Publish and Perish

Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror by James Hynes

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This volume of three linked stories brings together academic settings and characters with creepy, fantastic events. In the first story, a cat threatens to reveal the affair jeopardizing the marriage of his owners, a pair of young PhDs separated by jobs at different schools. In the second, a disgraced anthropologist investigates a stone circle and participates in an ancient ritual. (This one reminded me somewhat of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”) In the last story, which ties a couple connecting threads to the other two, a young professor gets cursed by a misogynistic old-guard academic who wants to plagiarize her work.

The academic setting creates some great moments of humor. I really enjoyed the chapter titles of Paul’s proposed volume of scholarship and the crazy conference scene. The intellectual pretensions of the characters and the pettiness and obscurity of their scholastic concerns create a fascinating contrast with the life-or-death situations that confront them. In a way, though, the “publish or perish” urgency is exactly what brings out the worst in the bad characters, especially when paired with misogyny. For example, Paul, the philandering husband, is fooling around because his pride is suffering to watch his career flounder while his wife’s takes off. But if anything, the academia depicted here is a lot less cutthroat and savage than reality. No one mentions student loans, for example. And there are characters here who have a chance at tenure before age 30, for God’s sake. What a dream.

Beastly

Beastly by Alex Flinn

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In this YA retelling of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, a spoiled rich kid in New York plays a prank on a fat goth girl and is turned into a beast to teach him a lesson. There are some modern touches, like a recurring internet chat support group that includes the beast, the little mermaid, the frog prince, and a bear, moderated by a guy named Chris Anderson.

The story has all of the problems that the fairy tale does, especially Stockholm Syndrome. I was a little disappointed Flinn didn’t do more to make the story more palatable by changing some of those details. The beast still keeps the beauty, Lindy, prisoner, at least at first. One change is that Lindy’s father is an addict who offers his daughter to the beast on his own. This means that Lindy doesn’t really have much of a home to miss, so presumably the beast wouldn’t need to use much force to keep her at his place, if any. I was able to imagine a way that the beast could have presented his home to her as a refuge, an escape from her father’s chaotic life, and she would probably have become an increasingly regular visitor. It may not have been necessary to restrict her freedom much, if at all. Maybe Flinn saw the ‘prisoner’ stuff as vital to the fairy tale she was adapting, or maybe she thought the character hadn’t yet grown enough to let Lindy go. Either way, it might have been interesting to read a version of this fairy tale that at least attempted to soften the more objectionable aspects of the story, but this one didn’t.

The story is told from Kyle/Adrian’s point of view (the beast), so that means that we hear all his longing, angsty thoughts about how much he wants to touch Lindy, etc. It actually comes off as pretty creepy in my opinion, especially the parts about peeping on her through his mirror. I’m kind of disturbed that this stalker behavior is presented to teen girls as loving and romantic. Adrian falls in love with Lindy pretty quickly, perhaps more from loneliness than any other reason, though we don’t seem to learn much about who she is. She’s sweet and appreciates the beauty of roses and that’s about it. Adrian’s character changes fast once he meets her too. He even comments at one point that he feels weird to be talking in flowery, uncharacteristic language that he’s picked up from Lindy’s books. That seemed like a weird moment to me. If it feels weird to say those kinds of things, why is he saying them? I’d much rather a YA romance hero speak in honest, plain language instead of unnatural baroque proclamations. It’s a kind of interesting version of a fairy tale. Fans of retellings might like it. But it’s mostly standard YA fare.

Idiotic Mother’s Day Video

This time last year I was very pregnant indeed; this year I have an almost-one-year-old boy who does not stop. I’ve always noticed the way we talk about moms and motherhood in our culture; now I’m hyper aware. Last year I posted about a smart essay Anne Lamott wrote about how Mother’s Day is a sham. This year I feel like ranting about a viral video.

I don’t find this video heartwarming at all. It’s a dirty trick played on honest job-seekers during the slow recovery from a recession, and a gross exaggeration of a mother’s duties and trials. Sure, moms are on call 24/7, but they do, in fact, get to sleep sometimes, although there certainly were times this past year when I felt like that wasn’t true. Mothers are also allowed to sit down every once in a while. You don’t need to have a degree in medicine AND finance AND culinary arts to be a mom. What a ridiculous standard to set. And really, it’s an obvious ploy. Of course they’re describing mothers. You’d have to be clueless not to get that immediately.

I’m never the first to criticize something that goes viral. Lindy West rightly calls the ad manipulative. Blair Koenig from STFUParents points out that this is all marketing, advertisers flattering mothers in order to sell greeting cards and cleaning products, and how insulting that is. Eve Vawter on Mommyish says ads like this promote a damaging idea of moms as martyrs. Mary Elizabeth Williams rolls her eyes at the contradictions of this message: it’s the hardest job, but also the best, most important one of all time ever.

Catherine Deveny tells how this myth contributes to inequality by ignoring the contributions of fathers and perpetuating the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Jessica Valenti says that the motherhood-as-job trope is itself one of the things that makes motherhood oppressive and crazy-making, since it’s part of the culture of total motherhood. Sure, being a mom involves a lot of tasks that often feel like a job, and a tedious, grinding one at that, but it is really not a job. It’s a relationship. And I don’t want to cheapen that relationship by describing it in terms of employment and market values. I don’t want to care for my son out of obligation, or an expectation of compensation, the way I would complete tasks for a job.

There’s no need to glorify mothers with overblown rhetoric about unbelievable sacrifices and superhuman feats. Motherhood is normal. It’s just part of life. It is possible to appreciate moms without inflating their daily lives into the torture of suffering saints, or worse, slaves. It’s nice to be honored on Mother’s Day, but the hyperbole in this video just distorts what should be a sweet, simple, fulfilling relationship. It would be a lot easier to be a mother if the only shit I had to deal with was in my baby’s diapers, and not also on the internet.

All Joy and No Fun

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jill Senior

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I wish I could give a copy of this book to every couple (or single person) having trouble deciding about whether to have children. It’s the first book I’ve read that details the many trials of parenthood, while also celebrating the things that make it worthwhile. Senior brought to life all of the maddening, exhausting moments that come with raising small children–but at the end, she made me glad I’m a parent. I closed this book with a greater understanding of why this past year of my life has been as difficult as it has, and yet liberally sprinkled with moments of peace, satisfaction, and even transcendence.

Senior’s purpose is to examine the effect of children on the lives of their parents, to figure out the mystery that parents always say they’re miserable in surveys about happiness, but also say that their children make their lives worthwhile. It’s not a prescriptive book telling people what to do or how to raise their kids, but a descriptive one, focused on explaining why we feel the way we do about our families, and why parenting now is different, and in most ways harder, than it’s ever been. Senior uses in-depth interviews and family profiles as well as discussions of culture and sociological research to create interpretations that seemed to put into words some things I’d always known but couldn’t quite verbalize. I especially appreciated her analysis of the impact of globalization and the recession on parents’ anxieties. She even does a great job examining gender differences in parenting experiences without resorting to stereotypes. In her chapter on the effect of children on marriage relationships, she recounts an argument between the parents of a baby who’s waking up frequently at night that sounded exactly like the fights my husband and I have had. That was the moment when I realized the book was much, much too short. I could have read volumes about each of Senior’s subheadings, and perhaps for that reason some of her conclusions felt too simple.

This may be the most insightful book about parenting I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some good ones. I hope Senior keeps writing about families and what makes them tick.

A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

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I’ve loved the other books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, but A Feast for Crows is my favorite by far. Because of the storylines that this novel focused on, the women characters really got a chance to shine, and it was fascinating to see how the different narrative strands reflected each other and interacted. This novel puts feminist issues in the forefront, showing how inheritance laws are only the most obvious way that Westeros devalues its women. Several powerful male characters voice some horrible anti-feminist sentiments, but the purpose of including these statements is to show how misguided they are. Usually when some idiot man is saying dumb stuff about how women are meant to show their bravery in childbed, or how a good rape would show an arrogant woman her place, readers hear this garbage filtered through a female point of view, and through this sympathetic character, can feel how violent and disempowering these microaggressions are. In this way, Martin makes it clear to even the most insensitive reader why these ideas are offensive. Because there’s so much going on in the narrative, so many different threads weaving together, my response feels similarly disconnected. Here are my thoughts on a few characters and issues.

Cersei, who’s been the main villain since the Purple Wedding, has a tragedy-shaped story arc in this book. Cersei’s story reminded me of novels by Hilary Mantel and Phillipa Gregory about Henry VIII and the way he treated his wives, the slut-shaming, torture, and witch-hunt interrogations. Her hypocrisy is startling: she uses her sexuality to manipulate others into setting a honey trap for Margeary Tyrell. We learn why Cersei’s always hated Margaery: a prophecy that said a younger, more beautiful queen will be her downfall. This prophecy seems to me to communicate a truth from our own world, too, sadly. When a few token women get power, rather than helping other women, they see them as competitors. These women wisely or cynically know that the men who really run things will never let too many women have any real authority, so they feel they must consolidate their own positions and don’t have the influence to help anyone else. It’s regrettable and self-interested, but it’s a logical reaction to inequitable circumstances. If Cersei had felt more secure in her place as Queen Regent, she would not have felt it necessary to attack her daughter-in-law.

Asha Greyjoy might be my new favorite character. There was an amazing scene where she held her own among a crowd of sailors, telling bawdy jokes and making a bid for her father’s crown. I can’t wait to see the scheming she’ll do in the next book. I want her to ally with Daenerys against her uncle.

Randall Tarly is introduced in person in this novel, and he’s just as horrible as I thought he’d be. It’s clear why Sam and his father didn’t get along. Tarly is toxic masculinity personified, spouting rape myths and other misogynist vitriol.

In this book Martin shows us Dorne, and I enjoyed that learning more about the Martells and their loyalties. Dorne is unique because it’s the only one of the Seven Kingdoms where an older sister inherits instead of her younger brother.

There are three characters who have totally given up their old identities and are going by new names, even in the narration. To see these characters begin to think of themselves as a new name was somewhat disconcerting because I would like to see them eventually reclaim their roles and rights, but they are wise to stay hidden.

The religious diversity of Westeros has always amazed me. In this book we learn more about the Drowned God of Iron Islands, and the Many-Faced God of Braavos. Some believers are even presented as sincere, focused on charity, reform, and retribution for the sin of the Red Wedding.

There are several important storylines that are completely left out of this book, because they’re treated in the next book in the series instead. But there are hints in this book about how these two sets of stories will eventually be joined together, the plotlines that will crash together in a fight for control of the dragons. The moments that hint at conflicts to come are some of the most exciting ones. There’s only one more book left that’s currently available. I don’t know what I’ll do when I have to wait years for the next installment!

The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

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This book is the sequel to The Name of the Star, continuing the story of Rory, who can see ghosts and is involved with a top-secret government organization working to protect people from the restless dead. She survived an attack at the end of the last book, and much of this one is concerned with her recovery from those injuries and catching up with her schoolwork. Her failure to catch up in school raises questions about her future; she feels like her only option is to join the Shades. She also has the classic superhero problem: telling lies to cover up her crime-fighting. There are two new murders for her to solve here, a new love story, and a new villain who was introduced in a very obvious way. Like, laughably, ridiculously obvious. Rory has a pretty distinctive, quirky voice, but surprisingly I didn’t find it annoying. There’s going to be a sequel; things ended very much up in the air. It’s an enjoyable series

Raising America

Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children by Ann Hulbert

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This book tells about the history of the parenting advice industry, focusing on experts like Dr. Spock, Dr. Terry Brazelton, and their predecessors. It goes into incredible detail about the biographies of these men, mostly to show how the parenting advice they gave followed from the issues in their own families. Several of these experts say their goal is to calm the anxiety parents feel, but usually they just make things worse. The experts often say they don’t want people to be “over-awed” by them; taking a century-long perspective, as Hulbert does here, is the best way to cure an overly credulous parent of their misplaced worship. Hulbert’s thesis was that parenting advice is self-contradictory, poorly researched, and subject to trends; it reflects the tensions in our society and its views of families more than it guides or shapes those families. Two books on opposite sides of the spectrum in parenting philosophy might end up actually advising parents to do the same things, although maybe for different reasons. This thought, and the overall tone of the book, was incredibly reassuring to me, as someone who’s felt overwhelmed and baffled by the advice I’ve read in several books about caring for babies.

I would have liked to read more about the more contemporary experts, like Dr. Sears, but he only got about a page of coverage, while a century-old manual on baby feeding got a full chapter. I was also surprised not to read anything at all about blogs or the way the internet makes every parent an expert if she wants to be. The book is very in depth and almost academic in its scope, but with some wry humor in delivery. At the very end, Hulbert advises parents to read the experts they disagree with, because they are less likely to buy into their ideas wholesale, and feel anxiety and guilt for not measuring up to their vision, but they still might learn a few techniques or new ways of thinking about a problem. I’m not sure I could even finish a parenting book that I disagree with, but I do think that this book has helped me gain a little perspective on the quest to figure out how to raise a child.