The Barter

The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

 

I could not put down this creepy ghost story. The narrative is split between two mothers, one in the present, and one about 100 years ago (who becomes the ghost). I related so hard to Bridget, the contemporary stay-at-home mom: the subtle competition with her mom friends, the mindlessness and boredom, her fierce protectiveness toward her baby daughter. ‘Mommy wars’ tension seethes underneath every interaction she has with another woman, including her own mother. Rebecca, the turn of the century farm wife, was somewhat stranger. Through the stories of her older relative, Frau, mythical/fairy tale elements enter the story and lead directly to its horror. The title comes from Rebecca’s birth: while in labor, her mother was asked if she would trade an hour of her life, and an hour of her daughter’s, for both their survival. Of course, there’s a catch. Both Rebecca and Bridget have significant marriage problems. Bridget’s are fairly typical: her husband works too much and is never home, they don’t appreciate each other or connect as they used to. I found it harder to relate to the Rebecca’s marriage issues because they’re caused by extreme sexual repression and the husband’s complete refusal to engage in honest discussion. This is the kind of book I’m not sure I’ll be able to get out of my head. The feeling of being stalked and watched in your own house, of your child not being safe–that is real terror.

Better Than Before

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

This book is about habit formation and what it takes to adopt and maintain good habits, and break bad habits and keep from relapsing. I found it incredibly useful. Rubin talks at length about how people’s different tendencies and personalities should change their approaches to habits. She breaks people into four groups in regards to how they approach habits and expectations from self and others: 1) Upholders, who like to follow rules, 2) Obligers, who follow through on commitments to others but not to themselves, 3) Questioners, who only do things that they can see a good reason for, and 4) Rebels, who resist all habits and expectations on principle. In habit formation, the name of the game seems to be self-knowledge: know yourself so that you can choose the strategies most likely to work for you. Rubin lays out all the tools you’d need to do that. I’m mostly an Upholder, which means that Rubin did not have to sell the notion of habits to me; I was already on board. When you have a good habit, that means you don’t have to think about doing the right thing, you just do it automatically, saving your willpower for tackling other problems.

Rubin tries to talk generically, so that her info is applicable to almost any habit that you might want to take up or drop. She ends up talking a lot about food, especially low-carb eating. Her particular personal habits and preoccupations are a little idiosyncratic, to say the least, but her voice is charming, and she’s usually just using her experiences to make points that are well-researched and reasonable.

Here are some of my habit advice takeaways from the book:

  • Avoid feeling deprived.
  • It’s often easier to abstain entirely than to consume moderately.
  • Anticipate and minimize temptation.
  • Habits, good and bad, have momentum and are self-reinforcing.
  • It’s ok to make exceptions to your habits, but only if you plan it ahead of time. If you decide at the last minute to break a habit, you’re in danger of dropping that habit altogether.
  • Schedule time for the things you value.
  • Make it convenient and easy to follow your good habits. And if you want to break a bad habit, put obstacles in your way to make it harder to do that thing.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

This book fits into a subgenre of memoir that I call, “Why I Am the Way I Am.” In these books the authors explain their various quirks in charming and endearing and self-deprecating ways. They spend a lot of time listing their various likes and dislikes and tracing these preferences back to childhood experiences. In this example, Felicia Day connects her homeschooled upbringing to her adoption of unusual hobbies and her ability to throw herself single-mindedly into them. As a fellow recovering valedictorian, I related hard to Day’s perfectionism, her craving for external validation, and her people-pleasing teacher’s pet behaviors. When she described her honest-to-God addiction to World of Warcraft, I had to pause a moment and cross myself because I have played some MMORPGs in my day, and “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I was surprised that Day didn’t talk more about her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long. (It would have been natural, Joss Whedon did the foreword!) Instead, the narrative concentrated on her childhood, her introduction to video gaming, and her creation of the web series The Guild. All of the stories she told were interesting and funny, but I wondered about those other stories that didn’t make it into this book. All that is to say, “Psst, Felicia, I think you have another book in you!”

Day’s story is an example for me of how sometimes success comes from the luck of being an early adopter. She got in on the ground floor of video game fandom and web videos. I don’t think it’s so much that she was prescient, predicting that these passions of hers would gain a huge following, as that she was just doing what made her happy, and the zeitgeist happened to align with her. She was lucky enough to have a weekly group meeting with a woman who had made one of the first viral youtube videos, and got her help to create The Guild. Day did crowdfunding before Kickstartr existed. The story also shows in excruciating detail how hard she worked, but luck plays a role in any success as big as Day’s.

I’ll Give You the Sun

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This YA story is about a pair of artistic teenage twins dealing with loss and their first loves. The point of view alternates between the two, one in the present, and the other 2 years earlier. It was pretty engrossing, as the structure leaves so many unanswered questions. I found the language impressive and whimsical. Noah is always imagining paintings, while Jude follows strange superstitions. One character, a Colombian sculptor, made me think of Marquez. The family’s alliances twist, as the son and daughter shift loyalties between the mother and father, and the teens trade identities from artist to athlete and back again. Some of the things the parents say to the kids about their gender identities are clearly messed up, but very common. The love stories were both intense and passionate, fun to read about. I’m glad to see inclusive novels like this one, in which two boys fall in love with each other, becoming more and more common.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

This short fantasy novel enchanted me thoroughly with its gorgeous formal language, imagery, scenery, and magical animals. The female protagonist, Sybel, cares for mythical creatures alone on a mountain, until she is given a baby prince to care for. When he grows up, she is thrown into the middle of the rivalry between the king and a competing court. She tries to keep herself out of the drama, until she is brought in against her will. It’s so cool and rare to find a strong woman character who knows who she is, who has power without the need to prove anything by wielding it. Watching Sybel almost lose that quality in a search for revenge was tragic; seeing her finally save herself and prevent a war, with the help of her loved ones, was triumphant. Except for the villain, who mostly acted in fear and desire, the characters all treated each other with such love and acceptance and forgiveness. The final twist was perfect and beautiful. If you like immersive fantasy and pretty sentences, this book is worth a try.

Mediocre Fantasy

Here are 3 quick reviews of some fantasy novels I wasn’t very impressed with. The last two of these books are very long, and may have been worth the time investment if it weren’t for that factor.

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Wither, because it seemed like a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, with drastically shortened lifespans to add extra stress. But Rhine, the protagonist, seemed to lose much of her spark and will to fight in this sequel. She spent much of the narrative ill or in a drugged stupor, and then got captured again at the end.

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

This book concludes The Passage Trilogy. It examines the series’ villain at length. I often found it needlessly violent and maudlin. I had a hard time buying into the ending, in which 700 people on an isolated Pacific island are all that’s left of humanity, then 1000 years later things are back to normal, almost exactly the same as they used to be before the virus, with technology and culture comparable to today’s. I found that absurd.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I remember loving The Mists of Avalon years ago, but Bradley’s version of the Trojan War is not as good as her version of the Arthurian legends. She chose Kassandra, the future-predicting daughter of Priam, as her protagonist. One perhaps understandable flaw, which may be inherent in the source material, is the idea of predestination and the will of the Gods, which makes the choices of the characters seem pointless.

The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is the beginning of a trilogy retelling the story of Shahrzade. The language is good for a YA novel, if a bit breathless, with many paragraph breaks and emphatic sentence fragments. Shahrzade’s storytelling is less of a focus than romance and court intrigue. In this version of the story, the king who kills his wives is (spoiler alert!) compelled to do so by a curse, which does most of the work of turning him from a serial killer into a Byronic hero. However, in this novel, on his first night with Shahrzade, the king, Khalid, has very “perfunctory” sex with her. She submits, seething with hate. She notes that on the second night, she is getting good at dissociating during these encounters. They don’t have sex again until after they fall in love. But that is what I don’t get. How can she fall in love with a man who raped her?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just being prudish. Maybe it would be almost silly or unrealistic if they didn’t have sex. It makes sense that sex and marriages would work this way in this very patriarchal society, with sex a given. But there’s no way for this kind of sex to be anything but coerced at best, and coerced sex is rape. Khalid never apologizes to Shahrzade for it, although he does decide not to do it again until she consents fully. A question that’s left unanswered is whether or not Khalid slept with every one of the other murdered wives, and whether they consented. Were their final hours spent being violated? The book seems to lead me to answer, probably. Although it also seems possible that he simply stays away from the women, since he is so bad at emotional intimacy and didn’t seem to enjoy the impersonal sex he has with Shahrzade their first night anyway. Shahrzades’ honest gaze at their wedding ceremony is what intrigues him enough to visit her, but rather than asking her questions to begin with, he jumps right into bed, because he can and because he doesn’t have the skills or the guts to talk to her. He seems to begin their conversation with sex, because he doesn’t know what else to say–she says he seems to derive no real pleasure from it. His cowardice leads to her violation. And the narrative does not address this issue at all.

While the story does a great job of describing the couple’s physical attraction, it doesn’t sufficiently explain how Shahrzade deals with these rapes or makes sense of them in the context of their growing relationship. How does her attraction overcome her resentment? When they do finally make love, how do their previous coercive encounters color the act? Does Shahrzade continue to dissociate, even though she no longer needs to escape? Is Khalid still emotionally distant and perfunctory, because that is how he is used to behaving in bed, even though he is trying to express real love?

Ahdieh gives us no answers, but I guess these are my questions: In fiction, is rape a crime that puts a character beyond redemption? Or is there such a place as beyond redemption? What is necessary for that redemption? Can that redemption happen in the same relationship as the rape? Even if a rapist gets redeemed, can he ever deserve a true “happy ending”? Is it exploitative for an author to use this rape–>redemption narrative as a form of character development for a male character? Is it ok for a narrative to gloss over rape and its effects? In stories set in the past and in patriarchal societies, is it realistic to expect that characters act as we 21st century readers would wish them to, with regards to sex and consent? Or is setting irrelevant since all of this is imaginary anyway? I’m not sure what the answers are, and maybe that hesitation is a sign of some thinking I need to do on my own, but I suppose the fact that I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied around this issue shows that The Wrath and the Dawn didn’t answer these questions sufficiently or convincingly.