Kindred

Kindred by Octavtia E. Butler

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Octavia E. Butler is one of very few African-American women who began writing science fiction in the 1970s. This is her first novel. I enjoyed it, but I think it’s not quite as good as The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents, her later futuristic dystopian novels.

Kindred is about an African-American woman from the 1970s who is abruptly and suddenly transported to 1819 Maryland. The reasons for this time travel are never quite clear. To me, this seemed somewhat clumsy on Butler’s part, but the novel’s focus is less on the transport itself than on what Dana learns while she is in the antebellum South. She saves the life of a plantation owner’s son and becomes ensconced in that family. The most interesting parts of the book are the explorations of her fraught relationship with the boy whose life she saved as he grows and takes responsibility for his father’s plantation and slaves. Her role in the past is complicated by the fact that she knows this boy is one of her own ancestors, through a child he fathers with a slave woman. Dana also gets to know many of the slaves, and the internal politics of their society are fascinating. There are some brutally violent scenes, of course. It’s a revealing exploration of the twisted psychology of slavery.

Likeable Characters

Do characters have to be likeable? Is there more pressure on female characters to be likeable, and more pressure on female writers to write likeable characters? Is this an issue of genre, of high and low culture, of literature versus popular fiction?

In an interview about her new book, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud was asked about the fact that her female protagonist is not very likeable. Here’s her response:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?

Messud got a lot of attention for this answer, mostly positive. It’s a pretty appealing and articulate denunciation of a double standard, a nice statement of what’s important in a character and what’s not.

Jennifer Weiner responded to Messud’s prickly answer with an article of her own called “I Like Likeable Characters.” Now, Weiner has plenty of feminist cred in my book for her involvement in the annual VIDA Count, which keeps tabs on how many women vs. men are published and reviewed in the country’s best literary magazines, and I respect her for that. Here’s her main point:

What bothers me about this latest flare-up is that it feels like just one more way for literary women writers to dismiss commercially successful women writers. … Calling a novel’s characters the L-word doesn’t just imply that the author in question is writing like a girl; it hints that she is writing like the wrong kind of girl—a dumb, popular, easy girl.

So on the one hand, we have women writers who are insisting—repeatedly, at top volume—that their books are real writing, “serious literary endeavors,” and holding up their unlikable characters as evidence. On the other hand, we have writers being urged by their agents and editors to make their characters more likable, in the interest of sales.

I think for the most part Weiner is reacting against the percieved elitism in Messud’s remarks. Weiner is someone who seems to have borne the brunt of a lot of literary snobbishness, so I think her sensitivity is somewhat understandable. Weiner has some criticisms of Messud’s character and writing that go far beyond the issue of likeability; I’ve added the book to my reading list so hopefully I’ll be able to weigh in someday on the validity of those criticisms. It may be somewhat arrogant of Messud to implicitly compare her character to those of Nabokov and Shakespeare, but I do think she had a good point in calling the interviewer out. I think she’s right that a male writer would not have been asked this question, and a female writer might not have been asked this question about a male character. For example, Hilary Mantel probably hasn’t been asked about whether she considers Thomas Cromwell to be likeable.

Women are socialized to be likeable above all else: the best part of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was her exposition of this expectation and her strategies for dealing with it. I think it’s only reasonable to observe that this pressure to people-please translates into literature and to the way we read female characters. We expect female characters to conform to sexist ideas of what a woman should be, and are surprised and put off when they don’t. It’s easy to see why Messud got so much applause for pointing out this reality. She put into words what we’ve all been thinking and experiencing. Perhaps some women readers are socialized by schools and book clubs to look for and enjoy characters who are like them. Books with cupcakes on the covers seem to have inoffensive, docile protagonists who generally conform to gender norms. However, just because a character conforms to gender norms and has a positive attitude, doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not “alive.” Weiner gives tons of counterexamples herself, of interesting, likeable characters who would make great friends, roommates or coworkers, from high literature and popular novels. To her stellar list I’d like to add Elizabeth Bennet (“I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know”), Hermione Granger, and Sookie Stackhouse.

I think a character’s likeability is not an important issue. An interesting character may be likeable or not, and to me being interesting is more important than being likeable. That’s true for male and female characters, from male and female writers, as far as I’m concerned. I think this is the same thing that Messud means when she asks “Is this character alive?” I think this is also the same thing that Weiner means when she says, “Ideally, our shelves, and even individual books, should contain the rainbow. There should be room for everyone: for the lovable and the despicable, for Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter, for Bridget Jones and even the poor, scorned Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” These two writers are both feminists and I don’t think they actually disagree on all that much.  I believe Weiner when she says that in popular genre fiction there is pressure to write relatable, likeable characters that shallow readers can imagine sharing a coffee with. I also believe that sometimes writers trying to be “literary” might begin by trying to be edgy and provocative, and one shortcut might be an anti-hero character who would not be very good real-life company. However, I’m not quite sure I believe Weiner when she says that a novel must be full of unlikeable people in order to be considered literary today.

There is more to being a complete human being than being likeable, and that goes for characters as well as for people. Messud was right to point that out. I think I lean toward her side of this debate. Weiner has some valid objections about genre divisions and the way they encourage women writers to gang up on each other, but for me they don’t undermine Messud’s larger statement about our expectations of women, women writers and women characters.

Dead Ever After

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

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This was the last Sookie Stackhouse book, and I’m sorry to reach the end of the series, because I’ve mostly enjoyed it, but I’m also glad it has come to an end because it was kind of running out of steam. This volume makes a good, satisfying conclusion to the series, bringing back a lot of old characters for cameos, especially villains. Again, there’s a mystery with a convoluted explanation that’s at least somewhat surprising. The prose quality isn’t great, as Harris gets caught up in the minutiae of daily life sometimes, but I think that’s her way of adding Southern flavor and showing how down-to-earth her narrator is.

Sookie herself has always been the chief attraction of this series to me. Her admirable resilience and her determination to see the best in others and to try to be a good person despite all the reasons she has to be jaded make her a truly great heroine. She weighs pros and cons carefully, and when some action of her lover seems to her like a dealbreaker, she’s sad about it but never wavers on her decision. I admire the maturity, strength and self-knowledge that make this kind of stance possible. For example, before beginning a relationship with her new, and seemingly last, boyfriend, she makes a point to discuss with him in the abstract what they’ve learned from previous relationships and what they’re looking for in a mate now. When they do begin a relationship, she is clear about moving slowly. These are wise decisions and precautions, the kind I’d advise my child to make in 20 or 30 years.

But there’s a part of me that wonders: Doesn’t this calculation seem somewhat bloodless and unromantic? It certainly seems the polar opposite of what Bella Swan would do. One main reason for that is that Sookie is about a decade older than Bella, an adult woman with an identity and supernatural power of her own. There’s something exciting and appealing about Bella’s headlong, reckless plunge into a dangerous love, and in her careful avoidance of heartbreak Sookie denies readers the satisfaction of experiencing that fall with her. In thinking so systematically, Sookie kind of deadens her emotions. There’s something that Sookie is holding back, a piece of her heart that she keeps for herself, and perhaps this is wise as it seems to be connected with her resilience. Sookie has been through a lot, and she is nothing if not a survivor. She has great self-protective instincts, and she follows them in matters of the heart as well as in life-threatening situations. This means that she sometimes comes off as too pragmatic to let herself fall in love, and that’s a bit of a turn-off for a reader, especially one who may have picked up the book for the romance.

I say all this as someone who’s quite prone to such overthinking myself, someone who has a history of closing herself off even to positive emotions because they seem too hot to handle. Seeing the way this practical, cautious side of Sookie’s character makes her seem cold and uninteresting gives me a good reason to try to check that self-protective instinct when I feel it myself. After all, I have experienced nowhere near the level of trauma that Sookie has! Maybe Sookie holds a mirror up to me as someone who has a tendency to let her brain rule her heart, and I can learn from that. That’s another mark of a great character: they teach you a little something about yourself.

Insurgent

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

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Insurgent is the second of a trilogy about a dystopia in which people live divided into factions based on a virtue or principle. At the end of the first novel, the faction system seemed to be falling apart, as the Erudite faction used the Dauntless to attack the Abnegation. In this novel, narrator Tris and her friends are refugees seeking help from the other factions, Candor and Amity, and from the factionless, those who have been rejected from the faction system. Meanwhile they try to scheme ways to bring down the leader of Erudite who masterminded the attack from the last novel. This book shows us new aspects of the dystopia world through spending time exploring the factions that Tris knows the least about, Candor, which values honesty, and Amity, which values peace and friendship (and uses tranquilizer/recreational drugs to achieve them). The story is psychologically heavy, as torture scenes delve into character and show how sick and twisted the villain is. Tris is a truly admirable heroine, making big sacrifices, figuring out complex problems and mysteries, and accepting responsibility for her mistakes. There are a few steamy scenes between her and her boyfriend Tobias, as well as some fights that show they are both still learning about communication and trust. This relationship is basically healthy, just stressed by the insane circumstances they’re dealing with. This novel ended with a great revelation that surprised me and opens up a lot of interesting possibilities for the final volume. I truly enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the next in the series, Allegiant, coming out in October.

On Dreams

Slate had a great article criticizing the Barbie Dreamhouse in Berlin. Buried in the essay was a great quote explaining what’s wrong with encouraging kids to “dream”:

a dream is not the same as a plan or a vision or an aspiration. It is the ultimate in passivity, something visited upon you while you are asleep. Or it’s what a princess does as she gazes out the window and waits for her happy ending. Do we need to telegraph to girls that the be-all and end-all of their young lives is spinning out beautiful mental pictures that have no basis in reality?

I have vivid memories of buying this dream rhetoric wholesale when I was much younger. I honestly thought that through some magical alchemy, dreaming my dreams with a true and pure heart would actually make them come true. I thought I didn’t have to do anything to look beautiful, attract a handsome, kind boyfriend, and live in happy prosperity; these things would simply drop into my lap if I was just the right kind of person and wished on enough stars. It was a nice delusion. The passivity of this stance was actually part of its virtue. It would be wrong or dirty or maybe even slutty to put myself out there and work hard for these things on my own. It would somehow devalue them if they weren’t unearned gifts from the universe. And I had no responsibility for changing things if I wasn’t satisfied. I had a vague promise of eventual happiness and nothing to do to make it happen. It made for a contented, empty, passionless, childish existence. I’m endlessly glad I grew out of this phase, but I’m embarrassed to say exactly how long it took.

I think this is a gendered thing. In general, girls are taught these messages more frequently than boys are. (Although I do see some of my male students express equally deluded hopes of becoming rappers and NBA stars, despite doing zero work toward those goals.) I can trace them directly back to Disney movies and sweet sentiments like “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” It’s nice to encourage kids to aim for big goals, but the emphasis needs to be on them doing the work and making it happen for themselves, instead of on passively wishing. Instead of dreaming, they should be planning, and putting those plans into motion.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin

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I heard about this book through my childbirth class and picked it up as a final way to prepare myself for labor, since it’s been months since I read Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth. There is a bias in the book toward “natural” childbirth and against a “medicalized” model of care, but Gaskin makes a very persuasive case for why her general approach is best for the majority of women. Despite her agenda, Gaskin speaks in a respectful and mostly non-judgemental way about women whose birth choices she would disagree with, mostly because she seems to see them as victims of the dysfunctional health care system. I thought the best and most useful parts of the book were the descriptions of “sphincter law” and the mind-body connection as applied to childbirth.

Reading this book in the final weeks of my pregnancy was both reassuring and scary. It was good to hear stories about births going well and being pleasant, even joyful. Stories like these don’t get told very often among women; I’ve noticed that when women talk about their childbirth experiences, there is a tendency toward sensationalism that is almost calculated to horrify women facing their first delivery. Gaskin’s stories were very different, positive in tone and focused on celebrating the power of the woman’s body. Often, she described some problem that was encountered in a woman’s labor and the homey, logical steps she and her midwives took to solve it, and the almost magical results.

I am probably not Gaskin’s ideal audience. I’m not the “granola” type; I don’t go in for chanting and visualization and Enya music, and I’m way more sexually repressed than Gaskin’s orgasmic mothers, so some of her suggestions seemed kind of far out and weird to me personally, although I’m sure they would work for someone who’s into that stuff. Reading this book didn’t change my birth plan much. Not much of the information was new to me. I chose the Vanderbilt Nurse-Midwives for my care because I wanted to work within the midwife model of care, but I also wanted to deliver in a hospital in case of emergency. I want to go with the flow and trust my caregivers and follow their advice. Reading this book gave me a few extra ideas and strategies, and a bit more confidence that everything will be all right, and that makes it worth reading for any expectant mother.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann

the-great-gatsby-poster1I haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school, but I remember enjoying it then, and I love Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic style, so I was really looking forward to this movie. I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would; it was a fun time at the movies. The greatest attraction of the movie is probably the gorgeous, over-the-top party scenes. Fitzgerald wrote the best party scenes in literature, and Luhrmann films the best party scenes in cinema. It seems a perfect match. What I wouldn’t have given to have been an extra on that set!

The movie seemed more romantic than the book, focused more on Gatsby’s longing for the life he could have had with Daisy than on his corruption or the Buchanons’ dissipation or Nick Caraway’s lost innocence in witnessing their drama. The tea party scene where Gatsby sees Daisy alone for the first time is played like a romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant. Gatsby is foppish and clumsy out of adorable nervousness, and it’s played for laughs. Leonardo DiCaprio was surely made for this role. He looked the part perfectly, from his monogram ring to his shiny shoes. My favorite scene of his might have been his innocent, boyish, but sadly deluded insistence that Daisy will call. Carrie Mulligan did nothing to alter the feeling I had from the book that Daisy was utterly unworthy of Gatsby’s devotion, that she is a vapid cipher of a character. I’m not sure what she could have done about this as an actress, though, as giving Daisy depth would have necessitated a lot more revision and change to the story itself.

The film created a frame in which Nick Caraway was writing about Gatsby to explain him to a psychiatrist. This created a literary feel to the movie through words written and typed and voiced over. I liked the literariness of it, but I always wonder about making a character, even and perhaps especially a first-person narrator, into an author figure. Fitzgerald is not Nick Caraway, and Nick is not Fitzgerald, and it seems a little misleading to imply otherwise, especially when you consider that a large percentage of the audience is likely to believe it. My only other complaint about the movie might be that it beats you over the head with symbolism even more than the book does, and that’s saying something. We could have understood the green light without the third explanation, thanks.

The Land of Painted Caves

The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel

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So I held out hope for this last volume of a series that I’ve devoted about 200 hours to…and got disappointed yet again. This book had all of the same problems I noted in reviews of the other books in the series: repetition, a protagonist with no flaws, a lack of compelling conflict, and a deluge of overly-researched detail. Now, I know the pedantic details might be defended by fantasy buffs as “world-building,” but I guess the problem is this: I didn’t find the world Auel built to be all that interesting. Its novelty wore off in one book, and there didn’t seem to be anything all that new or creative about it, especially when I compare it to dystopias or other fantasy settings. It was just prehistoric nature in all its unsurprising glory. At least there was only one sex scene in this book.

Most of the action of the book consists of Ayla traveling with Zelandoni and a small group to see a bunch of sacred caves with ancient paintings in them. She meets lots of people and solves their problems. One particularly disturbing episode concerns a small group of men who go around raping and pillaging. They are eventually brought to justice through a mob execution.

The big drama of the last part of the book comes when Ayla catches Jondalar having sex with another woman. Now, all “marriages” among these people are pretty much considered open marriages, so everyone agrees that he had every right to sleep around, and Ayla would have too. What happened was that Ayla got really busy with her priestess training, so Jondalar’s “needs” weren’t being met, and this hussy kept throwing herself at him, so he fell into an affair. I really don’t like the implications here, about working mothers not having time to keep a man interested, about men being entitled to sex, about easy opportunities for casual sex being “irresistible” to people in committed relationships, but because of the society’s definition of marriage as not sexually exclusive, I’m not going to focus too much on these aspects of it. The real problem that this whole debacle reveals is the couple’s horrible lack of communication. Until Ayla got too busy, niether she nor Jondalar had ever acted on their right to sleep around, and they had been monogamous and exclusive. But they’d never talked about it, never made any explicit agreement to be either monogamous or nonmonogamous, despite the fact that jealousy had nearly driven them apart once before. And on top of the fact that they created the conditions for this problem themselves by not defining the terms of their relationship, they deal with it in just about the worst way possible: by cutting off all communication. After the confrontation, Jondalar basically gives Ayla the silent treatment, even though he’s the one more in the wrong.

This conflict is finally resolved by Ayla getting borderline suicidal and going along with a stupid idea of trying to reach the spirit world through taking some psychotropic herb that she knows is dangerous, and almost dying. Jondalar “saves” her by hugging her back to life and crying over her limp body. This is a scene that’s basically recycled almost exactly from a previous book. When she wakes up, they make up and everything is fine.

What I don’t understand is that this resolution is presented as super romantic. Auel goes on about how everyone who hears this story wishes they had someone who loved them as much as Ayla and Jondalar love each other, as evidenced by the story. But the story is not romantic at all. Do you know what is romantic? Communication. Negotiation. Apologies. All the things Ayla and Jondalar seem incapable of, and that no relationship can survive without. I guess I should be thankful to Auel for proving to me once and for all how much sexier realistic relationships are than mystical spiritual connections like the ones portrayed in fairy tales with “true love’s kiss” waking the maiden.

The other main issue in the novel is that Ayla gets a revelation from the Mother that proves what she suspected all along: sex makes babies. Telling the people causes problems almost immediately, raising concerns about the legitimacy of children and the arrousing the instinct of men to be possessive and jealous. The lead priestess tries to explain these issues away, but doesn’t seem entirely successful, and it seems clear that this revelation will lead to more restrictive sexual practices eventually.

I’ve said several times that the thing I was waiting for, the reason I kept picking up the next book in the series, was because I wanted to see Ayla’s Clan again. No such luck. There was a dream sequence that said basically the same thing we’d heard in previous books: that the clan is destined to die out and their only legacy will be the children that they have produced through interbreeding with humans. Woop de doo. After all the hints and fake-outs from the previous novels, this lack of resolution really made me feel cheated. Once again, Auel refuses to give faithful readers the satisfaction they have earned.

A pet peeve from the audiobook I listened to. There were many references to Ayla having an accent of some kind, but I thought the accent that the voice actress gave her was utterly ridiculous. It was kind of a baroque, a light trilling accent with extra rolled R’s. Given Ayla’s linguistic background, this choice made no sense to me. She had no spoken language at all in childhood, but spoke in sign language, and learned to speak as an adult. To me, that means that she should be stumbling over her words all the time, and have real difficulty with grammar and sentence structure. She was about five when she lost her own people and began living with the Clan, so I guess it’s barely possible that she had enough early exposure to spoken language to be able to learn its basics later, and I can imagine it might be annoying to read and write about a protagonist who is barely functional with language. However, Auel insists that Ayla is super gifted with languages and picks up several of them quickly, because Ayla must be perfect and exceptional in every way. Anyway, I thought her voice would sound more like that of a deaf person or a stroke victim than a Spanish or Scottish accent. The problem wouldn’t be extra sounds inserting themselves, but a general tone-deaf lack of understanding of how to make sounds at all, kind of a lazy tongue. Trilled R’s are an especially hard sound to make, so it doesn’t make any sense that someone with such a complete lack of language background, someone who’s almost feral, would be making that sound of her own accord when she doesn’t have to.

Here’s my final verdict on the Earth’s Children series and then I’ll finally put it to rest forever. Each book is worst than the last. The first one might be worth reading, if prehistoric peoples interest you. It ends in kind of a cliffhanger, so if that bothers you, then read the second. But stop there, please. Learn from my mistake. Don’t waste hundreds of hours subjecting yourself to this pointless, meandering, repetitive, conflict-free, pedantic, ideologically questionable series.

Fuse

Fuse by Julianna Baggott

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I loved Pure, the first book in this trilogy, and have been looking forward to this book for a year. Fuse delivers 100% on Pure‘s promise, exploring the origins of the dystopia, developing characters and their relationships, and leading them into new landscapes.

Some of the most fascinating parts of this novel came from the psychological manipulations by the Dome and its evil leader–time bombs that attach to people’s limbs, plans to wipe his son’s memories and steal his body–and the torturous choices the other characters are forced to make. There are clues to follow and a mystery to solve as the heroes discover more about the past, their own history and that of their parents, as well as the truth about the destruction that defines their environment.

Narration switches between Partridge and Pressia, half-siblings raised on opposite sides of the Dome’s protection. Both have compelling love stories, as well as a third wheel suitor who creates a kind of love triangle, although their choice seems clear from the beginning. Baggott knows how to write a great love scene, expressing all the longing and complicated feeling of teenagers in love in a place that makes love seem like a dangerous luxury they can’t afford. Her language makes me want to re-read sentences multiple times; you can tell Baggott is a poet as well as a novelist because of the attention she pays to words and phrases.

This book does everything the second book in a trilogy should do: it deepens and complicates the main conflict, takes readers farther into an increasingly complex world, and sets things up for a great ending without making it at all clear what’s going to happen. I only wish the concluding volume were coming out sooner.

Clockwork Princess

Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare
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This novel concludes the Infernal Devices trilogy, prequel series for the Mortal Instruments series. The first of that series, City of Bones, is being made into a movie this summer, so I’m hoping to read that book before the movie comes out too. I’m looking forward to finding the connections between that series and this one. The Infernal Devices trilogy is set in 1800s London and has a bit of a steam punk aesthetic. Some of the best scenes of action and horror are about battles between Shadowhunters and automatons (robots, in this case, evil ones animated by demons).
Romance is definitely the main focus of this series. There are several flowery declarations and even a steamy sex scene–ample fuel for many an adolescent fantasy. Three love stories are told here, one a love triangle. This triangle had pretty much the happiest possible ending any love triangle could possibly have, but the characters had to go through some pretty delicious angst to earn that ending. In addition to the romance, the plot included betrayal, political power plays, a sick and twisted villain, and a nice climactic surprise. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, but I would have enjoyed it even more if I were fifteen.
Clare’s writing puts her above most writers in the YA romance and paranormal/fantasy categories. Her sentences are strong and descriptive and rarely use cliches. I appreciated the way Will and Tessa talked about classic literature constantly and referred to it to make sense of their lives. Each chapter begins with a few lines from a Romantic-era poem. In this way I thought these novels could even do their part to turn young readers on to Dickens and other classic authors.