Category Archives: sex writing

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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.

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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.

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Beautiful Disaster: Most of this Title is Wrong

There’s this old joke from the Simpsons where Bart sees the movie based on the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and then quips, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” The beautiful part of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is most certainly wrong, but I think the disaster part is also a misnomer. Disaster implies a sudden destruction, something out of the hands of the affected, but this novel is a long, Mordorian slog through the absolute worst character traits that bloom into their inevitably dreary conclusion. Beautiful Disaster is like slowly adding chlorine bleach to ammonia, and the toxic fog that results is both unsurprising and cheerlessly boring. That I’ve struggled for nigh on three months to come up with a review is probably more due to my burnt throat than anything. What do I even say about a novel this fucking dumb?

Which, now that this act of spleen is out of the way, onto the novel. I don’t really have much to say about the plot, being, as it is, the pointless, motivationless histrionics of characters without sense or coherence. Much of the romantic drivel published about young white women and their non-problems follows this sort of plotting: two acts of interpersonal hand-wringing followed by a more pulp-sensible third act. (Think Twilight, where not much happens for most of the book, then a badly blocked action sequence to remind you that there are “real world” stakes intrudes.) Abby Abernathy’s dorm showers break, so the most reasonable solution is to shack up with her friend America’s boyfriend and his psycho roommate, Travis. Due to reasons, she ends up having to share a bed (you know, like, platonically, not that any of these assholes have a clue who Plato was) with Travis for a month. An artless and witless courtship ensues, complete with an unconvincing love triangle and a lot of drunken screaming.

Though I really could go on about this – and I could, believe you me – dogging the complete incoherence of the characters is probably not terribly fruitful. Like so many of these pulp romance slash New Adult characters, Abby and Travis inhabit a magical land where athletes who smoke and never train are just the very best at boxing; where shy good girl virgins can drink, card shark and fuck like a pro; where openly cruel & violent psychotics can command the admiration of everyone; where there are no legal ramifications to getting people killed and precious few emotional ones, short of “phew, glad it wasn’t anyone I know.” So many of these bottom barrel romances (or whatever this is) are peopled with incoherent sociopaths, the selfish and solipsistic edge of romantic love acted out by reader (and writer) proxies who can be all things and therefore nothing. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Not once. Not even if you should.

Like Ana from 50 Shades, Abby can be everything to the reader – virgin/whore, shy/brazen, competent/confused – without having to own any of it. Travis, like Christian Grey, exists solely to facilitate the heroine’s feels and/or vagina, driving her to actions that she wants/doesn’t want. Travis enacts the most vicious misogyny I’ve seen in a while from a character I’m supposed to like, which is then redeemed by magical ladyparts aka love. On some level, I get it: women spend a lot of godamn time dealing with threats of violence or actual violence. Just put up a female avatar and make two lightly feminist comments on Reddit and watch the rape threats roll in. A narrative that vaccinates one walking date rape through love has an appeal, I guess. (The bff of Abby, America,  who spends a lot of godamn time girl-hating and slut-shaming is more confusing. Maybe it’s just self-loathing? Who even knows.)

So, here’s the thing. I’ve said this before, so I’m paraphrasing myself here, but whether I like this sort of girl pulp has a lot to do with whether I like the main character. The characters are always incoherent and the worlds badly build; that’s just table stakes. Sookie Stackhouse reads to me like a 60 something lady who hasn’t been laid in so long she’s forgotten how the mechanics actually work, in addition to having terrible fashion sense. I find her fakey cluelessness frustrating, but I don’t dislike her. Bella Swann reads to me like a housewife desperately trying to reconnect with a libido twisted by religious dogma – Edward as both saint and stranger. I want to trip Bella, but I also empathize. Ana from 50 Shades is more of the same, but worse; it’s wedgie time for you, Ana. Harry Dresden – though that series isn’t girl pulp, technically – reads like a black-duster-wearing nerd who didn’t get much in high school because he was a jerk, and is making up for it now. (Making it up for now by getting some, not by not being a jerk, to be clear.) The women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood recede before the men, who enact a lot of hyper alpha stuff, but almost as a drag show, which I find stupid, charming and hilarious. I could easily go on.

Anyway, point being, the person Abby most reminds me of is the unhinged sorority president whose letter to her sisters was brilliantly performed by Michael Shannon for Funny or Die. (I’ll let you go take a look: Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter [NSFW]. The difference is that Abby doesn’t have nearly Rebecca Martinson’s flair for profanity, profanity I grudgingly respect, even if I think it’s seriously lame she got a writing gig on Vice [NSFW] out of the deal; ugh, and of course.) Mean-spirited, cruel, condescending, vulgar, and I want to underline this again, vulgar. Abby, like the sorority prez, spends a lot of time talking about drinking and shoring up her prowess in this incredibly juvenile way. Abby at one point takes 19 shots – 19 fucking shots! – and isn’t rushed to the hospital dead because she’s so good at holding her liquor. She trashes other girls for their awkwardness and their stupidity while solidly doing the very same things she castigates. Her priorities are completely fucked, her ambitions skewed, and her empathy nonexistent.

People like Abby make my late model third wave feminist self want to punch a baby. Not everything a girl does has to be a feminist act, and maybe it’s a good sign that girls can treat their relatively insulated lives so cavalierly. Maybe that’s one of those horrible signs of progress that people like Abby can roll around acting like they’ll never get hurt, that psycho date rapists like Travis can see fit to slut-shame a girl for wearing a shirt. These are characters who have never once had to hold a hand, or have gotten that call, or watched when someone’s eyes shift when they decide to tell you. They have zero fucking clue. What kills me is characters like Abby and her bff America running their condescension on the girls who don’t get out safe, who get taken in by abusers – and make no mistake, Travis is an abuser – because they thought they were safe but weren’t. After Travis doorsteps a girl after banging her, and the girl is unhappy about her treatment.

“Every time!” America said. She looked at the woman. “How are you surprised by this? He’s Travis Fucking Maddox! He is famous for this very thing, and every time they’re surprised!” 

Uh, okay? First off, I believe in casual sex, insofar as if it’s your bag, go for it. I don’t think you should have to enter into a long term relationship with someone after you have sex with them, and I think a lot of shitty relationships could be avoided if more people could have the sex they need without having to justify it with love or even commitment. Travis is a huge dick about giving this girl the brush off, but fine, probably better for her overall. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not clutching my pearls over the thought of casual sex at all.

What I question about this scene is the fact that Travis is swimming in pussy, even though he had a well established rep, even though all these women have to couch-fuck him because he won’t let them in his bedroom. (Red flag, ladies: that’s where he keeps the heads.) What I question is that “every single time” all of these women who are willing to couch-fuck a guy in his not-too-clean sounding apartment are so enamored of him that they lose their damn minds? And need to be scolded by America? I’m completely willing to believe that there are women who would have sex with Travis; that’s not my issue. (“He was hot and I haven’t tried scabies yet.”) My issue is that McGuire is asking us to believe this Cro-Magnon is universally treated like some kind of catch, when, uh, no. That the couch-fuck was so good that every woman who gets one is gagging for round two. I guarantee you this: Travis couldn’t find a clit with both hands and a flashlight, and for sure he never tried. He cannot be that good in bed, ever. But I guess this is the romantic ideal? I don’t know.

The person I don’t even get is America. She alternately pushes Abby on Travis, and then drags her back off, loudly breaking up with Shep and getting back together, shrieking in clubs, judging, and generally acting like the worst bff ever. She’s the constant counterpoint of Travis’s awful misogyny, and the two of them have a game of one upmanship throughout the book of who can say the most terrible thing next. This is one of those left field thoughts, but bear with me. So you know the Book of Job, right? From the bible? So the commonest reading of the section where Job’s friends show up to tell him to curse god and die and all that is that the friends are psychological aspects of Job himself, the oldest recorded example of the devil and angel on your shoulder. I keep seeing this kind of divided psychology in these shitty romances:  Ana with her “Inner Goddess” and “subconscious”, Jacob stepping in to voice Bella’s fears in Breaking Dawn because she can’t. Much as I’m dogging on Abby for being horrible, mostly she’s just milquetoast, not evidencing any kind of real emotional reaction to anything around her. It’s all this flat affect and observation, and the real emotional reaction gets off-loaded onto America so we can identify more readily with this car wreck. No.

Anyway, blah, I hate these people. Because I’m tired of trying to make coherent observations, I’m just going to note a couple things about this book that suck, in no particular order. I groaned aloud and put my head on the table when Travis bought Abby a fucking puppy, whose existence then blinks on and off throughout the book as McGuire remembers him. The trip Abby takes to meet Travis’s nightmare of a family turned me into my great-aunt Edith for about 50 pages, completely mortified by their boorish squalor. I wanted to cover all the chairs in that crinkly plastic, douse everything in bleach, and then take off and nuke it from orbit. As disgusting as Travis’s bachelor pad sounded, the mothership was a million times worse. The staph infection doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wanted to punch myself into unconsciousness when the singalong happened in the cafeteria. Who the fuck are these people, vomit Glee? And Pigeon is the worst name bestowed on anyone ever.

Oh, but I guess that reminds me. I see justifications for shit like Beautiful Disaster that runs something like: you don’t have to like the characters for a book to be powerful or well done. And in the abstract, sure. Psychologically astute portraiture of monsters can be devastating to read, especially when they lure you into identifying with the monster. But that’s not what’s going on here; this isn’t an adroit manipulation of readerly expectations. All of the major characters are psychologically impossible, and most of the plot is patently ridiculous. Nothing that could possibly happen that way enacted by people who can’t exist? That’s not a cool dramatic monologue that causes the reader to reexamine what she thinks about human nature; that’s a shitshow. I don’t come to end feeling like I’ve learned anything about damaged people, and I sure as shit don’t buy that happily ever after. Gross.

Oh, and also? That piece of shit Travis Maddox should not be attributed with lines from Song of Solomon like I see all over the damn place, idiots. (I did find the blog Bad Hebrew Tattoos though, which is my new favorite thing, so it wasn’t all bad. ) “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine” was written by King Solomon. And as far as tattooing that particular line on your skin, like douches Travis Maddox and David Beckham have done, the line correctly translated from the Hebrew reads, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine. He browses among the lilies.” You can make that gender neutral in English easily enough, but the Hebrew unmistakably refers to a male lover. So unless Trav is a gay Jew – which would make this book considerably more interesting – this line has no business being on his body. Moron.

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Faking It: Gif Party

My husband and I are sitting around talking about this book. I’m on the topic because I’m using one of the characters as an example of something, but I keep losing my argument and shouting about other things. He asks me to cast this book, as I’ve told him about the thing in YA/NA reviews where you cast the novel with pop stars, minor celebs, or even just romantic looking stock photographs of pretty white people. (I’m not going to link to any, because that’s probably a dick-move, but do a search for reviews of any New Adult title, and you’ll find just scads of these castings.)

“Franka Potente for the girl,” I say. “She’s got dyed red hair in Run Lola Run, and she’s hot and punky, like Max a little.”

My Max:

Red haired girl stands in the street

I don’t know who to cast as Cade though. I get stuck on Chris O’Donnell because he’s what my mind conjured when I think “clean-cut”, but I think he’s a shitty actor. “What about my boyfriend, Bradley Cooper?” my husband asks. The man has a serious thing for Limitless. Ok, sure.

My Cade:

blue-eyed man looks off in the middle distance

“You know what you’ve done here,” my husband says. “This is Casting by Somebody’s Mom.”

“You shut your whore mouth!” I yell, but he is correct. I have zero idea who the crop of new actors/celebutants/famewhores are, and, in general, when I watch teen movies, I cannot tell those people apart, which makes for general confusion by me as to what is even going on. (“Wait, isn’t that her boyfriend?” “No, that’s the other guy.” “Do they stamp these kids out of a mold? Top off my drink, darling.”)

At this point in the review, I think we’re in for an animated gif of the boys from Supernatural to evidence my feels. I can’t even, so we’ll go Clueless.

"The PC term is 'Hymenally Challenged'."
Stacey Dash sux now tho

Oh wait! Google is awesome! Here is your Supernatural gif:

dude blubbering

Though that’s not nearly as good as Dawson:

Dawson crying

Honestly, nothing in this post has anything to do with the book. And now for your b&w softcore:

a woman and a man in bed together

Rarr, Franka Potente is fiiiiine.

Anyway, I eventually work around to my point, which is that here, in Faking It, the girl is cast as the bad girl, and the dude is the one who’s all sensitive and clean-cut, which is a reversal of the ways these New Adult titles tend to go. Hell, the way contemporary romance (which this is, mostly) tend to go. Usually panties are wetted over serious bro psychos who box. So I dug that Max was a Bad Girl, even if I didn’t believe for a minute that she was one. I’m not claiming ever to have been a bad girl, but I have known quite a few, and Max’s badness is costume more than content. Girl, do you even lift? But that’s fine, because she did actually have some real-looking issues, stuff about her relationship with her parents and blowback from her sister’s death that felt realish.

The set-up is romantic comedy silliness: she needs a fake boyfriend who isn’t her lame, caricatured real boyfriend to front for her folks over Thanksgiving. After a meet-cute in a coffee shop – seriously, a coffee shop? That’s baaaaad, Max – puppy dog Cade who’s hurtin’ gets roped into hijinks. Cade and Max do honestly have some good tension though, and the sex writing is totes croms. (That’s old speak for “totally cromulent.”)

So that’s my review!

A girl falling down the stairs

 

losing it

Losing It: New Adult Read by an Old Adult

So this is my first foray into the New Adult genre, if I don’t count The Piper’s Son and Fifty Shades of Grey, which I’m not sure if I should. They do seem to fall broadly into the category though. For those not up on your recent marketing distinctions, New Adult is, to quote Wikipedia (of course):

New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.” New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices. The genre has gained popularity rapidly over the last few years, particularly through books by self-published bestselling authors like Jamie McGuire, Colleen Hoover, and Cora Carmack.

Hey, this is a book by Cora Carmack!

I don’t want to get too pointy-headed here, but the concept of genre is an interesting one to me, so I’m just going to ramble a little about that. I have some discomfort with calling Young Adult or New Adult books a genre, because it seems to me that genre is not as simple as who reads the books, or who the books are aimed at. It’s like Atwood claiming her MaddAddam trilogy isn’t science fiction, because please. It has all the earmarks: an exploration of culture through invented technology, a thought experiment about current treads extrapolated into the future. What she’s saying, when she says she’s not writing science fiction, is that she’s not writing fiction for science fiction nerds.

When I get done bridling – y u no write for us, Peggy? – I think this is kinda legitimate. Genre can be an engagement with the tropes agreed upon by readerships or fandoms, and she is not writing to that genre engagement, whatever the motifs she might hit. I’ve argued in many a review against a book being classed as Young Adult, because despite the age of the protagonist (which is a motif often used to class the genre), I felt the sensibility was off. The Reapers Are the Angels or The Age of Miracles are examples of this: while they may occasionally have the concerns of the young adult – coming of age, emergent morality and social understandings – they lack the tone of novels aimed at teens. I’m not even saying that because they are literary - whatever that’s supposed to mean – that they are not young adult. I’ve seen plenty of literary YA novels that were still squarely aimed at teens.

I guess what I’m saying is that genre, as a concept, is a slippery beast, and can be defined in multiple ways, whether by marketing distinctions made by publishers about intended readership, or authorial intent in who s/he was writing to, or agreed upon motifs that define the genre. As the definition of genre has overlaps and fractures, so too are there books that sit uneasy in one genre or another. I can think of at least two books that switched marketing distinction upon publication in different countries - Pure and Tender Morsels - marketed as young adult in one place, and sold to adults in another. Both made me uncomfortable, although I thought the latter was better than the former in deliberately widening my upset about the way the book charted the uncomfortable middle ground.

If you pay attention at all to the most voted on reviews on Goodreads any given week, you can see just scads of reviews for New Adult titles making the lists, and also just a ton of emotion. People are reading these titles passionately and a lot. Enthusiasts have a whole review style that includes casting the protagonists with photos of milquetoast looking models and soft-core b&w images to telegraph their feels, and the detractors are often meticulous in their hatred. There are a lot of gifs, animated or not.

There’s also a lot of flamewarring coming from writers and fans and non-fans, and it’s pretty fascinating to see this emergent genre get sorted out on the threads. I don’t ever see this kind of flamewarring in more established genres, like romance, where both the well-defined readership and those who don’t define themselves as romance readers more or less know what to expect from a romance novel. I’ve shat on my share of romance novels (and loved a few too) and I rarely get flamed because romance fans can take just one look at my review and dismiss me as not part of the in-group. But because New Adult is so new and contested, there’s a hand-to-hand combat going on over how this genre is defined, who constitutes the readership, and what the motifs are. Everything is up in the air.

Point of my long-winded digression being: so New Adult? To the untrained eye, much that gets classed as New Adult looks to me like either contemporary romance with college-aged protagonists, or young adult with sex scenes, or an engagement in the concerns of emergent adulthood. Losing It falls into the first and second category, but fails at the third, and as such, pretty much is not for me. We find Bliss Edwards, College Student, opening the novel by enacting an unbelievably stupid plan to lose her virginity by picking up a stranger in a bar. It’s a young adult situation in a contemporary romance setting, complete with a meet-cute and rom-commy flighty-but-funny behavior for everyone from the sass-talking roommates to the protagonists. I have precious little patience for either the concept of virginity or stories about its loss, and romantic comedies and their situational fremdschämen make my skin crawl. (This is my asshole fancy way of saying I hate situation comedies based on people being embarrassing.) So far, we’re in it’s-not-you-it’s-me territory with this book.

My real problem is that the dude Bliss brings home and then abandons like a lunatic – Garrick – turns out to be Bliss’s new professor ZOMG. Putting aside that he is perfect and hot and British in a way that makes me feel tired, this is an entirely plausible ethical situation to be in – fucking a professor (or even being Clintonesque with a professor, which is mostly what happens here) – that is treated so lightly as to be uninteresting. It’s been a while since college, but university can be an over-sexed hothouse with profs, adjuncts, students, TAs, RAs, undergrads, overgrads, and everything in between all getting it on in every permutation. Most schools have forbidden prof/student dalliances, at least within the same department – I think anyway, and I’m too lazy to look it up – but these power dynamics and sexual dynamics are important parts of college sexual life.

I’m not even saying that Bliss and Garrick’s relationship is unethical or unmatched. I myself am the direct product of a professor and a student falling in love – though as both my folks like to point out, things were different in 1969. (Hi Mum and Dad. Sorry I’m talking about you on the Internet again.) What I’m saying is, as a reader, I was bored by a sit com that breezed over the parts of their relationship that had an ethical import. Which is fine, and if you’re looking for light entertainment, you could certainly do worse. Much as I hated the character of Garrick – not because he’s an asshole, but because hot British people written by Americans are dodgy as bubbles and squeak, cheerio – Bliss does have some active engagement with theater, her chosen major, which read to me as not-bullshit. That aspect of the New Adult motif-set was fine.

I read this and its sequel, Faking It, pretty much in a sitting, in the middle of some dire personal stuff that is both none of your business, and of course I’ve already written about on the Internet. Losing It was serviceable and inoffensive, and my two-starring it has more to do with retrospective consideration than my feelings about the prose at the time I was reading it. I liked the sequel considerably better, and Carmack seems to improve as a novelist. I’ve got some other NA titles on deck, and given my general malaise, I’m sure I’ll be reading them well before the smart stuff I’ve already assigned myself as a reader. Young adult, new adult, can be attractive to me as a reader, because in lots of situations, I’m looking for inoffensively silly and light. That the ethical concerns are so much simpler can be a plus when I’m in the middle of exhausting, brutal, depressing situations in my real life. Being an old adult is no picnic.

So, that is my first foray into the New Adult genre. You’re welcome.

goodreads killer

The Goodreads Killer: Kicking Down

Not so very long ago, a site came online called Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I would urge you not to google this site right now, and I’m not going to link to it, but I am going to note its name straight up. Fuck Voldemort. I’ll name the blog that shouldn’t be named. They claimed they were taking a stand about the big meanies on Goodreads who had the temerity to write bad reviews; uppity bitches and all. The very first posts on the site were a series of profiles of Goodreads reviewers outing their real names, the names of their spouses, editorializing on their parenting skills, and, in at least one instance, noting the places they lunched, avowedly so they they could “get a taste of their own medicine”. This, friends, is a direct threat to readers, and more specifically on female readers (which they all were), offering up personal details of people to silence them with the possibility that psychos might call them at home. Which, again, happened in at least one instance.

Now, while I wasn’t targeted by the STGRB freaks in their initial outing, many of the people targeted were my friends, and I was afraid for them. Due to swift action, STGRB ended up scrubbing their site pretty fast of the most egregious and probably legally actionable content. Also, they were forced by a national organization against school bullying to take down the banners they had festooned all over the site. Unfortunately, the post I had that detailed the screencaps of their most terrible shit has gone down, but I saw all this stuff with my own eyes, and if my google skills were better, I could find documentation. (ETA: There’s a round-up of dozens of blog posts about STGRB and their tactics here.) There’s a lot wrong with STGRB’s tactics and philosophy, but one of the biggest problems is that it reduces the critical dialogue to personal threats. When I say, “I don’t like your book,” the response “I know where you live” is a critical non sequitur with teeth. I’ve fought with all kinds of readers about interpretation. I hate with a white hot intensity when people say that Lolita was complicit in her rape, for example. But a rebuttal of that nonsense that hinges on the other person’s address is no rebuttal at all.

So while I wasn’t targeted, seeing these posts scared me, because I know I’d be on the list eventually. Pretty much any woman who says anything in public is going to have to deal with rape and murder threads, from lobbying for Jane Austen on currency, to being a Labor MP, and daring to support said Austen money, to criticizing video games. I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s a scope creep inherent in any “outing” enterprise, and there are real world consequences of said outing. Mostly I practice security through obscurity, because while I may be one of the top ten reviewers on Goodreads, I’m not harboring any delusions of my wider influence or importance. Thank Christ I’m not actually famous, because just a little fame will garner me rape and death threats all day. And get this: I’m just a fucking person

Which is where I am at the start of my read of The Goodreads Killer. I’m kind of irritated just at the outset because this book is serious fucking click-bait, absolutely designed to get people like me – highly placed Goodreads reviewers – to download this shit, read it, and snark. It angers me that I’m doing just that, because while I think The Goodreads Killer is kinda brilliant in its ability to get me raging on the Internets, which will no doubt translate into click-throughs and downloads, it’s not actually any good, you know? I’m not even kidding when I say my husband and I just spent about an hour arguing about this book. My initial reaction was so personal, so fuck you, that I’m glad he talked me down, but be it known that those feelings thrum though this entire review. I am not a lit-crit machine or a blurb generator. This is an emotional response. 

Some fucking tosser goes down to the river to burn his self-published books because critics, is confronted by a smelly dude, and told to go see some Red Headed League or dire consequences. He and league guy talk about how critics are RUINING ARTISTS with their HONESTY AND BULLSHIT and eventually set on plan where self-pub dude is going to kill the critic Bryan. There’s an interlude at this point involving Mr. Writer getting what I think is a reverse cowgirl from a secretary, but the physicality is weak, and maybe it’s just a regular cowgirl. Frankly, I’ve read better sex scenes in monster porn. Also, I skipped every single word of the excerpts from writerman’s novel, because who gives a shit, seriously. Bad examples of “good” writing, if that’s what they are supposed to be. Writer psycho hunts down the critic and kills him in a full on abattoir. The end. 

After giving my husband this run-down, his eyes lit up in little hearts. “That’s brilliant!” he exclaimed! “He’s like totally baiting you with breaking the fourth wall and that set-up is amazing!” 

“Sure,” I said, hedging towards the back door so I could smoke contemplatively in the ridiculous late-August heat. “But it’s not like one thing in that book was intentional. He believes what he’s writing, I think, even if there’s this half-assed satirical gloss.” 

“When have you ever given a shit about intentionality?” I style for a minute, refilling my glass. 

“If this had been written by Vernon D. Burns, I’d know exactly where I stand in terms of latent misogyny and general fuckitude, but that’s not where we are. Michel Foucault in the essay “What is an Author? speculates: 

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.

The author becomes a self-annihilating particle, a trademark logo at the edge of the interpretation, receding into the distance, stripped of personhood and imbued with categorical insight. But here the author murders the critic, laying his inevitable annihilation on some twat in Surrey or whatever. Readers don’t wreak the author; the author wrecks himself, because he should and does cease to exist in the work. If he doesn’t, he’s a self-insert looking for a reverse cowgirl from fangirls.”

“Whoa,” my husband said. “There’s no way you actually quoted that shit to me, plus this whole conversation thing is kinda trite, don’t you think? A little obvious and playing for the cheap seats?”

“Sure,” I say. “But it’s my fucking review. Look, I get that there’s some wiggle room here of interpretation, and maybe this is supposed to be a mordant satire of whackadoos who think that it’s okay to kill people because they drank some haterade about a book…” My husband breaks in.

“But what about the prologue!!” He yells!! (This is the only part he’s read.) “Obviously he’s funning. He’s joking around about his revenge fantasies. How many times have you read a review you hated because you thought it was wrong?”

“Every day? I hate reviews every day. But you know what I don’t do? Fantasize about getting cowgirls and then murdering someone. I imagine writing brilliant fucking retorts and then posting them. Sometimes I go so far as to write them, only I never post them. Because if I can’t bring myself to like a review, I’m not allowed to comment.” 

“How is this different? How is posting a hater review different?”

“Fuck, I don’t know; maybe it’s not different. But I see a difference between what I feel like are my personal codes of conduct and and what is acceptable. While I think punitive shelving is lame, I don’t really care if it goes on if it doesn’t cross the line into threats. And while I think bagging an author’s appearance is lame (and usually gendered), I think that’s hella different from posting their address and entreating fucking lunatics to ‘give them a taste of their own medicine’. Which would be what, exactly? Strongly worded email? At the place I fucking lunch? I don’t think so.”

“You’re back on STGRB, conflating them with the ‘pro-artist’ group in the book.”

“You bet my ass I am. Also, you are going to be so mad I’m putting words in your mouth, again.”

“I love you, babe.”

“I know. Anyway, all I’m saying is that this book is shitty on multiple levels, and maybe it’s trying to be clever, and maybe it isn’t, but because it’s so fucking shitty I can’t actually ascertain said cleverness. And I’m pissed I’m writing the review right now, because I’m in a house of cards of click-throughs and likes, where I feed off this bullshit to stay up in charts, and he eats my hater push, and it’s like a dance of the douches. I feel like a douche.”

“You should write that thing about Stephenie Meyer that you said because I kept calling this ‘brilliant’”

“Oh yeah! So, I think the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is fucking terrifying, but that book is a nuclear disaster, and I wouldn’t call a minute of it intentional. Meyer managed to hit a third rail there, managed to touch on something that I felt was profound, but I wouldn’t call it good, and I don’t think she planned it. She was writing from her lizard brain. Which is right where The Goodreads Killer is coming from. It might have hit me in a sweet spot because I’m one of however many people on Goodreads who gives a shit about shelving arcana and reviewer/author politics, but I think it’s mostly an accident, and I don’t like what I think it’s saying.”

“Reading is a passive event. It’s undertaken in interstitial moments, alone, and it’s accompanied by musing and dreaming. That this one book reached out, whether intentional or not, and shook you personally where you live is a notable thing. It’s a fascinating, unintentionally brilliant thing. It’s a fourth wall breaker that can only work for a specific number of people, and that you are member of that demographic, and that you read it, is really something. It’s a brilliant use of social media marketing bait. It doesn’t even matter that it sucks. If it were good, it wouldn’t have the same effect.”

“Yup. But still it sucks.” 

I’m going to dispense with this scenario while I grope to a coda. I am able to see why my husband thought the whole click-baiting, sloppily meta fourth-wall thing was neat, but then he works in advertising, so that sort of thing appeals to him. And I’m not in any way saying that the author of this book is threatening me personally, or that I think it’s some kind of incitement to violence. I’m not new to the concepts of damaged narrators or satire, thank you. I am also not clutching my pearls over cowgirls – forward or back – and I love well done goopy gross-out body horror. But I am way too close to the target of this little “revenge fantasy” – in fact I am the target, categorically speaking – and I have seen ideation like this result in real world consequences often enough for me to think it’s not fucking funny. 

My boy Freud observed that some jokes are masked aggression, and here the mask has slipped, and the anemic “just kidding” appended to the proceedings figleafs over some very misplaced rage. This is the “kicking up versus kicking down” distinction that Patton Oswalt makes in his essay about rape jokes. This book is kicking down. I don’t think reviewers are inviolate, and there’s a lot about Goodreads reviewing culture that I find tiresome. There is super fertile ground here to say some pointed things about all kinds of fascinating topics: anonymity, publishing trends, even the concept of citizen reviewing. Instead this reads like a petulant screed by a psycho who has some serious issues with women. I feel like I do after hanging out with racist family members at the holidays, putting up with a series of ethnic jokes that are as tired as they are hateful. Just kidding! Har har! No you’re not. And that I don’t find them funny doesn’t make me humorless, it makes me a person with working empathy.

Tethered by Meljean Brook: An Epistolary Review

Dearest Elizabeth,

I was thinking just yesterday of all the fun times we’ve shared, but especially how many letters I’ve sent you detailing my courtship with my amazing and perfect husband. Of course, not everything was amazing and perfect at first, as I’m sure you can recall. He’s an artist, of all things, and I just can’t abide all that girly drawing. I mean, I work in a male dominated profession, and it’s extremely threatening to me to have a guy hanging around questioning my authority with his feelings and stuff; how will my painting crew ever take me seriously? Certainly years of experience mean nothing when a woman in authority has an artsy boyfriend. I mean, the man uses product. Srsly.

So, Richard and I were hanging around, communing wordlessly using our eyes the way we do, when the most terrible thing happened! The set up is a little confusing, and in truth, even though it just happened I can’t really track the details, but the upshot is this: a college friend of his looked him up on facebook, and then after all the friend requests were sent and accepted, the college friend totally hacked Richard’s account and started posting all this bad stuff! He liked both Nickelback and Justin Bieber using Richard’s account! Who even does that?

Now, you know that Richard is an artist, but he’s also an 3133t h4xor, which, I might point out, is totally gender normative so I don’t even know why I was being so weird about the art thing. Anyhoo, He totally spray-painted some keyboards with camo like in the movie Hackers, and we were ready to roll with our boss plans to rehack the account and give the college douchebag some well earned comeuppance.

the hackers in the movie hackers huddled around a computer screen

Now, at this point in the letter, I believe it is customary actually to detail all the awesome ways we defeated the college douchebag, up to and including fun evil monologuing from the bad guy, but really we just kicked him into the ship’s engine and totally won using our wordless eye-gazing powers. And we didn’t kick him into the engine in a cool way, like when Malcolm Reynolds does it to that one dude after they’ve messed up the train heist for Nisca, but in a way that blows the narrative tension in our big rehacking takedown mission. Also, the bad guy lived on this really sweet sounding dystopian community, but I’m not going to tell you about that either. I’m going to tell you more about my eye-gazing superpowers and how me and Richard really love giving each other matching guns. Actually, he got an air-rifle this weekend and we had a really good time shooting at pop cans, and then we had some mildly kinky sex because I’ve got some real issues with male authority so that means that [letter redacted at this point].

[Still redacted]

[Still redacted]

Phew, that was hot, amirite? I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about how Richard and I have a love that is more love-like than any love that has ever loved before? And how our relationship is such a vortex of perfection that you can literally kick a bad guy into it and kill him? Or possibly I mean figuratively. Words were never my strong suit, and certainly now that I’ve got all this wordless eye-gazing going on, I’m out of practice.

So we launched all zig, we saved the princess, and then we deleted all reference to Two and a Half Men from Richard’s facebook page. Then we went upstairs and [still redacted].

Thanks for being such a great friend. I’m really hoping my next letter, which will be about Richard’s amazing sister, will be much more enjoyable.

The Land of the Painted Caves and Paleo Sue

Good lord. This was paiiiiinful. So painful that I couldn’t get through more than 200 pages of The Land of Painted Cavesby Jean M. Auel, and only that while skimming pretty heavily. Oh, Ayla, I am disappoint. 

You don’t get to book 6 of a long, decreasingly satisfactory book series without being a partisan, and I was devoted to the cause. I have enough self-awareness in my dotage to know I should never revisit The Clan of the Cave Bearlest I crush a happy adolescent experience with my weary cynicism, but I also know that book was freaking badass. Setting aside for the moment that many of the attributes of the Neanderthals have been since proven inaccurate – it’s more than likely they could speak, for example – the story of a human girl taken in by a band of another hominid species is absolutely compelling. 

Because that’s the thing: the fact that humans overlapped with another hominid species for thousands of years is somewhere close to the coolest fucking thing ever. Forget the hundreds of species created by science fiction; we shared the globe with at least one – and possibly more – species that the Prime Directive would call sentient. Tool-making, at least nominal burial of the dead, clothing and other ornamentation: Neanderthals, you has it. Seriously, you guys, COOLEST THING EVER. (Followed, in a close second, by the fact of dinosaurs. Think about it: dinosaurs were real.

Neanderthals have always been used in fiction as a foil to our humanity – you know, like aliens have – and a lot of those depictions have tinged with the false Darwinian concept of “progress”. Auel sidesteps much of this by making her Neanderthals complex, intelligent people with distinct personalities, and she grounds the tale in some hard core paleolithic research. Creb, for example, was based on an actual skeleton of a Neanderthal man, who was born with various physical deformities and lived to the unthinkably old age of 40. The physical evidence of his long existence suggests a society willing and able to care for him. I can absolutely do without her Lysenkoism - the very concept of heritable racial memories is difficult to use without being racist (literally) – but godamn did she make the myriad uses for the cattail or the migratory patterns of the ptarmigan or flint freaking knapping page-turningly awesome. A family friend got a higher degree in archaeology pretty much because of The Clan of the Cave Bear, a field where she works to this day. That’s inspirational.  

And at the beginning of the series, Ayla is a a pretty wonderful protagonist. A smart girl, and competent, but living within a system that doesn’t credit her gifts or respect her. I loved how brutal she was, but also kind and caring, and I loooooved her Clan family – her adopted mother, Iza, the scarred mog-ur Creb. I was recently talking about some assigned reading book, something important, that I know I read in high school, and how I can’t remember a single thing about it. (Maybe A Separate Peace?) I could probably tell you all of the major and some of the minor plot points in the first two Ayla books, despite the fact that I only read them once. Maybe if touching war dramas had more awkwardly phrased sex scenes and mammoths, I’d remember them better. Pro-tip, writers. 

I admit I’m nattering at this point, because I kind of don’t even want to talk about how bad this book is. Things have been declining steadily since The Mammoth Hunters(and if I’m going to be honest, since The Valley of Horses, because Jondalar is, and always has been, the worst ever.) The Mammoth Huntershas a stupid jealousy plot. The Plains of Passagehas a thinly veiled dig on the more extreme feminist archaeology of the late-80s – you know, like the Starhawk feminist utopia stuff – which in some ways deserves the dig, but feels rich from someone who is using discredited Soviet genetic theory as the basis for her Neanderthals. The Shelters of Stonemanages to invoke some seriously painful class superiority bullshit, but at least it had a plot. 

Ayla has certainly been leveling up through these novels, but in The Land of Painted Caves, now her domination of the paleolithic world is complete! Heretofore, she’s invented the bra, the needle, the atlatl, and domesticated both horses and wolves. But as hokey as all that was, she was still a person. From the second freaking page:

Ayla, too, had extraordinarily sharp vision. She could also pick up sounds above the range of normal hearing and feel the deep tones of those that were below. Her sense of smell and taste were also keen, but she had never compared herself with anyone, and didn’t realize how extraordinary her perceptions were. She was born with heightened acuity in all her senses…”

This isn’t the Ayla I knew, who was smart and cunning, but totally had to work on her skills like the rest of us humans, whose talents were the product of work and determination, not some magical superhuman powers. It keeps being noted that she cannot sing, but this isn’t a character flaw in exactly the same way that Bella Swann being clumsy is not a character flaw. It’s dumb and lazy characterization. I don’t really mind Paleo Sue in the other books though, because all of Ayla’s inventions were neat little thought experiments about how those items came to be, what kind of conditions and experiences would have created innovation. That’s badass, and more importantly, it makes the dry archaeology personal and engaging. 


This book, however, is about Ayla visiting ALL THE CAVES, and, get this: she doesn’t even paint them herself. They were painted generations before, and I threw down this book when Ayla and the Zelandoni medicine woman wonder why they were painted and then shrug and have some dinner and the baby passes water. Seriously, this is about as interesting as listening to someone narrate their visit to a museum, a narration with an unhealthy focus on where the dog is and who’s going to check on the car, in case it got eaten by lions. Seriously, Ayla, go large or go home. They should have been painted as part of the narrative – you know, like how Ayla is the Venus of Willendorf - and there should be something more than speculation about what they mean. Ground the story in the physical, and then make the leap. You’ve done it before, Ayla, do it again.

I’ve been skipping the sex scenes in Ayla books since I became sexually active – they’re pretty much cut-and-paste – but I have been all in on anything having to do with harvesting plants and whatnot. Auel had me with her paleontology porn. There are flashes of that here – like a scene where Ayla skins and guts a wolverine, which was pretty cool – but so much of the archaeology stuff is badly stitched in. I can’t bring myself to care about the hundred scenes where Ayla smells some tea (instinctively, whatever that’s supposed to mean) and then identifies its herbal contents. 

Ayla and Jondalar meet up with several thousand people who appear, we are reminded of their back story from another book, and then they wander off. Ayla hands Jondalar the baby several hundred times. The baby, being perfect, somehow manages to be potty trained at several months. (And speaking of Bella Swann, the baby is named Jonayla, which is also the worst name ever.) They visit several caves, describe them in excruciating detail, and then move on. People are worried about Wolf, but then it turns out he’s awesome so they stop worrying. Ayle has a strange accent. Something vaguely approaching an event happens, and then someone wanders in, having missed it, and they recount the entire fucking scene you just read arg omg you would think Auel had never written a fucking novel, let along one that hugely captured my adolescent imagination. 

Jiminy Christmas, I can’t go on with this. I’m bummed, because I’ve hugely spoiled myself on all the plot points and kind of want to see the infidelity plot that shows up in the latter quarter, and the comeuppance that happens with all of Ayla’s yelling about how sex creates babies not magical spirits or whatever. I want to see it play out because Auel’s ideas appear to be simultaneously a feminist caricature and anti-feminist, which is a neat trick, if she can pull it off. The concept that men would, en masse, become patriarchal assholes when they learn they have something to do with procreation – and it is deeply stupid that any hunter-gatherer society would not know this anyhow – is so, so offensive, suggesting it’s logical for men to be brutish assholes. Ayla destroys an egalitarian society through observational science. Think about it. Yuck. 

Also, she managed to make cattails boring again. Sigh.


Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

About a third of the way into Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie, I had to fold back and check the publication date. I was pretty sure this had to have been penned in the 80s, given the attitudes and assumptions of most of the cast. Nope! 2004. I’m not saying this is retrograde or backward or anything, just that it feels like a period piece of women of a certain class from my mother’s generation, and, in fact, it might make more sense if it had been set earlier than the late-90s. But, then, I’m not really a member of the socioeconomic milieu presented her, so maybe it’s entirely on the nose. I do totally know these women though, or I knew them 20 years ago. 

Nell is a year past her divorce when she gets a job at a detective agency. She’s mid-40s with a grown son, and pretty mopey and gutted from the divorce. There are a lot of very broad hat tips to Noir plotting and tropes, in a way that was very goofy and fun, played for comedy instead of machismo. And probably explains some of the period piece feel of the novel; Crusie seems to be working out some things about the genre. Even the title is a misnomer, because these women are anything but fast, more a collection of stay at home moms, trophy wives and the tragic widows. I mean, who even uses the term secretary anymore? Even the broadest caricatures, like the girl who’s putting the blackmail to some assholes, is treated sympathetically – spoiler coming - even if she is ultimately fridged. But I get where Crusie is coming from, because I think the scene in Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade’s secretary rolls him a cigarette and then holds it out for him to lick the paper is damn near the sexiest thing I have ever seen, even though my late model feminist ass doesn’t…well, it just doesn’t. 


Rwwrrr. 

If you think about it, a lot of the comedy from the Noir stuff in Fast Womenis turned in a domestic direction, more about dogs and affairs than about money and international political whatever, which is an interesting shift, the kind of thing I think women’s fiction can be attuned to. And, in fact, the murder plot was the least satisfying, feeling almost incongruous with the tone of the thing. But given all the sublimated feminine rage and violence – there is a fair amount of kitchen and office smashing & burning – I don’t think it’s ultimately out of place here, even if it’s kinda badly plotted. I am not a slick mystery reader, and I saw many things coming miles away. 

And, speaking of money, money what may be the weirdest part of this book, for this reader anyway. I’m going to refrain from telling divorce horror stories – you’re welcome – but I will just note that many women, especially of my mother’s generation, were deeply, personally, and financially fucked by their divorces. I’m not saying that divorce doesn’t suck for men too or anything – it is a drag when love dies, and the basic economic unit in America gets busted up – just that, if you look at the statistics, women fare much worse after a divorce, and especially if they have children. So this coterie of ladies who are swanning around post-divorce with no nevermind of money issues felt weird. 

Or, that’s not really accurate – there is some nevermind – just that the exact nevermind felt very specific to a certain demographic, one that assumes dudes provide, and then dudes do. (And not the demographic that assumes that because of the bible and Jesus, but just because that’s the way men and molls have always done it, if you catch my distinction.) Again, some of this is the working out of Noir tropes, but then how those tropes intersect with suburban upper middle class values. My eyes still goggled a bit when Jack gets all bitter and pissy when Suze gets a checking account. (???) Or, Budge was seriously paying the bills for Margie for the last seven years, even though they are not married. (???) Who are these people??? In 2004???

Still, though, even though they are aliens, they are in some ways familiar aliens to me. I enjoyed? is this the right word? the parts where the ladies talked about all their china in vivid, personal detail. I am not, nor have I ever been, a dish person, but I know these women. I have been served tea by these women in their stately St Paul manses, after coming in the back door, because that is how the working class is to enter such a home. I remember talking with Sarah and Atherton – these are not their real names – Sarah relating to me that she had married Atherton assuming he had old money, and he had assumed the same of her, and then, knot tied, it turned out that, whoops! they were both socially climbing on each other. But they sucked it up and, 60 years later, had clawed their way into St Paul society. Their bridge partners kinda hated Sarah and her feisty red hair and real estate. (God, Sarah was feisty. I really dug her.) 

But most of these women are gone now, these wives of Mad Man with steel in their spines and hard appraising looks. Maybe these women are their daughters, insulated from ways the world changed by money and society. Maybe the hardcore society ladies are different from the more middle class version here, but there’s still that sense of the whole wealth displayed through domesticity thing, or maybe it’s power, or who even knows what it is. Which is part of the exploration going on in this novel, even if is occasionally silly and weird and not something that makes any sense for me personally. 

I mean, I don’t require novels to be about people who look just like me, and it can be cool and fun to slip into narratives that are earnest in their examinations, even if that examination is a breezy, screwball comedy about sexual slash financial power dynamics and screwing your secretary. Sure, there’s probably lots of more literary examinations of these things, something with, like, elaborate plotting and tense deconstruction of Noir tropes, instead of comic inflection. And those would be fun, but they wouldn’t be fun in the way this book is, which is chatty girl-talk and goofing about sometimes serious matters. Nice.

The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” - this means Canadian - city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.