Monday, August 29, 2011

American girls.

Man. The next time I'm feeling sorry for myself, I'll reread Gail Collins' America's Women. At least I'm not out on the prairie with no neighbors, no running water, no electricity, no medical care, no dentists, no hair dye, and no Wet'n'Wild Mega Liner.

America's Women is a riveting, well-researched, snappily written book that is nonetheless pretty depressing, especially if you are, as I am, of the lady persuasion. Depressing in that while we've come a loooong way, baby, you read this book and go, oh. I thought we already had that fight?

In the Palin Age, when reproductive rights are steadily being eroded (see Virginia's recent decision regarding clinic regulations), there's the big, nasty, apparently zombie-like pay gap that refuses to die, the Wal-Mart discrimination case gave business the go-ahead to treat women like indentured servants, and there seems to be an overall maelstrom over how women are collectively (let me see if I get this straight): not working hard enough, working too hard, having too many kids, having too few, screwing up their kids by working, screwing up their kids by not working, stealing all the good spots at universities, being too sexy, not being sexy enough, and STILL aren't funny - thank you, Christopher Hitchens - I sometimes feel like pasting on a moustache. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, and all that.

But anyway. Collins is the editorial page editor of the New York Times, and her journalism creds are well-served in her sharp eye for historical detail and crisp, to-the-point construction. Collins takes us back to the colonies, when a good woman was worth her weight in gold. After all, it didn't matter how many pigs you could raise or corn you could grow, you weren't getting maize or bacon unless you had someone at home doing all the production. Survival and the overwhelmingly male demographics of the colonies meant that women, especially industrious women, enjoyed an enormous amount of freedom, and consequently, many women became powerful political players in the nascent settlements. In "Daily Life in the Colonies," Collins provides a fascinating glimpse into exactly how incredibly gross everything was.

Of course, that changed as the settlements grew, we won the revolution, demographics evened out, and the Southern Cult of True Womanhood and idea of separate spheres grew. Collins draws some very interesting connections between slavery and the American version of purdah, a theme that comes up again and again. In short, if you really, really need something - like a woman at home to make sure your pigs aren't going to waste and your children aren't falling into a fire or something - you think of it as more valuable than when they're strictly decorative. Of course, during the Civil War and the push to the West, women were all of a sudden needed again, as nurses, to keep farms running while the men were gone, and as partners in the arduous trek West.

Collins then takes us from westward expansion to the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, when women were all of a sudden good-time pals who could hold their liquor and keep up with men. This dizzying freedom only lasted as long as the affluence did, of course, and the 1930s brought everyone crashing back to earth - until the 1940s and World War II.

 Remember her? Of course, this Rosie, with lipstick and red nail polish, looks a little different from Rockwell's real Rosie (left), who has forearms like a dock worker and is enjoying the hell out of her sandwich. When World War II hit, women were suddenly needed again. All those factories weren't gonna run themselves. We're probably all familiar with Rosie and the "Gee! I'd join the navy!" girl, but Collins shows that the pressure to step up and work outside the home (which for a lot of women, was a first) was huge, including advertisements showing a soldier getting killed because one uninspected bullet slid by a lax lineworker. Of course, needing women to go to work didn't extend so far as providing childcare, and presto - America's first latch-key kids!

Of course, once the war wrapped up, women were unceremoniously kicked back to the hearth. Collins included some real heartbreaking stories - not everyone had a square-jawed GI Joe returning victorious from Europe, and the women who had kept America humming for four long years of loss and privation weren't given so much as a thank-you.

Instead, they got the 50s, a return to an incredibly restrictive gender code that is enjoying a resurgence (at least stylistically), thanks to Mad Men. Collins points out that the idea of the "50s" that's ingrained in the collective American psyche is really mid 1940s to the early 1960s, a helluva long time to stay in the kitchen. Of course, the 1960s roared back, although Collins shows that challenging authority doesn't necessarily mean challenging gender codes - and even in the burgeoning civil rights movement, women - who did the majority of the organizing - were told to sit down and shut up. Even Rosa Parks didn't get to talk in the midst of the movement she sparked.

Collins wraps up with the 1960s. Of course, we're a long way past that - we've got Supreme Court Justices, a kick-ass Secretary of State, senators and Congresswomen, and a handful of CEOs, but it's disheartening to see the same issues get fought over with women both as proxy and battleground - the latest trend of flinging women's access to healthcare under the bus is just one example.

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Horror Movies With Kids In Them

Dear Horror Movies With Kids In Them,

Have you ever really seen a kid's drawings? I just saw the trailer for Guillermo del Toro's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and there's that moment that pretty much every horror movie with kids in it has, where the clueless adult picks up a drawing their kid had made and realized it's really, really creepy.

In reality, it would be like, "what? There are multicolored scribbles coming to get us?"


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

After the quake.

At left is one victim of yesterday's earthquake, a Ravens player bobblehead. Also injured was a container of bath gel that fell over and leaked. Both are expected to recover.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This neighborhood sucks.

Have we finally reached a sort of event horizon for vampire literature? Ever since the Twilight phenomenon (weird in and of itself - why wasn't The Silver Kiss as inexplicably popular?), there's been a seemingly endless tide of vampire fiction. It's even spawned its own shelf at Barnes and Noble ("teen paranormal fiction," if you were wondering, encompassing everything from vampires, ghosts, zombies, and aliens). It's a long way from Varney the Vampire, that's for sure.

But here is another little vampire novel from Matt Haig, The Radleys. Does Haig have anything new to say about vampires? The premise is very promising, but the execution falls flat, tripped up by stock characters and a narrative too limited to squash everything into it that Haig wants to say.

The titular Radleys live in a small English town. Pete and Helen are living familiar lives of quiet desperation, bored of their marriage and their suburban life. Their children, Clara and Rowan, are teased and bullied at their small high school. The siblings are delicate and fragile, prone to weird rashes, constant headaches, nausea, and sunburns.

Oh, and they have to wear SPF 60 sunblock. All the time. Because they're vampires, which Pete and Helen have neglected to tell them. That seems borderline abusive to me, like forcing a kid with a nut allergy to eat peanut butter sandwiches every day. In Haig's vampirology, vampires can go without drinking blood, although they're weakened by their constant craving. They're still allergic to garlic and animals hate them, but the Radleys seem to be doing a pretty good job blending in in Bishopthorpe.

Pete and Helen are quibbling over whether to tell their children the truth when Clara forces their hand by killing (and mostly eating) the neighborhood bully. Clara takes the news with startling equanimity, although it forces her to abandon her plan to become a vegan, but Rowan has a harder time accepting the news. Especially since their parents have given up all the cool parts of vampirism in exchange for a boring life of migraines and sunburn.

Desperate to cover up Clara's crime, Pete calls his brother Will, an unabashed blood drinker with a complicated relationship with Helen. To further complicate matters, Clara's best friend (and Rowan's object of thwarted adolescent desire), Eve, has an unhinged father who has been tracking Will to exact revenge for the murder of his wife.

Oh, and there's a branch of the English police force dedicated to prosecuting vampiric crime, willing to accept the occasional snatch-and-slurp in exchange for the vampire population of England remaining more or less peaceable and law-abiding.

The Radleys can't decide what it wants to be. It's part portrait of a dissolving marriage, part indictment of the mindless routine of suburbia, part coming-of-age story, part crime thriller, and it doesn't do either part particularly well. Clara and Rowan, bloodthirstiness aside, are presented as more palatable than their classmates. Clara's victim is, conveniently, a grotesque, lumbering bully. The introduction of a policewoman tasked with bringing Will to justice seems odd and unnecessary, and the dashing Will is more laughable than menacing, as he lures teenaged check-out girls into his van to dispatch them on a grubby mattress.

Haig is a good writer, with a keen eye for phrases, but his characters are familiar to the point of boredom and he doesn't focus on either one long enough to make the reader care. The narrative runs in so many directions that it never gains much traction plot-wise. The story wraps up with a neat and convenient ending that takes a page from Tru Blood, and humans and bloodsuckers live happily ever after, side by side, which seems about as stultifying as the quiet strees of Bishopthorpe.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Miller Baker, Republican Candidate for State Senate, Whose Increasingly Desperate Radio Ads Imploring People to Vote For Him In The Republican Primary Are Getting On My Nerves

Dear Miller Baker,

I understand that you really, really want this seat in the State Senate. You have the dark suit. The red tie. The pasty complexion. The side-parted silver hair. The American flag lapel pin. But your radio spots sound like they were designed by someone more used to doing monster truck rally narration:

"Vote for MILLER BAKER!!! His name is not ONE, but TWO jobs!"

Dial it down a bit, man. It's like dating. We can sense your desperation.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Ye olde booke binding

My awesome homemade cover for the third Game of Thrones book.


Here's a fascinating photo collection by James Mollison, Where Children Sleep."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


If you like short stories, you probably can't do any better than Ann Beattie, the New Yorker's doyenne of short fiction. This massive collection puts together over forty-five of her short stories, spanning from 1974 to 2006.

Beattie is not a short story writer like Shepard, whose stories flit around the globe, from era to era, from topic to topic. Instead, Beattie writes small, extremely compact little stories that focus with laser-like intensity upon the domestic arrangements of a small cast of characters, each one of whom is named.

Most of her stories begin with the name of the protagonist: "Milo and Bradley are creatures of habit," "Freddy Fox was in the kitchen with me," "When Ellen was hired as the new music teacher," "Nick and Karen had driven from Virginia to New York," and so on. The vast majority of her stories focus on marriages, most of them ended or in the process of dissolving, and her characters are almost always twice or three times remarried. Infidelity, emotional distance, abandonment, and anger are the major themes of her work, although she avoids the overt violence and brutality that permeates Joyce Carol Oates' fiction. Most of Beattie's stories take place in New York City or in and around Washington, or both. They're also often full of people escaping from the city to the countryside, or vice versa.

It's undeniable that Beattie is a master of the short-story form, although some readers may chafe at the sameness of her stories, and if you try to sit down and read this collection straight through, as I did, the stories will become one big muddle in your head.

However, Beattie occupies an iconic place in the short story form, much like T.C. Boyle, and this collection is a fantastic sampling of her work.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter To George R.R. Martin

Dear George R.R. Martin,

Please write faster!!


Also, there's a great interview with cartoonish Kate Beaton over at The Hairpin. Beaton is the author and illustrator of the snork-coffee-through-your-nose comic Hark! A Vagrant!, which you can read online here. Who knew Canadian history could be so much fun?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Doll face.

Whoah! The American Girl doll company is taking the historically unprecedented step of releasing not one, but two new dolls to their lineup! The completely identical dolls to the left (well, except for pigmentation) are Cecile Rey and Anne-Marie Gardner of 1853 New Orleans.

Also there's yellow fever. Nothing says children's literature like an extremely fatal, highly contagious epidemic, right?

I totally had one of the American Girl dolls, too - Addy, the Civil War-era one, who, in my opinion, has the badassest of badass stories. Of course, back then, in the misty dawn of American Girl doll-owning, there weren't as many dolls to choose from. Samantha was a snob, I hated Molly's clothes and glasses, and I had this completely irrational hatred of blonde dolls, so Kirsten was out.

Cecile and Anne-Marie will probably have awesome clothes, if my extensive knowledge of 1850s New Orleans serves me correctly, and considering that everything I know about 1850s New Orleans I learned from Interview with the Vampire, I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A widow's toast

I think of Joyce Carol Oates as a combination of Pola Negri and Superwoman. Oates looks incredibly fragile in her photographs - birdlike, with giant dark eyes - but she's a writing powerhouse. She's written over fifty novels. Fifty! Not bad for a woman who got turned down for a bunch of teaching jobs in the Beaumont, Texas school district after moving there in the early 1960s (some things never change - Texas' educational system is as craptastic as ever).

A Widow's Story chronicles the year after Oates' husband, Raymond Smith, died unexpectedly, and it's simultaneously like and unlike her other works: like in that even in the grip of grief, Oates never loses her sharply honed skill, and unlike in that one gets the sense that Oates is being brutally honest about her dissolution from focused, disciplined writer to hapless widow.
Oates and Smith met at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where both were students, and spent the next 47 years together. Smith never published any of his own work, instead, he founded and edited The Ontario Review (Joyce co-edited). Interestingly, Smith hardly ever read Joyce's work and didn't edit it. Unlike other husband-and-wife author teams, Oates writes that she didn't share her work with Smith because she preferred not to share anything depressing or upsetting with him. And if you know your Oates, her writing is not some fuzzy beach read.

A Widow's Story opens with Oates admonishing her husband to visit the ER after complaining of difficulty breathing and pain in his chest. She drives him to the ER, through an intersection where they had a car accident a year earlier, musing on how fortunate they are to have survived. Smith is diagnosed with pneumonia, and the doctors expect him to recover quickly and fully. Instead, he contracts a secondary infection (most likely from the hospital) and quickly declines, dying a few days after being admitted. Oates intersperses her narrative with excerpts from e-mails she written to friends, first and heartbreakingly assuring them that Smith is fine and will be released soon, then later to tell them that he's died.

What follows is a year of grief, as Oates struggles to adjust to Smith's absence, resume her work, and accept her new identity as a widow. With her characteristic eye for detail, Oates writes of furiously discarding baskets of food and flowers that flood her house after Smith's death, shoving the cellophane-covered baskets of chocolate and nuts into the trash can, wrestling the cans up to the street, a task that Smith had always done. Oates stops writing for a time, shutters The Ontario Review, and begins withdrawing from her friends. She goes on and off sleeping medication and antidepressants, at one point arranging her pills on the tabletop and contemplating killing herself. Anyone who has experienced a similar loss with understand, intimately, the minute-by-minute rollercoaster that Oates describes: proud of herself for summoning up the courage to go grocery shopping, only to dissolve into tears when the cashier inquires about her husband; managing to go back to the gym they went to together; then hastily cancelling their membership without explaining why to the bewildered desk clerk. Bereaved readers will also recognize how friends pull away in the presence of grief, planning dinner parties that never happen, telling others how desperately they wish to comfort their friend, without ever calling or writing them directly.

A Widow's Story has no plot, per se, but Oates still adopts some of the methods that make her fiction work so gripping and stomach-churning. In Oates' novels and short stories, her female characters are often in peril, menaced by larger forces, disoriented, bewildered, lost, and so is Oates: coming out of the hospital where Smith has been admitted, Oates finds LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH written on a note on her windshield, the first hint that the world will be more bruising without Smith. Her struggle with the state bureaucracy after Smith's death is conveyed flawlessly, from the ticket she receives for not being the registered owner of their car to the difficulty of handling the minutiae required to receive a death certificate without screaming or wailing. Oates later mined this experience for one of her most unsettling stories, "Probate," published in her collection of short works in 2011, Sourland.

Oates remarried a year after Smith's death, to a neuroscientist she met at a dinner party six months after Smith died. She doesn't write about this in A Widow's Story. Instead, Oates focuses on the questions that swirl around her in the aftermath of Smith's death, as she reads his unfinished novel, Black Mass, for the first time. Had she been unsupportive? Should she have asked him to read her work? Had Smith sacrificed a potential career as a writer to support hers instead? Did keeping her work so separate from him make their marriage less authentic, more guarded?

What emerges is a portrait not only of a bereft widow but also a record of a deep and loving partnership. As one of Oates friends tells her with characteristics bluntness, suffer for Ray. He was worth it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

And Open Letter to Turqatic, MAC's New Sensual Sea-Spray Fragrance

Dear Turqatic,

The term turqatic sounds less like a sensual sea-spray fragrance and more like the genus of a newly discovered water-dwelling mammal. Scientists have named the curious beast, discovered off the coast of Madagascar, T. turqatic, in honor of the hapless diver who discovered it and promptly expired from the effect of the disarmingly adorable little animal's deadly poison glands. The scientific community is already abuzz at the potential for using T. turqatic's venom as a Botox-like substance.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Worst case scenarios.

 More short stories!

God, you say, what is with you and the short stories?

I don't know! Good question. I'm about midway through the massive Best American Short Stories of the Century, too, and I just finished another collection of Joyce Carol Oates' short stories. I just like them. Maybe it's the literary equivalent of a one-night stand. You can be really into them for a short while, but there's no commitment on your part! And anyway, short stories can pack a pretty big wallop (O. Henry, amirite?!).

I read Jim Shepard's earlier collection, Like You'd Understand Anyway and his short, powerful novel, Project X. Unlike his first short story collection, which was rather introspective and extremely heavily weighted with male characters, You Think That's Bad goes farther afield, both literally and metaphorically.

One reappearing theme in You Think That's Bad is force. Characters are pummeled by rains and rising sea levels; swept off of mountainsides by raging winds; buried and smothered under avalanches. Even Godzilla makes an appearance. Underneath these violent forces Shepard writes about rage smaller, quieter infernos. Along the way, Shepard displays a remarkable aptitude in folding a wealth of historical detail and information into his stories without seeming affected or showy.

In "Minotaur," Shepard spoofs the secretiveness of classified government operations. In "The Track of the Assassins," an eccentric woman and her two guides travel to a remote desert stronghold in Asia. "The Netherlands Lives With Water" takes the reader to a futuristic Netherlands desperate to circumvent being obliterated by rising sea levels and glacier melt. "Happy With Crocodiles" follows a hapless group of American servicemen on Paupau New Guinea during World War II. "Your Fate Hurtles Down At You" details the devastation of avalanches. In "Gojira, King of the Monsters," Shepard imagines the domestic life of Eiji Tsurburaya, the creator of Gojira (nee Godzilla), whose relationship with his wife and son is strained to breaking. In "Poland is Watching," another group of feckless husbands spend months attempting to climb the world's most dangerous mountains while their wives wait and worry. "Classical Scenes of Farewell" is a retelling of the last days of a page of the French nobleman and murderer Gilles de Rais (and is, in my opinion, the least successful story, and oddly out of place among the otherwise excellent pieces in this book).

As in Like You'd Understand Anyway, many of the characters in You Think That's Bad are bad husbands and neglectful fathers, but Shepard pulls his perspective back a little farther this time, showing his characters struggling mightily against seemingly irresistable forces - the pull of the mountains, the siren call of deeply beloved work, the devouring jungle, the overpowering avalanche, even as they try to reclaim what they sense is slipping from them.

Shepard's stories pack a wealth of information (his "The Netherlands Lives With Water" could easily be included in a science textbook) but he manages not to lose hold of the delicate strands of emotional connection, faltering and inconsistent though it may be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Glass menagerie

Bullfighting! Again! Actually, this is a total coincidence, I picked up Tawni O'Dell's Fragile Beasts simply because I liked the cover and the title. Fragile Beasts is O'Dell's fourth novel, all of which are set in western Pennsylvania's coal country. As such, one encounters the type of characters one would expect: baseball-hatted, beer-gutted men with chronic lower back pain and persistent coughs, high-schoolers already headed for a life of manual labor and disappointment, and the wealthy, exploitative mine owners who live with and yet apart from the rest of the townspeople.

Teenage brothers Kyle and Klint and their father, a former mine-worker-turned-janitor, have been abandoned by their mother, who ran off to Arizona with their younger sister, but the guys soldier on. Klint is a local baseball hero, and it's expected that he'll get a sports scholarship to a university. Kyle is the younger, smarter, more timid brother. He enjoys drawing but hides it, fearful of ridicule, and while his father and Klint have baseball over which to bond, Kyle is aware that his father is bewildered by him.

Their father dies in a car accident, and their vile mother Rhonda reluctantly returns from Arizona to get them. Neither Kyle nor Klint want to leave, and Klint is afraid of losing his shot at a scholarship if he moves during his critical junior year. Enter Candace Jack, the elderly, reclusive sister of the deceased Stan Jack, the owner of J and P Coal. Candace's youngest grandniece, Shelby, has a crush on Klint and is friends with Kyle, and she persuades her prickly great-aunt to let the boys move in with her.

Candace Jack is one of those old ladies about whom rumors are spread that are far more exciting than reality. She lives in a tidy, large house with only Luis, her cook/butler/whatever, and a black bull named Ventisco who roams her massive estate. Candace's one love, a toreador named Manuel, ate it in the ring back in the late 50s, and Candace brought the bull that gored him back to the States. Ventisco is Calladito's grandson (grandbull? whatever). Candace's house is plastered with posters of the famous Manuel and she seems fossilized - speaking Spanish with Luis, eating Spanish food, never marrying, never really getting past losing Manuel (although, in terms of mortality, marrying a coal miner and marrying a toreador may be roughly comparable).

Candace lets the boys move in with her, mostly to tweak her despised nephew, the florid Cam Jack. That line of the Jack family is straight out of central casting - blobby, grasping capitalist Cam, his drunken beauty queen wife Rae, and his triad of spoiled, self-indulged daughters.

Klint and Kyle take up residence in Candace's house, learn to appreciate Spanish food, and more or less get along okay with the aloof old lady. Klint is pricklier than Kyle, but things seem to be going well, until Rhonda turns up again and demands that the boys come live with her (or she'll accept a sizeable cash payment instead).

Revelations are had, relationships are strained or broken, Candace convinces Kyle to start taking his art serious, Luis yells things in Spanish at the heavens, but things end up with a Lifetime movie ending. There are some genuinely funny lines, particularly in the repartee between Luis and Candace, but the characters seem two-dimensional and stale. Rhonda and her equally distasteful sister Jen deliver hackneyed lines, swan around in tight jeans and bleached hair, and generally comport themselves like contestants on Sharon Osbourne's Charm School. Chapters are told from the viewpoint of Kyle and Candace, except for one from Luis, which interrupts the flow of the novel and seems weirdly expository and self-conscious. Luis is not only (of course) an expert cook, he dresses really well and serves as Candace's conscience and straight man, sort of like a Latino Girl Friday. Kyle's character seems more like a list of check boxes (artistic tendencies unappreciated by his blue-collar parents? Check! Gets beaten up by the local meatheads? Check! Hides his intelligence? Check!). That kid from Bridge to Terebithia (you know, the one who didn't die) was better rounded.

Klint is more interesting, although he remains as closed off to the reader as he does to his brother and Candace. The shocking - shocking!! - revelation comes out of left field, if you'll excuse that uniquely horrible pun, and just seems sort of plopped into the plot, then it's never mentioned again. Ventisco, Candace's bull, doesn't actually do anything either, aside from being referred to musingly, over and over and then over and over again as a metaphor for everything from Manuel's wildness, the bull's inherent nobility, and something about man's natural tendency to, I don't know, seriously irritate a creature who tops a thousand pounds and has really sharp horns. The Gun Principal is violated here (don't show the gun unless it's going to go off - similarly, don't show the bull unless you plan on having him gore someone, or at least charge a car or whatever), leaving the bull to noodle peaceably around Candace's estate.

I think O'Dell is making a point that everyone is a fragile beast, even the bull, perhaps even Kyle and Klint's loathsome mom (although O'Dell doesn't go far enough in her character for us to see anything but her grotesqueness). The book's premise sets the reader up for a deep, complex work, but unfortunately O'Dell's limp characters can't live up to that promise.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to A Radio Station

Dear DC 101,

Actually, I think Kid's Rock's "Bad Girl Lounge" is the last place I'd like to be.

In all earnestness,