My top three reads of 2014 were, coincidentally, books published in 2014; I did a lot of contemporary reading, perhaps more than usual, this year because I got to write lots of reviews. I really appreciated that opportunity, because it led me to books like Life Drawing,A Highly Unlikely Scenario, and The Secret History of Wonder Womanthat I might not have encountered otherwise.
TOTAL BOOKS READ: 47, plus at least four begun and, through no fault of their own, put aside for later; and lots of rereading of old favorites for comfort
BY ROXANE GAY: 2, both impressively good
BY DIANA GABALDON: 8, for an estimated total of 50,000 pages. These basically took over my life.
GRAPHIC NOVELS: 3, all remarkable
GENRE NOVELS: Kind of a lot
THEMES: Sexual violence, feminism, high-brow sequels, the Midwest
An Untamed State (Gay) – A
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Chast) – A
Lila (Robinson) – A
A Bintel Brief (Finck) – A-
A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Gabaldon) – A-
Americanah (Adichie) – A-
Bad Feminist (Gay) – A-
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Ulinich) – A-
Life Drawing (Black) – A-
The Flamethrowers (Kushner) – A-
The Magician’s Land (Grossman) – A-
Voyager (Gabaldon) – A-
Written In My Own Heart’s Blood (Gabaldon) – A-
Demon Camp (Percy) — B+/A-
The Goldfinch (Tartt) – B+/A-
The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Lepore) – B+/A-
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Patchett) – B+/A-
We Were All Completely Beside Ourselves (Fowler) – B+/A-
A Highly Unlikely Scenario (Cantor) – B+
An Unnecessary Woman (Alameddine) – B+
Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (Gran) – B+
Not That Kind of Girl (Dunham) – B+
Small Victories (Lamott) – B+
Some Luck (Smiley) – B+
The Fault in our Stars (Green) – B+
Half Bad (Green) – B/B+
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Bradley) – B/B+
Lay It On My Heart (Pneuman) – B/B+
The Fiery Cross (Gabaldon) – B/B+
Outlander (Gabaldon) – B/B+
The Frangipani Hotel (Kupersmith) – B/B+
The Quick (Owen) – B/B+
A Dragonfly in Amber (Gabaldon) – B
A Dual Inheritance (Hershon) – B
Bone Clocks (Mitchell) – B
California (Lepucki) – B
Can’t and Won’t (Davis) – B
Drums of Autumn (Gabaldon) – B
How Should a Person Be? (Heti) – B
The Price of Salt (Highsmith) – B
We Are Called to Rise (McBride) – B
An Echo In The Bone (Gabaldon) – B/B-
Frog Music (Donoghue) – C+
Good In Bed (Weiner) – C+
Too Hard to Be Objective
Cutting Teeth (Fierro) – N/A
Tender (Rikhter) – N/A
When I First Held You (Gresko) – N/A
Lovely But Unfinished — Will Return
A Fine Old Conflict (Mitford)
Cold Mountain (Frazier)
One Summer (Bryson)
The Paying Guests (Waters)
4043 books read or partially read, not counting the re-reading of comfort food books (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Dorothy Sayers mysteries, and Pride and Prejudice) but totally counting War & Peace, because I read the shit out of that, except the epilogue, which I skimmed the shit out of, because UGH TOLSTOY I GET IT NAPOLEON HISTORY EUROPE. Other than the epilogue, though, it really was pretty good! That was a pleasant surprise.
Not my best year for reading. What with the craziness of gestating, birthing, and then caring for an infant, I did lots of re-reading for comfort instead of seeking out the new and exciting. Still, any year in which I made it through both Moby Dick and David Copperfield is not worth erasing from the historical record entirely.
Bringing Up Bebe (Druckerman) – B-
French moms don’t get frazzled. They manage stay sane and calm, thanks in large part to fantastic Nanny State programs and benefits that makes childbearing and child-rearing as easy as possible, and also to cultural differences that don’t turn women into “mommies” — child-obsessed, compulsive, as well as chubby, shlubby, and self-denying — the way American society does. Unfortunately the narrator is the kind of woman who compares herself to Carrie Bradshaw, which makes her hard to take seriously, and she paints a kind of ridiculous Goofus and Gallant contrast between the countries.
Telegraph Avenue (Chabon) – B-
Come on, dude! Stop overwriting, over-plotting, and over-filling your narratives with characters. You’re not penning a 19th-century Russian epic. If TA weren’t by Mr. Kavalier & Clay, I’d have put the book down before now, but I’m holding out hope it gets better as MC hits his stride and stops trying so hard.
Also finished (or abandoned) before the year’s end:
Divergent (Roth) – B- Pretty good trash, as trash goes. Entertaining. Definitely not a contender for next Hunger Games.
Insurgent (Roth) – C+ Sloppy and haphazard. Still reasonably entertaining. Strong female protagonists always earn some leeway from me.
The Bad Girl (Llosa) – B. Unfinished. Well-written and interesting, but the narrative loses steam and starts meandering halfway through.
The End of Men (Rosin) – C+ Some good thinking; lots of bad editing; and a terrible title that eclipses her more measured arguments. The thesis that seems to hold for some chapters has no relevance to other chapters, some of which are downright contradictory. Altogether a frustrating read. (Though funny to hold on the subway when 9 months pregnant.)
Here’s the rest of the round-up in alphabetical order, featuring a couple of classics, lots of memoir, Cramming for Motherhood manuals, history delivered in exciting & memorable ways (Bringing Up the Bodies, 11/22/63, Hark! A Vagrant), some solid genre fiction (Devil in a Blue Dress, Maltese Falcon, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Comedians), some disappointing literary fiction (1Q84, The Marriage Plot, Sense of an Ending, Open City) and the unforgettably bizarre 50 Shades of Grey, without which I would never have been invited to appear on Geraldo.
Best surprise: Suite Francaise, which I didn’t expect to like, let alone be ravished by.
Best non-surprise: Tiny Beautiful Things, which was exactly as moving and profound, witty and wry as I expected. A more rewarding experience than Wild, leading me to the odd conclusion that I may prefer Strayed-as-Sugar to Strayed-as-Strayed.
NOTE: I’m still fiddling with the grades, since when I’ve just finished a book, I’m usually too kind to it, being either relieved to be done or still basking in its glow. Only in retrospect can I more accurately judge whether the reading experience holds up.
11/22/63 (King) – B+/A-
Arcadia (Groff) – B
Are You My Mother? (Bechdel) – B+/A-
Baby Catcher (Vincent) – B+
Bring Up the Bodies (Mantel) – A
Changing My Mind (Smith) — didn’t get to finish but really liked
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (Fuller) – B
David Copperfield (Dickens) – B+/A-
Devil in a Blue Dress (Mosley) – B+
Fierce Attachments (Gornick) – A
Fifty Shades of Grey (James) – C-
Gone Girl (Flynn) – B
Half-Broke Horses (Walls) – B/B+
Hark! a Vagrant (Beaton) – B+
Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth (Gaskin) – B+
IQ84 (Murakami) – C
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Kaling) – B
Mildred Pierce (Cain) – B
Moby Dick (Melville) – B
Moonwalking with Einstein (Foer) – B
Open City (Cole) – B
Sempre Susan (Nunez) – B
Suite Francaise (Nemirovsky) – A-
The Art of Fielding (Harbach) – A-
The Comedians (Greene) – B
The Happiest Baby on the Block (Karp) – B+/A-
The Maltese Falcon (Hammet) – B/B+
The Marriage Plot (Eugenides) – B-
The Psychopath Test (Ronson) – B/B+
The Robber Bridegroom (Welty) – B
The Sense of an Ending (Barnes) – B
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Le Carre) – B
Tiny Beautiful Things (Sugar) – A
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Winterson) – A-
Wild: From Lost to Found on the PCT (Strayed) – B/B+
Intense, and intensely grim, but beautifully written. The copy I got from the BPL included a great introductory essay by Jonathan Franzen that adds depth to the book (when read afterwards, as proper introductions are).
This gets my vote for Most Disappointing First Novel of the Year. It falls into the same traps as Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I also had to put down in frustration for being obnoxiously over-written. The premise is so promising, too! Will someone else please write the book this meant to be?
Again with the grim. The Submission is too much like real life, only rehashed and exaggerated. You’d think that’s what good fiction is supposed to be, and Waldman is a competent writer, but for me it doesn’t quite connect. I need fewer characters, including at least one I can relate to and like, as well as fewer stereotypes and more surprises. Otherwise, it’s just like reading the news.
And here’s the final round-up of WHAT I READ BESIDES “THE NEW YORKER” IN 2011:
A Dance With Dragons (Martin) – A-
A Moveable Feast (Hemmingway) – B
A Red Herring Without Mustard (Bradley) – B+
A Walk in the Woods (Bryson) – B+
An Unsuitable Attachment (Pym) – B+
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (James) – B+/A-
And the Pursuit of Happiness (Kalman) – A-/A
Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 – unfinished but good! B/B+ ish
Bonk (Roach) – A/A-
Bossypants (Fey) — A-
Broken Glass Park (Bronsky) – B+
Buttered Side Down (Ferber) – B+
Canterbury Tales (Chast) – B
Claire DeWitt And the City of the Dead (Gran) – B+
Disobedience (Hamilton) – B
Excellent Women (Pym) – B
Game of Thrones, Books 1-4 – B+/A-
Homesick (Eshkol) – A-
House of Holes (Baker) – B+/A-
Human Croquet (Atkinson) – B/B-
I Remember Nothing (Ephron) – B
Incendiary (Cleve) – B/B-
Kafka Was the Rage (Broyard) – Unfinished and uninteresting. C+?
Life Among the Savages (Jackson) – B+/A-
Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House (Daum) – B
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Simonson) – B+
Mary Ann in Autumn (Maupin) – B-
My Mother She Killed Me … (Bernheimer) – B
Mysterious Benedict Society (Stewart) – B/B-
One Day (Nicholls) – B
Orange Jumpsuit (Cobble) – N/A. How can I rate a book written by a close friend in which I play a supporting role?
Raising Demons (Jackson) – B+
Rich Boy (Pomerantz) – A-
Room (Donoghue) – A
Sacred Games (Chandra) – unfinished but strong; I want to come back to it
Spook (Roach) – B+
Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (Biskind) – unfinished & not sure I’ll pick it up again. Turns out dirt on Beatty’s sex life doesn’t really do it for me.
Started Early, Took My Dog (Atkinson) – B/B+
Starting from Happy (Marx) – C+
State By State (Weiland/Wilsey) – B+
State of Wonder (Patchett) – A
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Summerscale) – B-
Swamplandia! (Russell) – B
The Finkler Question (Jacobson) – B-
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society (Shaffer) – B
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Bronsky) – A-
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot) – B
The Lazarus Project (Hemon) – B
The Magician King (Grossman) – B
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Bender) – B-
The Sabbath World (Shulevitz) – B+
The Situation and the Story (Gornick) – A
The Sun Also Rises (Hemmingway) – Unfinished but ugh. C
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Summerscale) – B-
The Tiger’s Wife (Obreht) – B+/A-
The Tragedy of Arthur (Phillips) – B-
The Warmth of Other Suns (Wilkerson) – unfinished but I definitely want to get it from the library again. Engrossing, wonderfully-written history.
The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Bradley) – B+
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Le Carre) – A-
To The End of the Land (Grossman) – A
Unbroken (Hillenbrand) – B
When Everything Changed (Collins) – A
Your Voice in My Head (Forrest) – B+/A-
Zone One (Whitehead) – Unfinished and I think I’d like to go back to it, though I felt mixed in the moment. B?
Genre novels. I’ve always been one of those people who could appreciate Dorothy Sayers, the occasional quality YA novel, and Harry Potter, while still being a snob about genres in general. In 2011, I got over myself. Perhaps “Buffy,” which I watched way too many hours of over the course of the year (especially on the treadmill–it’s excellent exercise viewing), gets some credit. Regardless, I went in headfirst and got swallowed up by George R. R. Martin, John Le Carre, PD James, the debut novelist Sara Gran, and Walter Mosley. I also bought a copy of The Maltese Falcon, which I haven’t gotten around to yet. Turns out, and gee, who’s surprised, I’m a huge dork for this stuff. Can’t get enough. Feed me, Seymour, feed me!
Alina Bronsky. The best writer you’re not reading, possibly because books in translation don’t get a lot of attention in America. (Unless they’re about bisexual Scandinavian hackers with axes to grind.)
Mary Roach. Roach writes non-fiction for people like me who don’t want to have to work to learn things. Factoids from her masterpiece Bonk continue coming to mind eight months after I read it, and it works as a terrific 2011 book as an intellectual, witty Superego-like counterpoint to the hilariously, gleefully filthy Id of House of Holes.
Shirley Jackson. If you only know her for her chilling short stories, try her memoir — her first-person account of trying to raise a brood of high-spirited children in mid-twentieth-century middle America is almost as scary and twice as funny.
Hemingway. Was it watching Midnight in Paris that pushed me into Papa’s arms? His books were good at getting strange young men to approach me on the subway and that’s the best I can say for them. Except I did love the exchange at the end of A Moveable Feast where he tries to convince F. Scott Fitzgerald that he has a perfectly normal-sized penis, no matter what Zelda says. Hemingway here is a very good friend: he not only tells Fitzy he’s being silly, he also drops trou to compare and takes his still sorrowful, unconvinced buddy to a museum for a tour of naked sculptures. Overall, though, Papa’s self-absorption left me cold.
The Finkler Question. This flaccid, unfunny humor novel won the Booker Prize. I’m trying to remember now why I rated it even as highly as I did, considering I enjoyed very little of it. Ambition? A good concept? Maybe I felt sorry for the author. That happens sometimes.
UPDATE: A old friend accuses me of grading on a curve! Do I? Do I now need to rethink everything??
Yesterday, at a party my boss took me to for work, an older gentleman used shaking my hand as an excuse to fondle my wrist. As his index finger caressed my skin and I tried not to barf, I reflected on how many odd face-to-face interactions I have had with people in the last month.
Most recently, I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival, an annual gala where writers and thinkers get to sit in close proximity with the only people who still buy novels. Even when less than scintillating, the panels always give you something to mull over, like when Sigrid Nunez, there to discuss the writing of her new memoir about her relationship with Susan Sontag, said that she doesn’t like to write about people she knows, but if one musts, the trick is to “be harder on yourself than you are on them.”
David Rakoff, also on the panel, said that he avoids writing about people he knows altogether — except his parents. And they, he feels, are fair game.
Jonathan Franzen’s advice on the same topic was to write about whomever you want but mention of any male character that he has distressingly small genitalia. Then no one will admit — or want to believe — that you’ve written about him.
All of that aside, the best panel over the weekend was about contemporary parenthood and featured Alice Bradley, an old favorite of mine from her blog Finslippy, who has co-written the funny/scathing Let’s Panic About Babies!; Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite bloggers and America’s best public intellectuals; and Adam Mansbach, the surprisingly smart & substantial author of Go the Fuck To Sleep. I had gone in with no expectations at all and really enjoyed hearing them all make jokes about children and about trying hard to be both a parent and a recognizable human being.
The best thing about it was the location (all those Jews in a church on Sunday!). Otherwise, it fell kind of flat. You can always count on Lebowitz to say something hilarious, and she was exactly as sharp as you would hope she would be. “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy,” she said, all but pounding the podium. Later, she had acidic words for America post-NAFTA: “What has replaced factories in the Midwest? Meth labs and mega churches. It goes New York–>meth labs and mega churches–>LA.”
Sadly, Shawn and Eisenberg had only standard leftist Ivory Tower talking points to contribute, and as Lebowitz wandered into the well-worn territory of carping about Kids These Days, the event became steadily less interesting. No one addressed either of the two fundamental questions I have about contemporary political life:
1) In a post-socialism world–which is to say, a world in which the left has no ideological counterpoint to capitalism to offer–what idea should we be rallying around? Less unfair democracy? More restrained capitalism? As Aaron Sorkin might say, I can’t believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that.
2) Bearing in mind that the last progressive US president to get elected to a second term was Franklin Roosevelt, how is Obama supposed to win in 2012, especially without pissing off the left? Clinton sold out to the Republicans with free trade and welfare reform; that’s a large part of why he was popular enough to compete, and even then he got a strong assist from the 3rd-party candidacy of wacko Texan Ross Perot.
So I left a bit disappointed with everyone involved. Unlike the many other people who potentially felt the same way, however, I got to express my feelings (!!) because later that afternoon, as I headed to Trader Joe’s, I passed the three panelists and a fourth individual on the street. There they were, just hanging out, Lebowitz smoking of course. (She’s the only smoker I love and almost certainly the only one I respect.)
Hitching up my resolve, I walked right to her and said, “Can I shake your hand?”
Lebowitz took her cigarette out of her mouth, held it with the fingers of her left hand, and shook my hand with her right.
“You were brilliant up there today,” I said, looking all of them in the eye one by one. “But you were wrong.”
Shawn and Eisenberg looked startled and confused, as though a waiter in a restaurant had lifted the cover off a dish to reveal a live kitten. Lebowitz merely put her cigarette back in her mouth and gave a half-shrug, half-smirk that made me want to make out with her, even though she would taste like an ashtray. Instead, I smiled once more at all of them and kept walking.
VICTORY IS MINE, SAYETH THE LORD. Or perhaps he didn’t, but he should have.
The night before, some friends and I hit up the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival at the Bell House, where we got up and close and personal with more celebrities: Ira Glass, John Hodgman, and special guest star Rachel Maddow. Maddow told adorable, endearing stories about how she was hired by a woman to do yard work and ended up doing another kind of maintenance altogether, if you know what I mean. (In fulfilling that fantasy, for both parties, by the way, she probably deserves some sort of lesbian Medal of Honor.) Hodgman held his own, hilariously straight-faced as always, but Mirman, who I’ve also seen knock over grown people with laughter, was underutilized by the hosts, Elna and Kevin of “The Talent Show,” who seemed much more focused on making sure Ira Glass puked onstage.
They nearly got their wish, too. By midway through, Glass was so sloppily happy that he kept popping up from his chair and beaming at the audience, like a tall hipster prairie dog. Elna and Kevin kept telling him to take shots and, as Mr. Ben pointed out later, it was like improv — he couldn’t say no. By night’s end, we watched a great wave of nausea nearly topple him. His cheeks puffed out; his eyes sunk; and his wife managed to lead him offstage before he blew his cookies in front of everyone.
Also one of the comedians nearly got into a fight with some hecklers from the audience and had to be restrained. In general it was not the best show I’ve seen there but, still, watching Ira Glass turn sea-green was pretty memorable.
More to come! I swear. I have great Montana stories and at some point I’ll get to tell them.
My new thing: Inadvertently picking up boys by reading Hemingway in a public place.
SCENE: Uptown 1 train during rush hour
CHARACTERS: A whole train full of them, leaving only scattered seats available for our heroine, ESTER, who carries a purse, a tote bag, and a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises. She navigates her way towards an empty spot next to a young white male HIPSTER, with unwashed hair and metal stuff in his face, who is sprawled casually across several seats. His feet rest against the pole.
HIPSTER: That’s a good book.
ESTER: [smiles politely, like she always does when strange men speak to her uninvited.]
HIPSTER: [louder] That’s a good book!
ESTER: Uh huh! [unspoken: Actually, I’m finding it pretty boring, but I’d like to keep reading, so if you –]
HIPSTER: I love Hemingway. He’s so great.
ESTER: Yeah! Well, except, his voice does seem pretty similar book to book. I just read A Moveable Feast and —
ESTER: It’s his memoir of life in Paris. You should read it — it has F. Scott Fitzgerald in it.*
HIPSTER: [blank stare]
ESTER: Anyway, it strikes me as funny that the narrator there is essentially exactly the same as the narrator in this one — and this one’s supposed to be fiction.
HIPSTER: But that’s the thing! It’s all HIM. It’s so real.
ESTER: Sure! And he seems so happy, drinking, living in Europe, meeting women …
[HIPSTER smiles suggestively. He is good-looking, although not as good-looking as he thinks he is, and his feet are still on the pole. He is taking up enough space for at least three people.]
HIPSTER: Yeah. He had the life!
ESTER: Yeah! The details are so strange, though. He’s totally into cataloging exactly what he ate, what he drank, and then the streets he took to get home to his apartment in Paris, but then his wife has a baby and you don’t hear anything about that til the kid is 6 weeks old. I guess it’s no surprise he got divorced. … And then he killed himself.
HIPSTER: Yeah! What’s up with that? Isn’t that weird?
ESTER: Seriously. To go all around the world, sleep with everyone, be a writer, eat and drink and have a great time, and then blow your head off in Idaho. … Here’s my stop! Have a nice day.
* The best part of that entire book is a conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in a cafe where Fitzgerald confesses that Zelda told him his penis is too small to give a woman pleasure and he is now terminally insecure about it. Hemingway takes him into the bathroom to see, tells him it’s fine, and then takes him to the Louvre to look at naked statues. Even that doesn’t alleviate poor Fitzgerald’s concern. But you have to admit, Papa was a good friend.
Remainder (McCarthy) – Intriguing premise; bizarre follow-through. It’s also very hard to care about a main character who barely cares about himself.
The Slap (Tsiolkas) – The story seemed so promising! And I’ve read very little about Australia since The Thornbirds in high school. This, however, is a shallow, angry, misanthropic look at suburban life there that is better left untouched.
Lit (Karr) – Nowhere near as good as her first memoir, Liar’s Club. As an adult, Karr seemed less sympathetic and more self-absorbed.
The Imperfectionists (Rachman) — not because it was bad but because I expected so much and was underwhelmed with the results. Same as with the Wells Tower and Adam Langer.
BOOKS I READ WITH THE WORDS “SACRED,” “HUNGER,” AND/OR “GAMES” IN THE TITLES
They were all good, too! Maybe there’s some juju there in those words.
You can also tell from this list that I’ve gotten a lot better at putting down sub-par books. Once upon a time, I found that to be much more difficult, and I would read through to the end anything I had started just to be a good girl. Now I’m a total rebel. Take that, patriarchy!
Having finally released three different but related books back into the wild of the Brooklyn Public Library system — Freedom, Catching Fire, and The Passage — I feel the time is right to weigh in on the literary meme of the moment, Franzenfreude, a term that, loosely defined, indicates that Jonathan Franzen represents all that is wrong with the contemporary high-brow book world.
Is that stupid? Quite! Except there’s a caveat. The phenomenon referred to by “Franzenfreude,” that the high-brow book world restricts its highest praise and most fawning attention for the works of men, is absolutely true. It just happens that Jonathan Franzen is a terrible poster boy for that problem.
Franzen writes gorgeous women. Fleshed-out, interesting, three-dimensional, vivid women, women with brains. He writes for them, too, and perhaps most importantly of all, he READS THEM. When, at a Brooklyn Book Festival panel, someone asked him what he was reading, he replied, “Edith Wharton.” To the follow-up question of what should we, his audience, be reading, he listed several books, all by female authors, including the Ms. Hempel Chronicles, of which, up to that point, I hadn’t even heard. (Then I read it. It was good!)
A friend and I cornered him after the panel to ask whether he’d realized he’d been promoting work by ladies. He blinked for a moment, then laughed and said it honestly hadn’t occurred to him.
That said, let’s address the can of worms itself. Yes! Fiction by women is customarily and routinely dismissed by the intelligentsia in favor of fiction by men. Because why should fiction be any different than anything else? The most exalted spaces in any pantheon are reserved for men. So it has been, so it will be. This is because women can have babies, whereas men can only have egos, and also testicles, or something.
However! The less important the pantheon, the more likely it is that you can find a woman at the top of it.
The high-brow book world also dismisses almost all genre fiction. Genre fiction is where women reign supreme or, at the very least, hold their own: romance, mystery, young adult, sci fi, fantasy. Having just ingested the Hunger Games trilogy, a sci-fi YA extravaganza that took not just me but America by storm, I feel particularly drawn to this point right now.
Even in most genre fiction, there remains an idea that boys won’t read books about girls. Hence the sad-but-true fact that J.K. Rowling couldn’t publish under the name “Joanne” for fear of frightening off huge numbers of young male readers. But this to me feels wrong. Step on the NYC subway right now and look around — I guarantee you that someone on that car is reading, not Freedom, but the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. About, as you’ve perhaps heard, Lisbeth Salander, one of the most kick-ass female characters in any book of any genre. The Golden Compass books didn’t suffer for focusing on Lyra, another quite impressive young woman. Even Dan Brown’s idiot bestseller the Da Vinci Code was a FEMINIST conspiracy theory.
Best of all, perhaps, is Suzanne Collins, whose hugely popular Hunger Games books center around Katniss, who doesn’t want to get married and doesn’t understand why having leg hair is bad. Written by a lady! Starring a lady! Yet everyone’s reading them. Hopefully the next J.K. Rowling can be inspired by this and publish under her full name.
This doesn’t, of course, solve the problem of the white male taste-makers — and the sufficient numbers of female taste-makers who concur — giving all the plaudits that matter to white male authors. As Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker author I admire, put it just this year in his tribute to Salinger: “In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'”
What Gopnik meant to say, no doubt, was, “Here are three books I really dig!” He’s hardly the first intellectual to fall into the tar pit of generalizing from his own experiences. But it’s a disturbingly prevalent trend among white male taste-makers: assuming that what they relate to and find meaning in, the rest of us must as well, AND that those books must be “the best.”
It’s bullshit, and I’m glad people are finally beginning to realize that. But leave Jonathan Franzen out of it, would you? He’s one of the good ones.
When I picked up an unabridged (though yes, translated) version of the the Canterbury Tales a couple of weeks ago, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Stories, of course. So many novels lately successfully weave together loosely-related stories: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was so exciting it had me up at 3:00 AM thinking about narrative; The Imperfectionists, which is not quite as good as I hoped it would be, but still worth reading;Olive Kitteridge; and theMs. Hempel Chronicles, off the top of my head. I wanted to see how the master, and perhaps originator, of the genre pulled it off.
I knew some of the stories would be a little bawdy, others would be religious, and many, if not most, would have morals. But I was not prepared for what I found. In fact I was so unprepared that, reading it on the subway one morning across from an Orthodox mother and daughter, I got so flustered I had to turn the book over on my lap.
Friends, Chaucer likes the word “cunt.”
Sure, he’s not the only one. Characters on the Sopranos made liberal use of the word, usually as a prelude to or an excuse for murder. Henry Miller sprinkles it on his prose like salt. But everyone knows that Henry Miller is rated R, or NC-17. I had no idea the Canterbury Tales were. They seem so staid simply by virtue of being old.
That’s the real shock here. It’s not just that Chaucer enjoys an edgy, monosyllabic word that perhaps carried less weight in England 700 years ago than it does in the US today. (Seems possible, according to one etymological history.) It’s that these pilgrims, Chaucer’s characters, have such gleefully filthy imaginations. Wives cheat on husbands with students, lodgers, cousins, monks, anyone available, really. Virgins are hardly immune from the lust that seems to overtake married women: when they are surprised by amorous fellas, they give as good as they get. And men? Men will leap on anything with two legs and a hole.
That, in short, is the venerable, aged, enduring classic the Canterbury Tales: smut, smut, more smut, some boring moralizing, a dash of out-of-the-blue Jew hate, followed by smut, smut, smut, and smut. Okay! Now the naked Chaucer from A Knight’s Tale makes more sense to me.
Also shocking: I discovered this weekend, when I went home to join my family in picking out a headstone, that my father had a gun. True story. The man who, as far as I know, only ever shot off his mouth, bought a Smith & Wesson in New Mexico and brought it to DC shortly after moving there. The same Wild West instincts that were guiding him told him not to bother with a permit, apparently.
My mother bound the gun up in a kerchief inside an Anne Klein shoebox, which she taped shut and kept in her closet. And that’s where it stayed. I never heard about, nor saw, the gun. Until now.
This is like the third article I’ve seen about Angelina Jolie in Salt, in a role originally written for Tom Cruise: Angelina Jolie embodies today’s action heroine, in life and on-screen. Yet again, someone manages to string together 500-or-so breathless words about Women in Action without mentioning Lisbeth Salander or her onscreen representation, Noomi Rapace.
Granted, the Swedish film version of the Milennium movies has not reached the heights of popularity scaled by Stieg Larsson’s books, or at least not in America. But it struck me how much of what is true about Jolie is true about Larsson’s femme fatale. For example:
Di Bonaventura compares Jolie to Steve McQueen in the way she combines her athleticism and acting ability: “Steve McQueen wasn’t a big guy. She’s not a big girl. He wasn’t pumped up. She’s not pumped up. But you believed Steve McQueen was going to kick whoever’s ass it was. And you believe she can kick whoever’s ass it is. And that’s attitude, not physicality.”
Exactly. And it’s attitude that makes Lisbeth Salander one of the most compelling characters in popular literature. Cooler than Alice, hotter than Dorothy (and with no home to get back to), Salander — antisocial, bisexual, moody, brainy, and rough around the edges — represents an important shift of how we think about heroines, and women in general.
The fact that Americans can not only stomach a protagonist who could not be less interested in pleasing men, but, in fact, clamor for more is telling. Her popularity means that we shouldn’t be so shocked that Angelina Jolie can play a Russian spy; we should be shocked when people try to give us limited and dated notions of what audiences will and won’t accept.
The most-repeated anecdote about the making of Salt is that after the character Edwin became Evelyn, not much changed in the script — except that where Edwin was supposed to save his wife and children, director Phillip Noyce made Evelyn’s husband escape on his own so as not be emasculated. After he caught flak for that, Noyce claimed the original ending was changed because it was too “conventional.” I think the idea that no man’s pride can survive a woman’s helping him is too conventional, not to mention insulting.
One of the things I love about the Millenium trilogy is that various people do the saving: No one person is the hero. Lisbeth Salander is saved, saves herself, and saves her older male lover. His balls do not fall off in shame over his having been rescued by a girl. Perhaps this is because he is Swedish, but I choose to believe it’s because he is awesome.
In the same vein, anyone who is strong enough to play Angelina Jolie’s husband convincingly is strong enough to withstand being rescued by her.