole and defends his situation credibly; Caroline clearly has seen too many Sex in the City episodes on Oxygen (the ones with the sex scenes and cussing expunged), but not in a nasty, label-obsessed way. Some of the situations made me cringe – the cabin - but mostly the interpersonal relationships were the kind of fakey, airless relationships that exist mostly to be punchlines, not profound statements on the human state or whatnot. Which is totally fine.

I’m given to understand that Wallbanger started life as a Twilight fan fiction, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you how this has anything to do with Twilight. Unlike 50 Shades, the most successful of the pulled-to-publish fanfics out there, the characters in Wallbanger seem almost sensible and evenly matched. They’re roughly the same age and success level, and while Simon obviously has a different take on the whole monogamy thing than Caroline, he’s not a stalker psycho. The person whom I assume is the Jacob character has little in common with Jacob either structurally within the novel nor in terms of character attributes, and Caroline is no Mormon housewife slash shuddering virgin. In fact, my husband and I got into a whole thing about the ethics of published fanfiction – most of which I’m not going to replicate here – but I think the usefulness of the Twilight intertext is pretty minimal either way.

What I really want to bitch about is the third act shitshow involving Caroline’s orgasm or lack thereof. This complaining will certainly involve spoilers, though of the minimal kind, because when a romance heroine tells you she can’t get off at the beginning, what are the odds she’s going to get off by the end? It’s like the Chekhovian gun, only this time it’s the Chekhovian vagina. Somebody’s going to fire that bad boy until it clicks. Caroline tells us early on that she’s lost her O, as she calls it, due to an unfortunate hook up with a dude she calls “machine gun fucker”. I think it’s a blind date set up, and MGF is status-obsessed and boorish. She eventually fucks him out of resignation, just sort of to make the date end, which I recognized from my gauzy memories of dating as an unfortunate but sometimes eventual sexual situation.

It’s not so much that you’re coerced into sex with a bad sexual partner – even though you know it’s going to be bad – but just that you shrug and figure that bad sex is better than no sex at all. This argument uses extremely suspect logic, and I’m not saying it’s true, just that it’s thought by people like younger me and Caroline at points. I don’t even mean to be hyperbolic here, but Caroline’s reaction makes me think this sexual experience is a lightly encoded sexual assault. I get this supposed to be a funny haha set-up, a fakey impediment to be overcome by fakey shenanigans, but it really seems to me that the loss of desire – of sexual response – is such a serious issue that it shouldn’t be treated as lightly as it is.

Not that long ago, I was standing out on the back porch smoking with a friend of mine. I don’t even know how we got on the topic, but she related to me that she’d recently lost her mojo, which had precipitated something of a crisis with her wife. “Why am I not responding to this person I love? Do I not love her enough?” They asked each other and themselves. She went to her doctor in despair. Turns out, she had something like a cyst or other perturbation in her lady-system, a physical explanation for a situation that had pretty serious emotional bearings on her emotional state, her relationship, and her sense of self. I related how my sexual reactions had been gutted by the double punch of breastfeeding hormones and chemical birth control in the months after I had my first kid, and how weird it was to find that my sexual response was something that could be gutted like that. I’d always thought of my sexual being as inextricable until it was extracted. “Oh thank god,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

I didn’t know either, for months, what was going on, that it wasn’t my fault or in my control. (Not that if it were psychological it would be any more my fault or under my control.) This isn’t even factoring in all the body trauma I went through simply bringing my son into the world. The process of rediscovering my sexuality was a long and complicated one, one that had as much to do with chemical changes as it did to my emotional reaction to them. And that’s not even getting into friends I’ve known who’ve lost their mojo over maybe more severe traumas – psychological or physical – who have to work and work at healing, who have had kind and patient lovers who nonetheless cannot magically repair these dampened and depressed sexualities simply through love.

So when Caroline trips the fuck out because her first time having penetrative sex with her man does not result in her elusive O, I kind of wanted to scream. I don’t think it’s inaccurate that she wouldn’t orgasm from penetrative sex - only about 25% of women consistently do - nor do I think it’s inaccurate that she would blame herself for that “failure”. What drives me fucking bananas is that she magically finds her O again in a scene played for slapstick. and from then on it’s an O rodeo. Just, fuck, I know I’m taking this personally, but this kind of easy magic that has women lit up like a pinball machine after some kind words and the old in-and-out just burns me.

I’m not trying to be unromantic or a crank, and I’m not saying that this book is particularly horrible in its sexy times. This was just the book where I noticed that so much sex writing focuses on straight up (pun intended) penetrative sex as the be-all come-all, and I just can’t anymore. Love is grand, but it’s not going to ring your bell ipso facto. Kindness and understanding – which Simon does evidence, a little – go far in healing, but they are not an elixir. The moment when you realize you’re totally drunk is not the moment you become sober. That’s a whole other process. The rest of it is work, and letting go the idea that your orgasm is a metric, and time.

The third act of Wallbanger ended up being Cosmo healing, a checklist of simple solutions to decidedly unsimple problems, using trips and tricks inaccessible to most women. Again, there’s nothing particularly uncommon about the way Wallbanger portrays a woman’s sexual response, so my irritation is more aggregate than specific. But its commonality is precisely the problem. This is emancipation by will, empowerment through bikini wax. It’s not that I don’t think such things are possible; it’s just that they are constantly portrayed as probable when I know the lived experience is so much cooler, more fucked up, and weirder than these fluff pieces let on. I’m not expecting strict reality from my fluff – I’m not a complete buzzkill – I would just dig if for once it didn’t descend to the lowest, most common narrative, this glossy tabloid psychology that has neither the bite of insight nor the sacrilege of humor. I can be amused by situational comedy up until the situation is a real one treated cheaply. Alas and alack.

The Awakening And Her Sisters

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“It may all sound very petty to complain about, but I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust.”
-Warner, Lolly Willowes

This book is an early distillation of a particular kind of novel that was being written periodically throughout the early twentieth century. These novels are all variations on the same theme, but the basic outline is the same. This one will serve to give you a pretty good idea of the lot:

Edna Pontellier is the rather well-to-do wife of a New Orleans businessman with two children, a well-appointed home, servants and a clear, clearly fulfilled place in her particular social circle. Her husband is kind to her in many conventional ways: he spares no expense on the household, takes something of an interest in the raising of the children, buys her personal and lavish presents and summer holidays, seems to offer periodic compliments and is not at all jealous or possessive. He has his faults of course- he likes his routines to be how they are and he places great importance on his wife fulfilling her “feminine” role in the household and society- dealing with the servants, ensuring high quality dinners, ministering to his needs and generally putting him first when he is home, being constantly involved with children, paying the same morning calls to the same wives of business associates that she always has. None of these expectations is particularly out-of-line for her time and place, and indeed she has never had to bear some of the extra morally horrible but legally acceptable extra burdens other wives have to shoulder without questioning. Her husband is occasionally rude and out of temper, he sometimes spends his evening out with his friends and blames her unfairly for occurrences that are blown all out of proportion. But that’s about it.

And yet, “It may all sound very petty to complain about, but I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust.”

Of course, as we know, this is not the real problem. The problem is with the underlying foundations of the Patriarchal System of Various Assumptions and Ground Rules. In this case, the System manifests in her husband’s casual assumption that she sees her “occupation” as he does, to live her life as a recommendation and added enticement to her husband’s business career, or even to further it. There’s a scene where he recommends that she accept and reject calling cards and invitations on the basis of whether each woman in question has a husband that will further his career. He expects to everything at home reflect his success out of the home, including the dinner he eats (which he seems to be more upset about on the basis that it does not suit his status than anything). He conceptualizes her private life as a “public” one (since she has no “public” one to add to his), bound by all the same accommodations and professional decisions that a person in a career might make. When she deviates from her conventionally feminine choices, he assumes she may need medical treatment.

Like the feminine version of Bartleby the Scrivener, the rebellion phase begins with “I would prefer not to,” and continues until she’s figured out she would simply prefer not to live most of her life at all. Then of course, she has to decide what to do next.

This is where a lot of the stories differ. In Lolly Willowes, perhaps the clearest parallel to this book, the book brings to the surface all the guilt and self-hatred that the “fine dust” can arouse in a woman used to a lifetime of its constraints. Lolly actually conceives herself to be a witch, an actual servant of the devil, because she finally chooses to live a life according to her desires, to ignore the claims and needs of others that she has spent her life seeing to. This especially dramatic is encouraged by the fact that Lolly has never achieved that supposed “highest calling” for women: a husband and children. Thus, all she is supposed to have to offer is a life of selfless service to others that she is dependent on. Thus it makes sense for her to consider herself not only less than nothing, but actually actively evil for denying to further repay what is seen as her only natural duty and place. All Passion Spent is another, perhaps more mature parallel. In this iteration, Lady Slane actually has achieved the husband and children. What is more, they are grown and successful, with children of their own. Her husband was an eminent public servant, and she fulfilled her “role” (just like Edna’s husband had requested) for all of her life. As Edna states clearly and expressively in The Awakening:

“at a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life- that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”

Lady Slane has maintained this and chosen not to tell anyone for decades upon decades of marriage, so much so that even her family forgot that she was an actual person rather than a precious objects, of sorts, to be taken care of much as an heirloom might be. Her Bartleby moment comes through in a meeting deciding her future where her children have almost forgotten that she is a participant in the conversation. She decides to live out her life, like Lolly, in a house of her own. In this case it is the house itself, rather than an imaginary relationship with the devil, that becomes Lady Slane’s rebellion. A quirky, falling apart house with a sympathetic caretaker, becomes, bafflingly to her family, of greater interest to her than her children and grandchildren.

The Enchanted April is a luxurious, loving and-all-too-temporary bath of the golden sunlight of the prime of this story. It’s presented as a fantasy of escape. The women involved take a house in Italy and spend charmed, perpetually-twilight-hour weeks of stillness, contemplation, repressed anger and joy escaping their obligations to their family, to their husbands or other men, their poses to the world and their need to repress their feelings. There is one woman, indeed, who sometimes barely seems to move at all, perpetually walking around with a suppressed, blissful smile on her face. There are men in the novel, but they enter what is clearly a world of women, enchanted indeed by their fantasies and repressed longings. Some women place more boundaries and limitations on letting themselves go than others, but the trend is there, and it is the opposite of what is found on the outside. Even this brief moment of suspension and stillness restores some of the women enough to go on, some couples leave transformed, more or less, and we fade out with quiet, with sheer quiet still the ultimate dream of nirvana.

Mrs. Dalloway provides a different, more kaleidoscopic perspective on the same theme, perhaps even a slightly more optimistic and loving one in its own way. Clarissa Dalloway actually finds a kind of fulfillment in her duties as a housewife, in her every day errands and domestic creations. The interesting change of perspective here is that it seems like Woolf’s attempt to understand how this can be the case when she herself is so unlike this, rather than having the perspective be explaining a “different” woman to a mass of people who understand and live her opposite. Clarissa Dalloway, like Edna, understands that split between the interior and exterior life and instinctively lives it out each day. She, like these other women, has desires beyond her household, but has found reasons not to fulfill them. She has found her own way of making her life her own- even with a husband that she seems to have not much connection to, with a former lover for whom she can still have strong feelings after all these years, and with an unsatisfying daughter who is decidedly not her double in any way. She’s able to make these obligations into a kind of mission and to see the tiny beauty in the every day things that she achieves, or at least to come to see it after a daily struggle with her whole situation that mirrors some of the feelings these other women have, even if she justifies it to herself and thinks through it differently. Her slightly more optimistic conclusion (in its way) about the business of fulfilling her role as a woman and what it can lead to, at its best, does not at all lessen the struggles and doubts and reflections that we see her go through. Her success in repressing them might make her stronger in some ways, but it doesn’t mean that she, like Lady Slane, has seemingly ceased to be a person in the eyes and become only outward show. She maintains her personhood throughout, which is triumph most of these ladies desire to achieve anyway.

Of course, the most obvious precursor to all this is the infamous Emma Bovary’s disastrous venture into speculation and dreams, due to her insatiable longing for something more, something higher to believe in than the calling she’s been given as a woman. Anna Karenina has its own piece to share as well, of course, in its way. But these headlong, rush-to-the-head statements, these explosions of joy and rage are screams in the night, almost in a category by themselves, one separate from the whispers, the candlelight dreams and embedded-in-the-everyday transformations that are the rest of these books. Those ladies seek to destroy, to smash, in a way, whereas these ladies seek to simply… exist in a different way. They want to find a way for themselves that is slightly different, not the expected, but not…publicly. These are still private individuals still interested in keeping their privacy and existing within most bounds. They are at most…. Slightly off, in the context of their day, or perhaps in the case of Clarissa Dalloway, not outwardly “off” at all. They are interested in delving into and acting on some specific and long cherished thoughts that are not necessarily radically out of the norm. It is the sort of “odd” that earns you sideways looks from your children and a “Well, I just never thought that you,” or “I just don’t know what you mean by…,” when you push them as to what exactly is wrong. It’s eccentricity, not revolutionary.

I think the better predecessors are the more-or-less coded versions of the narrative that we find in Villette and Jane Eyre, and a wistful, painful statement of it through Dorothea in Middlemarch. Charlotte’s versions of it are covered over with the Victorian balm of marriage, of course, in the end. But both Lucy and Jane are interested in the sort of honesty, the sort of “to thine own self be true” that leads so many of the other ladies above to question what it is that they want and why. Villette, especially, offers its audience an ending that is, at best, deeply ambiguous as to whether it is marriage itself (rather than the act of it) that sets Lucy free or not. Her husband will never be any sort of ideal, and the way that he speaks to her has what would politely be called bracing honesty for a virtue. With Jane, of course, while she allows marriage to be more of an ideal achieved for her, the ideal is not achieved until they can meet as both financial and intellectual equals with something both material and spiritual to bring to the marriage, to assure anyone judging them that Jane has something worthwhile to contribute. This echoes Edna’s abandonment of her home and everything her husband ever bought her, her fixation on her husband’s money as the thing that binds her and keeps her in servitude, the same way that Jane refused the finery Rochester offered for their first wedding.

Dorothea’s Saint Theresa is a more or less open presentation of a woman with more passion, intelligence and drive to achieve something than the bounds of her life will allow. Like Lolly, her dreams and thoughts of how to conceptualize these capacities inside of her are bounded by the perceptions and assumptions that are presented to her by society. Thus, she dreams of assisting a “Great Man,” of the sort of loving service that Lolly has been condemned to provide, if of a more intellectual sort. When women are encouraged to make ideals of men, to see them as the “superior sex,” those sorts of personalities that are inclined to want the best for themselves, to reach for all life has to offer, will take actions to see that they are a part of that. Her disillusionment is both expected and painful to read about. What is interesting about her is that she actually is a person who wants obligations to fulfill and to provide the sort of self-sacrificial service that women are demanded to provide. She’s begging for it- her problem is that the obligations given to her are not enough. In the end, she too finds happiness in the “better marriage,” that allows her more outlet to take on more obligations and be happy doing it. And yet, her end still leads to one of my favorite expressions of the reasons why feminism exists and is still so necessary:

“Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.”

It’s tossed in the middle of a paragraph in the midst of an epilogue that includes the entire main cast- coded, in its own way then and robbed of the end-of-book statement it should have enjoyed, but we still end on Saint Teresa, contemplating the great sacrifices that Dorothea was capable of, and questioning what more she might have achieved without these every day obligations pressing on her.

Thus Edna Pontellier had many eloquent sisters saying, painting, singing, and subliminally messaging all the shades of this message for decades before The Awakening gained a wide, or almost any, audience. But she was one of the ones who did it both first and openly (remember again that the Brontes and George Eliot did it in more coded ways, and that Madame Bovary was, after all French and a scandal for decades.) In 1899, while not banned, the book was widely rejected and shunned by the reading public. Libraries refused to carry it. It got mixed reviews, but even the good ones who shied away from prudish or “conventional” condemnation of morality and unorthodox gender roles chose the secondary criticism of those who find it distasteful but realize that to say so would make them look backwards of bourgeois: the condescending complaint that she could have chosen a loftier, better subject for her talents rather than “entering into the overworked field of sex-fiction,” as a writer for the Chicago Times Herald put it.

Of course I understand that in 1899 writing about women having any sort of sexual feeling or longing would have made this smut, automatically. But looking at the book from a modern reader’s point of view, I would be hard pressed to call this “sex fiction” of any kind. What I appreciate, and what I think other modern readers may appreciate about this particular iteration of the theme was how honest and free of…. devices, I guess would be the best word, that it was. There were minimal metaphors used to try to describe what she was trying to say, nor was the thing encased in the alternate, inner universe of thought. The book was almost… naïve, childlike, even sentimental about the way that it depicted Edna’s realization and actualization of her freedom. I thought that it was very earnest about trying to just… almost just record a series of moments that added up to Edna’s inability to deny what she had been feeling.

Therefore, like these other quiet, figuring-it-out- ladies above, we get to go from her smallest feeling of “oddness” and difference through to her growing desire to act on it. The first major stand-off starts from a desire that Edna has to sleep outside on a hammock on a warm evening, rather than come inside. It is a small thing that increasingly becomes important the harder her husband pushes her on it. Eventually, he joins her outside to smoke his cigar and pretend to anyone watching that this was a communal desire. Slowly, this crushes out any magic her rebellion has until she slowly slips inside. We see her little by little move from stand-offs to the simple refusal to do ever larger things, withdrawing herself by choice from her life, from every thing that does not matter in itself, but, when added up, constitutes the life that she has been living in its entire. I think that this method of doing it was quite powerful, since we get to see all the little things that prick her and needle her into, after years of repetition, making the huge change that she does.

Eventually, Edna has a frank conversation with one of her closest friends, trying to explain the essential difference between this woman’s priorities and her own. She finally tells her:

“I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”

The woman doesn’t understand, and says so, but the important part is that we see Edna trying to think through this and express her own new limits and boundaries and define them as different than others. Which is of course, as we saw above, the real work of becoming a person on your own, rather than an accessory, or someone acting out a defined role for themselves that does not require them to think out their own feelings or desires.

This was my favorite part about what Edna’s journey tries to show us. That, sexuality and all, one of the major essences of feminism is, as someone said, that women are people. All Edna is doing in this book is testing out her likes and dislikes, finding friends that she herself enjoys, finding an occupation that fulfills her, and rooting out those things from her life which she does not like or need.

I mean, that sounds like college to me. High school, college, my twenties. Edna is twenty-eight and has had really, none of that experience except brief infatuations, conquered quickly. She’s missed out on it all, and this is about her realizing that she has missed out on something. Which, as Chopin eloquently tells us, is more than most women of her class and status get the chance to realize, given the confines, expectations, obligations and, frankly, apparent rewards and the something-like-happiness endings that many are able to achieve, at least according to the script they’ve had since they were little girls:

“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her- the light which, showing the way, forbids [her realization of why she was doing what she was doing]. At that early period it served but to bewilder her. It moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness, to the shadowy anguish which had overcome her the midnight when she had abandoned herself to tears.

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight- perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually vouchsafed to any woman.

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such a beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!”

Do you see what I mean by how straightforward it is? Naïve, even? It’ s so earnest it is almost cloying to read at times. And yet it’s so crystal clear and honestly stated that I have absolutely no desire to roll my eyes. It’s extraordinary, even, for a woman of her time and situation to express it in such a still-relatable and recognizable way. Chopin thought this through admirably. I respond to it in the same way that I respond to Tolstoy’s writing, head-in-his-hands and tearing out his hair because he honestly can’t solve the problem he has, so he’s just presenting his thought process on it as best he can.

“It moved her to dreams,” may become one of those phrases that haunts me.)

I didn’t quite understand why she needed to meet the end that she did. I suppose I do, in the abstract, but I didn’t think we had been building towards a train in this one. I thought that we had been building towards Great Mop, towards a house in Italy, a faded artist’s garret, a husband denying reality for as long as possible. I didn’t think her heroine was out of options. Whether her lover left her or not, even she seemed to realize what she was doing was not entirely about him.

The only explanation that Chopin offers is somewhat mystical, bound up with the myths and spirituality of women that we were to see revived in the ‘60s (perhaps another reason that explains this book’s discovery during that time period):

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

The only real peace I could make with the end was to think of it like the Enchanted April. A house in Italy, with swirling voices all silenced, after a struggle of passions, in your head. It is the escape hatch that is always offered when the pressure is too much. While I didn’t see the need to press the button to jettison in this particular book, perhaps that is also part of the point. You never know when the pressure building is too much for the woman in particular, and, in most cases, it is not considered by those around her. “Abysses of solitude.” That’s the sort of phrase that it seems that one can never get enough of. It was hard for me to judge someone overindulging in it, in the end.

asshole_familycircus

Calvin & Muad’Dib

Best tumblr of the day goes to Calvin & Dune, which remaps Dune quotes over Calvin & Hobbes panels. So kinda like Nietzsche Family Circus, only not randomly generated. I’m just going to linkstorm to some of my favorite Internet comics in this vein.

Nietzsche Family Circus - previously mentioned – pairs a Nietzsche quote with a random Family Circus panel. It’s old in Internet terms, originating in (gap!) 2006, but there’s something hypnotic about clicking through a bunch of twee suburbia narrated by a German crank.

Hobbes & Bacon - onetwothreefour - Web comic Pants are Overrated did four strips featuring Calvin and Susie’s daughter Bacon – presumably named after the philosopher, not the condiment – which were then continued byTerra Snover for a while. They make my heart strangle a little. There’s other ones out there; plz to google yourself.

 

Garfield Minus Garfield - to quote the project: “[Garfield Minus Garfield] is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.” Seeing the reactions of Jon to the always thought-bubbled statements by his now illusory orange cat kinda blow my mind. Jim Davis ended up cashing in on this ennui, and there are several print versions of the original web comic available for sale. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but whatever.

“Christ, what an asshole” - the person who originated this idea’s page is down at the moment (or maybe permanently), but someone back before google caching noted that all of the single panel New Yorker cartoons could be captioned with “Christ, what an asshole” with minimal damage to the funniness, and often, improvement. To whit:

New Yorker cartoons captioned with "Christ, what an asshole"

Quickly, it was noted that this punchline worked for your more traditional three panel weekday comic as well, especially fucking Peanuts. (Maybe it’s just being a Minnesotan, which Schulz was too, but his brand of Lutheran miserablism just sets my teeth. I find it astonishing that Peanuts has the devotion it does, given how cruel and depressing his comedy is.) So this pleases me:

Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown, which ends with him saying "Christ, what an asshole"

Fuck you, Lucy.

tothewonder2

Posts from Overshare Planet: Unteachable

“How old did you think I was?”

“I don’t know. 25? How old did you think I was?”

“About the same.”

Both of us were lying. I was 19 and he was 31.

When I think of my body then, I have this sense of sharpness, like my skin was too tight over my bones, like the meat of my body was as thin and fine as the knife used to fillet it. I’ve always looked younger than I am. In high school, I’d go in solo and buy child’s tickets for the movies for friends because I could pass for 13 easy. I didn’t get my period until I was 16, and I was still growing, so I had that look of stretching bones, no boobs, no hips. Coltish, you’d call it if I were six inches taller; cute is the designation for the short. At five feet and some change, at 19, I could still pass for a freshman in the right light. Most of the light was right.

 

My boyfriends before him had been my age or younger, these sweet, sensitive boys who were as inexperienced with their bodies as I was with mine. One had vivid horizontal stretch marks on his back and thighs because he’d grown six inches the summer before. They were still shimmery and white. We spent a lot of time stripped to the skin because I think we needed to show someone our strange new inhabitations, like we were squatters setting fires for a night in an empty house and then found ourselves trapped. We were so tentative, like we were fragile, and we asked for permission like a hall pass. We would just go out and come right back.

The fashion that summer was baby doll dresses. They made my legs seem long and swung. I was as tan as I can get, which isn’t much, more a pink flush than a darkening, the freckles coming out on my nose, my hair bleached bright blonde like it had been when I was a girl. I had tan lines high on my thighs and the white flashed when I walked or sat. I never wore much make-up, just lipstick, often red. I knew the picture I painted. I knew who tended to be attracted to that, and was often ferociously cruel to people hitting on me. I treated people attracted to me like perverts, and they often were, which ends up being a centrifugal force of weltering shame and desire.

We met at some theater thing, at a collection of tables shoved together in an after hours restaurant peopled with friends of friends and hangers on. It was all very boho, very cosmopolitan. I was very impressed with myself. When he kissed me first, we were making our way through the dark balcony of a theater. There was theater junk everywhere, bulky and haphazard. I put my hands on his back so that I could follow his path and so I could put my hands on his back. He didn’t play coy; he knew what those hands meant. He turned and kissed me, running his hands over my body. He pinched my breasts, and I thought, there isn’t going to be a hall pass this time. When we came out later he asked me to come home with him. I said yes. I was still living with my mom.

It was only later we exchanged birthdays. He was apologetic and played at the ethical dilemma, but I knew it was theater. He said to me once when our relationship was shuddering to its death, something muttered almost like he was saying it to himself, “I wanted to be on my last girlfriend.” “I don’t,” I shot back, and his eyes were pure anime. I knew what I was and I found it surprising that he didn’t. Poor baby. Poor baby doll.

I have a friend who got fired from a gig writing porn for barely legalmagazines because he kept writing his girls too honestly. The line that got him fired was, “You smell like my grandpa,” delivered by a legally consensual Lolita to the 30 something guy who was making it with her in his car. Girls can’t break the fantasy. I loved his skin, the way it was losing its elasticity, the softness to the corners of his mouth when he frowned, his crow’s feet. I don’t have crow’s feet now so much as radiating lines above my eyebrows. I think I frown more than I laugh. His skin made me think of my grandma’s hands which were like suede and bird bones. I never said this, of course.

He wasn’t tall, and heavyset. He was rueful about his belly, the rolls on his waist, but I liked it. I liked that he was solid, like he was a person. I felt like I was made out of ballistics gel and vinyl, something carved out of plastic. I liked that his age had settled upon him. I wanted someone to set me on my knees and fuck me so that I could be fucked. I wanted someone to lie to me about how old I looked or how old I acted. I wanted my own shiny stretch marks as I swelled with experience. I wanted to use someone and then throw them away. That is more or less what I did. He wasn’t the only 30 something guy I dallied with at this age.

I learned from him, and the next affair was casual and silly. He was moving out of state in two weeks and we had quiet sex in a room full of boxes and that grew, quiet because his roommates were dour and religious. I knew he had a thing for small, mean blondes; the old saw: only God could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair. I could quote Yeats and self deprecate. Our first date was to the drive-in with the roommates. The movies were all 70s exploitation films, horror with a lot of blood splatter and casual nudity, and the woman – wife? I wasn’t tracking this sort of relationship then – decided we should leave after one of the characters bit off a man’s dick after a blow job. I thought it was funny, the way mean blondes do. I was very Hitchcock.

He pulled me away so he could explain why we were leaving. He was elaborately apologetic, about the movie, about his upset, religious friends. I kissed him while he was sputtering about some psychological bullshit and pressed him against the wall of the concession stand. He tasted like popcorn. The drive-in smelled like pee and gravel. The whole thing was ruddy. They dropped me off at home – we had all gone together – and he got out of the car and stood out on the sidewalk looking sheepish and hopeful. I was hoping we could go back to my place together, he said, gesturing at the couple in the car. But, you know, they’re religious. I smiled like a shark. I drove over and snuck in past them like the teenager I was. Most of our relationship was based on the short clock and the transgression. It was sweet in its honesty. It wouldn’t have lasted, but there was nothing wrong with it beyond the obvious.

My parents have old neighbor friends, a couple. They have kids just a little younger than me, more like my sister’s age and younger. They moved up north a million years ago back to my dad’s hometown. He became a teacher, and I think she was too. A dozen or so years ago, he started fucking one of the seniors in his class, a technically legal but nevertheless actionable offense. He was fired; his wife left him; my mother, my dad’s ex-wife, made this really specific face of disgust. He followed the girl out to college and they ended up married when she graduated. They had a baby. She went to grad school. She has a PhD, is on tenure track at a good school, and has a 10 year old boy. He’s retired. I don’t think you could call their relationship anything but a success at this point. If I wanted to sit in judgement about it, I’d be well too late.

A couple of years ago, my dad took my son up for a weekend up north, and they met with his friend and his son. The pictures of the boys on the rocky north shore beach are transcendent as they jump around like boys and throw rocks, one grandson, one son, samesies. I can mimic my mother’s face now, the one of disgust, the very specific one. Considering their relationship makes me think of dad in ways I don’t like, not that he has any culpability in this. I don’t like being reminded of the power of potential. The skin on my jawline has gone soft.  I just learn new faces when I slide them on, but under all my aging softness is that hard 19 year old girl. God, she’s such a terrible creature to consider.

Leah Raeder’s Unteachable made me consider that terrible creature, and it was full of that lying honesty I remember, the sensation and overheated meaning. Maise O’Malley and Evan Wilke meet cute at an ugly local fair, all carnies and robbed tourists, Southern Illinois. She’s a bored senior, 18, flash and skitter. They ride the roller coaster and when it drops, so do they. She fucks him on the bench seats of his hipster car and then walks away to the first day of class several weeks later. He’s her teacher. He makes feints to the ethical dilemma, but she knows who she is, what she is. She sits on the hood of his car like the trope she is, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. She can quote Nabokov and self deprecate.

Maise is almost too worldly, too allusive, this older Maise cracking through the voice. There’s a retrospective edge to it that makes her possible, but then she was possible anyway, horribly, the way I was. I have diaries of that time and they’re full of poetry and fragments, raw, stupid, cruel, funny. I like the person who wrote them, but she’s lying like I’m lying now about some things. Maise’s playing it for theater, but it’s the kind of theater that strips you, full of starbursts and skin, the kind that strips herself.

Unteachable reminded me of The Age of Miracles, in a way, though Julia from that novel is so much younger, so quiet and watchful. Unteachable has the same inexorable stretching though, the bones still growing, the marks on the skin still shiny like spider eggs. Maise and Julia are both girls, and they narrate their slow softenings: the days they look in the mirror and see their mothers; the father they replicate in sex or silence; the trying on of a hundred different faces, not all of them of disgust, so many of them of wonder at the stretching bones, the surprise of yourself, the hard and gem-like flame maintaining its ecstasy. Terrible creatures, all of us. Amen.