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Archive: August 2006

July Reading List

I think this is finally the month where I didn’t read much and should be ashamed of myself, though I suspect August could be even worse. I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting one book, but it must have been something forgettable. I did write this up a few weeks ago, in fact, but then managed to delete it before posting, so if I sound especially bitter it’s because I’ve had to explain twice why I don’t care for/about most of these books, although the answer might just be that I’m really a grump these days. I used to be so much more forgiving of books when I was young, finding one beautiful sentence that seemed somehow transcendent. Now I just want to toss things away because none can live up to my imaginary expectations.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
When Calliope hits puberty in the ’60s (I think, maybe very early ’70s) in Detroit she realizes that she’s not like other girls, is in fact perhaps a boy. And there’s plenty of over-foreshadowed drama about intermarriage in previous generations, which is sort of odd as if it’s trying to assign blame or something ridiculous like that. I liked this better when it was an excerpt in The New Yorker or something and Cal got sexually involved with a pair of siblings (independently, not in an orgy situation) in a sexual identity crisis that culminated in the discovery of ambiguous genitalia. The transliterations of the Greek really rubbed me the wrong way. If you want to read a nonfiction and more compelling book about John Money’s theories on how to deal with gender, you’re better off with something by Anne Fausto-Sterling or else John Colpatino’s As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Steven Covey
I’m sure there are useful techniques here, but it took me months to read because it was such an annoying slog through the parts about how in the ’50s the worst thing that happened at school was that the hoods chewed gum, whereas now kids are being gunned down in the halls, etc. I was not a receptive audience. I am not particularly effective, either.

Candyfreak, Steve Almond
I really strongly disliked this book, although I’m pretty sure I knew I would when I bought it. I know it’s gotten rave reviews elsewhere but something about Almond’s smug reveries about every candy he eats just drove me up the wall. I think it would work better as a blank book so you can fill it in yourself. “Crystallized ginger not only tastes like heaven, but is mentioned in an Incredible String Band song!” “I hate peppermint but once sucked down an entire stick of Blackpool Rock (lettered right through) candy just to watch the pink letters every time I took it out of my mouth.” “I was pretty stupid in my teens when I had no caffeine for 18 months and then ate an entire bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans in about 5 minutes and thought I was going to shake to death. In retrospect, the fishnet stockings I wore later that evening were also probably an unwise choice.” “I remember sitting in a rowboat on Lake Erie eating Jordan almonds, which I thought had the taste of pure delight.” “What could taste more like summer than a Crystal Beach sucker?” “Probably only the awesomest people give out Kinder Surprise eggs as wedding favors.” See, all that was more interesting to me (and who else matters?) than anything Steve Almond had to say about his own boring gluttony. I did like reading about all the regional candies, though of all the options I’ve eaten only GooGoo Clusters. I’m not a fan of this book at all and don’t even want to bother calling it saccharine or something so I can be cute like all the other people who’ve blurbed it, except apparently in some meta way.

A Girl of the Limberlost, Gene Stratton Porter
This was written in the first decade of the 20th century and it shows. But I’d never read it and now I have. Elnora is a poor, good, smart, talented, honest girl, and if you think everything ends badly for her then you’re a very mean person who doesn’t appreciate this sort of narrative. It was actually sort of interesting. I don’t quite know the part of Indiana where it’s set, but I enjoyed the culture clash parts more than the straight-up melodrama.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick
If I already wrote about this, am I off the hook? I like it; it’s really interesting. I could say more but probably won’t now. I think I view books about identity and how do we know we’re ourselves and all that differently from the way most people do, but that’s not something I particularly want to muse about now.

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend
This is another therapist recommendation, but a good one. It’s explicitly geared toward Christians who want to know how to avoid being doormats while still being moral people. I struggle a lot with the secular version of that problem and found it easy to just use the scripture references as metaphor and explication and not worry about my eternal soul, just the extent to which I can stand to keep living my life or maybe even enjoy it. It was a very helpful read for me and I’ll be going back to it a lot.

Vurt, Jeff Noon
This was a reread, a book Steven read in his Modern Fantastic course back in the time just pre-blog. I read along with him but didn’t have a class, which is good because I would have said something about being appalled that no one in his class got the reference in the name of the feather called Curious Yellow. It’s a story about drug culture and virtual culture and a police state and beautiful incest and father figures and authority and the power of word and image. Protagonist Scribble has lost his beloved sister Desdemona to the virtual world and is on a quest to win her back, but life both real and virtual intervenes. What struck me more this time around was how clearly it traces the abusive relationships Scribble is in, on different sides of the power imbalance at different times. I’d remembered some of the scenes of violence pretty clearly, but a lot of the bestial intimidation and jockeying for control was more disturbing than I’d remembered. I’m not sure whether I liked this more than the next book in what can I suppose be thought of as a series, Pollen, but both feature a fascinating, lively world and lots of interesting wordplay and narrative-play. I thought Automated Alice took the punning too far so it was no longer fun, but the other two books are less self-aware in that regard and much more fun, if that’s the right word for this kind of darkness. They’re compelling and captivating, which is maybe better than fun.

Rosemary for Remembrance

I guess it was early April when Steven I went to see V for Vendetta and I managed to hold off on buzzing my hair until late May, though I’d wanted it well before I saw Natalie Portman pull it off. I don’t talk about fashion and haircuts just to be frivolous but because I think the movie’s frivolity is key. Back in the 80s when V for Vendetta was written, dystopia looked dim. Recession would give way to civil war and ethnic cleansing (though that wasn’t a term yet, then, right? Not until the next decade and Yugoslavia’s demise?) and grim cement-block dormitories that would drive a girl right out on the streets to take a chance on prostitution when it could hardly be worse than home. Nowadays, I think we imagine it more like the movie does, although now the Fed’s this week stopped moving up interest rates, et c., et c., and who knows? But yeah, the “first they came for the Pakistanis and I didn’t speak up because I was too busy watching tv, plus don’t you have to be suspicious of them anyway?” approach seems like a plausible enough one to take. Unfortunately removing the squalor means removing some of the motivation. Here, Evey’s looking plenty fashionable by our standards and is sort of coddled by our fascist dictatorship, sure, but that’s what happens in the book too.

When Evey sets out from home at the start of the movie, she’s not exactly hoping to sell her body, or not so directly. She’s got a date with her boss (of some sort; like I said, it’s been months and the details are hazy) Gordon, who we later learn is gay and only dating girls for cover. Not only that, but he’s got a secret archive of Korans and Mapplethorpes. (I’m making that detail up because I don’t remember what the pictures of frolicking male nudes in the movie actually were, and because it lets me add the bitter footnote that I haven’t ever recovered from my anger that my parents wouldn’t let me see the Mapplethorpe exhibit that was subject of an obscenity trial here in Cincinnati. I listened to the details on the news every night and wanted to go judge for myself whether, as I suspected, the child nudes were in fact non-sexual and the adults appropriately so. Apparently the fact that I was 10 was enough to keep people from taking me seriously when it came to this request. I see their point, but, like I said, I still resent how it made me feel so left out, like history was passing me by.) So okay, it’s in Gordon’s best interests to have these beards so that he doesn’t raise enough eyebrows to get his place searched, but for that reason it’s in his best interest not to be encouraging young women with his business card from sneaking out after curfew to be caught and questioned by the secret police, so I don’t in fact think this was a good translation from book to screen, but it gets Evey out on the streets and lets V become her savior.

So the movie prettifies dystopia, but more interesting I think are the ways it erases some of the messiness around gender in the original. Here, when Evey’s thrust back into her corrupt world, she finds Gordon again to be her hero who’s keeping it real while living a lie. In the book, though, she lives with a rather different sort of character, a middle-aged man who wants her to share his bed. I think Steven thinks she’s legitimately fallen in love (whatever that means), but I think love isn’t even an issue at that point. She knows she’s nothing but a pawn and yet her body gives her an edge up, the only sort of power she can have. Living with V, like living under the tyranny outside, has taught her to comply with anything without protest, to easily readjust her worldview to let her survive inside the new power structure. So Evey learns to live out there and she survives, and then gets pulled back into the secret world and survives there too. She’s really not a very exciting protagonist, although I think she’s supposed to be.

More interesting, at least in the book, is the character I found most sympathetic, Rosemary Almond. She doesn’t show up in the movie, like the other major woman among the minor characters, Helen Heyer. Dr. Delia is there, in about an equivalent role, and the mysterious martyred Valerie, but none of the women who actually act like women. Of course, in this world “acting like women” means they are able to create roles for themselves based on those of the men they’re married to or otherwise fucking or at least implying they’d be willing to consider fucking. Helen, whom I do find sympathetic and more interesting than V or Evey, is a conniving bitch who gets her comeuppance, but she’s also in some ways the only woman with any sense of agency we get to see in the story. Sure, Evey takes on a mantle, but that’s some mystical transformative thing and a necessary unbelievability if you want a hopeful future for humanity after the final page.

Rosemary, though, has something else going on. By my reading, she seems like the solidly middle-class wife of a civil servant who doesn’t appreciate her (claiming he’d want to fuck her if she were more like the glamorous Helen, excuses for erectile dysfunction being more than common in the book) and yet whom she loves and accepts as loving her as much as he can. Then he gets offed by V and she learns quickly that even her bitter husband provided for her better than the state will, and she eventually does decide it would be in her best interests to accede to the propositions of one of her dead husband’s friends since it’s the only way she can maintain the standard of living she barely wants. V eventually gets him, too, and poor Rosemary ends putting on makeup like Evey at the beginning of the book to become a chorus girl at the cabaret the political leaders (formerly her social set) frequent. Unwilling to accept such an ending, though, she buys a gun and shoots The Leader of the fascist regime. In the book she does, at least.

In the movie, there is no Rosemary. It’s V and his awesome fighting skillz that come into play in the Matrixy assassination sequence, no “hell hath no fury” sequence needed. And yet while they’ve written out this Evey-parallel character in making the translation, there’s more to the Evey parallel than I’ve already said. See, in the book when Evey learns about the trademark rose V leaves with his victims, she asks if there’s one for The Leader but V replies that he has a different rose for that job. By this part in the story, Rosemary has been going by Rose for quite some time, a switch that’s not botanically sound but does sometimes seem to happen in namings though I’m rather particular about being a Rose plain, and now we learn that instead of being a woman out for vengeance and truth and power, she’s just another domino. In the most charitable reading, perhaps V’s just kept up with his surveillance and happens to know what she’ll do, but that hardly seems like him, does it? No, Rosemary/Rose is just like Evey, who’s guilted and manipulated into becoming exactly the woman V wanted her to be, giving him his perfect send off. Each has her heart ripped out by V until she can learn to be violent in a way that’s useful to him and his precious cause.

None of this is to say that I don’t sympathize with V, don’t think an evil, racist, fascist, misogynist government shouldn’t be overthrown. It’s just a bit creepy, if honest, to show the sexist, megalomaniacal tactics he uses to do that in the book. It’s equally creepy, I find, to edit that out in adapting it to movie form. While the movie avoids the “Evey, I am your father!” scene for seduction, neither story has much to show about truthful or healthy relationships, which I suppose is a rather obvious statement. It’s hard for me to watch Evey being abused even when V’s on good behavior and not locking her up with a rat for company. It’s hard to watch Rosemary pull a trigger that she knows will ruin her life with the hope that it might save others, though harder still with the thought that she’s just doing this for V and only thinks it’s for herself. But maybe all I’m saying is it’s just hard to sympathize with a crazy fascist who wants to overcome crazy fascism. There’s got to be a better way and I hope we find it soon.