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Tag: book review

Media Monday: Superheroes

Media MondayThe books: Reformed: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project #1 by HL Burke and The Superhero Publicist by Janeen Ippolito

The song: “Holding out for a Hero” by Jennifer Saunders and Frou Frou and Bonnie Tyler

I’m not a big superhero person. I like Batman but haven’t seen any of the new Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman (why is that two words but Superman isn’t??) movies or any of the Marvel universe ones. That said, I still enjoyed these superhero stories.

The first one, Reformed: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project #1 by HL Burke, is set in a world that reminds me of The Incredibles. Superpowers are common enough, and the heroes work with the government to thwart the villains. It’s a bit too black-and-white – there aren’t many sables, as they’re called, who reject either side – but it still works. The MC, Prism, reboots a government program aimed at reforming villains, and she sets her sights on the worst of the worst: Fade, who is accused of betraying her father’s trust when he ran the program before, and of killing a bunch of people. There’s some romance thrown in, of course, as Prism tries to convince Fade he really is a good person inside. As someone who has no qualms about straddling the line between chaotic good and chaotic neutral, I don’t necessarily agree with this – why can’t people just be evil because they want to be evil? – but otherwise, it’s a nice story and a quick read. The characters are similar to those in other books by the author, but that’s not a bad thing either.

The second book, The Superhero Publicist by Janeen Ippolito, is a short about, as the title aptly describes, a publicist for superheroes. She’s working with a new client, a reformed villain now trying to be on the right side of the law for a very specific reason that twists the story around. Definitely worth reading as well.

The song is one of my favorites. When I was 5 or 6, my parents, for whatever reason, got me the Footloose soundtrack for Christmas (and The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat, also for reasons beyond me because both had already been out for many years and my parents didn’t even really listen to this kind of music but whatever). I listened to it a TON and still have a soft spot for most of the songs. This is one of my favorites, and so of course I was thrilled when it showed up at the end of the best Shrek movie, Shrek II. Frou Frou, a band I love, also threw in a version for the end credits.

I’m not sure I’d hold out for a hero from either of these two books, but it’s still fitting.

Which version of the song do you like best? What are your thoughts on superheros, heroes vs villains, and superpowers in general? Tell me in the comments below!

Media Monday: Adapting Etgar Keret

Media MondayThe book: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God by Etgar Keret

The move: Wristcutters: A Love Story

The song:Through the Roof ‘n’ Underground” by Gogol Bordello

Wristcutters has been one of my favorite movies since the first time I saw it about a decade or so ago. I think Netflix recommended it to me, one of those movies in the “Quirky yet depressing indies” category that I love so much. Basically, this guy Zia kills himself and ends up in a place that’s just like here “but worse.” When he finds out his ex-girlfriend Desiree also killed herself and ended up there too, he goes on a roadtrip with his Russian buddy Eugene and this random hitchhiker girl, Mikal, to try to reunite with his lost love. Along the way Tom Waits shows up, as does Will Arnett. I’m not gonna give away too much about the plot because it’s weird and awesome and currently free on Prime, so just go watch it. Right now.

Based on the awesomeness of the movie, I got a copy of Etgar Keret’s short story collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, which contains the short story the movie’s based on, “Kneller’s Happy Campers.” There are a bunch of differences between the two – all the names have been changed, for example – and overall I think I like the movie better. I prefer the movie’s tone; Zia (or Mordy) is more likeable in the movie, but maybe that’s just because in Keret’s story, written in first person, we get his asshole thoughts that we don’t get in the movie. I also prefer how the movie adds details to flesh out the story, which makes sense because the story is only about 40 pages – although it does pack in a lot. Another big change is that the movie is made for American audiences, while Etgar Keret’s story is heavily Israeli, so a lot of references and details from the story are left out or changed (except when they’re not and you have a random Arabic suicide bomber show up in the movie with no context).

But the main difference is the ending. I personally like the book’s ending better; you could chop the last 4 minutes off the movie and I think it would be a lot better. But I prefer that with most movies, actually. Again, no spoilers. And there’s nothing wrong with the movie’s ending necessarily; it just seems like they wanted to wrap things up nicely. Which is stupid for a dark comedy, but whatever.

The song is actually from the movie. Eugene was rewritten for the movie so that he was a failed rockstar loser rather than just the failed loser that he was in the story. The difference is mainly just his backstory and method of suicide. I’m pretty sure the only reason they did it was to have a reason to put this song on the soundtrack, but that’s okay because it’s a good song.

If you’ve seen the movie and/or read the story, or any stuff by Keret, what are your thoughts on it? Do you generally prefer the book or the movie? What do you like or not like about adaptations? Share your thoughts below!

 

2019 book roundup

2019 goodreads challenge logoMy goal every year is to read 100 books. This year, I read 61, almost half of which were in the first few months of the year (I read 27 books from January-April, then about 10 or so in each subsequent quarter). Being home with pneumonia for a few days is a great way to catch up on unread books.

This list only includes books I finished. There are dozens that I started but didn’t finish (often not even the first chapter) either because they were poorly edited or didn’t hold my interest or that I’m still convinced I’ll finish some day. I also didn’t include textbooks or journals that I read for school or work.

Here’s a breakdown of what I read:

  • 4 (7%) were either kids or young adult; the rest were adult. Of the kids books, 2 were ones I’d read as a kid and was rereading as an adult.
  • 1 (2%) was nonfiction and the rest were fiction. So much for my goal of trying to read more nonfiction books.
  • 3 (5%) were single short stories, and 5 (8%) were short story anthologies.
  • I know the authors of 21 (34%) of the books. 4 (7%) share my publisher and 3 were by someone in my in-person writing group.
  • 28 (46%) were in a series. 5 were the first book and I probably won’t read the rest in the series. 12 were in 3 series I binged within a week of starting the first books.
  • 6 (10%) were from Amazon’s first read program, where they offer a free ebook to Prime members.
  • 7 (11%) were from a different country besides US/Canada/Australia/Britain. 6 of those were part of the Around the World reading challenge, and 1 was one I picked up in India, where I generally buy all the English language books I can find.
  • 18 (30%) were books I didn’t like enough to rate at least 4 stars or above. There were also 9 more I started but chose not to finish.
  • 49 (80%) were ebooks. I’m buying print copies of all my Around the World challenge books, or this number would’ve been higher

Best books I read in 2018:

  • Yarnsworld series by Benedict Patrick. A dark, unique spin on fairy tales. I can’t recommend these enough.
  • Drawing Breath by Laurie Boris. A very emotional, realistic story about the (completely legal, platonic) relationship between a teenage girl and her high school art teacher who’s dying of cystic fibrosis.
  • A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. A scathing, lyrical take on the legacy of colonialism in Antigua.
  • Enchantress of Books and other stories by Alison McBain. A collection of fantasy short stories.
  • Winter Loon by Susan Bernhard. A coming-of-age story about a Minnesota teen whose life sucks.

If you challenged yourself to read a set number of books in 2019, how did you end up doing? What were your favorites? Anything you particularly disliked?

Media Monday: the political dynasty of Richard Robbins

Media MondayThe book: Panicles by Richard Robbins

The music: “Running up that Hill” by Placebo

Panicles is a novel that follows two families, the Waxes and the Murnanes, as they weave in and out of each other’s lives. The Waxes are blue collar and the Murnanes are old money, yet Matthew Wax and Emily Murnane form a lifelong friendship that carries them through death, war, and politics. So much politics.

The story reads like an episode of Law and Order, and I’m not sure if the author intended it that way to translate well to a screen because that’s what we get. The story is very dialogue driven; the characters are aware of their feelings and motivations and voice them and backstory to each other in every interaction, rather than presenting these in the narrative. The story is also chronologically fast-paced, in that we get a brief scene of the important events in their lives, covering 30+ years of the characters’ fortunes and misfortunes.

I think the author could easily have split this book into three or more separate books, due to the wide cast of characters and the richness of their lives that we only get brief glimpses of. That said, there’s a second book coming down the pipeline and hopefully it’ll give us the chance to savor the characters we’ve gotten to know throughout book 1.

I picked this accompanying song for two reasons. First, the Meg Myers version of this song is all over the radio right now and the Placebo version is better so I want people to know that. Second, and more relevantly, there are a lot of missed opportunities for the characters, some of their own making and some handed over by fate. Regardless, the characters try to make the best of it.

Also, Placebo has been one of my favorite bands for 25 years now. I feel old.

Media Monday: Reading my way around the world #1

Reading Around the WorldThe books: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Under the Banners of Melancholy: Collected Literary Works by Migjeni, Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, and The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó

The music: “Earth” by Lil Dicky

I love lists. I love making them, and I love using them as a guide for what to do, especially when it comes to reading. A while back I read about a woman who read a book from every country, and I thought to myself, hey, maybe I should do that too. I tend to mostly read books by American, British, and other English-speaking country writers, and I’m always looking for new perspectives.

A quick Google search gave me a list of 266 countries, so obviously I’m not going to finish this challenge anytime soon. I’ll be updating my progress as I finish a handful or two of books.

Afghanistan

For my first book, I went with one I’d been meaning to read for a while: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I debated on whether this actually counts as an Afghani book – the author was born in Afghanistan but now lives and writes in the US – but eventually decided just to go with it.

I wasn’t super impressed with this book. It felt like Hosseini was trying too hard to push his theme of redemption, and all the characters served only to help the main character grow. On some level this is good – you don’t want a bunch of superfluous characters – but the way it was done was very transparent.

Albania

I found a great series, 20+ books on Albanian Studies by Robert Elsie. I’d love to read all of them someday, but for this list I chose Under the Banners of Melancholy: Collected Literary Works by Albanian poet and prosist Migjeni.

I’ve read a lot of Russian stuff and figured an early 20th century rural Albanian would write in a similar vein. The guy studied to be a priest and then taught school in a rural village before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 26. His poems and stories are filled with cynicism and longing for romantic relationships he never received.

From the back cover: “The main theme of his literary work was misery and despair. Previous generations of Albanian writers had sung the beauties of the Albanian mountains and the sacred traditions of the nation, whereas Migjeni now opened his eyes to the harsh realities of life, to the appalling level of misery, disease and poverty he discovered all around him. He was a writer of despair who saw no way out, who cherished no hope that anything but death could put an end to his suffering.”

But through it all, there’s a faint vein of hopeful optimism for his country and for the people around him.

I’m not a huge poetry person, and some of the works became repetitive after a while. He also had a lot of purple prose, although this book was an English translation so I’m not sure how accurate this book was. Overall, though, I enjoyed this, especially some of the short stories. It’s a shame he died so young, because he would’ve had a lot to contribute to Albanian literature.

American Samoa

Believe it or not, there aren’t a lot of American Samoan authors out there. I cheated a bit for this one and went with a Samoan author who lives in American Samoa. I ended up reading Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in Samoa.

At least, that’s what the description said. But this book was a lot more than that. It was as much about Samoan culture – regarding family, community, and views towards the rest of the world – as it was about what the main character Alofa went through. This book was very skillfully written, conveying just as much in what it didn’t say as it did with its descriptions. My favorite that I’ve read so far.

Andorra

As you’ll learn if you try this challenge yourself, there’s really only one book by an Andorran author that’s been translated into English: The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó. And it’s about ancient Egypt.

The story itself wasn’t bad. It’s about a slave, Sedum, who gains his freedom and then works his way up to become treasurer to the pharaoh. But the characters aren’t fleshed out. There’s lots of pages on this made-up “path in the stars” philosophy stuff which is probably way too Eastern for ancient Egypt. Lots of details that don’t matter, especially in the very clinical sex scenes.

It was definitely a slog to finish, and if I hadn’t been reading it for this challenge I would’ve put it down after just a couple chapters.

Up next:

Algeria, Angola, Anguilla, Antarctica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Argentina

The music

Today’s song is quite possibly one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard, but in a juvenile, amusing way. I heard it on the radio and didn’t believe it was a real thing – that’s how stupid it is. I suggest everyone should listen to it at least once (although warning: it’s definitely NSFW).

If you’re doing or have done this challenge, what did you read for each of these countries? Have you read any of these books and, if so, what did you think of them?

Media Monday: The book equivalent of CSI: SVU

Media MondayThe books: The Collector series by Dot Hutchison

The music: “My Muse” by Red Sun Rising

(Okay, so disclaimer: there might actually by a book equivalent of CSI: SVU.)

Last week, blogger and fellow author Corinne Morier reviewed The Butterfly Garden on her blog. I was home with the flu and couldn’t get out of bed, so I bought it on Amazon (just $1.99) and read it. And then Amazon told me it was a series, so I bought and read the next two as well.

The first book, The Butterfly Garden, tells the story of Maya, a teenage girl kidnapped by a sadistic man known only as the Gardener. He collects girls, tattoos butterfly wings on their backs, and forces them to live as part of his harem in his backyard botanical garden, until they turn 21 and he kills them, preserving their bodies in resin. The story alternates between an FBI agent, Vic, listening to Maya tell her story, and the story itself. Although the premise is beyond horrific, the abuse isn’t very graphic, and the book instead focuses on what makes Maya such a survivor.

The second book, The Roses of May, switches from Agent Vic and Maya to Agent Edderson, his partner, who’s working another serial killer case. This time, someone is killing a girl every spring and leaving her body in a church. He suspects that this time the victim will be Priya, a teenage girl whose sister was murdered by the serial killer five years ago. Again, the book isn’t so much about the horrific details, as it is Priya’s story about surviving trauma.

The third book, The Summer Children, again switches from Agent Edderson to his partner, Agent Ramirez. Someone is killing abusive parents and leaving the unharmed children on Ramirez’s porch. Throughout this book, the focus is again on overcoming trauma – in this case, Ramirez’s recollections of her own childhood abuse.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the FBI agents’ methods in each case; I get most of my criminal investigation knowledge from the crime dramas I watch with my dad. But I can comment on the response to the trauma that Maya, Priya, and Ramirez endured, and it’s pretty accurate.

First, the Butterflies as a whole. More than a few people remarked in their reviews that, “If I were in their situation, I would just escape. Twenty-two girls against one man – how hard could it be?” But most people, when thinking about a threat, inaccurately think of just two responses: fight or flight. Either the girls gang up on the Gardener (fight) or they run away as soon as they have the chance (flight). There’s actually a third response, which is the most common response when people encounter trauma, especially when it’s ongoing: freeze. Think of it as learned helplessness, and not necessarily learned directly. This guy has been taking girls for twenty-plus years, and all their bodies are on display. The Butterflies know that if they try to fight back, there’s a good chance they’ll be killed. Die immediately, or die eventually? So, they freeze.

(Relatedly, many women freeze when sexually assaulted. Their assailants, and a lot of the community as a whole, take this for consent since they don’t try to fight back or escape. This leads to horrible victim-blaming, especially of the women towards themselves.)

But what happens when you’ve escaped or been rescued or otherwise survived? That brings us to the themes explored in books 2 and 3, which include survivor’s guilt. Everyone expresses it differently: Priya binges, her mom is a workaholic, her dad kills himself, and Ramirez becomes an agent investigating the types of crimes that were once committed against her. Is any method more effective than another (except suicide, obviously)? Sometimes it changes from day to day, experience to experience.

Overall, I highly recommend this series. They’re each only $1.99, so really, there’s no reason not to check them out.

The song is one of my favorites by Red Sun Rising. Maybe it’s about relationships, but I think in a broader sense it’s about not moving on from a bad situation, even though you know you should, and how the people we surround ourselves with can make it easier or harder to move on.

If you’ve read these books, please share your thoughts. And share your thoughts on the song as well!

Media Monday: Portraying Roma people in literature and art

Media MondayThe book: Snow Gypsy by Lyndsay Jayne Ashford

The music: Carmen by Bizet

My January choice for Amazon’s free prime book was Snow Gypsy, a story set in 1940’s Spain. I love For Whom the Bell Tolls, so I went with a book heavily influenced by the Spanish Civil War. Snow Gypsy tells the story of two women: Rose, a veterinarian who’s searching for her soldier brother who went missing in Spain during the war, and Lola, a Roma whose family was murdered during the war.

Rose travels to the annual Roma pow-wow in Stes.-Marie-Sur-la-Mer, in the Camargue of southern France, to try to find someone who might be able to lead her to where her brother fought, because only Roma can do that? Also, she’s kind of obsessed with Roma culture because they’re all carefree and herby, and she uses their knowledge to write a book on natural cures.

Lola is a dancer, because of course she is. She adopted a baby whose mother was killed alongside Lola’s family, and she’s dedicated to providing a good life for her daughter. She loves her culture but wants more from life, and she doesn’t want to be tied down to a husband.

Rose and Lola travel to Lola’s home in Granada, and before Lola or anyone can take Rose to the village her brother was last at, Lola is imprisoned. Fearing her daughter will be taken away from her and given to white people, Lola sends Rose and the kid to where she grew up. Rose settles into village life pretty well and even falls in love with a guy, before the gripping climax wraps everything up.

Carmen is the story of a Roma woman, Carmen. Duh. Carmen is self-assured and sexy, so all the women hate her and all the guys want her. All, that is, except Don Jose, a soldier who’s in love with his adopted sister, Micaëla. So when Carmen knifes a coworker in the face and his brought to the jail with Don Jose, she seduces him into letting her go. He forgets all about Micaëla and goes to prison for awhile. Meanwhile, Carmen’s living up the smuggler’s life prés les ramparts de Seville, chez son ami Lillas Pastia (in her friend’s tavern in Seville). Don Jose gets out of jail and comes looking for her. Conveniently, she and her smuggler friends need more laborers in their band, so she seduces him again and he’s out after curfew and ends up pulling a gun on his lieutenant. Oops. He has no choice but to join them, but he hates it and starts to hate Carmen. Carmen, of course, no longer has a use for him and moves on, but Don Jose is really jealous so he tells her they’ll only be apart in death. Micaëla shows up and tells Don Jose that his mom’s dying. He leaves but vows it’s not over. Carmen hooks up with Escamillo, a famous toreador, and tells Don Jose to f off, so he kills her. The end.

Although the two stories are very distinct, they share a common thread, and that is romanticizing the Roma culture. For Snow Gypsy, although it does show the prejudice against them, it still paints them as noble savages. And for Carmen (which was written in the 1880s, I think), Roma people are seen as violent, as lawbreakers, as unwilling to do honest work.

This year, I’d like to try to not only read books about different cultures and places, but read them by authors from those cultures. For example, I’ve started reading through all the books I picked up last year when I was in India. Even though I’ve been to the country three times, it’s still eye-opening to read books by people from that country. Even when I’ve been to the places they talk about, they have a completely different perspective than mine, and it’s a pleasant change of pace.

It makes me wonder what Carmen would be like if it had been written by a Roma person in the 1880s, or how they’d write it today. Same with Snow Gypsy; how different would it be if it were written by someone who’s Roma or even just Spanish?

Especially for my own writing, I need to sometimes take a step back and remember that even though I’m writing about a culture or place to the best of my ability, I still don’t have that insider perspective.

This is from the Metropolitan’s 2010 production of Carmen, with Elīna Garanča as Carmen. She is the best Carmen, hands down.

Media Monday: Yarnsworld by Benedict Patrick and The Cure

Media MondayThe books: The Yarnsworld series by Benedict Patrick

The song: “Burn” by The Cure

Today’s books are the four novels that (so far) make up Yarnsworld, a series of mostly standalone stories set in a weird world of dark fairy tales and vengeful protector spirits.

Each book follows the same format: A main chapter about a central character, followed by a legend or tale from the main characters’ people, that relates in some way to the central plot at that moment. It’s a great way to provide worldbuilding without bogging readers down in infodumps, but it also requires readers to be intelligent and read between the lines to make connections between the tale, the characters, and the plot.

These are not fluff books, and based on reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. It also seems that the people who read the first book and loved it, also read and loved the rest of the series.

The first book, They Mostly Come Out at Night, introduces us to the Corvae, a forest-dwelling people who are protected from the terrible creatures in the woods by the Magpie King. Except the Magpie King isn’t as present as the people need him to be. A young villager, Lonan, dreams of the Magpie King, and realizes he needs to step up to become the protector his people need, despite the horrible price he will have to pay.

The second book, Where the Waters Turn Black, tells the story of Kaimana, an ocarina player who lives on the islands of the Crescent Atoll. When she befriends a taniwha, a huge monster, she at first does so as a way to write an epic song that will bring her fame. But when she has to seek help from her capricious gods to save her new friend, she must decide what really matters to her.

The third book, Those Brave, Foolish Souls From the City of Swords, takes us to the lands of the Muridae as we meet Arturo, a young man who wants to be a Bravadori: a brave, respected swordsman who helps those in need. But when he realizes that the Bravadori aren’t who he thought they were, he embarks on a journey with two disgraced Bravadori to rediscover the original meaning of the Bravadori.

The fourth book, From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court, takes us back to the forests of the Corvae, where court servant Nascha has fled after a nobleman threatens to kill her for bastard royal blood. She’s aided by Vippon, a Gentleman Fox who isn’t who he seems to be, and Bradan, a young man desperate to get out of his father’s shadow.

Each of these books is dark, full of murder and violence and betrayal. They’re also filled with old, dark magic that requires blood sacrifice in order to appease the Spirits, who don’t really care one way or the other about their human subjects, as long as they’re worshiped sufficiently.

And the characters themselves aren’t full of rainbow and sunshine either. The main characters especially are seflish, each questing for power and fame, even at the expense of those around them. But in each book, there’s a definite arc for the characters, as they come to realize that there’s a greater good out there, and that they have to do what’s best for their world and their people, despite the cost to themselves.

And dear lord but is there a cost. Not to give too many spoilers, but these books don’t have happy endings. They do, however, have endings that are appropriate for the story and the world, and that’s one of the things I liked about these books. Not many authors are willing to give their stories an unhappy ending, even when that’s the only ending there can be.

The song that I paired with this is “Burn” by The Cure. Yes, I know there’s the obvious connection between the movie this was in, The Crow, and magpies, but it’s also a song about what lurks in the shadows, about losing someone you care about and then trying in vain to recover what you’ve lost. Especially for the first and fourth books, this song is a great companion. And it’s one of my favorite Cure songs.

 

2018 book roundup

2018 goodreads challengeMy goal every year is to read 100 books. This year, I read 81 – I think it’s the best I’ve done so far.

This list only includes books I finished. There are dozens that I started but didn’t finish (often not even the first chapter) either because they were poorly edited or didn’t hold my interest. I also didn’t include textbooks or journals that I read for school.

Here’s a breakdown of what I read:

  • 16 (20%) were either kids or young adult; the rest were adult. Of the kids books, 5 (6%) were the Dark is Rising series, which I’d read as a kid and was rereading.
  • 2 (2%) were nonfiction and the rest were fiction. One of those nonfiction was a memoir, and the other was a study guide for the MSW licensing exam.
  • 24 (30%) were single short stories, and 6 (7%) were short story anthologies.
  • I know the authors of 50 (62%) of the books. 6 (7%) share my publisher and 1 was by someone in my in-person writing group.
  • 46 (57%) were in a series. Only 2 were ones where I just read the first book and didn’t read the rest or want to read the rest when they’re released.
  • 8 (10%) were from Amazon’s first read program, where they offer a free ebook to Prime members.
  • 1 (1%) was translated from another language or from a non-Western country.
  • 30 (37%) were books I didn’t like enough to rate at least 4 stars or above.
  • 72 (89%) were ebooks.

Best books I read in 2018:

  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone. The story of a black teenager in Atlanta whose best friend is shot and killed, and how he tries to channel MLK to deal with the aftermath.
  • The Green Princess trilogy by H.L. Burke. A teenage girl and her prince boyfriend belong to rival magic factions in the midst of a civil war, and have to overcome tons of obstacles to try to be together.
  • Crazy Quilt: a collection of short stories by Alice Woodrome. As the title says, a great collection of short stories on a range of topics.
  • Whisper Me This by Kerry Anne King. A woman returns to her hometown after her mother’s death and tries to balance caring for her aging father, raising her teen daughter, dating, and solving a family mystery.

If you challenged yourself to read a set number of books in 2018, how did you end up doing?  What were your favorites?  Anything you particularly disliked?

Media Monday: Edith Wharton, feminism, and the #MeToo movement

Media MondayThe books: The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The music: “Ísjaki” by Sigur Rós and “Intro” by The XX

The books

The Age of Innocence has been one of my favorite books since I first read it 15+ years ago. I’ve been slowly working my way through Wharton’s stories and novels, and last spring I went on a Wharton binge (I stayed at a little cabin I had to hike half a mile to, right on Lake Superior, and spent several days lying on a bunk next to a wood-burning stove just reading. It was heaven) that included Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth. Unrelated to this post, why does everyone hate Ethan Frome? It has such a wonderfully tragic ending.

Anyways. Lily Bart became one of my favorite characters, because her story is so tragic as well.

If you don’t know the plot of either of them, The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer, who’s engaged to deceptively naive May Welland. He meets her cousin Ellen Olenska, who is *gasp* separated from her husband! This is late 19th century New York high society and that kind of thing isn’t done. Ellen doesn’t care and does what she wants, much to the horror of her family and social circle. Newland realizes that high society is stupid and vapid and that he doesn’t particularly care for them either. He falls for Ellen in part because her DGAF attitude is such a contrast to May’s sincere desire to fulfill the role society tells her she should have. He’s prepared to dump May for Ellen, but May suspects this and tells Ellen she’s pregnant. Ellen runs away to Europe, and Newland lets her go in order to be the husband society wants him to be, even though he’s emotionally dead inside.

The book/film opens with them watching Faust, which is my third favorite opera, after Carmen and Evgeny Onegin.

The House of Mirth is similar. It’s about Lily Bart, a destitute late 19th century socialite who relies on the charity of her aunt. Lily is in her twenties and therefore practically ancient, so she’s getting a lot of pressure to marry the first guy she can snag. But all the guys are boring and stupid, except for her friend Lawrence Selden. Selden kinda strings her along as she muddles her way through friendships and semi-courtships. Her love for luxury leads her to a platonic financial relationship with a married guy, whose wife gets pissed and ruins Lily’s reputation. All Lily’s high society friends abandon her, and as she sinks through the ranks she eventually finds happiness as a lowly seamstress. Selden rushes to her apartment when he realizes just how bad off she is and what a jerk friend he’s been, except she accidentally OD’ed on sleep medication.

Lily is a combination of both May and Ellen. May knows how to play the game to get what she wants, and what she wants is exactly what society tells her she should have – a wealthy husband to pop out babies with, never concerning herself with anything more than managing her household and family. Ellen, in contrast, wants to do whatever she wants, and society is holding her back with her expectations. Lily tries to be like May, pretending to want a house to manage and a family to raise, when really she’s more like Ellen in that she wants to do what she wants regardless of what society dictates. The constrast, however, is that Ellen’s rich grandmother also thinks society is stupid and gives her enough money that she can live however she wants, without a husband to depend on. Lily, unfortunately, doesn’t have this, and so she has to make her own way in the world. Lily realizes that she can either be rich or have freedom, and as the story progresses, she goes from holding on to riches at all costs, to finding pleasure in simplicity and poverty. And then she dies.

Feminism

The role of feminism is obvious. Ellen would be okay in our modern era, because she’d be able to divorce her worthless husband and become a senator or lawyer or travel writer or something. Lily, born into a gilded life, would nonetheless have been able to get an education that would allow her to support herself without relying on her worthless husband. But because of society’s restrictions, being on their own isn’t a realistic option, unless they’re willing to face the stigma that comes with it. Ellen is, and so she’s rewarded – her grandma sees how happy she is when she DGAF and gives her money to live off of. Lily, however, refuses to take the plunge by telling everyone to F off, and she ends up poor. Perhaps if she had told them to F off sooner, she would’ve gotten a happy ending like Ellen’s. Instead, it’s only when she accepts that society is stupid and she’s better off without it that she finds peace. But then it’s too late, and she dies.

#MeToo

While Lily Bart has grown to become probably my favorite Wharton character after Newland (I really despised her when I first started reading the book, and it’s only in hindsight that I realized how awesomely done her complexity was), I’m not a fan of Lawrence Selden at all. I have to wonder, how complicit was he in her death? She wasn’t sexually assaulted, but her name was dragged through the mud when she was accused of having an affair with a married guy. None of her friends stood up for her, Selden included. He was removed a bit from society, in that he went to the parties but wasn’t really part of a high society family. As such, he had a lot more freedom to DGAF than most of the other characters, yet he still had clout with them. Kinda like the cool loner kid. Yet he didn’t speak up for Lily, even though they had feelings for each other. As I’m writing this I’m trying my hardest to avoid news about Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing and sexual assault testimonies, and I can’t help but draw a parallel between Lily’s situation and his. Lily was accused of having an affair. No one spoke up to defend her innocence, even her closer friend, and she suffered because of this. Dr. Ford has spoken up about Kavanaugh’s sexual assault of her and however many other women have accused him, and no Republicans are defending her, and she and the whole damn country are suffering because of this. Maybe then Sen. Flake is the equivalent of Selden; he claims to be a champion of women’s rights, but he goes along with the status quo.

Which again comes back to the question: how complicit is Selden in Lily’s death? When we see injustices – whether it’s misogyny or bullying or maybe a coworker behaving in a harmful way – what obligation do we have to speak up? I know what my response is, but what happens when society is telling you to sit down and shut up, or you’re going to lose your status? Do you still expend your social capital, maybe risk friendships and relationships and your job, to speak out? I know what my answer is, and sadly I know what most people’s answers are. I know what Selden’s answer was, and it cost Lily her life.

The music

As you may have deduced from my rant above, the #MeToo movement, and especially every misogynist thing the current administration is doing, is a bit triggering for me. Yeah, I said triggering. The truth of the matter is, women are still at the mercy of a patriarchal society, and when we go against or speak against their norms there can be emotional consequences for it. So, the two songs for today are two that I use to calm down.

The first is by Sigur Ros, and the lyrics don’t even matter so much as the music. The chimes are great for deep breathing exercises; I’ve used them with clients as well as with myself.

The second is by The XX, a band YouTube suggested I listen to. This song is just very calming, and since it’s only 6-ish minutes long someone nicely made it into a 4 hour loop so you can listen to it forever to destress. You’re welcome.

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