Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus AND The Song of Achilles

For these choices, and my interest in all things classically Greek, we have to thank a certain nun named Sister Mary Faith Dargan, OP.  Sr. Mary Faith, the classics professor at Albertus Magnus College, taught me most everything I know about all those great characters from Greek tragedy.  So when I saw two modern interpretations of those characters - specifically, of Penelope, the long-suffering and ever-faithful wife of Odysseus, and of Patrocles, the long-suffering and ever-faithful best friend of Achilles - I was right there.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
AUTHOR: Margaret Atwood
GENRE: Interpretative Fiction

For those not familiar with Penelope's story as told in The Odyssey, it goes a little something like this: while husband Odysseus, after 10 years fighting at Troy, struggles for another 10 years to get back to Ithaca, Penelope struggles to run the kingdom and fend off the hundred suitors that have set up shop in her dining room and refuse to leave until she agrees to marry one of them.  It has, after all, been 20 years, and while every once in a while a report comes back about Odysseus blinding a cyclops or shacking up with a minor goddess, conventional wisdom says he's dead.  To put the suitors off, Penelope tells them she must first weave a burial shroud for her father-in-law.*  Only then can she consider remarriage.  Each night, though, she and her maids undo what has been done that day, and the shroud is never finished.  She is eventually figured out, and it is only Odysseus's reappearance and his slaughter of the suitors that saves the day.

That's the short form of it, but in reality, there isn't all that much more to go on for poor faithful Penelope.  Atwood fills in the gaps left by the classical narrative: Penelope's birth to a minor king and a water nymph (because really, who wasn't the daughter of a minor king and a water nymph back then); her marriage to Odysseus, which is quickly overshadowed by that of her cousin, Helen (yes, that Helen, the one who started the war); her first years in Ithaca, a rocky, goat-covered island where she is iced out by her mother-in-law and bossed around by her husband's wet nurse.  More importantly, Atwood fleshes out Penelope herself, so often held up as a paragon of wifely goodness without any personality to accompany it.  Atwood's Penelope is afraid at times, cunning at others, and far more active in her own life than one would expect.  She's a very interesting soul. 

Which is where the whole thing kind of falls apart.

With the soul, that is.

The story is told from Penelope's perspective - dead Penelope's perspective.  It's all very casual, all very well, I'm just wandering around Hades, so I might as well fill you in.  She runs into other souls too - Helen, who, despite not having a body, is still flirting with every male in earshot; Odysseus, who keeps running off to get reincarnated; even the suitors, who are still douchebags.  Not only that, she appears to be moving through time, so that she randomly returns to earth through seances and Ouija boards and mediums, which is how she learns of computers and televisions and George Bush.  It's all horridly distracting.

Not as distracting, however, as the maids.

Which brings us to the other half of this story.

There is a brief passage in The Odyssey, after the slaughter of the suitors, where Odysseus commands his son to find the maids who have been disloyal and kill them.  These twelve maids - unnamed and unmourned - are hung for their insolence.  The original text says nothing more.  The Penelopiad offers up the explanation that their disloyalty came at the direction of Penelope, who has been using them as spies, and that she is heartbroken at their deaths.  And if it had ended there - if Atwood had left the story to Penelope - it would have been a much better read.

Instead, she alternates Penelope and the maids, who act in unison in the most bizarre combination of methods.  First, they act as a traditional Greek chorus; then, sing some songs**; perform a short drama and give an anthropological lecture.  Next, they give us a chapter entitled, "The Trial of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids", before singing another love song and turning into owls.

All of which is supposed to invoke sympathy for the maids but really just makes the reader go, huh, and when are we getting back to Penelope, at the same time.

Which is a long way of saying: when you are dealing with source material as classic and as interesting as The Odyssey, free-form isn't really the way to go.  Focus on your characters and filling in the gaps, and don't get cutesy.

Which leads us to...

The Song of Achilles
AUTHOR: Madeline Miller
GENRE: Interpretative Fiction

Now, this is how you do interpretative fiction.

For those of you not familiar with this story, or rather, with The Iliad: contrary to popular belief, The Iliad is not really the story of the Trojan War.  When it begins, the war has already been raging for 9 years.  The Iliad is the story of what happens when you take a war prize away from Achilles.  Hint: he gets super pissed.  He also refuses to fight, and the Greeks begin to lose.  To stem the bleeding, Achilles' best friend, Patrocles, puts on Achilles' armor and leads his troops against Hector, greatest of the Trojan warriors.  Patrocles, predictably, is killed, but it's enough to get Achilles back in the fight and Hector dead.*** 

The Song of Achilles is the back story behind Achilles and Patrocles, and explains why Patrocles would don his best friend's armor.  Achilles and Patrocles are a prime example of the Greek norm of an acceptable form of homosexuality, a trait the source material considers very lightly.  Miller develops this idea into a story that is authentic and realistic and shockingly sweet, as the two young men struggle with their love for each other and the knowledge that their deaths would come early and painfully.  I was always fond of Patrocles, who nobly sacrifices himself to save the Greeks, but found Achilles, supposedly a great hero, to be a brat and a whiner, sulking in his tent while his countrymen died.  Miller's interpretation changed that, not by emphasizing Achilles' heroics but his relationship with Patrocles and his fellow Greeks. 

Like Atwood, Miller builds off of other original material to construct a childhood for her characters - Patrocles is exiled to Achilles' father's kingdom after accidentally killing another boy - that follows through Achilles' time with the centaur Chiron and into the war.  Unlike Atwood, Miller keeps her focus and her tone and builds a beautiful, believeable story that honors the original material rather than muddies it.  Miller uses her source material wisely, incorporating it in such a way that it doesn't really matter if you're familiar with The Iliad or not.  Her writing is enough to make you love the characters, even without the benefit of 2,500 years of scholarship.

The Penelopiad: 196 pages
The Song of Achilles: 369 pages
MAINSTREAM OR NOT: For either, not unless you're a classics major.
The Penelopiad: Not unless you're a classics major.  And even then, her convoluted set-up may very well turn you off, despite the fascinating parts about Penelope herself.
The Song of Achilles: Yes, even if you're not a classics major, even if you're never read The Iliad.  If you have read it, all the better.  But you don't need a classical education to recognize the beauty of Miller's tale. 

*Poor Laertes is alive and well, mind you.  And people wonder why he runs away to be a pig herder.  I'd be paranoid, too.

**And not just any songs: a sea shanty, a ballad, and a pop song that shares lyrics with a song by those other great poets, the Eagles.

***And if that synopsis doesn't get me hired by Cliff's Notes I don't know what will.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion

AUTHOR: Janet Reitman
GENRE: Non-Fiction

I was, initially, a little reluctant to do this review.  I feel like if Miss Manners were here, she'd be telling me that one does not discuss two things in polite company: religion and politics.  After all, when it comes to salvation - heavenly or political - people tend to get a little heated.

Well, I apparently don't consider you all polite company.1 Because we're about to get all up in some religious business.

Scientology is unlike anything else I've ever researched.2  And yes, I know the Egyptians probably said the same things about the Jews lo those many thousand years ago - and the Romans about the Christians, and the Catholics about the Protestants, and so on.  The difference, though, is that, from all accounts, all those religions began as religions - groups of people whose primary and original purpose was to congregate together and worship at a particular altar of faith, and in doing so, save one's soul for eternity.  Scientology didn't.  Scientology started out as a self-help movement, one that actively separated itself from religion by its lack of ceremony or dogma or focus on a deity.  By auditing - going through a series of interviews to pinpoint past traumas, and then reviewing those past traumas in an attempt to neutralize their latent effects - one could overcome the mental blocks holding one back from achieving full potential.  It was all up to the individual to do the hard work and figure it out, more Weight Watchers than holy communion. It wasn't all that unlike many of the self-help fads that exploded and then died away in the 1950s and 60s. 

That is, if not for her infamous founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Hubbard is, of course, the primary focus of part one of Reitman's tale.  From the beginning, L. Ron told his own story.  But as is often the case with such individuals, he was also very charismatic, able to win over others with his ideas and his enthusiasm, able to distract from the holes in the tale.  He was charismatic enough that to convince thousands of the power of Dianetics, Scientology's forerunner.   When Dianetics went bankrupt, his followers stayed with him as he reinvented himself and Scientology from a individual endeavor to a centralized bureaucracy and later, to an organized religion.3  They stayed with him when he ran to England to avoid government investigation, and when he bought a fleet of ships and founded the Sea Organization, and when he started asking their pre-teen children to sign billion-year contracts to serve as his Messengers.4  They stayed with him when he abandoned his wife to a 5-year prison sentence5, and when he went into hiding, communicating ever-increasingly paranoid missives through a very select few aides.

They stayed with him, for the most part, until David Miscavige.  Or rather: they would have stayed with him forever, if not for David Miscavige.

Miscavige controls the second part of Reitman's story.  If the name sounds familiar, it's probably from all those gossip mag stories about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, which rarely fail to mention Miscavige as Cruise's best friend and, oh, yeah, a high-ranking Scientology official.  Except Miscavige isn't some "high-ranking official".  He is THE high-ranking official.  He is the Pope of Scientology.  And he got there by systematically weeding out any one he viewed as a threat, especially those who had served with Hubbard aboard the original Sea Org ships, right down to the couple who had lived with Hubbard in seclusion for years and had acted as his only representatives.  It's under Miscavige's reign that the stories of abuse and mistreatment start to really pour out, aided by the newly-formed Internet.  The forced abortions and divorces, the beatings, the slave-like conditions of those who required "fixing" - suddenly the stories were everywhere.  More troubling was what seemed to be an epidemic of psychological breakdowns - and sometimes, suicides - brought on by the church's ever-intensifying demand on auditing.6  For all of people's focus on Hubbard, it's Miscavige, in my opinion, that people need to be worried about. 

Part Three of the tale focuses on what we all love to hear about - celebrities.  Getting celebrities to join the Church has been a Scientology aim since Hubbard wrote the first words.  Reitman limits this section to what is truly applicable to the development of the Church, so we never learn what Nicole Kidman really thought about it all.7  Instead, she uses John Travolta and Tom Cruise to highlight how the Church - well, Miscavige - has used certain individuals to promote the aims of the Church, and how those who view themselves as "true" Scientologists have been slighted in the process.8  It's almost enough to make you feel bad for the most famous couch-jumper on Earth.

If this seems like a lot, let me assure you that all this is but a percentage of the ground covered.  Reitman's research was extremely extensive, and Inside Scientology is being hailed as one of the most unbiased views of the Church ever written.  As noted earlier, she stays away from the celebrity gossip angle.  She also refrains from delving much into the stories of Xenu, intergalactic war, and body-jumping thetons; fascinating as it is, it's just not important what she's trying to say.  She actively keeps the focus on what she has been told and what her research has shown.  However, large parts of the testimony do come from former members, many of whom left the Church under very bad circumstances, and it is not unreasonable to think that someone who has had a bad experience might want to lash out with a story that was less than truthful. 

That being said,  even if only half of what Reitman was told is true... well, that's pretty horrifying.  This is not to say that other religions are free of controversy or fault - we Catholics know this better than most.  But - to return to the beginning of this all - whether you believe or not, Catholicism and its fellow world religions have the benefit of a higher deity, of a greater faith to follow.  They also have the benefit of thousands of years of belief behind them.  To have the entire history of the organization laid out before you - to know absolutely from whence it came, and where it is going; to know the doctrines and the source that wrote them; to know its benefits and its sins definitively; most importantly, to know that it is an entirely human creation, flawed in all the ways humans are flawed?  It's enough to make you really wonder about how anyone could believe. 

LENGTH: 464 pages
MAINSTREAM OR NOT: No, if only because it's a lot of information about a specific subject, and most people aren't interested in getting in that deep.
SO, SHOULD I READ IT OR NOT?: Yes.  Good, bad, or indifferent to Scientology, this is a fascinating story about human behavior and our innate instinct to be part of a community.

1Which is probably a compliment.

2I'm trying very hard to be correct about all this, and not say my first reaction, which was holy (beep), this is NUTS.  I guess Reitman, who manages to keep her opinions to herself, is just a better person than me.

3A decision that many maintain was based on finances rather than any spiritual motivation.  Hubbard has been quoted as saying that the real way to get rich was to start a religion, with a primary benefit begin tax exemption from the IRS.  Scientology got this exemption in 1993, after much debate and much controversy, including accusations that David Miscavige basically blackmailed the IRS into it. 

4Sea Org members were required to resign and take up lesser positions when they had children. These same children, however, were often then sent to live on these ships, without their parents, where they served as Hubbard's Messenger Corps.  The billion-year contract was necessary as Scientologists believe this life is just one in the many we will experience through the millennia. Thus, parents were essentially signing over their children for all eternity.

5Mary Sue Hubbard, as well as numerous other high-ranking Scientologists, were convicted as a result of Operation Snow White, during which the Church infiltrated multiple government agencies and made copies of thousands of classified documents, which were then used to blackmail various parties. Hubbard was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.  Poor Mary Sue got a small settlement and a church-enforced gag order for her troubles, and was never spoken to by her husband ever again.

6Because every time you audit, you pay, although the church would of course argue that this is not the point.  The point, rather, is self-improvement and a higher level of 'clear'.  But here's the rub: you audit to improve yourself, only to be told you did something wrong and need to do it again, maybe even go to the rehabilitation center to be fixed.  Now, it's not the technology at fault - the tech is never wrong - so when something doesn't work, it must be you that's busted.  Do this often enough, and it becomes enough to, quite literally, drive some people crazy.

7Which may make you say, why should we suffer because she wants to be an ethical journalist.  But it is a testimony to Reitman that she is able to resist the sensational and stick to the research, especially since we all know the sensational sells a lot more books.

8I've really tried to resist making snarky comments, but: It's claimed Miscavige made up the International Association of Scientogist's Freedom Medal of Valor just for Cruise.  This, of course, immediately made me think of the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.  But anyway.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit

AUTHOR: Joseph Epstein
GENRE: Non-Fiction

Psssst.  Come here.  I just have to share this.  I just heard that the Duke of Windsor?  The former King Edward VIII and the only sovereign to voluntarily give up the British throne?  Well, sources tell me he was really a homosexual.

What's that?  Why, yes, he did give up the throne to marry Wallis Simpson.  But that's all right.  You see, other sources tell me SHE was really a HE.

Welcome to the world of Gossip: An Untrivial Pursuit.

Tidbits like those above are scattered throughout this book, dating as far back as the royal courts of medieval Europe.  All evidence would suggest, after all, that humans have been talking smack behind each other's back for as long as we could talk.*  And our author? He's no different.  Epstein, who seems like a fun enough guy, mentions quite often how much he loves gossip. But the fun kind, of course, he makes sure to specify, not the mean stuff.   And for times when it approaches the mean stuff... well, that's when the I shouldn't really be telling you this, but I do have a reason, honest I do argument gets pressed into service.**  

And when that argument doesn't work, Epstein jumps ship to the larger philosophical questions that take up most of the book.  Is gossip part of human nature?  is it good? Is it bad? Is it immoral?  (Is it we that are the immoral ones?) Why do we do it? (Because, try as you might to deny it, we all do it.  On that note, why do we all deny we do it?  Or that we like it?)  When does gossip stop being gossip and become rumor?  Become lying? 

It's a lot.  And it's all very circular, which I suppose is in some ways fitting, given the circular nature of gossip.  Which all leads to my question: what's the point of all this?

Epstein seems desperate to classify gossip somehow - it's as if he hopes that by explaining gossip, he can make one of his favorite pastimes acceptable. And that's the main flaw of the book: Epstein wants the reader to like him.  He doesn't want the reader to think he's got a big mouth.  So he throws out some science and some psychology and some sociology in the hopes of making it all a wholesome endeavor.  But in doing so he undermines his assertion of good faith, and becomes an author who protests too much.  If he were truly at peace with his favorite past time, he would have just quoted Miss Manners: "the question to ask oneself before indulging in gossip is not so much "is it true?" or "is there any useful reason for repeating it?"... but "is this likely to come around again and hit me in the face?".  This is a far more honest approach to one's gossiping habits than anything Epstein can offer up. 

LENGTH: 256 pages
MAINSTREAM OR NOT: No, despite the fact that we all do it.
SO, SHOULD I READ IT OR NOT?: The gossip is amusing, but not amusing enough to make up for the actual content.

*I imagine the first bit of gossip going something like this:
"I hear Tut-Tut no catch mammoth! Haha!" 
"Haha! But I hear Tut-Tut drag Took-Took cave mate back to Tut-Tut cave!" 
"Haha - WAIT! I TOOK-TOOK!" 
At which point poor friend of Took-Took who didn't know when to keep his mouth shut got brained with a club.

**Such as when he claims that Daniel Patrick Moynihan - the highly successful senator and ambassador from New York - was actually such a drunk he would routinely drink himself unconscious on the floor of his office. When people called looking for him, his aides would say, "Senator Moynihan is on the floor". Get it? 'Cause everyone assumed the aide meant on the Senator floor making laws, when they meant literally on the floor?  Ah, chronic alcoholism, combined with implications of political incompetence - just a bit of fun gossip here!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gone Girl

AUTHOR: Gillian Flynn
GENRE: Fiction

My husband and I were lucky enough to be invited on a lovely vacation to Virginia Beach this past week.  The house - which was all of 50 feet from the beach - had a pool, 2 kitchens, and, best of all, a bookshelf*.  It also had an owner that works either at a bookstore or in publishing, because a lot of the books were advance proof copies of only-recently released books, which is how I ended up  reading a paperback copy of Gone GirlGone Girl, which just came out in hard cover in June.  Gone Girl, which is due to go to about 37 people before me at the library.  Gone Girl, which is at the top of the best-sellers list.  And that's how I enjoyed the a beautiful trip to the beach and the must-read of the summer.

And let me tell you, that was some messed-up (beeeeep).

Actually, that's about all I can tell you.

Well, maybe a little more.  Nick and Amy aren't the happiest of married couples; that much is obvious from the start.  But then Amy goes missing.  And that's right about when this book catapults past the standard "did the husband do it?"  to something way more complicated - and way more interesting.  And did I mention completely messed up? 

And that's all I can tell you.

I know, it's not much to go on.  To try and start to unravel this thing would to do you and the author a disservice.  But let me tell you, it's worth getting on that library list.  It's worth just buying the thing.  It might even be worth incurring the wrath of a very book-conscious rental house owner. 

LENGTH: 432 pages
MAINSTREAM OR NOT: It's the It book right now.

*The bookshelf had a little note that read, "Dear guest, Welcome! Please feel free to read any of the 58 BOOKS here", which I thought was a very discrete way of saying, "we know what you're planning, you thieving bastards, and if you do, we'll have your security deposit faster than you can say public library".

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Hypnotist's Love Story

AUTHOR: Liane Moriarty
GENRE: Fiction

Two weeks after I read this book, I was at the library and saw it back on the shelf, which inspired the following thought:

Huh.  I read that, didn't I.

Which, I imagine, was not the reaction the author was going for.

I had a vague recollection of not hating it, so I'd figured I'd write about it for you good people. When I sat down to do just that, the general plot line was in there, although the resolution was a little fuzzy.  But I couldn't remember a single character's name.  I had to look it up on Amazon.  It turns out the only really clear memory I had was the one thing that could possibly link this book to Fifty Shades of Crap: Fifty Shades Crappier.  Namely, that the major characters have an alarmingly cavalier attitude towards the irrational and potentially criminal actions of those close to them.

Ellen is a hypnotist.  She helps people lose weight, quit smoking, that sort of thing.  She's very zen and very sweet and just enough quirky to make her endearing.  The only thing Ellen is missing is a man, a problem that is very quickly solved when she finds Patrick, a widower with a young son.  And Patrick is perfect.  He's a great dad and a great boyfriend!  He gives her butterflies!  Isn't all just going so swimmingly!

Except for the crazy stalker. 

Saskia, as the crazy stalker was christened, likes to follow Patrick everywhere.  Everywhere.  She likes to pop up at the movies or at restaurants or on the beach, so long as Patrick, and now Ellen, are there.  And maybe, if you're really lucky, she'll break into your house when you're not home and leave you homemade crumpets she made right there in your kitchen!

A normal person would be, at the least, worried about this.  Ellen's just curious.  See, Saskia is also Patrick's ex-girlfriend, so Ellen feels a kind of kinship with the crazy lady, since they're both working against the specter of Patrick's dead (but while living, perfect) wife, Colleen.  So who cares if Saskia uses Ellen's oven while she was out!  The crumpets were delicious, after all!*  Obviously, it's more important for Ellen to try to understand this woman than get a restraining order.  Ellen is far more concerned with Patrick leaving boxes in her hallway than Saskia's possibly poisoned crumpets. 

As for Patrick, he rants and raves about that crazy woman but refuses to do anything about it because he feels bad that he broke up with her.  And here's the thing: he should feel bad.  The dude starts dating her right after his wife died, basically lets her raise his kid for a couple of years, and then one day, BAM, dumps her on her ass, you're lovely but this isn't working out, so don't let let the door hit you on the way out style.  Perfect Patrick, it turns out, is kind of a douche bag.  Boring Ellen is way too good for this guy.  Shoot, Crazy Saskia is way too good for this guy.  But, for some reason, they both love him.

The conclusion involves a late-night break-in that sort of cures Saskia of her obsession.** And once that's all taken care of?  It's just loveliness for all!  It all only reinforces our lesson from the last few weeks: stalkers don't need restraining orders.  They certainly don't need good psychiatric care.  All stalkers need is love, people.  Through love, you can cure them!  Just let them follow you around, break into your kitchen, and control your life (and, in Fifty Shades Ana's case, have crazy sado-masochistic sex with you).  That will make things all better.

LENGTH: 416 pages
MAINSTREAM OR NOT: It's kind of a wacky take on chick lit, I guess.
SO, SHOULD I READ IT OR NOT?: The writing wasn't bad, and it moved fairly quickly, so I wouldn't say no.

*Oh, yes, she eats them.  All of them. And yes, she knows where they came from.  Did I mention she's pregnant at the time?  Do you see my concern here?

**It also nearly kills and most definitely scars Patrick's poor kid for life, but no one seems too concerned about that.

Monday, July 23, 2012


AUTHOR: Beth Gutcheon
GENRE: Fiction

This is what Amazon had to say about this book: “Gossip is a tale of intimacy and betrayal, trust and fidelity, friendship, competition, and motherhood that explores the myriad ways we use and abuse "information" about others—be it true, false, or imagined—to sustain, and occasionally destroy, one another.”

Ummmm… maybe I accidently read a different book.  Maybe someone at the library switched the dust jackets on me.  But let’s put it this way: remember that time your best friend Jessica roped you into going with her to her grandma’s house upstate, but once you got there, Jessica totally ditched you for her cousins and left you to listen to her very sweet but kind of lonely grandma’s life story?  It was an okay story, with some interesting bits - you could tell she was probably pretty fun at one point - so you managed to keep your listening face on the whole time, but you were still pissed on the way home?  That’s exactly what this book is like.   

Gossip is the story of Loviah French.  Loviah seems like a very nice woman.  An uninteresting woman, but a nice woman.  Loviah’s narration begins in the present with a titillating tidbit of something juicy* and then goes back in time to Loviah’s first days at boarding school.  It’s at boarding school that she meets the other central characters of the story, Dinah and Avis.  Together they grow and mature, building families and careers, encountering setbacks and experiencing the wonders life has to offer.  Sound boring? That’s because it is.  It tries to be exciting – the Manhattan high life!  Fan-cy! – but no amount of talk about exclusive society clubs and martini-drinking, Pucci-wearing Upper East Side hostesses can combat multiple chapters about the inner workings of the personal stylist’s booking system at Bloomingdale’s, or, worse, the long conversations between Loviah and Avis about how maybe Avis should take a cottage on the Maine mainland instead of an island because, you know, her hips just aren’t the same anymore.  Add to that pages and pages of Loviah playing peacemaker between Dinah and Avis – or, really, justifying Dinah’s bitchness towards poor, bland Avis**.  It’s fascinating.  NOT.

Like a pair of Iowa tourists on their first trip to Times Square, the story wanders aimlessly forward in time until we arrive back at the present and at the horrific event first introduced 200 pages before.  When the BIG SURPRISE! finally comes, and Dinah’s son Nicky finally murders his wife – who also happens to be Avis’s daughter – it’s a welcome end to the slog (and to poor Grace).  And as you could probably guess, the BIG SURPRISE! isn’t much of a surprise, since the couple has been miserable for years.   But then again…everyone in this book is unhappy.  Dinah worries she’s too fat and she isn’t important to society anymore.  Avis has a bad relationship with her daughter.***  Loviah’s boyfriend isn’t around as much because his invalid wife suddenly decides to move back up from Florida.  (Even before that, Loviah always seemed slightly peeved with society for having to sneak around.  Keep in mind, this guy is in his 70s.)  With all this lingering hostility, it’s a wonder someone hasn’t killed before. 

In between all this are various detours, some of which reappear, some of which are never referenced again. These  detours, which presumably are meant to add meaning to it all, instead just add to the irritation.  Nicky kills Grace because she’s cheating on him.  But the author has also been hinting that Nicky is really gay for like, 150 pages.  So… is that supposed to have something to do with him killing her?  Was it really resentment about lost opportunities and the life he was supposed to lead?  (Note to Ms. Gutcheon: it’s never a good sign when the reader is left trying to scotch-tape together random bits of the story.)  A few chapters before, the story is moving along with some speed when September 11th happens.  The author shoe-horns it in by having Dinah’s ex-husband have an office in the towers, but there is no reason to reference September 11th other than to be able to say, see?  It’s New York.  They’re New Yorkers, which is completely unnecessary and totally jarring, especially when she doesn’t reference any other such historic happenings. It’s just all over the place.

Then there are the moments where you almost wonder if the whole stuck-with-Jessica’s-grandma feeling was intentional – times when Loviah is in the middle of a story and the author stops the forward momentum to have Loviah tell the reader, “it was 1956.  I just got out my yearbook and checked” or “I found the ticket stub just the other day.  It was in my winter jacket”.  After that, you expect a pat on the hand and an offer of a cookie.  The point of this all is, it’s not a bad story per se.  It’s just a lot to try and stay interested in, especially when there are no cookies, and no Jessica to be peeved at on the way home.

LENGTH: 288 Pages
MAINSTREAM OR NOT: It’s a new category: old lady lit!
SO, SHOULD I READ IT OR NOT?: Not unless you really liked those trips upstate.

*Well, it’s supposed to be titillating and juicy. But really it’s just vague.

**Because back in boarding school, Dinah made some minor social faux pas and Avis saw it.  She didn’t say anything about it, mind you, or ever tell anyone about it.  But Dinah hates her nonetheless.  What a pleasant character she is!

***Primarily because when Grace’s miserable drunk of a father finally keels over in his recliner, nobody called her up at school for a couple of hours.  This ruins her already strained relationship with her mother, who, by the way, has wordlessly put up with the drunk for like, 25 years, so maybe we should cut her a little slack?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey: Fifty Shades Darker, or, Fifty Shades of Grey: Fifty Percent More Stalking!, or, Fifty Shades of Grey: What the Hell Am I Doing Here Again?

AUTHOR: E.L. James
GENRE: Fiction

I don't know how I've ended up back in this place. It was a place to which I never intended to return, and yet...yet...

After the horror that was the first Fifty Shades book, I swore off the rest of the series. These people - characters and author alike - were obviously unhinged, and not in a fun way, or even a so-bad-its-almost-good way.1 But there were the next two books were on the shelf, Vintage having spit them out so fast behind the first that they might as well have published it as one giant orgy, and I couldn't help but think, I wonder what kind of crap she managed to shove in there this time. My curiousity beat out my logic center (remember the awful plot?  The awful characters?  The awful writing???) and the next thing I knew, I was reading it.

And let me tell you.  For sheer what-the-(beep)-itude, it did not disappoint.

Last time we left our intrepid sex monkeys, Ana had left Christian and his red room of pain behind, unable to be his submissive.2 When the second book picks up, it's only a few days later, and Ana is already noticably withering away, what with the unstoppable crying and all. But she's determined to soldier on without him, until... until... he emails her asking if she needs a ride to her friend's art show.  Which leads us to...

PROBLEM NO. 1 - INSANE CHOICES. This is how Christian decides to worm his way back into her life - "hey, you need a lift"? And she says yes! Because you know, she's a grown-up. She can handle it. She hasn't eaten in three days and can barely function because her soul yearns for him, but riding with him does mean she doesn't have to take the bus. That really sounds like a solid choice.  Her inner goddess agrees!3

Of course, it takes but a proximity of 3 blocks and a smoldering look and the two of them are all over each other like two sheep during mating season. She misses him! He misses her! There's lots of murmuring and lip-biting and sighing and before we know it they're back in bed. But once the sex is over, old problems rear their heads, namely:

PROBLEM NO. 2 - THAT'S NOT LOVE, THAT'S STALKING. Their post-coital bliss is ruined when Christian insists on honoring the ridiculous check he gave her for her old car, going so far as to call up her bank with her banking account number and depositing the money himself. Because he stole her banking account number. And the kicker? He has no idea why she's mad about it. The man completely hacked her life, complying a dossier on her that's so specific it practically details when she poops. He gifts her a car, a computer, an I-Pad, and a blackberry, and proceeds to use them to document her every move. Because that's what boyfriends do, isn't it? That's not weird at all, is it? No, it's criminal. It's called stalking. And Ana gets furious about it! For five seconds! Which leads us to...

PROBLEM NO. 3 - IF YOU'RE GOING TO GET MAD, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, OR DON'T BOTHER! These two infuriate each other on a regular basis. This is the worst thing they could ever do, damn it! And then two pages later they're back to the sexcapades and the overwrought don't you know how much you mean to me??? histrionics. It's like an episode of one of those MTV teenage dating shows where you spend the whole time feeling superior and tsking, what a douche, to no one in particular, except with whips and chains and severe, severe child abuse.


PROBLEM NO. 4 - WHY ARE YOU SURPRISED BY THIS, AGAIN? How could he violate her privacy like that! How could she go get her own lunch like that! Except... as intensely irritating as it is, that's exactly what he would do, and exactly how she would act. So what in the hell are they so surprised about? Have they learned nothing from the whopping week and a half this torrid love affair has been going on? How many times can they act completely in character and yet be SHOCKED! A lot, apparently. 544 pages worth.

On the other hand...

PROBLEM NO. 5 - SHE REALLY IS A BAD LISTENER. Ana works as an assistant at a publishing house and thus, had plenty of time all day long to spend emailing dirty things to her boyfriend.  Christian - in a rare few pages of sanity - begs her repeatedly to not email him from her company email, but rather from her blackberry.  Not so he can track her - he's doing that anyway - but because, as I'm sure many of us have realized the hard way, emailing private stuff on your work email is not a good idea.  Especially dirty private stuff.  And yet, for some untold reason, she refuses to stop emailing from her work account and gets them both in a buttload of trouble.  Enough trouble to set up a whole other book, apparently!  Seriously?  The work email-private stuff thing is pretty common knowledge!4  When you can make the stalker boyfriend look like the rational one... that's an accomplishment, let me tell you. 

But love acts in strange ways. So strange, in fact, that Christian is willing to give up the scene to be with Ana.. Which means happily ever after, right? RIGHT?

PROBLEM NO. 6 - SOMEBODY NEEDS A DALE CARNEGIE SEMINAR OR SOMETHING. These people have the worst self-confidence, like, ever. They profess their feelings for each other incessantly and yet are forever on the edge of falling apart because one that doesn't feel they deserve the other, or one can't possibly fulfil the needs of the other. Does it occur to no one that perhaps, just maybe, someone needs to take a step back? Maybe breathe a little bit? And stop overreacting about everything?

Another relationship issue they might want to address:

PROBLEM NO. 7 - SEX, WHEE! INNER GODDESSES, GIGGLE! MASSIVE CHILDHOOD TRAUMA... WHOO? Christian is a mysterious one, we all know. We learned in the first book that he had a really bad childhood.  We learn in the second book just how bad: his mom was a crack whore with a crazy pimp who regularly wailed on both of them.  When he finally beats the mother to death, the guy leaves her body - and poor terrified little Christian - in the apartment.  Where no one finds them for 4 days.  So it's understandable that the guy has issues.  But things go completely off the rails when he reveals to Ana that not only is his lifestyle his only way of dealing with all this but that he picks brunettes for his subs because they remind him of his dead, crack whore mother.  And Ana's just fine with this!  So happy is she to have been let into his inner world, she ignores the fact that this guy - who has already displayed some pretty intense stalker-control freak tendencies, who refuses to form real relationships, who refuses to be touched! - has just admitted that when he humiliates and dominates his sexual partners he's really trying to punish his dead, crack whore mother.   But no warning signs there!  No, not at all!  Her stupid freaking inner goddess is too busy doing triple sow cows to notice that maybe, just maybe, this guy needs a little more intensive therapy than he's getting.  (Or, even better, to think about her role in this insane relationship.) But who cares!  Let's just continue with our oppressive, hyper-emotional, if-you-leave-me-I'll-kill-myself fueled relationship!  And have more sex!

In the meantime, there's a crazy ex-sub girlfriend on the loose, a creeper boss trying to feel Ana up at every turn5, Christian's adoptive family - who thinks Ana is just the loveliest thing ever, isn't it so nice to see Christian happy - and the omnipresent Mrs. Robinson6, together with all that constant, high-strung emotion, and you just feel exhausted by the time it's all over. 

So it begs the obvious question: having read - and been horrified - by the first one, why in the hell did I read this one?

Because, as much as I hate to admit it, James hit upon something.  People who like the books would say it's that untapped market of housewives who still want to be sexy, darn it.  People who hate the books but read them anyway (I'm assuming there are others and it's not just me) would say that that the unbidden response it provokes - whether that be ooooh, baby! or are you (beeeeeeeeeeeping) serious??? - is too much to be resisted.  It didn't take a brain surgeon to know that Ana and Christian would get back together - and I, for one, just couldn't bear to miss the complete train wreck that was sure to follow.  I'm not proud of it.  But I think I've suffered enough for my sins, thankyouverymuch.  I read the book, after all. 

LENGTH: 544 Pages
MAINSTREAM OR NOT: Do I really need to answer that?
SO, SHOULD I READ IT OR NOT?: Do I really need to answer that?

1Not even in a Tyra Banks, why-do-I-kind-of-feel-worried-for-her way.

2Despite having been more than adequately warned about it all - you might remember the 15 pages of contracts from the first books.

3Oh, her FREAKING inner goddess.  James apparently studied up on ice staking techniques for this book, because whenever Ana accomplishes some sexual feat, her inner goddess does a sow cow or an axle or whatever.  It's beyond ridiculous.
4Then again, we must remember that in the first book, Christian gifted her with that most rare creature, available only to the richest and most powerful: the email address.  GAH.  Why do I do this to myself?

5 Christian automatically assumes the guy's a creeper, and of course, because you're either boring or a sex pervert in these books, he is.  So Christian uses his millions to buy the publishing house where Ana works and get his IT guys to monitor her every email and his security guys, her every move, and, eventually, to get the guy fired.  Because that's just what loving boyfriends do! 
6Who appeared in the first book as the woman who introduced Christian to the lifestyle.  When he was 15.  And she was like, 35.  Interestingly, this is the only time Ana seems to register a red flag, namely, that 35-year-old women shouldn't be having bondage sex with emotionally-damaged 15-year-old boys