Kindred by Octavtia E. Butler


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 by Veronica Roth


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


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.