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book review: Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear : Katharine Weber

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Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear: A NovelObjects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear: A Novel by Katharine Weber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this on a trip to Vermont, which is about as far (politically and geographically) as one can get from my home state without falling into the ocean, or Canada. It was a gloriously sunny day of the sort one can only get at higher latitudes — the light seems closer, somehow; why would that be?

So I sat on a bench in the sun, gave myself a nice burn, and cried.

I also dog-eared every other page (this, in a library book. I am a terrible terrible person.)

Here’s where I say that it’s a debut novel and very very good, though a first novel from a very very good author is still a first novel; and here’s where I apologize for my rating system, which makes sense to no one but myself and places Pride and Prejudice on par with Objects (the latter is better-written); and here’s where I apologize, again, for my inability to do any justice to Weber’s writing and — is scope too pretentious a word for such an unpretentious novel? — her scope.

This is why it’s good, why Weber is good: she is not retreating. She says: horrible horrible things will happen and you will have to deal with them. You created the horror – unwillingly, unwittingly; but now it is here and it is your fault. You will live with this. You have no choice. And you will not forget, and you will do it again.

Le Guin called this “equilibrium”, capital E, which is an unwieldy and beautiful word for such a deeply nasty, treacherous goblin.

This – that creation of horror, through our essential forgetful sloppiness – is wholly selfish. And even more so, says Weber (and I agree) is that we can forget about it; we can love; and we call that love more important than the evil we’ve done.

“Benedict: you are my You.”

Oh, my god.

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Written by jane

February 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Posted in books.

Book Reviews: Gossip Girl, Les Liaisons Dangerouses, Confession of a Jane Austen Addict

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Cullen and I caught up on old Gossip Girl awhile back, and my love for the tarty little show was quickly renewed. It’s advertised as a hodgepodge of backstabbing and sexual escapades, but … really, really, it is more a cautionary tale.
Or a tragedy. The best intentions aft gang agley, even in the lives of New York’s elite.

My sympathies lie with Blair Waldorf (and not just because I like her headbands, ahem). The supposed queen bitch has a mother so controlling, she tells Blair whom to marry – and when to relapse into bulimia. Blair doesn’t want to put her finger down her throat; she wants to be happy. She wants to be free. & she maintains her precarious position at the top of the food chain by lies and trickery if necessarily, not because she inherently cruel but because she has no other choice. The world available to her is terribly narrow.

Holding on to virginity is the biggest choice she’s permitted – and nobody else cares. But when she votes nay on True Love and gives it up for Sincere Lust, her choice of one night (one limo ride!) sends her into social damnation.
Poor Blair.

But that’s the show. The Gossip Girl book (by Cecily von Ziegesar) … well, fine literature it is not. Well-written it is not. Hell, it’s not even a page-turner, unless you’re interested in sour grapes (“By the end of this book, I will believe I am better off than a bunch of rich kids.”)

It is a story about teenagers behaving very, very badly, sex and drugs and sex and parties and sex and bulimia and drugs and sex and sex and … that’s all.
Representative quote: “And doesn’t she look fucked? I think she’s been thoroughly fucked.” Ah, yes. It’s one high-class novel.

*

On the other hand: Les Liasons Dangerouses (by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos)! It’s been a few years since I read it last, and I was afraid that time would have altered my feelings. Hurrah! No. The writing still sparkles, the characters are brilliant and horrible, the plots are inextricable.
It’s the finest epistolary novel I know; maybe the best one ever written. (Marie Antoinette reportedly kept a copy in her boudoir, which speaks perhaps more to the subject matter than to her views on literature.) The plot is treacherous, of course, and wicked, and thoroughly enjoyable, but the real joy is the characters – and their slow, subtle development. The creation of each character is so thorough that, by the end, one can read a few lines from any letter and know which person is writing (and usually to whom).

The sex scenes are great. Modern-day romance novels are never as lovely as this: “He wanted a second kiss; and, I don’t know why, but this time I was quite flustered and afterwards it was even worse than before.”

And it’s funny. Sometimes wickedly (“At the moment I feel grateful to all women of easy virtue, a sentiment which brings me naturally to your feet.”) – sometimes innocently (“I should look at him all the time if I were not so afraid of meeting his eye”).

My only quibble is the super-extended love affair between Valmont and Tourvel – I’m just not that interested in how perfect she is – but that’s a minor problem. Skip the letters, if they bore you. Return to the subtlety and sadness of Merteuil – she’s surely one of the most interesting women in literature. Argue about her fate! Does its severity mean de Laclos hated women? Or is it a sop to the views of society?

It proves, finally, if it needs to be proven, that sex and love and humor travel along the same worn path in every generation – and how terrible love can be – its tenderness and its violence.

*

And (and! and!) Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (by Laurie Viera Rigler, and I must stop reading Jane Austen novels, and novels based on Austen novels, and any and all reviews by readers who “OMG love Jane Austin”.)

It was actually pretty cute (Courtney, a modern woman, wakes up inside the body of a woman in Regency England. Hijinks ensue).
I mean, the subplot was annoyingly vague – somebody saw something sometime, possibly maybe – and the various love interests of the dueling centuries had little separation – and although I read the epilogue several times, I’m not entirely sure what happened – and Courtney’s ignorance of 19th-century social mores was seriously problematic for me, given that she’s read every Austen novel OMG a zillion times & Austen novels make little sense without basic knowledge of that society – and it was written in the present tense, probably to make it more perky? – but on the whole it was light and enjoyable. Good beach reading, as they say.

Also not a problem for me was the Mary Sue-ing going on. Clearly, the author idolizes Jane Austen, but she didn’t try to imitate Austen’s style of writing or characters (thank you, Ms. Rigler), and the quiet parallels between the Regency period and the modern world were not laced with distracting 21st-c feminist voice.

What caught me was the thread of sadness running throughout. For most woman, marriage is means to an end: it is the only way for a woman to gain respectability. Even if her husband is a lout, her worth is maintained: it’s proof she was wanted by a man and that’s all that matters.
That’s pretty grim.
Regardless of time period (says Courtney), most men are assholes –  (“The truth is that [name retracted] is not a man to be trusted, and the truth is that finding him attractive should have been my first clue.”) – but they can’t help it. Men are men are men, and women will assume the blame for it, and men will let them.

“If there’s anything I have learned as a single woman in search of that holy grail, a decent relationship, it’s that I have no right to assume anything. I have no right to assume I am in a relationship with a man, even if that man is someone I’m regularly sleeping with. I have no right to assume fidelity … ”
Ouch.
Still and all, this is a cheerful novel – the bits of lead are quickly, intentionally glossed over, and it takes a somber mood to notice them at all. Whether that’s a condemnation or a compliment depends on the reader.

*

The plights of Blair  and Merteuil and Courtney are alarmingly, terrifyingly similar. (Nothing is changed for women in three hundred years.) They have beauty and oodles of money and old family names, but no choices. Women are still valued on their virginity, on their beauty – all these things that advertise themselves, their value, to men. There is not (yet) any other standard of women’s value.
Ouch indeed.

Written by jane

June 23, 2009 at 12:05 am

Posted in books., feminism, politics

The Time Traveler’s Wife: Audrey Niffinegger

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“It is only my memory that holds me here.”
 

 This book reads as a laundry-list of loss, a battle against a future both certain and uncertain. As such, it as a certain charm. … I fully expected to enjoy it, love it even, read it weeping under the window filled with an uncertain raining light. But the flaws were too many – too huge.

Niffenegger references (and self-references) with abandon: not only the faces pages to new segments are preceded by quotes, from any source but usually fellow-authors; the novel itself is weighed down, nearly overwhelmed by reminisces self-congratulatory and sentimental – the Talking Heads, Rilke, Nirvana – the characters spend more time concert-going than they do acting themselves, more time quoting Rilke (“All angels are terrifying …”) than speaking to one another. As Clare gives birth after six miscarriages, Henry can only express his emotion by reciting the poem. Again.
By and large, this is my problem with the book: this, the microcosm. It is as if the author, too, cannot fully express herself – cannot even fully comprehend what she is trying to relate to the reader. She must borrow words, as Henry borrows time both backwards and forwards, as Clare borrows wings for her sculptures to create prosthetic metaphors.

The story falls flat. The lovers fall flat. The love, itself, is revealed as nothing above the ordinary after all – no great secret, no great truth. Like Henry’s time-travel, it is neither a great gift nor a great burden – it just is. Finally, all that purports to make this novel as special – just is. The novelist and the characters are both waiting (apparently endlessly) for a revelation that has never come – some gift of transcendence. Niffenegger implies it has arrived from love, love itself: but she shows that platitude as the too-worn cliché. Love itself gives no new challenges or gifts – it is what we bring to it that changes us, and how we allow ourselves to be changed. At the end of the book, both Henry and Clare remain as they were, caught in an endless loop. Change is become impossible: it will alter the devastatingly thin balance they must maintain between present and future and past. Only their daughter flits through circumstance, unfettered by love and unafraid to become something more.

In the end, remembering this book is far more revelatory than reading it.
 

 “Time, let me vanish.”

Written by jane

January 31, 2009 at 12:56 am

Posted in books.

Lost In Austen: Emma Cambell Webster

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“You are impressed with this latest display of your wit, even if no one else is.”
 

For whatever reason, I’ve finished in quick succession every Jane Austen novel I could put my hands on – with the exception of the unreadable Emma. (This, although I am not a fan of hackneyed romances, 18th-century clothing, or debutante witticisms.) Webster doesn’t seem much a fan of Austen, either, so we got along.

You are Elizabeth Bennett in this post-modern re-invention, existing solely in the swirling world of parties and picturesque Miss Austen created so many years ago. Within these narrow borders are her other characters – Darcy, Woodhouse, Jane, Mr. Collins; beaux and enemies great and small. Your mission is to navigate the minefield of courtship and emerge the victor, safely encased in a happy marriage that will ensure the future not only of yourself but of your relations, as the dreadful Mr. Collins is still entailed to your father’s estate.
And you may choose to marry the dreadful Mr. Collins, if you like. Or you may marry Mr. Darcy – the first time he asks you. Or you may scorn all offers and live alone, scribbling in a garret (“It is a truth universally acknowledged …”)

Or – life is full of possibilities! – you may slip and fall into an icy lake and drown. Or be disfigured by marauders. Or you may marry unhappily, for money or expedience, and live out your days in bitterness. All of this (except the marauders) you expected, having read Austen before and being aware of her wiles. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat – as the saying goes – and there is more than one path to Happiness and True Love, even in an Austen novel. Elizabeth may happily settle with several different men, or she may end her days happily alone. To be given a choice is the real treat.

… That, and the sheer audacity of Webster’s accomplishment. The reader is required to keep lists: of accomplishments, failings, superior connections, inferior connections, fortune … your choices are, to some extent, dictated by your scores. (Are you too intelligent to be happy in this relationship? Add up the points & see.) Like in real life, some times it’s possible to throw the score-sheets away – and some times it isn’t. You may regret either move.
  

“Your instincts are extremely unreliable. Deduct 20 intelligence points for failing to realize it and add “Extremely unreliable instincts” to your list of Failings.”

Written by jane

January 26, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Posted in books.

Twilight; New Moon; Eclipse; Breaking Dawn: Stephanie Meyer

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“You need a healthy dose of fear. Nothing could be  more beneficial to you.” 

As there are so many reviews and musings on the Twilight series, already, I don’t feel that the books themselves need more discussion. The interest has reached pitch, with the unveiling of the first film (and more to come!). I have not yet seen the film, and read the four books in just over a week. (They are thick, but not dense.) That was in August.
They’ve been percolating in my mind since then. Time has given a shred of clarity (and reason) to my initial feelings towards the books, and towards Ms. Meyer.

For instance, I no longer have any particular interest in denouncing Edward as useless, arrogant slime who treats Bella with a disinterest verging on the palpable, despite his oft-vetted interest in her life and safety. It no longer bothers me that he seems to consider her less than in both body (as a weak human to his amazing vampire strength) and mind.

It no longer bothers me that he finds her comparative lack of strength funny, and tells Bella she should be afraid of him while following her from pole to pole.
I’m not disturbed by his creepy, vaguely abusive behavior and miraculous cognitive dissonance (“Bring on the shackles,” he says, “I’m your prisoner.” But his long hands formed manacles around my wrists as he spoke. He laughed his quiet, musical laugh. – Twilight, p. 302.).

Bella – whose apparent mindlessness has been well-documented – doesn’t aggravate me now. When she admits “I do have some trouble with incoherency when I’m around him” (p. 204), I don’t laugh aloud and think – No, that’s all the time! Not any more. And when she wishes that her bad luck would ‘focus a little more carefully. I felt like yelling up at the empty sky: It’s me you want – over here! Just me!’ (Eclipse, p. 386), I don’t hope that it does.

No. My problem now isn’t with any of that – although I am still frustrated with the not-so-subtle pro-life, pro-abstinence, Father-knows-best meme, and I am blankly furious with the dearth of useful female characters (Alice, the perky, diminutive vampire who becomes Bella’s BFF, has as her main characteristics an extensive clothes-closet and the ability to see into the future – a rather passive achievement).

No. Now Jacob sets my teeth on edge. Jacob, whom Bella considers her truest, bestest friend, is a hereditary werewolf and the only competition to Edward in her affection – at least that’s what he thinks. Bella reminds him (with a frequency between ‘often’ and ‘constantly’) she is in love with Edward. Jacob is headstrong and often rude; as the books wear on, his arrogance grows and grows. He kisses an unwilling Bella; she hits him.
“Why did she hit you?” asks Charlie, Bella’s father.
“Because I kissed her,” Jacob said, unabashed.
“Good for you, kid,” Charlie congratulated him (Eclipse, p336).

Obnoxious. And offensive.

There are redeeming features – things that I’d like to see more of. At the beginning of New Moon, Carlisle reflects (haha.) on himself and humanity and god: “Never, in the nearly four hundred years now since I was born, have I ever seen anything to make me doubt that God exists in some form or the other. Not even the reflection in the mirror” (p 36). So says the vampire who has given his eternal life over to saving humans, both in his chosen career as a physician and by denying the very real urge to eat them. He created a few fellow vampires (his adopted ‘family’) and taught them to live without human blood – all in the name of goodness.

The other factor is Rosalie. In a book series so chaste that Edward lays his head on Bella’s chest, rather than against breasts, and his creeping into her bedroom at night is the prelude to … nothing at all – Rosalie is an anomaly. While human, she was gang-raped and beaten nearly to death by her fiancé and his friends – why, we’re never really told. Perhaps because she is so extraordinarily beautiful and so proud (vain, really); perhaps because she was willing to marry a man whose heart she did not know. I don’t have anything brilliant to say about her – her story is a quick interjection in the choppy Breaking Dawn, and (aside from tossing her hair) she doesn’t see much action.

Still – Rosalie is a brief, crystalline note of true human horror in a series surfeit with supernatural throwaway lines and main characters who walk around seeming drugged. It’s as though for a moment, Meyer is trying to say something real – if only she knew what it was.

“I’m hoping that there is still a point to this life, even for us.” 

Written by jane

January 13, 2009 at 10:34 am

Posted in books., feminism

On Writing: Stephen King

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“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”

 

  King’s much-lauded treatise on writing (title: “On Writing”) finally reached me this summer. It can be separated in two parts, almost down the middle: firstly, King’s reminisces about writing (and reading, and the horror films of his youth); and the how-to guide of write this, don’t write that, and sell here.

  His memoir section reads more or less like the intro to almost any of his stories: a lot of first-hand knowledge of drive-up movies and backseat fumblings; a love of comic books; and not nearly enough characterization. It is as though, having recently cast himself as a Very Important Character in a recent novel, we should already know who he is. Just go along with it, folks.

  And perhaps that’s the problem. I’ve been reading King in one form or another since I was eight years old; my brother owned The Gunslinger, among a few others, and they were some of the first adult books I read. King is very familiar to me – to all of us; he has shaped the landscape of acceptable horror, and made horror commonplace.

  In short, it’s all been done. King’s stories have been told and re-told so many times that the substance – the jolt – is gone; and (like most writers) he may not have had so much to begin with. Most of his works blend together in a reader’s mind, and – so it appears – in his, as well. The re-occurring characters may be the only inhabitants of his nightmares, after all; and how frightening can they be after 30 years?

  It was somewhat bitterly then that I turned to the remainder of his work. The basic tips may be found useful – no adverbs, people! – and his knowledge of writing as an industry is certainly invaluable, if you aim to scrape a path down the middle. But the most certain advice is just to write.

  And for that I say thank god. If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will stare into you; and if you read too much King, you will become him. There may be worse fates (his millions of dollars come to mind), but you were reading the book to become your own writer – right?

 

“Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right.”

 

*

Written by jane

September 19, 2008 at 12:02 am

Posted in books.

Fingersmith: Sarah Waters

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“Fuck this cheap life, in all its forms – eh, Sue?”

 

At one point in the first third of this 500+ page novel, protagonist and narrator Sue Trinder remarks that, even in hindsight, it is difficult to remember who-knows-what-part of the villainous plot she is embroiled in. The reader is as ignorant as Sue – fact which comes crashing down like the doors to a madhouse at the end of Part I, and nearly sent me flying out of my seat.

 

Then, after all, maybe this book of secrets isn’t so crafty after all. Plot twists aside, the pace is slow – sometimes achingly slow. The story shifts back to the beginning, with Maude voicing the action, and becomes a veritable competition of first-person narrators. By the time all plans are laid bare (rather late, around page 500), the girl’s voices and situations are so similar, and the subplot of who-knows-what so intricate, the reader must abandon emotion for logic.

 

Or vice versa. I chose to be caught in the story and drift along like flotsam, only going back to recall and parse later, in the second and third readings of this book.

 

  I realize I sound as though I didn’t enjoy it. That’s untrue – it was certainly engrossing, certainly inventive – and descriptive – if at times more interested in the by-lines of its characters than in the plot, which is a shame. By the end, I found myself greatly preferring one protagonist to the other. There are a number of lives I would have liked more detail on – what drives Richard to his ends? – and some closure seemed injected for pure spite.

 

The very-lesbian obsession with fingers. Secret upon secret: Maude’s dresses; Sue’s illiteracy; the books (so peaceful and unassuming) on the shelves; the name ‘Gentleman’ given to an absolute scoundrel.

 

I found its layers entrapping: they are a little self-consciously sticky. The first-time reader is unaware of all this, of course. And when the plot’s steel jaws close (on Sue, on Maude, on Gentleman), they also close around the reader.

 

I do not appreciate being taken in. It’s a fine line to some, how to withhold information without trickery; this book betrays. It digs a pit and mocks the reader for falling when you have been blindfolded and lead by the hand …The middle section  is a bit of a wash, for that very reason; subsequent readings made it more palatable, as my arguments with the characters (motivation, actions) were nearly silenced by the casual pace and gentle – surprisingly gentle – writing. For the first and only time, the tone matches the meaning; and doubts fall away, as they do beneath the hand of an artist: we are lead where we are driven, and are no longer shocked when the drop comes. 

“Now comes the first failing, or shrinking back, of my heart.”

*

Written by jane

September 18, 2008 at 11:59 pm

Posted in books.