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.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

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I picked this up because it’s considered a classic and because it’s one of the most censored books of all time. I can certainly see why: it is very explicit. It’s pure erotica, with musings on class and industrialization in 1920’s England interspersed. The Romantic- and Marxist-influenced ideas were persuasive, and the natural scenes were sometimes very lovely. I found some of the sex scenes genuinely hot, and some other parts I thought were just silly and strange. I wonder if this book is where the ridiculous practice of naming genitalia came from. Lawrence’s language is usually very pretty, but sometimes he falls victim to (or originates?) the eternal problem of purple prose: sexual feelings are really hard to describe, and often require words that are overly clinical, or awkward metaphors. For example, he says a lot that the characters feel their attraction to each other in their bowels, which seemed an odd place for it to me.

I didn’t expect the book to be progressive, so I wasn’t really shocked at the depiction of female sexuality as essentially passive. However, I do think it’s possible that a lot of misconceptions and myths about sex can be traced back to this book. The entire plot really glorifies the simultaneous orgasm as the pinnacle of sexual experience, which is unrealistic for most people. At least two male characters express frustration that their partners take too long to finish, which reflects a misunderstanding of women’s anatomy, but is presented in the text as a legitimate complaint. Mellars’s wife is depicted as a vicious harridan. Overall, the book is so obviously anti-feminist that it’s not really even worth railing against. I enjoyed parts of it, but considered reading it more about education and familiarizing myself with Lawrence than about enjoyment.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

the-love-affairs-of-nathaniel-p1I really had mixed feelings about this book. I’m convinced that Nate, the protagonist, is meant to be an anti-hero. The reader is meant to empathize with him while also thinking he’s a complete jerk. His actions are not supposed to be admirable, and they rarely are. I didn’t like the rare moments when I did empathize with him because I found his actions and attitudes so objectionable. He basically admits to misogynist tendencies, and spends much of the book making insulting generalizations about women, and yet at the same time he knows these ideas are bad and wrong and would never say them out loud. If I thought readers were meant to like Nate wholeheartedly and commend his every decision and idea as correct, I would be calling the book utterly offensive.

The story is about his complicated live life. I count five relationships of various levels of seriousness that are described in detail. I thought it was telling that in all the book’s sex scenes, there is no mention of Nate performing oral sex, only receiving, and occasionally being unsatisfied.

Nate has the incredible luck to meet and attract Hannah, a woman who honestly and sincerely embodies the “cool girl” described in Gone Girl. The requests she makes of him are basically the bare minimum it takes to maintain a relationship, and he feels like she’s unreasonable. She’s as chill and non-clingy as it is possible for a woman to be, but Nate constantly projects his own guilt onto her, or treats her as if she were his crazy ex. Though he has a strong emotional and intellectual connection with Hannah, his refusal to be sincere with her and honest with himself costs him the relationship in the end. His choice is really very cowardly, and the whole book could be seen as a criticism of anyone who chooses self-image over truth and vulnerability. He ends up in a serious relationship that is very shallow and full of conflict, with a woman who will never understand him the way Hannah did. I wanted him to be punished much, much more severely.

I guess I was fairly impressed that Waldman could get me to react so strongly to this character and straddle that fine line between sympathy and antipathy. It’s good to feel strongly about a book, and if those feelings are a bit confused, that’s usually a sign the book was decently complex.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 92103I expected to be left in awe with this book, and I guess I’m disappointed both with it and with myself that I wasn’t. I’ve heard a lot about magical realism in writing workshops and literature classes (English/American and Spanish/Latin American), and I generally liked the other examples of that genre or style that I came across there. Marquez is the grandfather of magical realism, so of course I’d fall in love with his masterpiece, right? If only.

One Hundred Years of Solitude covers four generations of the Buendia family in a remote village in Columbia. For me the three main themes were the tumultuous love lives and marriages of the members of the family, the effects of political change and war, especially the military career of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, and the village’s sporadic contact with the outside world, whether through gypsies, new technologies, or a predatory banana company.

For me the greatest pleasure of the book was in the language, the sentences that took hyperbole just a step past belief into a magical place. The images are fantastic, in both senses of that word: swarms of orange butterflies as a sign of love, four years of rain, a plague of dead birds. It’s Technicolor and bursting with life. A few years ago I wanted to brush up my language skills so I read about a hundred pages of the book in the original Spanish. With that experience I can say that Marquez’s gift with language survives translation remarkably well. I was fascinated by the way the book dealt with political issues, especially the workers’ strike and the train station massacre scene. I also liked the circular ending.

There’s a lot of sex in this book, and it mostly either creeped me out or grossed me out. There’s marital rape, adults sleeping with and marrying children, prostitution, bigamy, and incest, all presented as if they were benign. My reaction to these scenes really colored my reaction to the book as a whole; without this element I would definitely have liked the book a lot more, but it would be half as long and an entirely different book. Maybe it makes me a prude, but I couldn’t really see the redeeming value of these scenes. It seemed like they were supposed to be romantic, or another expression of that characteristic exaggeration, but they didn’t have the intended effect on me.

This is a difficult book; I’d classify it with Faulkner and Tolstoy as a novel that is best read with the support of a class, or at least a family tree diagram for reference, and Sparknotes if you’re really lost. The Buendia family has a habit of recycling names, which makes it a pain to keep the characters straight. The narrative isn’t linear, but kind of spiral-shaped, revolving repeatedly around particular themes, images, and dramatic events. It’s occasionally hard to keep track of the fine line between present-time narration and a flashback. Difficulty isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a novel at all, but sometimes it’s the kind of thing readers like to be warned about.

Shades of Earth

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis

10345937This book concludes the great Across the Universe series. At the beginning of the novel, Elder and Amy crash-land on the planet that they have traveled lightyears to colonize. While they and their people explore the planet, they’re being killed off in mysterious ways, one by one. There are conflicts between Elder and Amy’s dad, a military commander who has assumed leadership of the Earth-born passengers who were cryogenically frozen. Revis proves that she has the guts to write horrific violence and kill characters and imagine some real human evil. The love story is one of the trilogy’s strengths. I like to see teenage characters who get to have sex without horrible consequences that just turn the story into a morality play, and this qualifies.

Like the other books, the plot depended a bit too heavily on events progressing extremely quickly, and people trusting the wrong people, foolishly withholding information from the right people, and failing to demand to be told everything. I kind of expected part of the ending, but there were definitely surprises. A couple of those surprises seemed a bit far-fetched (which may or may not be fair to say about science fiction) but still, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At the very end Amy really comes into her own and becomes a true leader and a real bad ass, growing through grief and making a change that I love to see a female protagonist make. Now where is the cable series based on these books? I want it in production last year so I can watch it tomorrow.

Mating in Captivity

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic by Esther Perel

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Perel is a sex therapist who discusses many of the problems she sees in committed couples who aren’t satisfied with their sex lives. She discusses the erotic in an abstract way as a kind of playful energy, which was a new idea for me. Sex is rife with tensions and contradictions: it’s about power and control and also about letting go; it’s something you can ‘work on’ and schedule, but a meditative, non-striving state of mind is best; our culture is both Puritan and libertine, shaming us both for having sex and not having enough sex. I’m used to thinking of sexual entitlement as a bad thing–it’s what gives men internal permission to rape–but Perel talks about how, in the context of a committed relationship, both partners need to feel somewhat entitled to their pleasure, or they won’t ever ask for what they need, and the experience is diminished for both. Perel is as inclusive as possible, discussing couples of all ages, gay couples, and nonmonogamous couples, and tries her best to avoid gender stereotypes.

Personally, I didn’t relate much to the problem that Perel kept saying was so universal. Most of her couples experienced a decline in attraction and desire as they got to know their partners better or when they committed to them. Most of their issues seemed to boil down to the idea that “familiarity breeds contempt” and the inverse of  “you always want what you can’t have.” Part of it also seemed to be kind of a virgin/whore complex, or an idea that sex is dirty: several of the men interviewed said something like “I can’t treat my wife that way” meaning ‘the way that turns me on.’ Maybe I’m exceptionally well-adjusted, but these conflicts aren’t ones I’ve experienced personally. If anything, familiarity and commitment have enhanced my desire because they are what freed me from my inhibitions and made it feel safe for me to be sexual in the first place. Sure, it’s a turn-off to see my husband sitting on the toilet, but it’s not that hard to put that image out of my mind when I’m in the mood to. I’ve been with my husband for almost 11 years now, married for 4, parents for almost 2, so I don’t think ‘newlywed glow’ is a good explanation for why I don’t feel the same way as Perel’s couples. We’ve had our share of problems in the bedroom, but our issues have been so idiosyncratic (or so banal) that a book like this was not likely to address them. So I found it hard to relate to a good chunk of the book, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for me.

The book was published in 2006, and I feel like since then a lot of its insights have become kind of common knowledge, thanks in part to Dan Savage’s podcast, which began the same year. For example, I feel like most people know that fantasies aren’t necessarily things that people want to actually experience, and that excessively goal-directed sex is no fun. For that reason I don’t feel like I learned much from it. Its most useful concepts for me were the good side of entitlement, and eroticism as an abstract idea that encompasses play. Seeing the way she approached problems in a sideways direction was also kind of instructive. The book might be best for committed couples with very little experience, like those who waited until marriage for sex, or for people who have never read or thought much about sex.

Bumped

Bumped by Megan McCafferty

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In this YA dystopia, a virus has led to widespread infertility among adults–but teenagers can still become parents. This leads upwardly mobile girls like Melody to “pregg for profit” by becoming a “Surrogette.” Her economist parents encouraged her to sign a contract promising a child to a rich couple. In this world there are no artificial inseminations, which increases the drama considerably. The twist is that Melody has a twin sister, Harmony, who was raised in a strict Christian community where the norm is early marriage rather than surrogacy/adoption agreements. When Harmony turns up at Melody’s door, she threatens to unsettle her sister’s contract, and her social life. Boys always complicate things as well, and there are three complications here: Zen, Melody’s best friend, Ram, Harmony’s fiancé, and Johndoe, the sperm donor who’s been chosen to “pregg” Melody.

This book’s inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale is obvious. It is somewhat more lighthearted though. McCafferty imagines a world in which teen pregnancy is cool and patriotic, giving rise to a whole set of slang phrases. The silly linguistic fun of reading invented words and dirty jokes made serious is a large part of the book’s appeal. These pun-tastic jokes are used to make fun of the whole idea of teenagers using their sexuality in this unfeeling, mercenary way. The obvious sexual themes drive most of the action, and I agreed with what the book said about sex, relationships, and young women. I always like a YA book that talks frankly about sex and shows teenagers enjoying it without being utterly destroyed by it. (Maybe this isn’t as rare as I thought it was? Or this is changing as we speak, and I’m still used to the norms of the YA books I read 10-20 years ago?)

At about a fourth of the way through the book, I made a prediction, and I was surprised by the ending anyway. I liked the way Melody’s relationships with Harmony and Zen had grown by the end of the book and thought the set-up for the next book was intriguing. The sequel, Thumped, is on my to-read list.

Tampa

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

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This is by far the smuttiest book I’ve ever read. Just look at that cover, guys. The main character, Celeste, is a middle-school English teacher who has sex with her students. She’s a first person narrator, and her every thought is either a sex fantasy, a strategy for having sex and getting away with it, or a complaint about how bored she is with everything that’s not sex.  It’s hard for me to imagine having a libido as all-consuming as Celeste’s. I listened to the audiobook, and the actress, Kathleen McInerney, read the whole thing in a voice that just seemed soaked in porn. Some of the “sexy” things Celeste does and thinks are so over-the-top that they have to be intended as humor because no one could really find them sexy (I hope). At the same time, though, some other scenes and descriptions were very sexy indeed, which makes the reader feel complicit and icky.

It’s a sex-reversed Lolita, but Celeste is much less lovey-dovey, sentimental, and poetic than Humbert Humbert. She never sees her young lovers as anything but sex objects, only thinks about their feelings in so far as their feelings determine when she’ll get off next. Even before beginning her relationship with a student, she’s decided that she’ll end things before the boy’s puberty reaches a certain point because then she’ll no longer be attracted to him. One of her boys seems to fall in love with her, and is incredibly emotionally damaged by the affair, but she doesn’t seem to care at all.

The comparison to Lolita makes the sexual double standard crystal clear, especially in the ending (spoiler alert: she gets away with it). The book reminded me of the episode of South Park where little Ike was having sex with his kindergarten teacher, and everyone’s reaction to the news was, “Nice.”

One theme that’s more deeply relevant for non-pedophilic women is Celeste’s fixation on youth in general. She’s only 26 but has an aggressive anti-aging beauty regimen in place. She finds the body of anyone older than about 30 to be physically repulsive and dreads her own maturation to the point of contemplating suicide to avoid it. She’s a very beautiful woman, and her beauty gives her a feeling of entitlement and specialness that she fears losing with age. She’s a trophy wife to a shallow cop with a trust fund, and describes their marriage as a show she puts on for his friends in exchange for a plush lifestyle. Celeste is a monster, but she’s the monster that our youth-obsessed culture made her.

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green

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In this book, the narrator goes to a boarding school and joins a group of rebels led by a girl named Alaska, a free spirit who smokes and drinks a lot, between pulling pranks on the snobby students and administrators. Our protagonist falls in love with her of course. There’s a tragic twist in the middle of the book that leads to the quest for answers alluded to in the title.

Of the three John Green books I’ve read now, I like Looking for Alaska least. Alaska is a blatant Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the trope is less examined here than in the other two books. She’s quirky, damaged, and self-destructive, creative, flirty, and of course, gorgeous. The book is about the narrator’s growth and his experience loving and losing Alaska, not about Alaska’s choices and her journey. He objectifies her and makes her into his Dulcinea. His friend says to him at one point, “It’s like now you only care about the Alaska you made up.” On the bright side, by the end of the book he realizes how his conception of Alaska was flawed. In this way the book does deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope to some extent, but not as radically as in Paper Towns. Alaska’s fragility and volatility make her a much more problematic character than the stronger, more self-determined Margo Roth Speigelman.

However, despite these issues, it’s a fun book to read. Green is great at capturing the voices of teen characters, especially smart, verbose ones. I like that he doesn’t shy away from portraying realistic teen sex or from tackling big, hard topics.

Balthazar

Balthazar by Claudia Gray

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This YA romance novel is a spin-off from the Evernight series, which is about a school for vampires. It takes two minor characters from that series and continues their story after the end of the action of the previous four books. The vampire mythology of these books is both more complicated and more traditional than in some other vampire books. These vampires can’t cross running water, but don’t seem to have too much trouble with sunlight; they have a particular antipathy for ghosts.

Balthazar is a vampire who was ‘turned’ back in America’s early colonial days, and Skye is a human with some supernatural abilities, especially seeing ghosts. When a group of vampires comes to Skye’s town and starts stalking her, Balthazar protects her, and they become close and fall in love. In many ways, this is a fairly typical YA romance, with some predictable plot elements, like a passionate first kiss followed immediately by a rejection. It’s gratifying that Skye is not helpless, that she does a pretty good job of taking care of herself when she has to and even saves Balthazar at one point. It’s also fairly interesting and unusual for YA that Skye is not a virgin at the beginning of the story, and she and Balthazar get to have sex, though without graphic description. If you like YA paranormal romance and aren’t expecting something that will blow your mind, you’ll probably like this book, and the entire Evernight series.