Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Check it out!

The website Bitch Flicks has been kind enough to publish my feminist review of the film Melancholia, which you can read here. They are presenting guest reviews of Independent Spirit Award nominees this week. If you get a chance, check it out at!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I have absolutely no affinity for sports. I’m slow with the reflexes and also extremely uncompetitive, but more than that, I find sports insanely boring. It’s repetitive to the point of inanity. I sometimes get involved in the personal narratives of the competitors themselves, but even that is a bit more books than balls. It’s hard not to think of this on the one weekend a year where nearly everyone will be watching a sporting event. And I will be here at home, probably reading a book. I mention all of this about sports because of my surprising enjoyment of the Dairy Queen trilogy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Much of my enjoyment came from relating to this book on a deeply personal level. Though not an exceptionally gifted athlete like D.J. Schwenk, Murdock’s brilliant protagonist, I was raised on a farm, loaded hay into hot barns, and was (and often still am) terrified of speaking.

D.J. Schwenk is fifteen at the beginning of the story and has had to take on the responsibility of her family’s dairy farm while her father’s hip heals. Her older brothers are away at college playing Division I football and are not speaking to her parents. Her younger brother is far more interested in skulls than sports and speaks even more rarely than the rest of the Schwenks. Completely alone, she shoulders the heavy responsibility of the farm. A family friend sends Brian Nelson, the quarterback of D.J.’s school’s rival team, to the farm to learn some work ethic from D.J. All summer, D.J. trains him for football until she decides to join the football team herself. This decision nearly ruins Brian and D.J.’s burgeoning romantic relationship.

Dairy Queen, more than The Off Season or Front and Center, is a finely-layered, nuanced story. The divisiveness of gender, and all of its apparent stereotypes, is a battle that D.J. unwittingly fights. As a girl on a football team she has to not only face the pressure of her teammates, but also from other schools who must compete against her. And this bravery forces her into the spotlight. At the same time, her best friend Amber admits to D.J. that she is gay, a stereotype that D.J. has had to face as a female athlete – especially one that competes in a traditionally male sport. To add to the dynamics, her father, still injured from a farming accident, begins cooking for the family and finds true fulfillment from it, though he is unwilling to admit it to their greater community because it is not a man’s job. Through all this, D.J. wants nothing more than to play the sports she loves, and in doing so, unintentionally becomes a feminist icon.

Amidst all of these politics and subsequent confusion, D.J. suffers from the same crippling social anxiety I have felt all my life. Talking, or a lack thereof, is a theme throughout all three books. All the Schwenks use words as weapons. D.J. unfortunately becomes conditioned to the silence caused by either animosity or the avoidance of it. The absolute need for communication binds D.J. to Brian, who is gifted at talking and getting her to talk – maybe not such a big deal for most people, but for D.J. it is life-altering. Putting herself in the spotlight is a sacrifice for D.J. rather than a privilege. In the last book, this anxiety nearly causes her to give up a full-ride scholarship to play Division I basketball.

The charm of the story is in her wrongheadedness about most of this. As the narrator, D.J. makes several statements that are nearly offensive, as she works her head around all the problems that arise from stereotypes. But there is something so disarmingly honest in it. Growing up the Midwest, I was raised to believe that marriage was inevitable, and sex was something two people who loved each other did only once they were married. I remember the confusing thought-process in discovering the complexities of gender and sex and the subjectivity of morality – now it makes the world beautiful and infinitely intriguing, but my younger self for a time was intellectually immobilized by these discoveries. D.J., too, eventually comes to these same conclusions, painstakingly sorting through all the confusion caused by these many concepts. Murdock is wonderful at showing D.J.’s character develop. Instead of swift revelations or god-given epiphanies, D.J. works through problems bit by bit until by the end of the third book she has matured into a wonderfully self-possessed young woman. Her logic is carefully developed throughout the books. By the end of the third book, D.J. is still D.J., yet she has grown in a way that is wholly realistic. Murdock’s ability to write the process of D.J.’s growth is an impressive authorial feat – maybe the best example I’ve read.

Better yet is the love story between D.J. and Brian. After being sorely disappointed by many a love story of late, I welcomed the complexity of their relationship. It wasn’t all easy, two-dimensional, I-will-love-you-forever, we-were-made-for-each-other, you-have-changed-my-life kind of crap. It was a down-to-earth, insecure, teenage relationship. Brian ditches her for his popular friends, D.J. has trouble revealing secrets about herself, and it’s not mushy, but rather familiar and real.

If sports were this good, I’d watch them all the time.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

It is one of the greatest concerns of mystery fiction (whodunits, specifically) to determine the identity of the puppeteer. Psychological crime writers (even Dostoevsky or Nabokov, or more recently the television show Dexter) seek to understand why that puppeteer must feel like a god – they strive for the fatal tampering with others’ lives to be understood rationally, to touch that universal bit of human weakness that undermines even the best of us. These books give us a character that we can simultaneously despise and understand – if the villain is held at too far a distance, the book is not nearly as satisfying.

“I have wanted-let me admit it frankly-to commit a murder myself. I recognized this as the desire of the artist to express himself! I was, or could be, an artist in crime!” So soliloquizes Agatha Christie’s puppeteer in an exquisite confession in And Then There Were None. The murderer has devised an unbelievable plan – to murder ten people during a weekend on Indian Island. These ten people have all been involved in the death of another person – a crime for which the law could not touch them. Step by step, following an absurd nursery rhyme, each victim’s life is taken.

The murderer’s confession can perhaps enlighten us to Christie’s own clever rationale in coordinating the events of the book. “A childish rhyme of my infancy came back into my mind-the rhyme of the ten little Indian boys. It had fascinated me as a child of two-the inexorable diminishment-the sense of inevitability,” writes the murderer. Thus, childhood breeds the art of crime. Teaching the book, my students seem almost unwilling at first to believe the inevitability of that title and its matching rhyme. When I casually mention halfway through that Mr. Rogers, say, is the fourth of the ten victims, they react with absolute shock, believing that I have let an important plot point slip. It is this sense of inevitability and the dread it produces that prevents them from believing the title – no matter how guilty these poor people are, we still wish a happy ending for them.

It is Christie’s ability to manufacture that type of simultaneous suspense and dread that makes the novel’s outcome so chilling. My students, and I to a degree, are always dissatisfied at how well the murderer’s plan takes effect. What if the victims were a little more clever, what if they did not let the setting induce them to certain actions, what if they hadn’t fallen for certain stunts (I’m trying to be appropriately vague for those who might not have read it)? It seems a little too neat, a little too convenient. Yet the confession never ceases to take my students’ as well as my breath away.

And indeed, the crime is a work of art. Like the minute brushstrokes that make a great painting, Christie’s carefully detailed plot and our ability to recognize only at the end, the red herrings of the tale, make for the greatest whodunit possibly ever. I’ve read the book now five or six times because I teach it every year. I’m always stunned at the depths of deception in her simple prose. The murderer is clearly the murderer from the first chapter if only you have the correct lens to see it.

I’ve read a lot of mystery novels, including many of Christie’s, yet And Then There Were None remains the single greatest stunt any author has pulled off. It’s why Christie has never been and I would guess, never will be dethroned.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

In the same way that I believe that Young Adult literature can be as complex and intelligent as so-called adult literature, I also believe that it should not be impervious to critique. Many of the bestsellers of the last ten years have been written for adolescents – Twilight, Harry Potter, etc. When any literature pervades our culture to this extent, where it becomes not just a book, but rather a shared experience, it is not only important, but mandatory that we turn a critical eye towards it.

Recently, there have been a vast number of Young Adult dystopian novels on the market (in fact, to such an extent that those of my students who are the type to write in notebooks and show them shyly to their teacher, mostly write dystopian stories without even knowing the term). One of the highest rated and best-selling of these, and one of the worst I’ve read in a long time, is the novel Delirium by Lauren Oliver.

Delirium is set in an alternate present. The government has barricaded cities, forcing residents to undergo a treatment to expel extreme emotion – specifically love. Lena is an orphan who will undergo the treatment in a matter of months. She is glad for this, as it wrenched her Mother, afflicted by the disease of love, from her. But of course, Lena falls in love with Alex and everything she believes is suddenly called into question.

Oliver’s missteps began in creating a world too much like our own. There is very little enforced restriction in this world other than a fence and a treatment. Characters easily talk openly about their rebellious thoughts and Lena sneaks out every night to meet Alex in an unguarded and unfenced abandoned suburb. It made me question the continuity of the world. Why would the treated adults be so wary and watchful of this type of love that could eventually be punishable by death, yet there was as much freedom as an adolescent in our world would experience? Oliver also takes it for granted that her audience will accept the terms of the treatment without question. But she gives absolutely no political motivation for the type of cruelty inflicted upon its victims. The ultimate goal of the treatment is to eliminate the moodiness that is exemplified in adolescence, yet there is absolutely no precedence for this action. There is no examination of these principles, no explanation of its origins. The only political presence in the book is given in the position of the guards and regulators – merely a hyper-violent neighborhood watch.

If you think I’m asking too much for a novel aimed towards children, I would argue that kids are as smart as we allow them to be. The politics of books like The Giver by Lois Lowry or The Hunger Games by Suzanna Collins are incredibly complex, yet these books are for audiences younger than Delirium was written. Having been set in a world nearly exactly like our own did not allow for easy relevance, it merely reflected the inconsistent extremes of Oliver’s plotting. Oliver did create a literature for the society, possibly hoping that this would alleviate the otherwise total conformity of her novel. Many of her rhymes or quotes from The Book of Shh are quite clever, but not enough to save the pointlessness of the concept.

My dislike of the novel was only amplified by the development of an incredibly boring and predictable romance. Alex and Lena spend a great deal of the novel kissing and touching. To Oliver’s credit, I do believe she tried to find a new way of describing the magical feeling of first love each time the couple kissed. Even so, with her efforts, her love story sinks hopelessly into conformity. Like so many stories that came before it, this romance features a plain, insecure, young woman who is noticed by a more mature, worldly young man. I’ve read this story many times before.

If the market is going to be inundated by dystopian YA novels, authors are going to have to do more to up the ante. Oliver’s flaw was that she relied on decidedly cliché plotlines for both the dystopian and romantic aspect of her novel. The dystopian genre is meant to introduce scenarios extreme enough to allow us to call our own philosophy and politics into question, to allow us to reflect on what is by examining what could be. The only thing Delirium called into question was why I bothered to read it in the first place.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen

The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen has been on my ever-growing list of books-to-read for some time. I can’t believe I waited. I stumbled across her brand-new blog last month (called simply katechristensen), and while reading it it pushed me to this novel. Her blog is filled with wonderful autobiographical anecdotes about her life suffused with cheeky recipes. In the latest recipe she tells us, “From a Puerto Rican takeout place, order a big aluminum dish of rice and beans with chicken with extra hot sauce. From the deli next door, buy a six-pack of Bass Ale.” Hugo Whittier, our narrator, relishes this same intermingling of life spiced by cigarettes and gourmet meals, which he describes in careful detail. “Nettle soup…so simple, so bizarrely delicious,” he says in one of his many narrated recipes. “A big basket of the tender heads of nettles (not too many flowers) fathered from a clean garden with well-gloved hands, washed clean of grit and bug piss, set aside in a colander.”

Hugo is narcissistic and slightly detestable. He is suffering from Buerger’s disease – an ailment brought about by his endless smoking. If he doesn’t quit, it will cause raging pain and eventual death. He lives in his family’s home, contentedly alone until his brother Dennis, his wife and daughter, and then his uncle descend upon him. According to Hugo, he barely tolerates them, yet his actions bespeak a man not quite secure in his own despondency. Besides cigarettes and food, Hugo has a passion for sex with women that he shouldn’t have sex with, alcohol, and obscure literary or historical facts. He is both genuinely and artificially pretentious – believing both that he is the expert on everything, then quickly doubting himself, his recall, and his education (or lack thereof).

While there have been plenty of despicable narrators in literature (most notably, of course, Humbert Humbert – a character ironically referenced by Hugo as a comparison to another character), I found Hugo and his insanity charming and charismatic. His narcissism seems delusional – the other characters mostly think so as well. He always justifies his meddling as being self-serving yet there is something plaintive and outward about it. Sex with Stephanie Fox who’s in love with Dennis is selfish, yet his possible inward motivation in rejoining Dennis and his estranged wife is not. There is always a stringent self-awareness, even as he climaxes into insanity. “I burst out laughing…, but after one exhalation of laughter I realized it sounded insane, because there was obviously nothing to laugh at, so I forced myself to stop. In immediate playback, I realized that the whole thing had sounded as if I had barked like a dog out of nowhere, at nothing,” Hugo narrates. This is all speculation on my part, of course. Perhaps I’m like the less cynical of Hugo’s family and wish only to see the good in him.

This, however, is the point. I don’t think I’ve ever read a character study as good as this. Though told in his own voice, and not necessarily unreliable, everything about Hugo is left up to interpretation. At many twists and turns I expected Hugo’s insanity to manifest itself in some Fight Club type of way (was Schlomo imagined, for example). Yet Christensen’s creation is so masterfully consistent that even his ultimate change in behavior is not a change at all, but rather a continuation of a mind, hindered by anti-depressants and calmed by anti-climax, yet flavored with the same-old cynical wit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Top Ten of 2011

Because of bad blogging habits this past year, I didn’t review most of the books on this list. Looking back, I realized how many amazing books I did read. These are some that stand out:

1. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

I loved this book. I was skeptical at first – I don’t know if it was the author’s age, the plot summary, the perpetual hype, or perhaps the fact that I cringe every time a book is called The ________’s Wife or The _________’s Daughter, but I was completely wrong. The Tiger’s Wife is about a young doctor from a fictional country in the Balkans whose Grandfather has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. She recounts stories he told her, the clues solving many of his death’s riddles. It was effortlessly written, entertaining, and unbelievably engrossing. I find myself thinking of the Deathless Man even months after I finished reading it.

2. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

I’ve gone through a serious David Foster Wallace phase this year. I had read several essays previously, but never in such a concentrated amount of time. I’ve read all of his non-fiction (including watching his interviews on Charlie Rose, reading his Kenyon State commencement address, and reading all of the memorials written at the time of his death), and am halfway through The Broom of the System. I think that this book of essays was my favorite, though really it is simply representative of this phase of mine. What I love about DFW is his absolute humility and his ability to admit his limitations in the face of being a literary star and, in my opinion, a genius. This blend of pretentiousness and self-effacement makes for one of the most unique voices of contemporary writing.

3. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose by Wallace Stevens

For my birthday, my husband bought me this collection of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. It is hard to incorporate this onto my list because (as with most poetry books) I’ve been meandering through his poems for months - it remains next to my bed to be perused each evening. Today, as I watch Kansas smothered by white, I ache to read the chill of his voice. The Snowman, with its repetition, its deep disillusionment, its absolute melancholia represented by a figure of childishness, is one of my favorite poems of all time. Stevens writes, “For the listener, who listens in the snow,/And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

4. Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy

Many books change your thinking, but I would say that Female Chauvinist Pigs re-directed mine. Levy looks closely at the results of Second Wave feminism – specifically, its effect on female sexuality. Current trends among young women are to mimic the false sexuality of pornography. Levy argues that true sexual freedom should allow women to not be bound by the strictures of “sexiness” and instead focus on female pleasure. To her, this is true liberation. Levy sums this up better than me by writing, “Sex is one of the most interesting things we as humans have to play with, and we've reduced it to polyester underpants and implants.”

5. Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

I haven’t yet read A Visit From the Goon Squad, but this summer I picked up Look at Me. Told mostly from the perspective of an aging model named Charlotte whose face was reconstructed after a terrible car accident, Look at Me binds together other narratives as well including a teenager, a potential terrorist, and a private eye. What I love about Egan are the details she includes to emphasize her themes. My favorite part is actual a relatively minor incident – as Charlotte is finally given a career-changing job, the photographer wishes to make razor cuts on her face for the shoot. Charlotte refuses, giving her spot to another model. Details such as these are what make Egan brilliant. I look forward to reading more of her work.

6. No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie

As part of my Mormon phase (read about it here), I read this biography of Joseph Smith. Brodie’s writing is definitely biased against Smith, regarding him as a charlatan rather than a religious prophet. The brilliance of her writing is in her ability to construct convincing context for each decision, revelation, and prophesy of Joseph Smith. As Smith, for example, is burgeoning into the religious figure he will become, Brodie relates many other instances of religious upstarts in close proximity to Smith. Even in a new nation of religious freedom and endless possibility, she demonstrates that it took a gifted charmer like Smith to really hook his supporters. She gives the reader the ability to understand, if not sympathize, with Smith’s followers and even, at times, Smith himself.

7. Room by Emma Donoghue

Although there were flaws in this novel, I fell in love with the voice of Jack – its precocious five-year-old narrator. (Read the original review here.) It is a story from the tabloids – a woman raped and kidnapped and held prisoner in a shed for years. She has a son by this monster and tries to create a relatively normal existence within the confines of their room. Eventually escaping, Jack and Ma fight for well-being in a world so expansive it is suffocating for Jack. Donoghue’s ability to write convincingly, entertainingly, and endearingly in Jack’s voice is what made this novel one of my favorites.

8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Besides The Tiger’s Wife, this is perhaps the most hyped book of the year. Set in Victorian England, Celia and Marco are pitted against each other in a battle of magic. The rules are a mystery to both of them. Within the confines of the circus, they each create unbelievable experiences for the patrons of the circus – tents with frozen worlds, magical carousels, wishing trees. As they collaborate on their creations, they fall in love. The story would have been much more engaging without the love story. When Morgenstern engulfs herself in descriptions of the circus’s stunts and tricks, the novel is tantalizing. Yet when she forces us to read about this tedious and flimsy love story (with some of the most unimpressive dialogue I’ve read in ages), the novel falls flat. That being said, I immensely enjoyed reading the novel. The love story takes up a reasonably small portion and the rest is truly delightful.

9. In the Woods by Tana French

I spent a good portion of my summer reading French’s loosely-connected trilogy of mysteries set in and around Dublin, Ireland. In the Woods is the first of the books. Rob and Cassie are detectives set to investigate a murder where, years before, Rob was found, blood-stained and shivering, his two friends missing. Rob is unable to remember what happened and as he investigates the new murder, he delves into the old. French has the ability to create a world and a scenario that seem magical without actually being magical. Just when you think she is going to direct her novel to unlikely heights, she pulls away and you are left with jarring reality. French does not wrap things up neatly or even kindly. This sense of dissatisfaction is precisely make her novels addictive and memorable.

10. The Magician King by Lev Grossman

After reading The Magicians, I wasn’t going to read its sequel, but I’m glad I did. (Read the original review here.) I thoroughly enjoyed this Harry Potter for adults. While The Magicians ended with too much narcissism and lost innocence, The Magician King was able to give a surprisingly satisfying ending to the saga. Grossman is so skilled at designing the architecture of his invented world – to the point that characters often wax philosophical on the vagaries of magic – giving it rules as strict and incomprehensible as any religion. What was magical about Grossman’s novel wasn’t the magic, but the reality it revealed around it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

The New York Times named Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson as one of their best books of 2011 – a recommendation that was persuasive enough for me to check it out. This is no small deal. One of the most read newspapers in America, not to mention the world, the Times only chooses five fiction books to name as its ‘Best Of.’ Perhaps it is because I spend at least 40 hours a week dealing with thirteen-year-olds, but I found Ten Thousand Saints tedious and full of itself – its teenage characters dull yet melodramatic. The adults petty and ridiculously ignorant. We are meant to take these generations in comparison of each other, but I found myself so unattached to the story not because the characters were too flawed, but because their flaws are archetypes worn superficially: Hippie, Stoned, Bad-Ass, Straight-Edge, Slut, etc.

Jude and Teddy are best friends in Vermont where they spend every waking moment looking for the next high. Usually this isn’t difficult since Jude’s parents are devotees of weed and Teddy’s mother is a raging drunk. The night of Jude’s birthday, they struggle to find chemical satisfaction, relying instead on huffing turpentine and Freon. Jude’s father’s girlfriend’s daughter Eliza takes a late train in to meet Jude and his sister and ends up having sex with Teddy and giving him cocaine. Jude and Teddy’s last huff of the night leaves Teddy dead.

Jude moves to New York to live with his Father. While there, he forges a relationship with Teddy’s older half-brother, Johnny who is nicknamed ‘Mr. Clean.’ He is straight edge – Hare Krishnas who abstain from meat, alcohol, drugs, and sex with girls (though sex with men is frequent amongst its members). Soon, Jude has left his drug-addled ways for new extremes – moshing in pits at concerts and beating up whomever he feels like. Meanwhile, Eliza is pregnant with Teddy’s baby and Johnny and Jude fight to keep it alive and ultimately just keep it. After creating a straight edge band, a road trip complete with a circle jerk, and lots of appropriately teenage sexual tension, my interest was lagging. How can an author turn these intensely serious problems into such a ridiculous tale?

Henderson ruminates on conversion and the terrible extremes that lead us from health. She wants us to question the value of our very human existence – is it where we come from or who we are? In an age of abortion and adoption – are we flawed goods because we can be more chosen? Or are we less loved because this birthing is more business than miracle? And love, or rather the quest for it, is always that terrible burden that drives us to these questions. Yet her heavy-handed prose treats the pungent and personal issues of the book like weights to be unloaded before the book can end. Drugs, sex, AIDS, religion, pregnancy, violence – plop, plop, plop.

Like an after school special, she leaves us with a safely upright ending – Jude finding his balanced morality. And then, a neat little epilogue proves his existence viable. I don’t wish to argue against happy endings – done right I will always contend that even more than tragedies that rip out our hearts, happy endings can restore them to health. This book’s ending, however, was merely a chaser –meant to wash down the bitter taste of Henderson’s weighty prose - only apropos in a book whose flaw was in its absolute immaturity.