Reading Roundup

childrens-crusadeThe Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer — I’ve had a soft spot for Ann Packer ever since The Dive from Clausen’s Pier pulled me out of a horrendous reading slump a few years ago. The Children’s Crusade is a solid read, consistently interesting with compelling characters. (Maybe the mother could have been a shade less self-centered and the father a shade less selfless, but I’m quibbling.) It wasn’t really a standout read for me–I’m not sure how well I’ll remember it in six months–but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Girl at War, Sara Nović (quote) — Set in what was Yugoslavia, just as the civil war breaks out. I was pleasantly surprised by this one — I had expected it to be a sort of issue-of-the-week girl-at-warnovel, but it was much more than that. The writing is elegant, and I found that the protagonist really came to life. Nović resisted the urge to soften some of her main character’s sharp edges, which only made the novel feel more real. Some absolutely devastating scenes, and some beautiful ones.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout — Beautiful! The best 2016 book I’ve read so far. It’s a very short novel — only about 200 pages, and many of those pages have only a few lines on them. But every word is well-chosen. I know that a lot of lucy-bartonreaders disliked the brief chapters and the lightly-sketched incidents, but to me the vignettes gave the novel the effect of a verbal mosaic, and at the end I thought the portrait drawn of Lucy Barton was nearly perfect. It is similar to the way that Strout built the character of Olive Kitteridge in her eponymous novel, except that Olive Kitteridge is made up of short stories rather than paragraphs. (I can see similarities to Rachel Cusk’s Outline as well, which I also love.) Highly, highly recommended if this is your sort of thing.

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and greek-fireChemical Warfare in the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor — I always find Mayor’s thoughts interesting, but she does have a tendency to overinterpret. For example, because Hercules used fire in his mythical battle with the Hydra, “projectile weapons tipped with toxic or combustible substances must have been known very early in Greek history.” Well, maybe. Or maybe the mythmaker had a vivid imagination? Mayor’s interpretation is plausible, but “must” seems a bit strong to me.

No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym — British comfort food. I only wish I’d thought to make myself a pot of tea before I no-fond-return-of-loveread it. It’s my first Barbara Pym, and I will definitely check out more of her work. I do think that the comparisons to Jane Austen on the back cover of my edition were a bit overblown. What it reminded me of more than anything was early P. D. James, except without the murders. (That is a high compliment. I think P. D. James is hugely underrated as a writer.)

The Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III, Janice Hadlow — More Brits, these of the royal variety. This is a biography of George III, with special attention to his family life. In other words, it is exactly the kind of thing that I eat up royal-experimentwith a spoon. George III was a better father than most of his ancestors, which was a low bar to clear. Interestingly, rather than being a negligent, distracted parent, which one might expect–after all, he was the King of England–he was in many ways the original helicopter parent, so devoted to his daughters that he couldn’t bear for them to marry for decades after they came of age. I found it a fascinating book, if a bit long.

river-whiskeyIf the River Was Whiskey, T. C. Boyle — I like short stories and I like T. C. Boyle (although I miss the days when he went by T. Coraghessan Boyle, if only because “Coraghessan” is fun to say). But this collection didn’t quite do it for me. I think in his shorter work Boyle has a tendency to be weird and/or clever just for the sake of being weird and/or clever. I rarely feel a connection to his stories the way I did, for example, to San Miguel. He’s always worth reading, but nothing here excited me.

The Best Thing I Read This Week

Sara-Novic-008The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans–that I–could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me; it did not cut my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here. What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia–what must have been happening in Afghanistan–that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.

— Sara Nović, Girl at War

Hillary Clinton and The Cult of True Womanhood

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and the spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.

— Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860”

I agree w/Hillary, it’s time to elect a woman for President. But I want that President to reflect the values of being a mother. #MothersDay

— Jill Stein, Twitter, May 8, 2016

What’s important about Hillary Clinton? She’s been a Secretary of State, a senator, a partner in a law firm. She has a much stronger understand of policy, both foreign and domestic, than any of her opponents. But that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important, Jill Stein tells us, is her fitness to be a mother, which is apparently lacking, despite the fact that her only child seems to have turned out just fine.

One of the many, many infuriating things about Stein’s tweet is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone saying something similar about a man. Does anyone think that  either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump “reflect the values” of being a father? Would anyone even ask that question out loud?

I think what Jill Stein is getting at — although it’s impossible to be certain from this tweet — is that Hillary is too “hawkish.” It’s true that Hillary favors a more interventionist foreign policy than Stein (or I) would like. But why frame that in terms of motherhood? Denigrating Hillary’s maternal qualities, doesn’t make Stein’s message any clearer; indeed it makes it harder to understand. And this kind of framing plays into True Woman stereotypes: all real women are gentle, demure, peaceful. No True Woman would willingly go to war.

I grew up in Arkansas; Bill Clinton is the only governor I remember. I learned the definition of the word “lesbian” because I overheard my mom speculating about Hillary. It’s not that there was any reason to believe that she was a lesbian; it’s just that she didn’t seem like other women. She was bossy, pushy, opinionated. She talked back to people. She made no bones about the fact that she thought she was smarter than, well, most everyone. “You have to admit,” my mother said darkly when I tried to defend her, “she’s an awfully strong woman.”

It’s been common, in this electoral cycle, to joke about the double-bind Hillary finds herself in (Brett Arends compiled this helpful list for MarketWatch, and Jimmy Kimmel assisted Hillary with her speech delivery on his show). But it’s not just about Hillary, and it’s not just conservatives and third-party outliers. In 2008 even feminists disparaged Sarah Palin for campaigning with a young baby and joked about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. Palin was running for national office and wasn’t clear on the fact that there was both a North and a South Korea; there was a lot of room for criticism. There was no need to bring up her maternal success. But people did. What kind of a father is John McCain? I have no idea. I don’t remember that the topic ever came up.

Welter argues in her essay that the True Woman explicated in the ladies’ magazines of the nineteenth century eventually evolved into the New Woman–a woman who was strong, independent, and ran her own life. “And yet,” Welter writes, “the stereotype, the ‘mystique’ if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted, bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity.” It’s been two hundred years, and the evolution isn’t complete. The guilt and confusion still linger. You have to wonder if, as a country, we’re ever going to get to a point where a woman’s motherliness is not the overwhelming criterion for how we judge her.


Reading Roundup

gap-of-timeThe Gap of Time, Jeannette Winterson (quote) — Very moving retelling of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. If I have a complaint, it is that it felt too short. Some of the ideas in the second half of the book didn’t quite have time to breathe. Still highly recommended.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore (review) — Beautifully observed, heart-breaking character study. This one will stick with me for a long time.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro — Oh, Kazuo Ishiguro, how you try my patience! I was the world’s greatest Ishiguro fan for years. Read everything he wrote. Multiple times. Swore I would find his grocery lists interesting. Then came Nocturnes, a collection of five novellas which I have read twice and just cannot enjoy. But everyone is buried-giantentitled to an off day, right? Still, I was nervous enough that I put off reading The Buried Giant for a year. A year. That is a lot for someone with no impulse control. And I am sad to report that my fears were justified: The Buried Giant just didn’t work for me. I found it slow and overwritten. How could the man who gave us The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go produce this? Total disappointment. (Having said that, I might wait a year or two and then give it another go. Sometimes a book is just bad for a particular time in your life, not bad per se. Of course, that is what I said about Nocturnes.)

Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg — I really enjoyed this book, although for some reason discovering at the very end that Mazie was based on a real person dampened my enthusiasm a saint-maziebit. But I really did enjoy the time I spent in Mazie’s company: she was a charming companion even when she faced heartbreak. Pete Sorenson (the character who, in the novel, finds her diary) says, “I just wanted it to go on and on. I wanted her to live forever.” Me too, Pete.

The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker — I was really excited about this one, despite waiting five years after purchasing it to actually read it. As it turns out, though, I am just not that interested in linguistics. Good to know, I guess. I am pretty sure this is my problem, not Steven Pinker’s — the book is well-written and he does a good job of clearly explaining the technical jargon that inevitably comes up in a book like this.stuff-of-thought And to be fair, the chapters on naming and swearing did hold my attention. (I’ll be scheduling a therapy session to figure out why, exactly, those were the only two topics that caught my interest.)

Also, that is one super-ugly cover.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway — I first read this for my very favorite college class, a history seminar on American expatriates in Paris. It was my introduction to Hemingway, except for a couple of short stories in high school, and I really sun-also-risesloved the way that he wrote. I still do, although I really wrestle with his sexism. I think he writes women terribly, and I don’t think Brett Ashley holds up particularly well. I still think his best book is A Moveable Feast, which purports to be a memoir but is really just about as fictional as any of his novels.

The Best Thing I Read This Week

jeannette-wintersonAnd the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.

— Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time


The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore

Note: This post discusses the entire plot of Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, including the ending.

How much you like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne depends on how well you respond to paragraphs like this:

. . . . Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodations and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she had read about, they all had to be collected gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation. And that was why even a queer fellow like this Bernard Rice was a blessing in his own way. He was so funny and horrible with his ‘Yes, Mama’ and ‘No, Mama, ‘ and his long blond baby hair. He’d make a tale for the O’Neills at Sunday tea.

judith-hearneI respond very well to such paragraphs, and indeed I loved this book all the way through. I could quibble with some plot developments — I wasn’t that interested in the plot, and I’m not sure Brian Moore was either — but I thought that the character development of Judith Hearne was nothing short of brilliant. Take that paragraph, for example — it’s in the first chapter, and already you know so much about Judith Hearne: her self-consciousness about being single, her ready acceptance of the idea that she was uninteresting on her own, her desire to ingratiate, her insistence that her “solitary life” included “great rewards”. Yes, Judith can be off-putting with her insistence on conventional mores–she’s scandalized by a joke about Mary Magdalene–but she’s heart-breaking, too.

Because I was writing about The Painted Veil while I was reading this book, I could not help but see Judith Hearne as the photo-negative of Kitty Garstin: Judith plain where Kitty is beautiful, dull where Kitty is charming, neglected where Kitty is spoiled. Based on the publication dates of these books, Judith would only be about a decade younger than Kitty and it’s not hard to imagine that her fate is exactly what Kitty feared when she rushed into marriage. Kitty being wealthier, her future wouldn’t have been quite as bleak as Judith’s, but by Judith’s age an unmarried Kitty who had lost her looks and charm would still have faced a lonely life filled with people who didn’t particularly want to talk to her.

It was for this reason that I find the descriptions of Judith Hearne that you see in so many reviews to be entirely wrong-headed. NPR, for example, calls her “an alcoholic looking for love.” And indeed, Moore treats her alcoholism as a huge revelation midway through the book. But to my mind, her alcoholism is a symptom of her distress, not its root cause. She is lonely, trapped in a world where a middle-aged single woman has no worth, unable to make a man care about her and unable to envision a satisfying life without a man who cares for her. One of the saddest passages of the book, for example, shows Judith fantasizing about a husband who would dandle her on his knee and, possibly, smack her if she said something irritating. But then he would be contrite! This is Judith’s idea of marriage, and the worst part of this fantasy is how much she longs for it. Judith’s life is not bleak because she is alcoholic; she is an alcoholic because her life is bleak, and she can’t think of a way to fix it. All she can do is hope that a man someday looks her way, and in the meantime she can dull her pain with alcohol. And if she’d never touched a drop she’d be just as unhappy and just as unable to break out of her unhappiness.1

sacred-heartAs the book went on I began to sympathize more with the piety that I had originally found grating. Catholicism is her mainstay; the Sacred Heart oleograph she displays in her room is the only proof that her life matters at all. The very worst thing to befall Judith Hearne may be near the end of the book, when she begins to lose her faith:

O God, I have sinned against You, why have You not punished me? I have renounced You, do You hear me, I have abandoned You. Because, O Father, You have abandoned me. I needed You, Father, and You turned me away. All men turned from me. And You, Father? You too.

The painted Mary smiled from the side altar; blue robed, with white virginal tunic and delicate painted hands uplifted in intercession. O Mary Mother, why did you not intercede for me? Why do you smile now? There is nothing to smile for. . . .

And now? What will become of me, am I to grow old in a room, year by year, until they take me to a poor-house? Am I to be a forgotten old woman, mumbling in a corner in a house run by nuns? What is to become of me, O Lord, alone in this city, with only drink, hateful drink that dulls me, disgraces me, lonely drink that leaves me more lonely, more despised? Why this cross? Give me another, great pain, great illness, anything, but let there be someone, someone to share it. Why do You torture me, alone and silent behind Your little door? Why?

“I hate You,” she said, her voice loud and shrill in the silence of the church.

Where is Judith at the end of the book? She is, indeed, living in a house run by nuns, at the mercy of their rules and regulations, with her only consolation the oleograph of the Sacred Heart that she displays in her room (but not hung up, of course, because the nuns don’t like to spoil the walls). The only grace Moore allows his protagonist is that as her story ends, the Sacred Heart oleograph has started to work its old magic and she is beginning to recover something of her old faith.2

When I was in college studying women’s history, I read an anthology of women’s letters that included a deeply sad missive from a nineteeth-century teacher living alone, weeping beside her fireplace for the husband and children she suspected she’d never have. That letter came back to my mind again and again as I read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Instead of weeping, Judith employs a stiff upper lip, a nearly delusional belief that she can still have what she wants, and, of course, a flask. But her misery is just as palpable.

1 Of course her life would have been much happier if she had been an iconoclast: a writer or an activist or a career girl. But Hearne is far too conventional for any of that; it’s hard to imagine anything like that ever entering her head. return

2 It’s interesting that both The Painted Veil and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne show their protagonists turning to religion as the books draw to a close. (Kitty doesn’t explicitly talk about religious belief, but she does aspire to be more like those Chinese nuns.) So many nuns in these books! And yet neither of them is aspiring to a happy or fulfilled life, only a bearable one. return

The Perils of Criticizing Donald Trump

melaniaHere is something that is happening in 2016: Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist, wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ, and she incorporated less-than-flattering facts about Melania Trump’s father, and now she has a bunch of Trump supporters tweeting her with references to the Holocaust.

In this profile, Ioffe included three paragraphs about Melania’s father, and specifically about the fact that he supported financially but never had a relationship with Melania’s half-brother, the product of a youthful dalliance. Other than that, the profile was generally positive. Sample passage:

…[U]nlike her husband, Melania is reserved, polite, and steady, say those close to her. “There is a peace in her,” one old friend from Slovenia tells me. She is a homebody. She’s rich, but not a socialite; she prefers family to the It set and retires early after events.

Now, had I been the writer of this profile, I would not have included the information about Melania’s father. I get that it’s a scoop, or at least a scooplet. But as a reader, I would be far more interested in three more paragraphs about the elusive Melania, for whom, full disclosure, I have an inexplicable fondness.1 I think she is probably a fairly interesting person, and I would like to know more about her. And so to me the whole mess with Melania’s father and the son just felt extraneous. He did support him, after all; more to the point, what does a half-century-old private scandal once removed have to do with the presidential race in 2016?

Melania Trump didn’t like the profile, and hey, fair enough. Let’s be honest: even if I thought it were relevant I wouldn’t appreciate having my dad’s wild oats strewn across a national publication either.2 But it bears repeating: it is a generally positive profile. If everyone had just remained calm the profile would have been a net win, if a small one, for the Trump camp.

Of course, the Trump camp being the Trump camp, there was no calm. Here’s what happened:

Melania Trump tweeted her displeasure, as is her right. And then all hell broke loose. Over the next several days, Julia Ioffe received an anonymous call from someone who played a Hitler speech in her ear. There was another call from an outfit called “Overnight Caskets” (I don’t know what that is, but it certainly sounds vaguely threatening). She got another call from a company that specializes in cleaning up after homicides. (Points for creativity, I guess?) She got emails suggesting that her face would “look good on a lampshade.” Someone tweeted a picture of her with a yellow star photoshopped onto her blouse. There is a bunch of other truly vile anti-Semitic nonsense that was tweeted, but trying to summarize it just made me sad about the world and I eventually gave up. The Daily Stormer, an online bastion of white supremacy, wrote a blog post with the charming title “Empress Melania Attacked by Filthy Russian Kike Julia Ioffe in GQ!”3

Again, I don’t blame Melania Trump for not liking the profile. I wouldn’t have liked it either. But that’s not the story anymore. The story now is that Trump’s supporters have horrifically overreacted to a very mild affront, and Trump has, to my knowledge, done nothing to disavow this. And one has to wonder, what happens if Trump becomes president? Is every journalist in America going to face this kind of invective every time he is criticized?

I am currently reading Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain. She cautions against referring to American politicians as totalitarian:

In popular speech, the word “totalitarian” isn’t so much self-serving as overused. Democratically elected politicians are described as totalitarian (e.g., “Rick Santorum’s Totalitarian Instincts”), as are governments or even companies (one can read of “The United States’ march toward totalitarianism” or learn that Apple has a “totalitarian approach to its app store”). Libertarians, from Ayn Rand on, have used the word to describe progressive liberals. Progressive liberals (and indeed conservatives) have used the word to describe Ayn Rand. The word is nowadays applied to so many people and institutions that it can sometimes seem meaningless.

So far, I agree with her. Constantly invoking the names of Hitler and Stalin every time an opposing politician says something we don’t like only cheapens the narrative and allows us to obscure the horrific number of deaths and ruined lives in the wake of true totalitarianism. Yet I admit these passages gave me pause:

Everywhere the Red Army went–even in Czechoslovakia, from which the Soviet troops eventually withdrew–these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria. In some cases they targeted enemy ethnic groups as well. . . .Soviet authorities, again in conjunction with local communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others from towns and villages where they had lived for centuries. Trucks and trains moved people and a few scant possessions into refugee camps and new homes hundreds of miles away from where they had been born. Disoriented and displaced, the refugees were easier to manipulate and control than they might have been otherwise.

Is it really so hard to believe that a Trump inauguration might usher in that kind of trumpviolence? I would never call Trump a totalitarian, if only because I find it difficult to imagine him implementing the kind of centralized economic control that was the hallmark of totalitarian governments. But I think some of his rhetoric and behavior taps into a totalitarian impulse in his supporters–a desire for strong authority, a desire to show people who’s boss. They’re attacking bystanders at Trump rallies; they’re sending anti-Semitic death threats to journalists. And what does Trump say about the attacks? At a press conference in March, he said, “The audience hit back and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

This is a thing that is happening in 2016. It may not be totalitarianism, but I think it might be the thin edge of the wedge.

1 At least, I do not think she is dumb, as some have implied, and I do not think that her posing on a bearskin rug should disqualify her husband from the presidency. return

2 My dad’s wild oats consist, in their entirety, of a youthful scrape with the law for hunting without a license. Also I think he failed a class in college. return

3 Of course, the great irony of all of this is that Trump’s daughter Ivanka–with whom he is clearly besotted–is a Jew by choice and is raising her three children in the Jewish faith. You have to wonder (a) does the Daily Stormer know about this? and (b) does Ivanka know about the Daily Stormer? return