Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Gathering – Anne Enright

The Gathering is an exploration of grief and memory.  The novel opens in Dublin (Enright is Irish) with the suicide of Liam Hegarty.  Liam is survived by his sister Veronica, our protagonist, who progresses through the narrative from despair into a sort-of redemption.  Most interesting are Veronica’s memories as they resurface throughout the book:  both Veronica and Liam were victims of sexual abuse. 

This was the first time I’ve read Anne Enright.  The Gathering was a winner of the Booker Prize, and it is obvious why – the writing is flawless.  The book is raw; Veronica’s misery vibrates on every page.  But I won’t say I exactly “liked” the book: it was so packed with emotion that it took a long time for me to get through it.  Maybe “appreciated” is a better word, but that sounds so banal.  And the book was definitely not banal.  I had to read it like I would eat a very rich dessert – in small bites, in several sittings.

Do you do that?  Or do you read everything at the same pace?  I notice that the older I get and the more scatterbrained I become (which I consider to be part and parcel of having small children – or at least, that’s what I tell myself when I begin to wax hypochondriacal about early-onset Alzheimer’s), the more I need to take heavy books in small doses.  They are still rewarding of course, perhaps even more so because of the effort it takes to get through them, but they take me some serious time and concentration.  In brief, I’d say that this book requires sobriety.  Don’t drink more than two glasses of wine and expect to follow Enright’s stream-of-consciousness psychological narrative.  (There is a reason this blog is called “Lit Lush,” people.) 

But back to the book.  What I found most riveting was Enright’s pitch-perfect description of what happens to a psyche when loss occurs.  Consider this passage, from Veronica:

I thought about this, as I sat in the Shelbourne bar – that I was living my life in inverted commas.  I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did.  This is what I had been doing for years.  And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.

This was probably my favorite paragraph in the entire book.  Grief brings perspective, more than anything else does.  The most normal parts of life take on a surreal quality (“home,” for example) when we are faced with the previously unimaginable.  The loss of one’s most pivotal person (as Liam is to Veronica) has the capacity to completely unmoor.  When I lost my mom ten years ago, it was unbelievable to me that people were still driving in cars.  Heading to the grocery store.  Picking up their mail.  This is what Enright does best, here – she shines a light (no, a 1000-volt spotlight) on that space or disconnect between the grief-stricken and the rest of the world.  In The Gathering, that space is a chasm.  But that is the product of loving someone enough.  Toward the end of the book, Veronica realizes (and I love this quote, too) that “being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.”  Absolutely.  Because if we love people, and have the great good fortune to live a long life, we will eventually lose many of the people who we love.  We don’t have a choice; life just works that way. 

YIKES.  What a turn this post has taken!  Sorry for the detour into morbidity.  And I even took my Zoloft today.  Next post will be lighter – I’m planning a list of must-have children’s books.  In the meantime, as long as you are psychologically healthy and on your meds, read Enright.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blueprints for Building Better Girls – Elissa Schappell

Before I get started, a little housekeeping.  For the record, Blogger is a piece of shit.  You see, when I go to my dashboard and click “Followers,” it shows me only eight of you lovely readers.  This has been a problem since I started the blog, and it kind of goes back and forth:  one day I can see you all, all 18 of you, and the next, zero.  Or four.  My friend Emily is listed twice, also.  It is maddening, I tell you, but rather than force my poor bedraggled husband to build me a website, thus placing our marriage in extreme jeopardy, I’m dealing with it.  (Also, other hosting sites cost money, and I’m cheap.)  Blogger seems to have recognized this problem (like, since 2009, or something), and it appears to be a common one, but they can’t/won’t fix it.
Also, because of yet another Blogger bug, up until now I haven’t been able to respond directly to your lovely comments, so I have been trying to email each of you directly to thank you for them.  But alas!  It looks like this feature is repaired for now, as of the Twilight post.  So in the future, I plan to respond directly to each comment, because I LOVE them, and they really help me to stay motivated.  Hopefully the respond feature will continue to function – let’s all cross our fingers.  It’s frustrating.  (Especially if you consistently teeter on the edge of full-blown OCD, as do I.)

Here’s the moral of that story:  You get what you pay for.  Anyhoo – on to the book!

It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve read a collection of short stories.  No particular reason why; I think most fiction readers tend to gravitate toward novels initially, but I’d kind of forgotten how rewarding stories can be, and how much I truly enjoy them.  This is a wonderful collection.  Don’t you love the title?  I have to admit, that’s what sold me from the get-go.

I read an essay once, by Amy Tan, perhaps (I really can’t remember, but that’s the luxury of having my own blog, is that if my sources aren’t precise it’s okay nobody’s gonna arrest me), about the American attitude to short stories.  Her conundrum, as I remember it, was in trying to decipher why short stories are hard to sell to the American public.  It would seem that Americans would love short stories, as opposed to novels – they’re quick!  And easy!  And to the point!  You can read one in a hurry: at the doctor’s office, while waiting for the bus, in the carpool line.  NO TIME IS WASTED!  But short story collections don’t make money, and are deceptively HARD to write.  Many authors consider them the most difficult genre.  They require the plotting of a seasoned novelist combined with the wordsmithery (is that a word?  Wordsmithery?  Well, now it is) of a poet.  They have to be tight.  Nothing superfluous, each and every phrase building economically to climax and to theme.  So while short stories might appear “easy” or “quick,” they are anything but.  And it is possible that this undercurrent of complexity is why they typically don’t make money.  Most readers are looking for escape (hey, myself included, much of the time), yet short stories require brainwork on the part of the writer (obviously) as well as on the part of the reader.  You can’t skim a short story – you must engage with every paragraph.  It’s a different kind of reading, I think.

Anyway, I loved how Schappell set up her collection.  The stories are interconnected, which is somewhat typical to the short story genre.  For example, in the first story, “Monsters of the Deep,” we meet Heather as a promiscuous teenager, and the collection concludes evenly with Heather, again, this time as a parent struggling with her past in “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once.”  Characters offstage in one story are highlighted in another, and each character is in some way affected by the experiences of the others.  In this way, Schappell uses the interconnectedness of the stories not just as gimmick, but as a central theme of the collection: we are all connected.  One person’s life experience affects another’s.

My favorite story in the collection was “Elephant,” because it was so relatable to my own life at the moment.  Two young mothers form a friendship at a playground.  Sounds mundane, right?  But Schappell’s talent lies in magnifying what seems commonplace and makes it fascinating – like an anthropological examination of a tribal ritual.  Personally, I loved her description of new motherhood and how we “recognize” each other within it:  “It was seeing the identical expression, the haunted, bewildered look of the POW in the other woman’s face.  How did this happen?  This moment of recognition had caused each of them to look away.”  Later Schappell mentions “the social groupings that spring up naturally in places like playgrounds and prisons,” which I thought was so…apt.  Motherhood is a sort of prison camp at times (I adore my children, don’t misunderstand me here), and I’ve always thought that the only way to survive it was to have a group of fellow parents with whom you can be totally honest.  But it can be damn hard to find those people, y’all.  Along those lines, here’s my favorite part:

Other mothers had presented themselves as potential lifelong friends but had ultimately been drawn back to work, had given in to the siren song of the suburbs, or despite their initial bonding, had proved incompatible once you discovered they spanked, voted Republican, or when you were over for a playdate made you put a nickel in their “swearing jar” every time you cursed.  Paige’s quip as she stuck a dollar in the jar just in case – that the swearing jar might more accurately be renamed “the therapy jar” – was not appreciated.  As a result, the potential friend pool became shallower, the pickings slim.  In that way, the playground wasn’t unlike a singles bar.  As time passed, standards fell, until they found themselves being seduced by a copy of Swann’s Way in a New Yorker tote bag, a woman in Ray-Bans wearing an R.E.M. T-shirt with pearls.

YES.  Oh, how I can relate.  When I met my friend Jenny, I liked her shoes immediately.  They were gladiator sandals, worn a crucial season before they were trendy.  And she was deeply disturbed by my George H.W. Bush magnet, until she realized that its placement on my refrigerator was ironic.  It was a tricky time.  When I realized I could say “fuck” in front of my friend Emily, after having known her for approximately five minutes, I knew I could trust her to help me move a body, or at least the body of a dead animal.  These things resonate, people.  The bottom line?  Don’t underestimate the importance of female friendship.  These are the individuals who keep us women sane, enabling us to parent our children with kindness (at least, much of the time, one hopes).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Scathing Review, or Why Twilight Sucks

This is long overdue.

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been meaning to write an entry about Twilight.  But because I fear social ostracism, this project is something I’ve put on the back burner.  (Remember, I live in the suburbs around many of Robert Pattinson’s target demographic of mid-30s women, the creepiness of which is a whole other blog post).  Additionally, I feel like a responsible book reviewer would re-read the book immediately before writing a critique…but I don’t own it, am too embarrassed to be seen with it in public, and really, I just can’t put myself through that again.  Plus, I’m less interested than convincing you than I am in ranting, so we’ll just have to make do with what I can remember, and hopefully that will get my point across.  The point being?  Twilight sucks.

A disclaimer: I read everything.  By everything, I mean lots of trash.  And yes, I read the entire Twilight train wreck.  I couldn’t put them down.  This does not imply quality, only compulsive readability.  Even cheap crank laced with rat poison is still addictive.

Another disclaimer: I’m going to try not to use too many all caps in this review, but I make no promises.  I’m feeling a bit zealous.

I could go on and on about how the book is demeaning to women, about how it reverses the feminist movement by about 200 years, or about how Meyer irresponsibly glorifies dangerous, violent, and criminal male behavior and encourages young girls to associate with such (Edward is a STALKER!  He sneaks into Bella’s room TO WATCH HER SLEEP!  And has MURDERED PEOPLE!)…but I’ll refrain from that here, in order to simply tell you why these are fundamentally bad books.

Point One: Bella
Bella is a complete void, a personality-less nothing.  Yet throughout the books, Meyer continually comments on her allure – her scent, for example, is particularly powerful to the vampires, it seems (I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M EVEN WRITING THESE WORDS), but backs up this assertion with no concrete evidence of her sex appeal, whatsoever.  She’s not particularly beautiful, she mostly wears flannel shirts and jeans in some sort of vague Pearl-Jammy way, and she doesn’t seem to speak much.  Ever.  What is the point of her?  I can’t find it.

And by the way, not to conflate the two, but it bears mentioning: Kristen Stewart can’t act.  Sighs and gasps and “meaningful gazes” do not an actress make.  Nor a character.

Point Two: Bella’s Dipshit Dad
If you’re wondering if there’s a worse character than Bella in these books, the answer is, unbelievably, YES.  Her village-idiot father.  Does he know what Bella’s up to?  That Edward sneaks into Bella’s bedroom to spoon with her every night?  Does he realize that his BFF is, actually, a werewolf?  Does he notice that Edward and his bizarre-o “family” never seem to age?  NO.  Why would he?  Uh, because he’s a police officer, perhaps?  Come on, Stephenie-with-an-e, at least make him a…a clerk, like at the water company.  Or a convenience store stocker.  Or a middle-aged paper boy.  Or something.

Point Three: Form
Twilight should have been a trilogy, in keeping with literary tradition.  Usually, especially with fantasy or sci-fi genres, the story arc functions as follows: book one is introduction, book two is conflict (and usually the “good guys” lose – remember The Empire Strikes Back?), and book three is greater conflict, concluding with some sort of overarching resolution for the entire series.  Instead, Meyer wrote four books, which wouldn’t be a problem if there was some sort of point to this – like, for example, if she managed to somehow expand the genre and provide some sort of narrative reason for her choice of four books.  Instead, the trilogy-in-story-but-tetralogy-in-fact reads like an accident.  (Probably a happy accident for Meyer and her publishers, considering how fast these books sell.)  Books two and three needed a better editor.  They should’ve been one terrible book, not two worse ones.

Point Four: The Missing Months
Those of you who have read these books know exactly what I’m talking about.  For the three people on earth who haven’t, let me elucidate.  In book two, Edward leaves Bella (SPOILER ALERT!) because he can no longer handle the fact that their romantic involvement endangers her life.  (Partially because he wants to kill her, but also because the “bad vampires” also want to kill her.  I know.)  So after the breakup, Bella collapses in the woods in abject grief and is carried back to her home, or something, where she sits and apparently stares out the window in silence for four months.  I say “apparently” because that’s how Meyer presents it.  You see, in the book, there is no actual writing other than “October,” “November,” “December,” and “January.”  After each month, there is a blank page.  Note to Meyer: In order to write a book, you have to write a book.  Blank pages don’t count.    

Point Five: Edward Needs To Grow a Pair
Like, immediately.  So Edward is in complete and utter love with Bella, upon first glance.  They are soul mates.  Both of them want to be together forever, starting yesterday, no question.  Yet there’s this constant struggle on the part of Edward to be “moral” about changing her into a vampire (this is the same Edward who is a stalker and a murderer, remember).  He laments this impossible predicament ad nauseam over the course of the series.  In a nutshell, he’s damned if he changes her (thereby consigning her to the life that he never wanted for himself or for anyone) and damned if he doesn’t (thereby continually placing Bella in mortal danger of all vamps, everywhere, not the least of which is himself).  Of course, he’s damned either way since he’s a vampire.  The indecisiveness, it is maddening, I tell you.  Edward finally gets off his Lazy-Boy (SPOILER ALERT!) and “vamps” her immediately after she gives birth to their spawn (couldn’t have done it ten minutes earlier, huh, buddy?  To ease the at-home birthing a bit?).  Of course, Bella’s “vamping” is the most interesting part of the entire series, so that’s when Meyer chooses to end it.  Huh.

Point Six: Renesmee
First of all, Renesmee’s full name (as the half-human, half-vampire child of Bella and Edward, and oh yeah: SPOILER ALERT!) is Renesmee Carlie Cullen.  The reason, you ask?  Allow me to explain, via math:

Rene (Bella’s mom) + Esme (Edward’s adoptive mom) = Renesmee
Carlisle (Edward’s adoptive dad) + Charlie (Bella’s dad) = Carlie

I’m certainly glad that Bella and Edward managed to add that final “e” at the end of the first name in order to complete the tricky wordscramble.  For baby #2 I vote for BREDAWALLED.  Why not?

Secondly, at the moment of her birth, Renesmee is “imprinted” upon Jacob’s heart as his soulmate.  Yes, you read that correctly: remember Jacob, he of the unrequited Bella-love?  Jacob, the werewolf, who is nineteen years old?  Well, now he’s super into her newborn baby.  And cue projectile barfing.

Anyway, brilliant readers – there are better love stories.  There are better supernatural thrillers.  And yes, there are even better supernatural love stories.  In closing, I would like to direct you to this, which I do own, and would recommend instead of reading Twilight.  It is excellent, and fitting.