The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

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This book is the third of a trilogy, so it’s mostly concerned with tying up loose ends from the two previous books. As the novel opens, the four children are living in Mr. Benedict’s compound with their families because they need protection. The Whisperer, the villain Mr. Curtain’s mind control device, is there with them as well, in a kind of limbo because no one can agree on what to do with it. (One particularly sinister possibility that’s raised is that the government may want to use it to brainwash citizens.) The action really gets started when Mr. Curtain attacks Mr. Benedict’s home and the children are captured. They follow clues and solve riddles in the same way they did in previous books, driving the action with cute little brain-teasers. Constance’s telepathy proves particularly convenient in their escape attempts.

Mr. Curtain was probably my favorite part of this book. He was really reveling in his villainy this time, circling the children eight times with his motorized wheelchair while gloating about their capture. At the climax, he recognized his defeat and even found a bit of redemption in the love and loyalty of one of his minions. The ending is about as happy as happy can be, with even Mr. Benedict’s narcolepsy cured. There are some nice morals about teamwork and personal responsibility. Everything is phrased in a light, whimsical tone, rife with wordplay and hyperbole.

I think I was somewhat less charmed by this book than I was by the previous two, perhaps because it seemed so similar to them. I feel like ideally each book in a series should have something slightly new to offer. However, I’m sure that a child reader who enjoyed the first two novels would appreciate the chance to spend more time with the characters.

Perfect Madness

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner

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I really enjoyed Perfect Madness, in the way you enjoy any nonfiction book that holds a mirror up to your life and shows you the big-picture root causes of your most stressing problems. As when I read Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?, I felt validated and reassured to read about someone a bit older and wiser than me encountering the problems of motherhood and analyzing them.

The book’s biggest flaw is that it is somewhat dated. Warner wrote it between 2000 and 2004, and it was published in 2005, while I was in college. She and her audience are at least 15-20 years older than me and my generation of young mothers, but they’re not quite old enough to be considered part of my parents’ generation. Because of this time gap between the writing and the reading, and the generation gap between author and reader, I sometimes had to think twice about exactly which women Warner meant by “our mothers” and “us.” However, I don’t believe the culture of motherhood in this country has changed much in the past decade, so Warner’s critiques are still entirely relevant. If anything, the situation for mothers has worsened through the impact of the recession on families’ economic positions, and that of social media on mommy culture. It makes me wonder what Warner thinks of Pinterest’s gallery of child crafts, decorated nurseries, and precious newborn photos, and blogs like Scary Mommy and STFU Parents.

Warner has written one of the best cease-fire pleas for the mommy wars that I’ve ever read. She truly is utterly nuetral about whether it is ‘better’ for women to stay home with children or to work, and points out that either way, it is rarely truly a “choice,” but something that women feel they must do from a sense of personal necessity. She describes primate research that observed female apes striving for status through the work of gathering food and defending territory, at the same time as they care for their young. Work didn’t take anything away from the young primates, and in fact was done for their benefit. These two parts of mothering, work and nurturing, were inseparable and natural for our ancestors. The problem is that our current inflexible workplace culture forces women to separate these two instinctive impulses.

The book’s focus on anxiety as the dominant emotion of America’s culture of motherhood made it really resonate with me. I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past, and I fear how overwhelming that feeling might become when I’m feeling it on behalf of my child instead of just myself. Warner traces the anxiety mothers feel to our winner-take-all economy, and concludes advocating for policies that would help all families, not just elite ones or poor ones.

Motherland

Motherland by Amy Sohn

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Amy Sohn must be the most observant person ever. In Motherland she has captured the anxiety, the social climbing, the money worries, the marital dysfunction, the superficiality, the selfishness, the guilt of the privileged Park Slope parents who exemplify our current culture of ideal parenting. The details that she uses to characterize this community made me feel as if I’d lived there for years. The main characters are: Karen, a mother going through a divorce, Marco, a gay recovering alcoholic raising two sons with his partner, Gottlieb, a self-involved screenwriter and father, Rebecca, a mother hiding a secret about her youngest child’s paternity, and Melora, an actress making a comeback on Broadway. Narration switches among these characters, who are connected in strange ways. The characters all do some pretty despicable things, but Sohn somehow makes most of them sympathetic anyway.

The action concentrates in Brooklyn but sometimes travels to a Cape Cod vacation spot or LA for show business subplots. It’s a pretty rarefied, privileged subculture that Sohn is documenting here; the descriptions of the characters’ lifestyles might feel over-the-top and alienating to some readers. A lot of Hollywood stars get name-dropped, but I didn’t really mind because the names were so precisely chosen and so up-to-the-minute current–they gave exactly the message that they were meant to. Sohn has her finger so tight on the pop culture pulse that she can use these references to show Melora’s and Gottlieb’s exact career trajectory, so that we understand their rises and falls in relation to other stars.

I loved the sex scenes in this book. They were so unusual, so unique to the situation and the couple, and the acts they portrayed were not always mind-blowing or even satisfying. There was such a wonderful variety of sexual experience represented: good and bad married sex, good and bad one-night stands, gay sex, fetishes, masturbation. We get to see the characters surprised by what sex brings out of them; we get to see them using sex as a tool to reach other goals or as a way to punish each other, or as an escape. Sex is presented as part of life, part of the characters’ relationships, one motivating force among many, rather than an all-consuming, static holy grail. This approach to writing sex is so much more realistic and interesting than the typical idealized erotica scene.

Given the title, it was surprising to me how little this book talked about the actual work of parenting. The children seemed like props, driving the plot through creating stress for the parents, rather than like characters in themselves. It’s a book about the relationships parents have with each other, about the problems parenting creates, and the culture that grows up around it, but not about parenting itself. When I’m a mother, I’m sure my experience won’t be anything like these characters’, and despite twinges of jealousy for their resources and cultural influence, I think I’m mostly glad about that.

The book is really funny, and Sohn’s sentences are fun to read. She reveals the absurdity in everyday life, and it comes out in the characters’ irrational but totally understandable thoughts and actions. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and felt pretty immersed in its world.

How to Think More About Sex

How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

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I generally like Alain de Botton’s accessible way of writing philosophy. I like the way he asks questions and poses problems and makes his readers think on a deeper level about everyday problems. He also does a great job of making aesthetic problems tangible or showing what the stakes are in issues of art and beauty. He uses examples from high culture and popular culture to make his points and tie things together. For example, he uses people’s varying reactions to art as a way to understand why we find certain people more attractive than others.

This book did focus a lot on fairly stereotypical problems of love and sex, like a middle-aged woman’s loss of interest in sex with her husband, or a man’s obsession with pornography. The mini-stories he tells about unoriginal situations like these were not as interesting as the fundamental questions and reflections that sprung from them. Some of his conclusions sounded a little bizarre–like, “Impotence is at base, then, a symptom of respect, a fear of causing displeasure,”–but his process of reaching them seemed entirely logical and sound, so the effect is playful. He is rather pessimistic about the possibility of lasting love and faithful marriage, but phrases his depressing conclusions in uplifting ways. If nothing else, the title is a fair description: de Botton did make me think more deeply and systematically about sex, and I think that’s always a good thing.

The Atlantis Complex

The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

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In this 6th book of the series, Artemis Fowl has a mental condition called the Atlantis complex, which has some OCD-like symptoms, including an obsession with lucky and unlucky numbers, along with a hidden personality named Orion that comes out. Orion stirs up drama by trying to court Holly in a dramatic, over-the-top way, bringing up more “shippy” awkwardness that seemed to have been settled in the last book. The main cause for his illness seems to be regret and guilt from his past misdeeds. I wasn’t crazy about the way Artemis’s condition made him weak and vulnerable in this volume. I’m most interested in him when he’s a criminal mastermind pulling strings and hatching brilliant plans.

All of that is in the middle of getting attacked by robots from a fairy space probe, diving into an ocean trench, and escaping from a riot of zombified luchador fans. The villain is Turnbull Root, an escaped convict who tries to kidnap the powerful demon from a previous volume to bring back his dying human wife’s youth.

I’m looking forward to finally picking up my signed copy of The Last Guardian, the final book in the series. I’m hoping that Minerva comes back and the romantic issues between Artemis and Holly are laid to rest. I like them better as friends, and I don’t say that often.

The Other Queen

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

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I always enjoy Philippa Gregory’s historical novels on the women of the British monarchy. She focuses on the women that the historical record usually neglects, and I always feel like I’ve learned something after reading her books. Her narrators have distinctive voices, and are melodramatic or humorous as the situation and their personalities permit.

The focus of this novel is on Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned and eventually executed by Elizabeth I. Mary was Elizabeth’s second cousin, heir to the English throne and a Catholic. She was married three times, and the subject of The novel switches among three points of view: Queen Mary, Bess of Hardwicke, and her husband George, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Bess and George are asked by Queen Elizabeth to keep Queen Mary at their estate, and the expense nearly bankrupts them. Queen Mary keeps scheming, writing secret letters to supporters to try to muster a rebellion to return her to her throne, and she nearly succeeds.

The relationships of the three narrators are fraught with drama and tension. The conflict is presented as between a younger woman and an older one, with the man caught between them. Bess is a businesswoman, mercenary and practical, delighting in her houses and lands. George is a romantic, charmed by Mary’s beauty and spirit, but a bit of a patronizing snob. Mary is concerned only with regaining her freedom, and is willing to exploit George’s feelings to achieve her goals. The couple’s loyalties are split between the two queens, while their resources are exhausted by paying to host Mary’s court. Their marriage ultimately ends, as much as was possible at the time. It’s kind of a happy ending, or at least a relief, for Bess when she is finally free of her husband’s debts and she has full control of her own lands again. Bess isn’t an especially appealing character, thanks to her materialism and her constant harping on money, but in some ways she achieves many feminist goals through freeing herself from a bad marriage and establishing herself independent of her husband. She recognizes the marriages of the period for what they are, and works within the legal framework to make sure that she can provide for herself and her children. At the end of the book, she calls herself a new kind of woman, and I think that’s true. The Elizabethan Age was an important time for proto-feminism.

I was slightly troubled by the presentation of Queen Mary’s relationship with Bothwell, her third husband, who never appears in person in this novel because he is also imprisoned, far away, but who is a strong presence in Mary’s mind. She speaks of him admiringly, worshipfully, as the only man strong enough to help her return to her throne. At one point, Mary says he raped her, and at another she says she enticed him. Perhaps some of this ambiguity comes from the historical record itself, and the fact that Gregory is interpreting and inventing a fictional relationship inspired by mere fragments and rumors of a real one. As if that weren’t confusing enough, Mary describes their lovemaking this way:

“No,” I say as his weight comes down on me. It is what I always say to him. It is the word which means desire to me, to us. It is the word which means yes: “No.”

I honestly didn’t know what to make of this. I think that in real life, consent always needs to be crystal clear. The idea of a woman who gives mixed messages on whether or not she was raped in the past and whether or not she’s consenting to a present sexual encounter has been used too many times to excuse or dismiss rape charges. In fact, Mary herself gives a startlingly progressive speech about rape culture and how victims are blamed. Is it possible that a complex literary character may express her dysfunctional attitudes about sexuality without promoting rape culture in the world outside of the book? I don’t know. I think it’s potentially dangerous, and problematic, and worth talking about. But that’s all I’ve got so far. I’m stumped.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

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This YA novel is about a guy who struggles with anxiety and depression after getting in to a prestigious New York high school. 15-year-old Craig studies like crazy for the entrance test, gets a perfect score, then is overwhelmed by the workload at the school and the expectations for his future. His descriptions of anxious thoughts dragging him down like “tentacles” and of his search for “anchors,” solid, positive activities and people that bring him back to reality, were believable and sympathetic. The biggest strength of the novel is probably Craig’s voice itself.

I really related to Craig and his desperation; I’ve had a taste of his anxiety, and the situation that triggered it felt familiar to me as well. It’s funny how a bit of success can produce more anxiety, as pressure to continue to perform mounts. Imposter syndrome sets in. Small setbacks feel insurmountable, the future turns into a disaster waiting to happen, and the urge to procrastinate becomes irresistible. I know basically how all that feels, and Vizzini did a great job capturing it.

The first third or so of the book is the strongest part, as we watch Craig descend into depression and describe his feelings in an articulate, but realistic way. I especially liked the understatedly hilarious conversation he had over the suicide hotline, and the way everyone kept congratulating him for going to the hospital. Once Craig arrives at the mental hospital, however, things seem to get too happy and too easy for him, too quickly. There are some stereotypes of mental patients (the transexual character who hits on Craig is the worst example), and Craig’s “count your blessings” revelation when faced with the suffering of the other, less privileged patients is kind of trite. He eventually starts to feel better through expressing himself artistically and through doing small good deeds for the other patients. Lots of warm fuzzy feelings. When drama from outside starts to intrude on the happiness of the ward, helpful therapists talk Craig down from catastrophizing. They explain away the stigma of mental illness in a way that’s all too simple, and not very realistic considering that a high school’s rumor mill isn’t very PC. In general, in making things too easy, I thought that this book did for depression, anxiety, and mental illness what Wonder did for physical deformities: Disneyfied the issue.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

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I immensely enjoyed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, so I was glad to pick up the sequel so quickly. This one picks up with September back in Nebraska, trying and failing to be normal after her extraordinary experiences in Fairyland. She’s overjoyed when she gets to return, but she finds things are not the same. One important loose end left over from the first book was the fact that September had bartered her shadow away while in Fairyland and returned without it. It turns out that her shadow has been busy making the most of her new freedom. Most of this book takes place in Fairyland-Below, where the shadow selves of many Fairyland inhabitants hold nightly revels. It’s interesting to discover through the narrative how these shadow selves are different but similar to their ‘real’ selves. Just as in psychology, they’re what we repress, or don’t let ourselves do, what we deny.  The main conflict seems to be that September knows she must rejoin with her shadow, but the shadow doesn’t want to give up her freedom.

This book, while still a children’s novel, seems a bit more grown-up than the last one. September is now 13, and there are hints of her budding sexuality, including her first kiss and ball gown. She has lots of questions about what she might be when she grows up and looks around at all of the people she meets to find out how they figured out what to do with their lives.

There are many more of the same technicolor descriptions, metafictional moments, and wry narrator that made the first book so delightful. September is as plucky and determined as ever, a truly admirable heroine. She’s a role model for child readers not because she’s perfect, but because she learns from her mistakes, because she uses her brain and heart to overcome problems, because she takes responsibility for her actions, and because she experiences profound doubt and guilt and goes on anyway. I found out that Catherynne Valente has written some fairy tales for adults, so I’m glad to add those books to my reading list!

Scarlet

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

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I enjoyed Cinder and its futuristic dystopia retelling of Cinderella, with the heroine as a cyborg princess from the moon, who’s also an expert mechanic. This sequel introduces a new character, Scarlet, an avatar of Red Riding Hood, while continuing Cinder’s adventures through alternating points of view. As with the first book, the connection between the fairy tale and this retelling is weak, based on a few key details: Scarlet’s red hoodie sweatshirt, her grandmother, an intriguing but dangerous man named Wolf. The strange, threatening setting takes center stage as a shadowy gang of “wolves” working for the villainess, Lunar Queen Levana, attack cities all over the world.

The Scarlet/Wolf relationship brings up a lot of the same issues I’ve seen raised in analyses of Beauty and the Beast as an abusive relationship. Wolf lies to her and manipulates her into putting herself in danger, but she ultimately forgives him. He appears to fall quickly and deeply in love with her, and wants to protect her, but is constrained by his position in the Lunar organization of “wolf” soldiers. There is a moment when he comes close to harming her, thanks to the mind control that he’s under, but he resists. I don’t find the story objectionable, probably because it’s mostly pretty delicately handled, and Scarlet does a good job of standing up for herself.

The action in this book is nonstop: Cinder and another jailbird, Thorne, escape prison and evade capture, while Scarlet and Wolf take a dangerous train to Paris in search of her grandmother. Both girls fight for their lives and work to solve the mysteries of Levana’s plans and Scarlet’s grandmother’s connection to Cinder. Eventually, the two meet and team up against Levana. The novel ends with Cinder coming to terms with her identity as the Lunar heir and setting out a plan to defeat the evil queen. It’s an exciting series that’s fun to read and has a nice dash of romance. I’m looking forward to the next novel in the series!

The Shelters of Stone

The Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel

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I’ve been frustrated with this series since I began reading it. Before, I was annoyed with its horrible sex scenes, the way it novelizes evolutionary psychology, and its plodding sociological and ecological descriptions. The frustration in this installment was somewhat different. This time I was bothered the most by the lack of conflict. This was particularly surprising and disappointing given how much the Zelandonii prejudice against the Clan had been built up in previous books. I had expected Jondalar to have to choose between his own mother and Ayla or something. But no, Auel couldn’t seem to stand to make things that hard for her characters. The book mostly consisted of a bunch of anecdotes of Ayla solving problems for the Zelandonii tribe, introducing her new technologies and being her perfect self. They go to the summer meeting and have their wedding and their baby. Happy, happy times. In addition to her usual miraculous healing abilities, Ayla seemed to become a kind of social worker, organizing women to nurse a child whose mother wasn’t able and arranging for a crippled boy to learn a trade. The worst thing that happened was some bullying and jeering from jealous but ultimately powerless rivals. Much of the novel repeated vignettes from previous books in the series, as Ayla and Jondalar shared their histories and adventures with his people. Presumably this information is included to catch up a latecoming reader, regardless of how boring a faithful one would find them.

Before their matrimonial, Ayla and the other young brides have a little sex ed/marriage prep class with the priestess. I think the leader’s advice is meant to be liberal and practical, but since I’m sensitive about this kind of thing, of course a few statements rubbed me the wrong way. The priestess emphasizes that “sharing pleasures with your mate is not required,” but makes a point of telling the women that their men won’t like it if they refuse. The marriages are only loosely monogamous; there is no notion of adultery or social sanction against it. There are occasional ceremonies and feasts in which couples frequently pair off with others besides their mates, and the women are cautioned against jealousy. It doesn’t seem like the men get any similar warnings. After the speech from the priestess, Ayla muses about how the Clan is similar, but really they could not be more different, especially on the issue of consent. Ayla astonishes the others by telling about her magic birth control tea.

There is a song that the priestesses sing about the creation several times in the story, and each time the entire song is repeated, even though it’s the same each time. And Auel is no poet. It’s not like language has been a particular focus for any of these novels, so I didn’t expect any better. If language were a focus, the novels wouldn’t read like textbooks. Descriptions are often cliched and never surprising or striking. I feel like I would not have missed out on anything if I’d read only a Cliff’s Notes version of the story, just summaries of each chaper, and that’s a sign that a book doesn’t have strong enough language. It’s also a sign that a book shouldn’t be over 700 pages.

Toward the end of the book, Ayla becomes more and more convinced that sex and reproduction are connected, and spreads the idea to the tribe’s priestess, who tells her to keep quiet about it. This has always been an aspect of the society that made no sense to me, and that I find implausible when I find it in other places. Here’s an article explaining that humans have pretty much always known that sex makes babies, ever since we could be called human.

I’m really glad to be almost finished with this series. If the next volume doesn’t bring us some culture clash, and hopefully show us Ayla’s old Clan, then I’ll put it on my list of books I recommend others don’t bother with.