Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams

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This book has the biggest, most sexist plot hole I’ve ever seen. The rabbits leave their warren to start a new warren, AND THEY FORGET TO BRING ANY FEMALES. Rabbits are known for procreating quickly, so you’d think these otherwise smart little animals would have figured out the problem here a lot more quickly than they do. I don’t understand how the male rabbits could have so much time to spend together in exclusively male company when they should be having sex all the time SINCE THEY’RE RABBITS.

Of course, closing this plot hole by including females in the original group would have blown the entire second half of the book. But here’s the thing: if the plot of half your book depends on your main characters idiotically ignoring the existence of half their species, that’s a sign the plot is pretty weak to begin with.

And that’s all before I go into the way the male rabbits talked about female rabbits like objects, Macguffins, prizes to win, or, at best, princesses to rescue. I don’t even have to discuss the way this erasure of female characters perpetuates a world in which men and their stories matter more than women. Without even getting into explicitly feminist criticism, it’s clear that the plot of this book doesn’t function on a purely logical level. The book was written in 1972 so it can’t even be excused on the grounds that people were just that sexist back then.

Another aspect I didn’t like was Fiver’s prophecy stuff. It seems like it makes things too easy to have decisions made for you on high like that. Life isn’t like that for humans. Maybe it is for rabbits. Or maybe Adams needed a way to jump start the plot and get the group of rabbits to leave, and there is no other way they could have known about the human plans to destroy their warren. Again, it seemed like a weak way to structure or fuel a plot.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. The political ideas behind the two dystopian rabbit societies that Hazel and his friends encounter were interesting. There are some really nice descriptions of the natural world. I liked some of the stories-within-the-story about El-ahrairah, a trickster akin to Brer Rabbit. Some of the rabbits’ schemes were creative and interesting, especially when they convinced or used other animals to help them. The chapter from the human point of view at the end was a great touch, a disorienting reorientation. But on the whole, this book reminded me of my son’s current favorite story, The Three Little Pigs. Its plot is a house of straw: one puff and it all falls down.

City of Glass

City of Glass by Cassandra Clare

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This is the third book in the Mortal Instruments series, and it seemed to me that each one was better than the last. I don’t mean that as flattery, but as an assessment of Clare’s improvement as a writer, meaning that the first book, City of Bones, needed much improvement. The first half of this book has many of the flaws of the first book in the series, especially Jace’s pointless jerkiness and Clary’s idiotic tendency to run straight into danger without thinking. But the second half finally answered lots of questions and wrapped things up in a very satisfying way. When he’s not being an asshole, Jace is prone to making the kinds of sweeping declarations of undying love that teenage girls daydream about. It’s a series written for the kind of readers who love Twilight uncritically, but it has fewer of Twilight’s obvious issues with sexism. It also makes attempts to be more inclusive and diverse, since the plot hinges on Downworlders and Shadowhunters coming together to defeat a villain who wants to cleanse the Earth of vampires, werewolves, fairies and warlocks. There are descriptions of Alicante as full of Shadowhunters of all races, but the main characters are mostly white. One subplot involves a gay character finally coming out to his parents.

The climax had two too many near-death experiences for the two heroes. When someone is gravely injured, it increases tension, but when those injuries heal with miraculous speed, just in time to be compounded with additional life-threatening wounds, and then nobody dies, it stretches credulity and makes it all seem too easy. This novel ends in a way that rounds off the trilogy nicely. It could easily have ended for good here, but there are more books. The final chapter includes just enough deliberately planted loose ends to allow for them.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

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I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. The narrator’s voice was by far my favorite part. His wry comments on the arrogance and idiocy of the characters, and how incredibly normal their selfish actions and motivations are were the heart of the novel for me.

Becky Sharp is astonishing, a truly self-made woman, hustling to escape her obscure origins. Watching her manipulate people and get her way again and again, watching her lose everything and then claw her way back from disgrace using nothing but her charm and strategic mind–it was a wonder. Is she the first female antihero? She predates Emma Bovary by about a decade. I can’t think of an earlier-written female protagonist we love to hate. (Can you?)

I wasn’t crazy about the subplot of Becky being a bad mom. I was totally ready to buy her as nonmaternal and completely uninterested in the tasks of mothering. It would be hard to imagine her as very nurturing at all. I just wish she’d been allowed to be nonmaternal without it making her more villainous. As it was, Becky’s failure (or refusal to try) as a mother was probably her worst sin. She went beyond disinterest; her actions toward her boy veered toward abuse, and that’s when the narrator started to criticize her more than usual and talk about how nurturing is natural for women, and so Becky was unnatural. That was what bothered me the most, that commentary. She tried to use her son the way she tried to use everyone she ever met, as a tool for her own advancement. The way she treated him was entirely in line with every other thing she’d ever said and done: that’s the best apology I can make for her.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the love story plot of William Dobbin as the longsuffering nice guy, the way that dragged on as long as it did and the way it was finally resolved. Amelia’s excessive mourning was ridiculous, of course, but I didn’t like how she had to be ‘brought down’ in order to accept happiness with Dobbins, who, in that climactic confrontation, was not very “nice” at all.

Some other side characters and subplots were also amusing: the rich old aunt and her whole family scrambling to do her favors and be remembered in her will, the feuding fathers, the fat brother fresh from India. I enjoyed this book more than almost any other 19th century British novel I’ve read except Austen.

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.