A Hardback Life

I'm currently a third of the way through Eat, Pray, Love, the Feel Good Book of the Year. Bookslut tipped me off over the summer, and I put in my reserve at the library. (How ironic that publishing doesn't really pay enough for me to buy all the books I want to read, though I guess the case could be made that I should mainly be reading the books I work with. No matter.) Three months later, I finally got my hands on a copy. Everyone is reading this book, and while I usually avoid books like that, I do trust Jessa at Bookslut (even though she steered me wrong with Sharp Objects). I'd pretty much agree with the Slate review of it*, though I'm a bit more forgiving of the "(you should) like me" tone, because I do like the author, or at least the author's persona. Too often, I'll read a book by, or about, the super-privledged (she owned an apartment in Manhattan and a house in the burbs, c'mon) and not be able to get any empathy going.

My inability to empathise kicked in with The Year of Magical Thinking, where Didion is going through this really grotesque time of her life, and all I can think of is how many times she plugged her backlist, and how she whined about having to run the dishwasher all the time (um, hi, it's called hand-washing, some of us don't have the option). More importantly, I kept thinking about how if all this had happened to a working-class family in the States, the daughter would have been long dead, since they wouldn't have been able to afford the costly specialists needed. Also, the daughter's name, Quintana, grated. The Wiki on Didion has a great quote from Barbara Grizzuti Harrison:
When I am asked why I do not find Joan Didion appealing, I am tempted to answer -- not entirely facetiously -- that my charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender love seats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantel, someone who has porcelain elephant end tables, someone who has chosen to burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo....

But back to Elizabeth Gilbert. She's likeable. Maybe it's because I got divorced about the same age as she did and spent my time howling on the bathroom floor. Maybe it's her general acceptance of the world: God isn't GOD, it's a (to coin a phrase from the Other Scottish Earth Sign) "general good intention of your choosing"; anti-depressants aren't the devil, but they're not a panacea either. She isn't every woman, but she's identifiable in myself, and I can only guess in the other women who've read her. It's why she keeps getting read. It makes me forgive her wealth (what a funny thing; I'm such a Marxist), her ability to travel with her huge publishing advance. I simply settle in, and care about what happens next. This is ultimately what makes a good book for me. I cared about Lilian in Away. I cared about the Sylvia Plath portrayed in the excellently written Rough Magic (though going back to Plath after reading that biography, I remained fairly unmoved, and unimpressed). Gilbert hasn't left Italy yet, and still has two countries to see. Still, I have a pretty good idea that I won't be let down.

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The problem with library books, is that they tend to be hardcovers. It's only from really using the library system that I've been able to adjust to reading hardcover books. Still, I remain dedicated to paperbacks. This post on Literary Kicks sums up my feelings nicely, and also inadvertently makes a case against e-books.

*OH, HOLY SHIT. I just said I agreed with Kaite Roiphe. It's all over people. Where's my dagger? Let me fall upon it. I feel so incredibly dirty right now.

Have I Whinged About This Before?

I have an English degree, from a University not really known for its Arts programs. Nonetheless, I did spend many years, reading, thinking, and writing about literature. I preferred dealing with the novel over poetry and plays, and did my best work on the Victorians. I was good at it. I wrote many a fine paper. I saw things other people didn't see (oh this crazy thing I did on Alias Grace as a re-write of Jane Eyre). So writing this blog sort of pains me at times, because I've lost the ability to write a really critical review of something. I'm not sure if it's laziness, or if the skill is lost without practice.

Today I feel this loss keenly, as Away is a novel that deserves a critical, thoughtful review. Fortunately, other people are around to tackle that task. Here's what I can tell you: It took me a little over two days to read Away. It's not a long book, so this isn't much of a feat, but there's a lot of momentum in the writing, without a lot of actual tension, which I find interesting. Usually, a "unputdownable" book is one with a lot of tension, or cliff-hangers at the end of chapters (Sidney Sheldon saw me through Jr High school nicely). Away doesn't really do that. I didn't have the burning need to know what happens next, but rather I was carried into the novel, plastered to protagonist Lillian's side, and it kept me coming back, and reading well into the night.
The old English major did notice a sort of leitmotif in the book, to my relief. There's something going on with skin, and scarring. It's an obvious metaphor; scars on the outside tell of the hurt on the inside. However, Bloom actually does more with the scars, blisters, ink stains, and wounds that Lillian gathers through her life. When Lillian arrives in New York, from Russia, she carries two scars: one from her mother's hot soup spoon, and another from one of the men that murdered her family. In New York, those first scars are noticed, and noted, but as the novel goes on, they appear less and less frequently, as they fade on body and in mind. In the last part of the book, I don't believe they're noticed at all. It is the blisters on her feet, the mosquito bites, the transient pains, that are administered to, and the old scars don't even get a mention. It's as if Lillian's original impetus (to cross the U.S., go up through Canada, and Alaska, and cross the Bering Straight to find her lost daughter in Sibera) matters less and less. She is pushed forward because the journey itself has become the thing, and her daughter fades, not through lack of love, but through the process of hardening, over time. When Lillian meets her final love interest, it is his skin she notices. His scars, the way his broken collar bone pushes against his skin, the bits of frostbite.
Ink also enters the skin. Lillian works as an inept seamstress upon her arrival, and her fingers are covered with blue dots, from the ink of the silk flowers on the needle that pokes her fingers repeatedly. She gets a prison tattoo of her daughter's name in Prince Rupert. Yet these things too, fade. The tattoo isn't mentioned again, after it is done. I think this is all part of what I was thinking about the scars.
If I had two more weeks with this book, and a deadline, I'd probably be able to give you 10 MLA formatted pages on this. But I have none of these things. So I leave you with those bits. Away is worth the read, and is worth the journey you'll take. The reviews I link to have some persnickety things to say, but I don't get paid to point out flaws, and thus, didn't really spend time noticing them.
Also, the British cover is better.

Blogland was on fire yesterday, quoting anti-Feminist mecha-droid, Ann Coulter. What amuses me, is that people actually take anything she says seriously, that anyone even bothers to be outraged. People, she's a 5-year old, screaming for attention. Who knows if she believes any of this crap, but you realise that she's only saying it so people will write about her, so she can see her face on TV again. She's Baby Jane, or Norma Desmond, her time is over, and she's lashing out. It's boring now; it fails to shock. Now, if she really wanted to shock people, she could do a 180, tell us how wrong she was, and proclaim herself a Rad Fem. Not that we'd welcome her, but she'd certainly get some press for that. So, as they've been saying since the dawn of the 'nets: Don't Feed the Trolls.

Speaking of feminism SUSAN FALUDI IS BACK. Can you see I'm excited? Her first book, Backlash changed my life. Before I'd taken a couple women's studies courses, and was a bit peeved at the portrayal of women in the media. After, I was proud to be a Feminist, I was angry as hell, and I was political, with no apologies. I foist that book on anyone who mentions even a passing interest in Feminism, and even on some that haven't. It's not simply a polemic, but an extremely well-researched survey of the ways in which women in North America were undermined and systematically oppressed at the end of the 20th century. Backlash was already about 10 years old when I read it, but the conditions for women haven't much changed, and in the U.S., things like reproductive freedoms have become even more threatened. The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America is her 3rd and latest book, and I can not wait to read it. The NYT has a profile.

I only realised yesterday that Bona Drag, the name of a Morrissey album, is itself Polari. Given the first track is called "Picadilly Palare," and I've known about Polari for a while myself, you think I'd have clued in a long time ago. These roots, my friends, are blonde. I leave you with an instructive article on the life of Polari.