Prayers for the Stolen

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement 513S6K5BrOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This short novel is set in a village near Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico, where there are no men because they’ve all gone to the US or joined drug gangs. The women are fearful for their daughters being kidnapped by drug lords. The poverty and violence and fear they endure daily is heartbreaking. The constant flood of violence reminded me of Bastard Out of Carolina except that in this book racism and international policy lurk behind the violence. The way that ‘development’ and the drug war led to this village’s deterioration is clear.

A girl named Ladydi is the narrator, telling the story of her closest girl friends: Maria, born with a harelip, a blessing because it protects her from kidnapping, Estefani, whose mother has AIDS, and Paula, the most beautiful, who is stolen. Lots of little vignettes about life in their village make up the novel. Ladydi’s mother is a bitter alcoholic kleptomaniac. When the black SUVs of the drug lords ride through the village, girls hide in holes pray not to hear gunshots. Ladydi’s childlike voice states all these horrors in the most matter-of-fact way; this is just the way life is, it’s all she’s known. She also has a sense of humor and is more aware of things than the adults in her life. It’s definitely a voice-driven novel, and one that makes you pay attention to the language.

The descriptions of the setting are really vivid and unique. Some dominant images are insects, plastic flip-flops, and poisonous herbicide and pesticide. The combination of modern technology with extreme rural poverty was particularly striking. For example, everyone in the village hangs out in this clearing because it’s the only place in the village where cell phones work. Ladydi’s mother considers herself educated because she watches the History Channel on satellite TV, so she knows all about the British monarchy, but her daughter only graduates from primary school. This novel is heartbreaking, but also enjoyable. It enlarges your perspective a little to see what people in other parts of the world go through.

The Book of Life

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

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This book concludes the Discovery of Witches trilogy. I think I found myself enjoying each book in this series less than the one before. Instead of growing on me, the characters grated. I had a lot of expectations for this book, but I didn’t find the revelations as surprising as I’d hoped, although it was somewhat satisfying to see some of the villains get their comeuppances.

The gender politics in this book are complicated, but overall seemed to me to be more progressive on the surface than they were at the deeper level where it counts. At the very least, I found them questionable, and that was disappointing, because I remember thinking the previous books were so egalitarian. (Maybe it’s also a sign of my own standards getting higher in the intervening years.) It’s good that Matthew encourages Diana to keep her name rather than take his, and refers to their family as the Bishop-Clairmont clan. It’s good that Diana has to save Matthew at the climax, rather than vice versa. But on the other hand, numerous times, characters discuss how hard it is for Matthew to be away from Diana even for very short periods of time, and it starts to sound kind of unhealthy. In this way the story romanticizes overprotective and clingy behavior. And on the sentence level, several passages describing the emotional relationship between them seemed slightly off:

“The secret is that I may be the head of the Bishop-Clairmont family, but you are its heart,” he whispered. “And the three of us are in perfect agreement: The heart is more important” (447).

 

“Dance with me, I said…

I trod on his toe. “Sorry.”

“You’re trying to lead again,” he murmured. He pressed a kiss to my lips, then whirled me around. “At the moment your job is to follow.”

“I forgot,” I said with a laugh.

“I’ll have to remind you more often, then.” Matthew swung me tight to his body. His kiss was rough enough to be a warning and sweet enough to be a promise (552).

These passages seem to emphasize that despite Diana’s intelligence, scholarship, and supernatural power, she has to take a submissive role in relation to Matthew. Harkness romanticizes this submissive role, making it seem sexy and going on about how important it is, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it tilts the balance of power in the relationship away from the heroine.

One aspect of the series I found mildly annoying was the focus on opulent backgrounds and settings. Harkness meticulously describes décor, furnishings, and artwork, as well as the extravagant menus of several parties. I think these passages are mostly meant to provide the reader with pretty images, as well as to show the wealth, power, and exquisite taste of the characters. Since the de Clermonts are vampires, they’ve had centuries to accumulate money and collect fine art from every era. One character makes a big deal about the fact that a portrait by a  famous Renaissance artist is hanging in one of the bathrooms of the de Clermont castle. I would have gotten the point about what these settings communicated about the characters if 3/4 of these passages had been cut from the books. In their excess, these passages mostly just read to me as materialism.

When Diana first encounters the villain, she hesitates to use her magic arrow to take him down, and the story makes a big deal of this hesitation, as if it’s her tragic flaw or something. I don’t find it to be a moral failing to hesitate to kill someone, to weigh that decision carefully even in a tense moment of threatening confrontation, so this idea rang false to me. After all, Diana is not a trained soldier, so expecting her to react like one is unrealistic, and the way she berates herself and accepts guilt for the villain’s later actions is ridiculous.

 

Winter’s Tale

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
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I didn’t enjoy this fantasy about time travel and New York City as much as I expected to. The parts I enjoyed most were the narrator’s voice, the elaborate descriptions, the funny moments, and a few utopian ideas and parable-like passages. Some of the descriptions and events were so over-the-top hyperbolic that it was hard to take them seriously. The idiocy of the villains, including a mob boss who wants to steal a shipload of gold just because he likes the color, and a newspaper owner whose headlines are basically gibberish, was humorous but made them laughable as obstacles to the heroes.  I started to classify the story as a myth because of the larger-than-life quality of the hero and his horse, but one character, Jesse Honey, an insane mountaineer with kooky ideas about traveling by catapult, made me wonder if it’s more of a tall tale.
Some of the things I didn’t like about the story came under the umbrella of “It’s too easy.” I’m not particularly moved by stories of love at first sight, which seems to oversimplify the decisions involved in a relationship. I also don’t like it when characters are motivated or led by divine inspiration. For example, Virginia finds her way to the city and a job at the newspaper through reenacting detailed dreams. Wouldn’t it be nice if life-altering decisions were that easy, if we could all have dreams that tell us that everything will be ok? Life isn’t like that, though, and a story with less struggle and conflict than real life has is less interesting than real life, and therefore not worth the time it takes to read it (and here there’s a considerable time investment involved).
I also didn’t like that it seemed like the rules for the fantastic elements of the story were unclear to me. Maybe I wasn’t reading close enough, but I couldn’t understand why certain characters were able to time travel, or get narratively convenient amnesia, or live unusually long lives, or mysteriously reappear (after being presumed dead). The mystical future that the characters are working toward remains hidden from the reader at the end. If there’s something I’m missing about this book, I’d be glad to have someone explain to me why they thought it was so great.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Daily Lives

Yesterday I posted about my daily routine. I wrote this as a way of documenting our daily life, so that years from now I can look back and see vividly and clearly what the rhythm of our life was like when we had a toddler. I kind of saw it as an entry in the baby book I haven’t been keeping up with. For that reason, it concentrates on the cute things my baby does and says, and the overall tone is positive. When I wrote it, I was doing what we all do when we make scrapbooks and use social media: we edit and put our best face forward. There’s no harm in that, except that in so far as I’m hiding the hard stuff and ugly moments, I’m sugarcoating and being fake. Last year, when I wrote about two days of maternity leave, a beautiful, lovely day and a miserable one, I did it to make precisely that point: we have our good moments and our bad ones, and it’s dishonest to pretend that the bad moments don’t exist.

I didn’t feel like writing out an entire ‘hell day’ post like I did last year, and honestly, my life now is quite a bit easier than it was this time last year, especially the sleep part. But if I were to write one, here are some of the things I would have included:

  • David tries to stay in bed after Cogan wakes up and I get annoyed with him because I have to wake him up to help me. I hate having to pester him to get out of bed in the morning; it makes me feel like he’s a teenage boy or something.
  • I don’t want to go outside with Cogan so he throws a tantrum and swats at me.
  • Cogan collapses into helpless tears on the kitchen floor because I can’t figure out what he wants.
  • I carry Cogan kicking and screaming away from the bathroom because he wants to get into a closet that has makeup and medicine in it.
  • Cogan cries and whines throughout the entire dinner and won’t eat anything, even though we keep offering him different things. We can’t talk to each other and eat as quickly as possible, in edgy silence.
  • Cogan’s nose is always running and has to be wiped every 5 minutes. He wears a soaked bib to protect his clothes from his drool, and every time I pick him up, it touches me. My shirt is covered in snot and slobber by the end of every day.
  • Our entire house is absolutely filthy. I feel like everyone always says their house is dirty, so this is not new. But unless you’ve seen a house inhabited by a toddler and 2 adults who work full time and are lazier-than-average when it comes to cleaning, you might not have an idea how dirty things can get. It’s not just the clutter of a kid’s toys, although that’s not insignificant. There’s the floor under the high chair that’s always sticky and littered with big crumbs. There are the half-finished reorganizing piles in the two bedrooms. There’s the film of scum and tiny hairs coating the bathroom sink. There are hair tumbleweeds in every corner. There are shrunken, stale Cheerios in crevices and inside toys and shoes. The worst part might be that honestly, this disgusting mess doesn’t bother me as much as it should.

There. Now it’s on the record: life with a toddler is not fun every second. There’s my contribution to honest, realistic discourse about women’s lives.

I also wrote my post in response to several other women who wrote similar things about their own daily lives. It’s fascinating to look inside someone’s life like this. But when I’d read a few of them, I started to see a few things they had in common, not in the days they described but the way they described them. The women all presented themselves as stylish, cheerful, competent, if occasionally frazzled, and most of all, deeply grateful. I really had to double check myself to see if my ambivalent reaction was a sign of jealousy or some other repressed ugliness. But I think the fact that these very different women wrote about very different lives in almost the same way has more to do with the way they were all trying to fill or fit certain expectations we have of women, especially mothers. I know I’m being incredibly picky to go on about the details of these posts, and I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing these women personally. I admire that they were brave enough to talk about their lives publicly. I mostly want to use these day-in-the-life posts, and my own experience of writing them, as a springboard for a discussion of expectations of women, mothers, and working mothers.

The very worst part about the posts were the constant humblebrags about how busy they are. This is something all working people tend to say, of course, because America’s workaholic culture teaches that busy = important. It becomes self-aggrandizing, while at the same time maintaining an appropriately feminine pose of servility. I certainly believe that these women fill their days with lots of productive work, but talking and, worse, reading about how busy someone is has become banal. I mean, maybe it’s ok for a post about daily routines to be a bit banal; no one’s life is roller coasters and fireworks every second. I only mention the banality of busy-ness because the posts perpetuate our damaging culture of overwork rather than questioning it.

Several of these women said of their unique balancing act, “it’s hectic/unconventional/messy/whatever, but it works for us.” Which made me wonder: what if it isn’t working? What if you’re barely hanging on? Then I guess you don’t write about your life on the internet. But wouldn’t that be a ton more interesting to read about, more raw and intimate? Instead of works in progress, the women presented their lives as finished products, which seemed somewhat fake to me. My daily routine has changed so much since my son was born, based on his changing needs for food and sleep. It seemed like we barely had time to get used to one provisional schedule when he started to show signs that he needed it adjusted yet again. If we’ve had one consistent failing as parents it’s been clinging too long to an old routine past the time when the baby was ready to move on.

The other thing that bothered me was how in Joanna Goddard’s series, almost every woman said that she did nothing whatsoever just for herself, or that she took no time at all in a typical day to devote to personal interests, hobbies, friends, self-improvement, or exercise. They said it almost proudly. With this background, I was somewhat nervous about telling the world about my habit of coming home for 45 minutes or so on my own before picking up my son from child care. The expectation is that working mothers must minimize the time their children spend at daycare, gladly sacrificing leisure time to be with the kids they miss every second of the workday.

Talking about the details of the daily routine opens us up to criticism from all sides. Someone is bound to judge the choices we’ve made and the priorities we’ve set. (I hope I’m not so much judging now as observing patterns and the way we’re all trying to fit impossible ideals.) We can never do enough work, or enough self-care, and we can never do enough for our children and partners, and when any one of these is compromised for another, it’s our fault for not being better at fitting 40 hours of work and fun into a 24 hour day. For example, we hear so much about the importance of exercising. I swear, every day I see a facebook link to a whole article that basically boils down to “exercise is good for you.” But when the daily realities of a parent’s schedule mean that time at the gym comes at the cost of taking a toddler straight from one babysitter to another, adding up to over 10 hours apart in a day, that starts to look like the parent doesn’t care enough about her kid. Doesn’t the mom want to spend time with her child? Does she really need to work out for her health, or is she just being vain? Isn’t it selfish to want so much time away from a kid, over and above what’s necessary to hold down a job? Those are the types of mean-girl questions people ask. Worse, they’re internalized as self-doubt and guilt.

While writing about my daily routine, I felt compelled to gush about everything good about our life that not everyone is lucky enough to have. A convenient child care arrangement, an easy commute, a child with an easy temperament who finally sleeps for over 8 hour stretches, local in-laws, two bedrooms, two cars. It felt especially necessary to go on about how great my husband is because he cooks sometimes, plays with our kid, gives him his bath every other night, and puts him to sleep every night, in addition to killing it at his 9-5 sales job. These things are true, and it’s only fair to give him credit, to celebrate him and be grateful for him and to him. But I feel like there comes a point where the gratitude becomes a show. My husband doesn’t need me to tell the world on public media that I appreciate him. He knows. We’re not one of those couples who posts “love you babe” on each other’s facebook walls to make sure everyone else sees this sweet little message. And besides, when my husband cares for our kid, he’s just doing his job as a parent, and is no more praiseworthy than I am. I think there’s value in being matter-of-fact about these things, because gushing sends a message of low expectations. And in the case of the other things, like our house, or our short commutes: who do I thank for them? They’re gifts that were dropped in our laps by virtue of the city we live in, more than for any other reason.

I think sometimes women adopt a pose of emphasizing their gratitude when they know they’re privileged or they want to express solidarity with those who are less fortunate. That’s laudable. But I think it’s more radical to make demands anyway, and include others in those demands. We all know how much worse things could be and that makes us hesitant to complain. The specter of other people’s troubles makes us keep quiet, until we’re like the starving kids at Oliver Twist’s orphanage, afraid to ask for more soup. Instead of getting scared when we see others struggling, we should get angry on their behalf. I want the same things for them that I want for myself. If I complain about my relatively easy circumstances, it’s not because I’m oblivious to my privilege or to others who have less. Rather, I’m expressing the idea that we all deserve more than we’re getting. We can be grateful without implying we’re content with the status quo. For example, compared to many American women, I was relatively lucky in my maternity leave because I had almost 5 months at home with my baby (unpaid). It wasn’t enough, and saying that is no disrespect to women who return earlier than that, whether by choice or necessity. That’s why I especially love it when discussion of work/life balance leads to awesome conversations about structural issues like US work culture and gender expectations, like it often does in the APW comments.

As I wrote my post, I felt compelled to justify things, because it seemed to me that readers were going to be looking for the things I’d compromised, the trade-offs I’d made in order to be able to have it as good as I do. I saw a glimmer of this tendency in myself reading the other women’s stories: “Of course she can do X, she has Y.” I think the most radical thing might be when we stop doing these little calculations and allow others to have great lives without ‘paying’ for them in some way, when we stop justifying ourselves and stop feeling guilty for being flawed human beings with needs of our own.

A Day in the Life: 16 months

I did a couple ‘day in the life’ posts about a year ago while I was on maternity leave. I was thinking I might try to make this a yearly thing to try to capture the everyday moments and the rhythms of my family life as it changes.

It’s 5:15 AM and Cogan is crying in his crib. I go to pick him up and bring him to our bed so we can cuddle him back to sleep. He wants to stroke my hair, which is annoying but sweet. I try to fall back to sleep for another half hour or so, but my alarm goes off at 6.

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I go to the bathroom and wash my face. Then I go to the kitchen and pack my lunch and Cogan’s, then pour myself some Cheerios. I eat while checking facebook on the laptop on the dining room table. Then I go to the bathroom to put on makeup. I only have the patience to put on three products in the morning: foundation, eye shadow, and lipstick (balm stain). While I’m finishing that up, a little boy wanders into the bathroom. Cogan is up. He grins when he sees me and lifts his arms. I pick him up. David is right behind. I carry our boy to the high chair and strap him in. I give him his bottle of milk and put a handful of Cheerios on the tray while David scrambles some eggs for Cogan and himself. Then I get dressed and put Cogan’s and my lunches and bags in the car. When the boys are done eating, I change Cogan’s diaper and get him dressed while David hops in the shower. It’s not quite 7 yet, so I have a little time to just play with Cogan before I drop him off. We read 2 Elmo books and sing Old MacDonald.

I drive him to his babysitter, Marcy. I park and unstrap him from his car seat. “Are you ready?” I ask him. “Ready!” he repeats. When we go in the house, Cogan goes right over to baby Hudson in the bouncy seat and pats him on the head, saying “ahhh.” He waves his arm and says bye-bye. Walking back toward my car, I feel a sense of lightness. I know Cogan’s in good hands; I don’t have to worry about him, so I can focus on my day.

I arrive at school at about 7:30. I have an hour before school starts to plan, grade, and do last-minute prep work, like making copies. Students start arriving at 8, and sometimes they want attention too. My school is a nontraditional high school with an unusual schedule. We have 2 classes a day, 2 1/2 hours each, so that students can get a semester’s credit in 4-5 weeks. We’re also really lucky to have small classes. My first class is English III. We read a short story aloud together, and have a discussion about it. Then students have the second half of class to work on their research papers, a big assignment that we’ve been working on all term. I check up with each one and answer questions.

Lunch is from 11 to 11:45. A few students hang out in my room. I eat the same thing every day: yogurt, an apple, a banana, and a half turkey sandwich. My second class is Spanish. We have a lesson on the imperfect tense, then students work independently on translation assignments, writing assignments, or a project about different Spanish-speaking countries. Again, I rotate around, checking and supporting. We dismiss at 2:15 and there’s an hour for tutoring and planning.

I leave school at 3:15 and go home. I could pick up Cogan, and in fact it’s on my way. I did that when I first went back to work, but I found it made me more stressed, especially as his nap and feeding schedule changed. A year ago I wanted to pick him up ASAP so that we could nurse and he could take an evening nap at home. But now if I pick him up at 3:30, there’s a chance I could interrupt his one afternoon nap. And I have really come to value the 45 minutes I get alone in the house in the afternoon. I wind down by checking facebook, reading a couple articles online, grabbing a snack, changing out of my school clothes, and doing a chore or two, like unloading the dishwasher or starting some laundry. It’s sooo much easier to do that stuff without Cogan hanging on me. I used to feel guilty about taking this extra time for myself, rather than maximizing the time I spend with Cogan, but I realized I’m less distracted and irritable with him if I’ve had this little break.

4:30 is my time to leave the house and go get my baby. Sometimes the drive to pick up Cogan and the moments of anticipation on Marcy’s doorstep are my favorite moments of the day. Cogan smiles and says “mama” and runs to me with his arms up when he sees me. We have to say goodbye to his friends; he’s just learned to wave. “Keys?” he asks, as he grabs them from my hand. “Door” he says, pointing the key to my car door. I help him insert the key, then put him in his car seat.

The next couple of hours vary day to day. Three days a week I go to the gym. On Thursdays I have to get an allergy shot, so I have to skip my time at home between school and pickup. Sometimes we go to Kroger. Some people hate to grocery shop with kids, but I don’t mind taking Cogan with me. (Although I always park at the back of the lot so I can be close to a cart return because I’m paranoid about some busybody thinking I left my kid in the car when I’m just returning a cart.) When I have to pick up or return a book, we walk to the library.

We usually do have a good amount of time at home together in the afternoon, just me and my boy. Mostly I end up following and supervising while he plays with his toys. If I get bored watching him, I do a chore nearby, get out the camera to take pictures of him, and/or listen to an audiobook or podcast. He pushes the buttons on his toys to make music and dances, bouncing his knees and bobbing his head. He has a new thing where he wants to push the Swiffer all around the house. I thought “Score!” and tried to put the little paper on the bottom of it so he could clean my floors for me, but he wouldn’t let me. He takes it everywhere, even into the carpeted bedrooms. He’s also obsessed with our vacuum. And he won’t go anywhere without his little canister of “teerios.”

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My favorite moment is when he hands me a book and climbs into my lap. Another thing I like to do is swing him in my arms and let him fall onto our bed. He loves it and even requests me to do it by saying “bed,” reaching for me to pick him up, and lying back in my arms to assume the position.  Sometimes when I change his diaper, I shake my hair over his face and he giggles. He’ll stick his little fingers in my eyes and nose, saying the words.

Sometimes he goes to the door and says “outside.” If I’m too slow to open it for him, he goes over to me, takes my hand, drags me to the door, and puts my hand on the doorknob. Outside, he plays on his slide, pushes his stroller or his mower toy, or he follows our cat around the yard, giggling and trying to catch her. He also likes to sit in the front seat of our cars and push the buttons and climb all over the seats.

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I feel like I’m not really capturing Cogan’s adorableness or how funny he is. He knows what he wants and has figured out all kinds of ways to show us what he wants. He’s saying a ton of words now. He’s very affectionate, especially with our cat, who tolerates him unbelievably well.

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Soon after David gets home at about 5:30, we eat. Our dinners usually come from a crockpot I fix after Cogan’s in bed. We’ll eat the same dinner for 3 or 4 nights. That’s when David and I catch up with each other and share how our days went. Cogan lets us know he’s done by throwing his food on the ground. After dinner, we take a walk through our neighborhood and David and I have more time to talk. Cogan leans forward in the stroller, eager to see everything. We wave to all the dog-walkers. Then there’s just a little bit of playtime before Cogan’s bedtime at 7:30. I love to watch David and Cogan playing together. We’ll do almost anything to make him laugh and it doesn’t usually take much. The other night he was cracking up when we kept pushing a ball off the edge of the toy chest/coffee table and saying “crash!” At bedtime, David and I take turns giving him his bath. Then we put on pajamas and read a couple stories. He usually goes down pretty easy, and sleeps until 4 or 5 most nights.

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After Cogan’s asleep, David and I finish cleaning up. Then we either watch a show together or play a video game together, or he plays a one-player video game while I read or write. Bedtime for me is 10 or 10:30; David comes to bed maybe an hour after that.

Southern Festival of Books Recap

I really enjoyed myself at the Southern Festival of Books this year! The weather was gloomy and drizzly, and I always hate parking downtown (garages make me claustrophobic and paying to park feels like a tax on breathing), but it was worth the hassle.

First I got to see Lauren Oliver. She’s very bubbly and youthful and entertaining, a great speaker who managed to make her small room of fans feel like a group of girlfriends. She talked a bit about the “controversy” about adults reading YA books, and said something very similar to my own opinion. She defined YA books as books about teenage protagonists in real time, ie, not adults looking back on their teen years, but kids making sense of their own experiences as they live them. And as such the books can be escapist because they allow adults to immerse themselves in the overwhelming emotions and polarized thinking of teenagers. She implied that remembering that intense way of living can be invigorating for adults, just as reading more complex adult novels can be educational for teens, complicating their developing perspectives.

Oliver’s newest book is an adult novel, her first, Rooms, and it’s about a haunted house and a rich family who lives there. Oliver was sweet enough to let me ambush her after her talk to sign her book rather than waiting in line so that I could go to the session right after hers.

That session was Jamie Poissant and Antonya Nelson. They read from their short story collections, very strange and funny stories, and talked about what it takes to get a collection of short stories published. Jamie’s such a great guy and I’m so glad he’s had so much success. Seeing him again really made me miss those writing workshops.

The following day, Saturday, I saw Brock Clarke, my old workshop teacher, read from and talk about his new book The Happiest People in the World. I’m excited to read it. It’s about spies in a small town and seems like a perfect subject for Brock’s sometimes off-the-wall style. Brock was so kind and interested in what I’ve been doing for the past 6 years. Coincidentally, I also met Trenton Lee Stewart, a friend of Brock’s who’d come up from Little Rock to get together. We talked briefly about author-read audiobooks, and I didn’t even realize that he was the author of the Mysterious Benedict Society books until afterward.

After saying good-bye to Brock, I sat in on Gary Sheytengart’s reading from his memoir Little Failure. It’s about his childhood and his family’s journey from Russia to the US in the 70’s. He’s just as funny as you’d expect.

On Sunday, the only event I went to was Lev Grossman. He got to hold forth in the big auditorium. He talked about how he wrote his Magicians trilogy with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe on one side of his desk, and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen on the other, which makes a lot of sense. I did get to ask him my question about parenting and balancing that with writing. He quoted someone who said that books are written with time stolen from other people. A painful truth. When he signed my book I told him that his books were the ones I’d always wanted to write, and he said he felt the same when he read certain other books like American Gods. Very reassuring.

Now I have 5 signed books that I need to read, added to the top of the endless pile!

Gone Girl: The Movie

My husband and I took a rare date night to see Gone Girl, against the advice of some people who said it would make us doubt our marriage and look at each other differently. Spoilers ahead.

The movie is a very faithful adaptation of the book, so I largely had the same reactions to it that I had to my original reading of the book. There were two changes I noted. The context for the amazing ‘cool girl’ speech was changed. In the book, it’s part of Amy’s diary, presented to the reader before we know that Amy has faked her disappearance. So readers are primed to sympathize with it, and it is very sympathetic indeed. But in the movie, it’s a voiceover while Amy drives away from her life with Nick. Knowing that the woman saying these things is twisted enough to frame her husband for her murder changes our view of them entirely and takes away the ring of truth I found in them originally.

The other change is that I thought the ending of the book was somewhat happier in that it presented an upside of Nick being trapped in his marriage with Amy. It showed how Nick was given the chance to redeem himself through devotion to a loveless marriage and his child. Finally he has a chance to be the good guy, and it really seems like he’s going to live up to it. This interpretation of the ending seemed missing in the movie.

I had the same problem with the movie that I had with the book: no one ever voices the idea of how rare it is for women to lie about rape, or says how reasonable it is for cops to suspect the husband of murder because that’s so frequently who it is. I guess just showing the incredibly intricate plotting Amy has to do to overcome the inherent doubt people have of rape victims’ stories is supposed to make this message clear, but again, if that’s the point, ideally I’d like it made explicit.

I will say that I thought the casting was absolutely perfect. In the book Nick Dunne describes himself as looking like a total tool, like a douchebag ex-frat guy, looking smarmy when he doesn’t mean to. Ben Affleck and the awkward handsomeness of his inappropriate smile: inspired.

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Some reviews of the movie I read said some smart things I thought worth sharing. Megan Garber in The Atlantic says it’s a horror story about the known unknown of marriage. Since we can never predict how our partners will change as life unfolds, we never know if we’ll be stuck with someone who will turn us into our worst selves, and that is a really really scary idea. Alyssa Rosenberg says, “part of the fascination of “Gone Girl” is that Amy Elliot Dunne is the only fictional character I can think of who might be accurately described as simultaneously misogynist and misandrist.” On Vox, Todd Van Der Werff calls the movie feminist because of a painstaking analysis of shot composition and the way Amy takes control of the narrative and ‘wins.’

Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins says the movie adaptation makes the story more misogynistic than the book because it takes away most of the focus from Amy and gives it to Nick. She also includes a quote from Gillian Flynn that puts her writing in the context of the debate about female characters and likeability: “I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes … not chilly WASP mothers … not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some.” This review includes a great summary of the ways this book/movie can be interpreted: “Depending on your reading of Gone Girl, the book — to borrow some of its language — is either (a) a gothic portrait of marriage; (b) a confession of a mythically unstable woman; (c) a misandrist revenge fantasy; or (d) a misogynistic summary of all the ways that a woman can falsely accuse a man.” I think that’s the reason I’ve been fascinated by the story, there’s so many ways to look at it and see something new. Like a car accident, I can’t look away.