The Vanishers

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits 

The Vanishers is a bit of a mindfuck. Julia, the protagonist, is a student of parapsychology, which is basically about the practice of ESP, and making contact with the dead. She’s got mother issues because hers committed suicide when she was a baby, and her mentor seems like a replacement mother figure, until she rejects her protegee in an Evil Queen/Snow White – type move. Julia then becomes mysteriously ill and considers herself a victim of “psychic attack.” There is an academic who wants to use Julia’s talents to find out about an avant garde filmmaker, and there are “surgical impersonators,” people who have plastic surgery so that they look like people who have died, and then try to insinuate themselves into those people’s lives. All of these elements mix together into a tense, suspenseful mystery that makes readers question the nature of perception and how we can ever be sure that we know what we think we know.

Honestly, listening to this novel in my car I probably missed some of the intricacies of the detailed plot. It felt circular, and it was very much about mothers and daughters and the many ways relationships between women can be poisoned. One of my favorite lines was a mother talking to Julia about her daughter, saying that  a mother watches her daughter become her younger self, but the worst parts of her, the parts she hates most about herself. That moment was a pretty bleak picture of motherhood, but it was also the kind of line you remember a long time.

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The Valley of Horses

The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

This book is a sequel to The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I mostly enjoyed when I read it last month. It follows Ayla, a prehistoric young human woman who was raised by “the clan,” a race called the “flatheads” by humans of the day. I think we’d call them Neanderthals today, or some other non homo sapiens hominid. At the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is ostracized from the clan, and leaves determined to survive. This narrative is split between Ayla and Jondalar, a human man on a journey, who of course eventually meets up with Ayla and falls in love with her.

My main criticisms of the book are that it is too long and full of too much tedious anthropological detail. It took too long for Jondalar to reach Ayla, too long for them to fall in love, and too long for them to decide to leave the valley together. There are many overly meticulous descriptions of how Ayla and Jondalar make tools, clothes, and medicines. Several Stone-Age innovations are introduced, and the technology is interesting, but it strains credulity to think that the same person first domesticated horses, used flint to start a fire, and invented a spear thrower.

The tribe that Jondalar comes from, the Zelandoni, is a much more positive culture than the clan, especially for women. The clan worships totems, male animal spirits; the Zelandoni worship Donii, an earth mother goddess. The clan doesn’t allow women to hunt, the Zelandoni do. Clan women are submissive; Zelandoni women are respected leaders. The clan has no concept of sexual consent for women, who are expected to always be sexually available for men to “relieve their needs”; for the Zelandoni sex is “sharing pleasure” and showing reverance to the mother goddess. Virginity and first orgasm is such a big deal to the Zelandoni that they ritualize it, while among the clan Ayla’s first time was a rape. (Sex is presented in this book as something that everyone must be taught to do for the first time by an experienced partner. Apparently two virgins couldn’t just figure it out on their own.) Human Ayla doesn’t fit in the clan because she has instincts to do things like talk, sing and laugh, which the clan people never do. It’s pretty obvious which values system is supposed to be better. As oversimplified and black-and-white as this contrast is, I appreciated learning about the enlightened Zelandoni after being stuck so long with Ayla in the claustrophobic, oppressive, misogynistic clan.

I got annoyed with the way Jondalar is presented as a total stud. He’s constantly inundated with women offering themselves to him, including virgins. All the women he meets on his journey want him, but for some plot-convenient reason, he’s unable to fall in love until he meets Ayla.

As the book ends, Ayla and Jondalar have left the valley and met a new tribe of people. I’m interested to see what these people will think of her, and if she’ll ever meet her old clan again. The more the worldviews of these two groups can be brought into conflict, the better.

Bitterblue

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue continues the Graceling series, which also includes a book called Fire. I’ve really enjoyed all three of these books. Each of these books have a different protagonist, but in Bitterblue, the main characters from the other book make important appearances. I would recommend reading both Fire and Graceling before Bitterblue, but the order in which you read Fire and Graceling doesn’t matter much.

The world of these novels is full of political intrigue and magical powers. People with two different colored eyes are called “gracelings” and have various supernatural or unusual abilities: survival, mind-reading, memory, camouflage. In a neighboring kingdom, there are “monsters,” human and beast, with iridescent hair that attracts others and can influence them insidiously.

Bitterblue is the name of the fifteen-year-old Queen of Monsea, a kingdom recovering from years of tyranny and horrific abuse under her father, a sociopath who had mind-control powers. Much of the young queen’s time is spent masquerading as a commoner outside the castle, puzzling out codes, and uncovering a conspiracy to cover up what happened in Leck’s reign. There are several mysteries to solve, which lead to some good action scenes and plenty of suspense. The entire populace, especially the queen’s advisors and closest allies, has been under Leck’s spell for so long, that they no longer really want to wake up and acknowlege the horrors they saw and in some cases were forced to commit while under Leck’s control. It’s a great commentary on what happens when the government distorts the truth.

Bitterblue is a strong, positive character, a traumatized girl trying to do the right thing with more power than she knows how to wield.  She’s a strong heroine who makes judicious decisions and smart deductions, who delegates her power and uses her allies and advisors well, who defends herself and her kingdom, who is fair and wise, but also kind, vulnerable, and emotionally open. She’s both believable and admirable, a combination that’s not always easy to pull off. Cashore seems to have done a skilfull balancing act in creating this character. She’s feminist because she’s a great example to girls of how a woman can be a great leader.

This sex-positive series really is unusual in YA lit. There is a frank discussion of birth control and a long-term committed couple who never want to marry. There is a gay couple presented sympathetically; their relationship is difficult because close-minded parents and rules of succession keep them apart. Bitterblue falls in love with a thief, and they have comforting sex that has no real negative emotional consequences but necessitates a bit of sneaking around. Their relationship is left at loose ends at the book’s conclusion; niether is willing to give up a chosen future for the other. That’s a really unusual ending for a YA romance. I’d be really interested to see what might happen if later books in the series bring these two characters back.

Feast of Fools

Feast of Fools by Rachel Caine

I’ve said before that the Morganville Vampires series is one of the better Twilight copycats out there. It has a strong heroine, menacing villains, shifting alliances, plenty of suspense, and decent mysteries. However, it does suffer from the endless-series problem that the Southern Vampire Mysteries also has.

In the first half of the book I was kind of annoyed with the cliched dynamic between almost-seventeen Claire and her overprotective parents, who ironically haven’t protected her from much of anything. There’s an awkward and overdone scene where her father goes on about how he’s not comfortable having his daughter living in a house with two slightly older guys, and she needs to move home with them immediately. Of course, boyfriend Shane’s respect is the only reason they haven’t had sex yet, because Claire sure is raring to go, so dad’s disapproval is misdirected. And of couse Mr. Model Boyfriend is perfectly polite while being called a future rapist. This scene didn’t really add anything to the plot and was absolutely ridiculous. What kind of father actually says these things to his daughter in front of her friends in a public place in 2009? Then as soon as this conversation is over, the characters are swept up in the action, and it’s forgotten. This scene had no business surviving the first draft.

There are too many scenes about Claire and Shane’s mutual sexual frustration. The making out is not described in a very interesting way. I got tired of hearing them both groaning about how hard it is to stop. (You know what? I’ve been there, and it’s actually not all that hard to not have sex. Sorry to destroy 80% of your romantic tension, YA writers.) Claire feels guilty about the fact that Shane gets sooo turned on but stops himself because he’s so honorable and she’s definitely jailbait, and the text doesn’t interrogate that feeling at all. She has no reason to feel guilty of course. The only reason she does is that she’s absorbed cultural messages about how martyringly difficult it is for a guy to not have sex once he’s aroused, which of course is bullshit. The text should make that clear, though the limited POV might make that technically challenging.

Claire is showing signs of attraction to her friend Michael the vampire, which may be laying groundwork for her to have a relationship with him later in the series.  I see no reason for her to have a relationship with Michael, unless dramatic possibilities just start running out, as the book contract outlives the book ideas, and romantic pairings have to get shaken up just to make something happen. If these little moments of noticing Michael’s hotness are not about foreshadowing, then they’re just about reminding the reader that Michael is incredibly hot, which has really bothered me in other books because it is boring. The only other possible interpretation I can think of is that Claire is in the middle of a sexual awakening, and noticing men’s bodies in general for the first time  because of that. The fact that she also checks out Myrnin supports this theory; the paucity of comparisons to Shane detracts from it.

On top of these other weird sexual things going on in the book, there’s a new evil female vampire in town who’s got her eyes on Shane. Her scenes just seem implausibly theatrical. Claire witnesses this lady practically humping Shane in the middle of the grocery store. For real. She uses mind control or something. He feels all dirty and violated afterward. When he’s forced to escort her to a costume party, she makes him dress as a submissive in leather and a leash. It’s kind of interesting how these interactions feminize Shane, but that doesn’t make them any more believable. I think they’re also supposed to arrouse Claire’s jealousy, but they don’t really. She doesn’t really beat herself up or compare herself to the vampire the way that Bella Swan would. She understands that he doesn’t want this seductress, and is more concerned that Shane might get raped by her or something. That clearheadedness makes me like Claire even more, but doesn’t keep me from wondering, “WTF?”

I think it was soon after that grocery store scene that Michael gave a concert in a coffee shop and had all these girls falling over him too. By that time I was starting to get sick of all the women falling all over these two guys, and all the tantalizing hints of oh-so-forbidden sex. It was overkill, and again, it didn’t advance the plot.

Obviously, the weakness of this book was its sexual issues. The strength of this book, and the series, is the suspense from the mystery of Claire figuring out what’s going on in this dangerous vampire-run town and using clever strategies and pluck to survive. In this book, there’s a powerful new vampire in town who’s threatening all kinds of people. There’s a party coming up that seems both exciting and sinister. Myrnin is cryptic. Characters do inexplicable things, and Claire tries do figure them out. There are chess metaphors. When the series focuses away from sex and relationships and onto power dynamics, it’s at its best.

In the first half of the book I was considering giving up the series. But the exciting action and inevitable cliffhanger got me by the end. I’ll give Morganville at least one more shot.

28

I’m turning 28 today. 28 feels much older than 27. It’s firmly grounded in the last quarter of the decade, rather than the third, which can still be considered “middle.” I’m officially finished with my mid-twenties and have moved on to “late.” Eek.

Being in your late twenties is a whole different ball game from your mid twenties. That’s what they tell us anyway. In your mid twenties it’s ok if you’re still figuring things out, but by 27.5 you’re starting to run out of time for that kind of childish dillydallying. You’re supposed to be settling down and bracing yourself for the supreme personal and professional effort you’ll be making in the next decade. How intimidating and non-exciting is that does that sound? Now, I don’t like “shoulds” and “supposed tos,” or the idea that changing paths means you’ve “wasted time,” or the pressure to stick to arbitrary timelines others set for us. I don’t even think that figuring yourself out is a life task that anyone completely finishes ever. But at the same time, we do only get so much time on earth. Milestones can be a useful reminder to check up on yourself and make sure that you’re doing what you need to be doing in order to accomplish what you want to do in this one lifetime you get.

When I think of life in terms of checking things off a list, it seems like I’m doing pretty well:

  1. Graduate from college
  2. Buy used car with cash
  3. Get MA degree
  4. Move out of Mom and Dad’s and to another city
  5. Begin “realistic” career
  6. Buy house
  7. Get married
  8. Get MAT degree
  9. Find a good workplace to stay in long-term
  10. Begin fulfilling personal project/hobby

Not bad for 8 years, right? My path has been pretty traditional, as this list shows. I guess I’ve concentrated my energy on arranging things that make my life stable and secure. But that doesn’t sound like a daring and exciting way to live, does it? Checking things off a list? What about spontaneity, what about passion, what about the random fun things people do when they’re young? Well, I do have plenty of passion in # 7, 9 and 10 from my list, thanks. But I also have a lot of unfulfilled, amorphous ambition inside. I have an informal bucket list of places to go and things to do, some of which are frivolous (vacations, dessert parties, maintaining my looks), and some of which are big and scary (children, book, PhD). My hope now is that this stability and security will allow me to do these important things, the silly and the daunting, instead of tying me down and making them impossible, or making me choose between them, which is always the fear of the 20-year-old thinking about her next decade.

Since my birthday is in June, the years of my life are synced to the school year. I judge a passing year by the academic calendar, not the Gregorian. This year I helped 66 students get 103 half-credits, and 57 of them graduated in either December or May. My part of enabling their success is something I’m proud of, and why I enjoy teaching at my school so much. I would not choose to teach summer school if I didn’t like being there.

This blog is one of the things I did this year that I’m most proud of. It has kept me intellectually engaged in some of the issues that mean most to me. It’s only been five and a half months, and my audience is still woefully small, but I am proud of myself for keeping up with it and posting over a hundred times. I’ve reviewed over 50 books so far. I do feel that I’ve made a strong start in articulating an aesthetic, which was the goal I set for myself when I started the blog. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve started to notice some patterns in my own responses, which I hope to write about soon.

Next year, I really want to improve the blog–its readership and its technical side. I know that I could be doing more to promote and spruce up the site, but I’ve been putting all the energy into writing so far, plus I don’t know how do deal with these issues (yet). I also want to deepen my teaching. “21st century skills” and “project-based learning” are new buzzwords, but some of the things I’ve been reading about these concepts actually excite me quite a bit because they resonate with the part of my heart that I left at my liberal arts college. I have a nice rhythm going in my teaching now, but a little creative disruption would be good to avoid complacency. I also have a couple other personal goals for this year that I prefer to keep secret until I’ve achieved them.

Today I will be teaching summer school–I think it’s the first time in my life, second at most, that I’ve ever worked on my birthday. Then I’ll be having sushi and wine with a couple girlfriends. Then we might just get some frozen yogurt. Tomorrow I’ll leave town to see family and celebrate a wedding shower with a pool party that will probably remind me of shared birthday parties at the pool in Ludlow complete with Little Mermaid plates and napkins. Later next week David will take me out for Italian food at the restaurant we ate at the night he proposed. We bought ourselves a camera as a joint birthday present (his birthday is next month). Maybe the camera will also be a tool to enrich the blog. Here’s the first of I hope many shots, me turning 28.

Elsewhere

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

When 15-year-old Liz dies in a car accident, she goes to Elsewhere. In Elsewhere, the dead age backwards as they bide their time until they can be reborn again on Earth. Liz comes to terms with the end of her life on Earth and falls in love with an ex-fireman who also died too young. Things get a little more complicated when his wife from Earth dies too.

The conceit of Elsewhere seemed to me a particularly elegant way to talk about fraught spiritual/supernatural issues like the afterlife. It seemed obvious that Zevin isn’t making any kind of argument that life and death really work this way. Rather than trying to be believable, Zevin created a whimsical afterlife with logical rules and quaint bureaucracy. She also didn’t dabble in questions of faith that are bound to alienate some readers, or speculate about God, things that annoyed me in other books.

My biggest complaint is that things were too easy in Elsewhere. People seemed to get over the trauma of being dead fairly simply. Liz did spend a lot of time whining about missing her old life, but it came off as brattiness rather than true mourning. Everything just worked out too neatly. People paired off, and problems got solved without me thinking for an instant that they wouldn’t. The side characters, especially the talking dogs, were too cute. The overall tone of the book was too cheery for its subject matter.

For that reason, I say this is one YA book that doesn’t survive the crossover to adult readership. It’s fine and nice, good clean fun, satisfying for young readers who haven’t had much experience with death.

Bitter Is the New Black

Bitter Is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-centered Smart-ass, or Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office by Jen Lancaster

This is a book that depends almost entirely on voice as its selling point. If you like Jen Lancaster’s way of talking and her character, then you’ll like the book. If not, you’ll hate it. She’s over-the-top and bitchy, and downright mean at times. She’s telling off the world.  I can see the appeal of her brashness, but mostly I found it annoying.

Much of the book is concerned with Lancaster’s almost 2-year job hunt. Some of the things that happened to her on that job search were definitely really shitty. I felt for her in those moments. I sympathize with almost all unemployed people and always assume it’s not their fault until proven otherwise. I believed that she worked harder and had better ideas than most people, but I’m sure I’m not the only reader who cheered when her abrasiveness bit her in the ass in her job hunt–she’d burned bridges all over.

I’ve said before that descriptions of high-end clothes and products aren’t my thing. Jen Lancaster is obsessed with them, though, so they’re name-dropped all over her book. It fit her character, and it was central to the conflict, but it still annoyed me. By the end, the book becomes pretty anti-materialist, as Lancaster looks at all of the stuff she’s bought over the years and thinks about how much money she spent, and what that money would have bought now, when she needs it for rent and groceries. That’s a good message. I just thought it was absurd how long it took her to get to it. This is a 400-page book, but it would have been better at 200-250 pages. Several side stories could have been cut: the wedding seemed like a side diversion, as well as the vignette about picking up a marathon packet for a friend and feeling like a big fatty.

Mostly, I just found her privilege incomprehensible and her entitlement grating. The way Lancaster insisted that she deserved all of the amazing things she had was deluded and childish. Toward the end, she talks about how she used to get her self-worth from her clothes and apartment; maybe if she could have shown us some vulnerability in the beginning, letting us know that this is all a mask for pain, it would be easier to sympathize. The closest we come is a story from her teenage years about getting made fun of in the school paper. Considering how richly she deserved to be mocked, it’s hard to take her side. Overall, her confidence is airtight and the book is worse for it.

Maybe my problem is that I just can’t understand anyone who makes discretionary purchases over $100 when unemployed. When you’re unemployed and there’s no income in sight, your wallet is on lockdown. One of the first thing Jen Lancaster did when she lost her job was buy new designer suits for interviews. Aren’t all the ones you wore to your old corporate job ok? When her husband loses his job on the same day that she’s rejected from a promising position, they go to the Four Seasons and spend $250 on cocktails. I guess I just can’t understand someone who does that, who’s so assured another job is coming that this choice seems smart. Even with Jen Lancaster’s legendary arrogance, I wouldn’t–couldn’t–do that, because to make that choice you have to have dumb trust in the universe. You have to believe that the world will recognize your brilliance because it’s an easy world to live in. And only truly privileged people can think that. I have many privileges, but not quite that many.

I didn’t really agree with her choice at the end not to take a job offer. I would have thought that after experiencing so much financial insecurity and turmoil, and living in a household without a regular paycheck for so long, she would take the chance to shore up her family’s position. After all, what if her husband lost his job again? They’d be back where they were before. She says she didn’t take the job because her values had changed, and now she wanted to focus on her writing. It seems to me that maybe her values hadn’t changed all that much. For writers, not having a day job is the ultimate privilege and status symbol. Only the best, most successful writers make enough to live on by writing, and Lancaster seems proud to flaunt that at the end. She even sends a note promoting her book to the boss that fired her. She’s still concerned with status and convinced she’s God’s gift to humanity; she’s just shifted to a different outlet: popular literature rather than the corporate ladder. It would have been much more humble and practical to take the job. If I’m really to be convinced she has learned anything by the end of this, such an audacious choice isn’t going to do it. In fact, it probably would have been more of a risk for her to have a decent, regular salary of her own, because then she’d always be tempted to splurge the way she used to. For Lancaster to stare every day at a full bank balance and walk past department stores without going in would have been like an alcoholic staring into a liquor cabinet. Maybe the truly brave choice would have been facing that temptation every day.