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A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River - Aldo Leopold

So we started this today as a family read-aloud. The goal is a chapter (corresponding to a month) a day for the next 12 days.

January thoughts. I liked the narcissistic representation of the animals. Each is incapable of noticing the others; I found the economic description of the meadow mouse's tunnels under the snow and the grass buried in ground especially entertaining.

February is all about the felling of an oak tree. I have a burr oak in my backyard that is 200+ years old; as Leopold travels back in time (although I must say that too many of his years were simply full of fires or drought...couldn't he find something unique about each year?) through the sawing of the tree, I was thinking about how different in scale time is for a tree than a human.

March tells the story of the geese. I enjoyed Leopold's comment about his learned friend who had never noticed the migration of the geese. I am not quite that bad, but it is a good reminder to pay attention to the passing season. We also had a lovely discussion between the four of us about the benefits of being a muskrat. Is it that they eat geese or that they would be able to move about among the geese without disturbing their pattern of behavior?

April has a great description of the love dance of the woodcock (as a nightly entertainment) and also a short essay on the veteran bur oaks (of which mine is one).

The nesting plovers in May give a new definition to field ownership. Although, I'm not sure I've ever seen a plover; maybe the forest conservationists were not just in time as Leopold asserts.

June is the story of the non-prudent fisherman. The kids were interested in the fact that Leopold fishes by hand (not with a rod and reel). I thought about how different their attitudes are when at the lake; if they catch fish (some years they do) then all is well, but the years that they do not catch fish are boring and treacherous for all.

July was wonderful on two fronts. First, we have a compass plant in our front yard (planted by my father in law who is a lover of all things prairie) and second, my dog(s) also does not believe in the tenure rights of birds.

August was about the river painting a picture, although I wasn't convinced it was the river. Yes, the water level is determined by the river and it is a good focal point but most of the color is in the flowers and the grass, neither of which are fed by the river.

September deals with the songs of the elusive birds. I am getting to a point in this book where I am not quite sure about the distinction between chapters. They all sort of seem to be about listening to the birds.

October is great for those of us early morning risers: "unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements." I'm not sure I quite agree (and not convinced that he makes an argument for such), but it is a cute quip.

November is described by the pine and the birch and the trees on Leopold's farm. Maybe it is just because I am currently reading Ayn Rand as well, but the description of the tools (axe and shovel and all else as a derivation thereof) meant more to me than the description of the trees. I'm glad that we are down to only one more month.

December features my favorite quote: "moderation is best in all things"; this is something I frequently spout. My kids loved the story of the tagged chickadee who managed to live for 5 years.

So, I finished the rest on my own (the family assignment was just for Sand County Almanac) because I felt like I should read the full thing for reviewing. Part II of this book is similar to SCA, it is more descriptive natural observations and stories focused mostly on place. Leopold describes more of WI, IL, CO, AZ, NM as well as some of Mexico. His description is beautiful, but personally it is not really my cup of tea.

Part III was more interesting; he gives substantive explication to his theories on conservation. I found his arguments compelling and prescient (given the extent of natural areas during the time he wrote as compared to modern times). Having just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, I found Leopold's viewpoint to be even more compelling; he argues that we need to see land as biota, rather than just soil and emphasizes that "a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided." I enjoyed his comparison between Odysseus's murder of the slave girls and our continual destruction of natural places: until and unless we recognize the value in all living creatures we will not give adequate respect or attention to conservation. He argues that the composition of plant life (even plants that are not "economically relevant") determines the structure of the soil, which in turn does affect our own food chain (either through the growth of useful plants like corn or food for animals that then become plants). He demonstrates how loss of predators can leave to over development of prey which then changes the plant composition. 

I am glad to have read this. Living in Madison, I have come across Leopold's name and rough outline of his ideas. It is remarkable just how forward thinking he was, given that he was writing in the 1920s-1940s on issues that were yet to be so apparent.

Atlas Shrugged - Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand

Claire Messeud in The Woman Upstairs describes a state in which one becomes obsessed with a topic. She describes how one can be transfixed by an idea and then for a period of several days or several weeks see that idea EVERYWHERE and be astounded by the omnipresence of something that had been previously unnoticed. In college, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged back to back and spent the next month or so absolutely entranced with Rand’s themes. I saw everything in terms of the ants and the grasshoppers (because, after all what is her story but a more complex version of the fable?). I was enamored.

A few months ago, I mentioned that I should buy Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead for my kindle (this is remarkable only if you know that despite reading almost exclusively on my kindle for the past 3 years, I am so cheap that I have yet to buy an electronic book. Yes, I need to volunteer and/or give more money to my public library system) simply because they were such good works. My husband laughed at me. He thought it was absurd that I would want to buy these books (out of all others) especially since they were so oftentimes used and cited for conservative justification. That settled it, I immediately put Atlas Shrugged on e-reserve so that I could re-read and post an accurate review.

I must give one more caveat before I actually engage with the content of the novel. Rand speaks to me personally (as she most likely does to some degree to all of the ants out there). While her characters are archtypes and way too similar to each other to provide the necessary variation in life, she does address a few “types.” I am stronger than Cherryl (who is rather empty headed, stupid to fall for Jim’s blather, and weak to commit suicide), but my history is similar to hers. I come from a background of mostly grasshoppers who are convinced that their lack of success in life is simply because they made choices to do for others rather than for themselves. As my family wallows in poverty and addiction, they are convinced that had they chosen to be selfish they would now be better off in their “worldly” life. Instead, they appease themselves with the thoughts of the reward they will reap in the life beyond. Of course, under their viewpoint, I am nothing but a selfish, greedy, heartless elitist who cannot see the value in the average man. I recognize that sacrifices were made for my good (when I was a child), but I also doubt the accuracy of their own expectations for themselves if they had not made such sacrifices. And I am unable to understand how or why the choices made over 30 years ago can prevent one from making constructive changes now (or 5 years ago, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago). I understand that life is hard; I understand that life is work; I know that addiction is debilitating, but I believe that happiness comes from a feeling of self efficacy and accomplishment. I don’t think it should be anyone’s responsibility to ensure the happiness or economic well-being of another. I have given help and been disgusted watching tens of thousands of my own dollars go up in smoke (quite literally on that one). I have offered no further help without a willingness from them to attempt for sobriety and employment. Unfortunately, as much as I can (and will) stand on principle, I am not removed from the guilt. It will be hard to watch the train wreck that is coming in the household in which I grew up. It is hard to accept that the best I can hope for may be that it goes quickly. 

As mentioned by other reviewers, this novel was unnecessarily long. I actually thought it should have ended with Dagny in the valley after her crash. She should have sent word to Hank to come to her. Instead of seeming noble for trying to save the rest of earth, Dagny just comes across as thick headed. 

Rand repeats herself endlessly throughout, not only in the text of her philosophical rantings but with the repetition in plot points. For example, both Dagny and Hank did not need young proteges (Cherryl and the Wet Nurse). Either (or really both at that point in the book) of these “sentimental moments” between the industrialist and the young person who sees the truth could have been cut. 

Hank doesn’t see the “truth” of things even after long discussions with Frisco, accepting his relationship with Dagny, and even protecting Ragner from the police. It is not until after his mills are attacked that he is able to “get it.” Similarly, Dagny does not realize that Galt is the third of the students; she does not understand (or even suspect) that Frisco is working with the destroyer. So much of the novel is just repetition and beating the reader over the head with things that have already been said.

Her characters are stiff, stereotypical archetypes. All the heroes are essentially the same, each representing a different industry. Nothing is realistic, the whole representation is so very black and white. For example, Dagny’s search for Galt (as the creator of the motor) was unnecessarily long and too convenient. Each time she reaches a dead end she is again given an unexpected lead. Similarly, international trade was ignored as industry is falling apart except when it became important to her plot and the destruction of d’Anconia copper.

The regulations that are passed are nonsensical. I get that her point is that the non thinking men are incapable of passing decent regulations. However, I would argue that even those who devalue production are still thinking beings. Instead of providing slightly grey (rather than solidly black and white) characters, she sets up ridiculous examples with which we cannot disagree except to say that they are improbable, unlikely, and therefore not instructive. In modern times, I can think of examples that would prove her point: ridiculous political maneuvering through things like economic bailout for big banks and the lack of respect by the average American for thinking people with the election of “dubya” (Jim Taggert is sooo GW Bush) over Gore. 

I was not convinced by her argument that the weasely folks did not know that their game would eventually end. I did not buy into the idea that they were ultimately searching for death. This is the only way she can reconcile her revile of humanitarian and socialist ideas with the necessary destruction of everything in the world. Per Rand’s arguments, all of the “socialists” are necessarily selfish, but they have to create a world in which their selfishness is hidden under a layer of sacrifice. It is all just too cloudy; she is unwilling to admit that Taggert’s group know that they are being weasely; she continues to represent them as entitled, rather than conniving. In the real world, these type of people are more often clearly aware of what they are doing and would rather scam the world then properly engage it. Instead, Rand’s characters neither engage nor scam; they just make irrational regulations to satisfy momentary desires without thinking at all. I understand that this is most representative of her philosophy but an unlikely unrepresentative example does not, in fact, prove her point. For example, Taggart talks about breaking the spine of the railroad (and he is the one who is most interested in killing Galt at the end), but this is nonsensical. He would not really want this. He does not crave destruction. He craves reward without effort. He is a moocher not a destroyer.

I liked the feminist thread in Rand’s discussion on sexual openness and desire, and her clear representation of Dagny as a hero, but the book could really have used a few more powerful women. Ultimately, the valley is going to end up with about 6 women and 400 men (at the rate things were going) which is going to create a huge problem between them.

Along this same theme, her portrayal of sex and sexual relationships felt too simplistic. I like that Dagny was free and Reardon was tied by guilt over his sexual desires. I like that Reardon eventually is released from his guilt, but I thought his development was too overt and ridiculous and not at all believable. Rather than realistically complicating things by having Dagny sleep with all of them (which I suspect was her intention), Rand sets up three slightly ridiculous relationships. 

First, it was completely unbelievable that her affair with Frisco was not public knowledge. They were both public figures. If they spent that much time together as kids and in their young professional life there would have been questions and mentions in the tabloids. Further, the first time Dagny and Frisco have sex is when he is 20. I understand that he was not the playboy that he portrayed himself to be (which is fine and believable to an extent), but I do not believe that one of the richest, smartest, and most physically attractive teenage boys in the world did not engage in any sexual activity between the ages of 15 and 20. And, I do not believe that he would be celibate then for the rest of his life after he and Dagny were finished. 

Second, Hank has a guilt-ridden sexual desire (which is believable) and so forces himself on his wife only when he can no longer refrain until he meets Dagny and they have an affair, through which he discovers and accepts his own sexuality. Not because he trusts himself or his judgement (wait, doesn’t that contradict things here a bit? Isn’t Galt’s whole speech about evaluating for oneself rather than waiting for instruction? And doesn’t Hank live his whole life by this creed? Oh yeah, he does, but not with regard to sexuality because then Rand wouldn’t have the convenience of “teaching” this revelation to her reader), but because Frisco (yeah, Frisco of all people) tells him: “The man who is proudly certain of his own value, will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer—because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement, not the possession of a brainless slut.” Hank eventually accepts his sexuality and recognizes his affair with Dagny as a mutual expression of their respect and love for each other, just in time to quietly give her up to a better man. Huh? Oh yeah, and now he’ll probably also be celibate for the rest of his life.

Finally, Dagny and Galt are the ultimate couple. Galt is the epitome of mankind (and in fact is nothing but a poorly veiled Jesus representation), while Dagny is the perfect female. Clearly, I’m glad that perfection in female form is more than just T and A, but the disney-fied union of these two was too perfect to not induce nauseous feelings.

I think I was most disgusted with the religious undertones. Clearly, Rand professes to be a devout atheist (and this is at least one point on which I can solidly say she differs from the right wing fanatics), but the plot parallels the crucifixion story. Galt is not only the creator of the valley, but he is the gatekeeper; he choose who to invite to his heaven. He is the potential savior of mankind, but he will only save those who accept his creed, ask for his forgiveness, and follow his teachings. Finally, the ignorant attempt to sacrifice him after he has been forsaken by one of his followers (Dagny turned Judas) by strapping him naked to be tortured (in the position of a man on a cross but lying down rather than hanging up). In the end he is “resurrected” and then leaves earth to return to his heavenly home. What the fuck? How can this be anything but a religious representation? Is Rand trying to convince the masses by working within a framework that they may subtly understand? Isn’t that just dishonest? How can she reconcile her philosophical position on truth if she is subverting with this Galt/Jesus parallel?

As a final little complaint, I was almost violently angry that Eddie Willers was left alone on the track. He was good and competent and hard working and represents everything they want in the valley. He was even Galt’s lunch buddy…how come he got so screwed? At some point, someone should have gone back for him or at least given him instructions on how to find the valley.

All of these complaints aside, I do believe in the core of what she is trying to say, and I think her arguments about the truth of respecting the mind and searching for others of value are valid and important. I have my favorite quotes below:

“All he remembered of those jobs was that the men around him had never seemed to know what to do, while he had always known.”

“she felt herself screaming silently, at times, for a glimpse of human ability, a single glimpse of clean, hard, radiant competence. She had fits of tortured longing for a friend or an enemy with a mind better than her own.”

“She was incapable of love for any object not of her own choice and she resented anyone’s demand for it.”

“there’s nothing of any importance in life—except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It’s the only measure of human value.”

”if one’s actions are honest, one does not need the predated confidence of others, only their rational perception.”

“The worse guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt—and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment—and to let it grow the heavier the greater the virtues you practiced.”

“No one’s happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or to destroy.”

“People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked. And if one gains the immediate purpose of the lie—the price one pays is the destruction of that which the gain was intended to serve. The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on.”

“honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.”

“it’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence.”

“Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer.”

Ultimately this is an important work and should be recognized as such. I embarked on this re-reading with the expectation that I would find ways to refute the usurpation of my ideals by the evil political machine. I am not sure I can do so. I no longer fondly remember AS; I am not completely disillusioned with Rand and I do support lots of her ideas, but I can’t in good conscience give this the 5 star rating that I would have unquestionably assigned to it prior to re-reading. Alas, none of the books I have re-read this year have lived up to my recollections of them.

Northern Lights - Tim O'Brien I appreciate the complexities between the characters and the accuracy that is revealed in a character book (no real plot suspension) in which the characters do not much change or grow.

I did not like Grace. I found her too "mother-y" (yeah, yeah the missing father called her "someone's mother" when she was just a college girl and she is an elementary school teacher and we are constantly reminded that she wants a baby), even though that is her central core. In the opening scene I thought she treated Perry almost as if he was mentally handicapped and her repeated "now, let me rub you," and "poor baby" selfless maternal babblings were just nauseating.

I was also frequently bothered by the repetitions in the text. There were multiple times in the novel in which Perry's thoughts just circled. I found myself reading several paragraphs (several times throughout) which were essentially the same two sentences repeated ad nauseum.

The beauty in the novel came in the perfect representation of calm and repetition in nature: "He could close his eyes and ski and imagine himself finally stopping and freezing and fossilizing and sprouting needled branches and joining the pines in a perfect communion. One of millions. Each the same. No cold, no hunger, no memories and no fear. An element among elements in the elements." Perry really loses himself (and essentially finds his backbone) during the cross-country ski trip. While there is no real change, there is development; as he takes charge (really for the first time in his life) after Harvey gets them lost and then becomes sick, Perry begins to recognize his own value and ability to make decisions.

As Perry drags near-death Harvey through the woods, I was reminded of Millet's How the Dead Dream (which was not a good book). In turn, that has elements of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Ultimately, we have the same travel through nature in which the main character makes it back to civilization only to realize that real change can only come through oneself. Unlike How the Dead Dream, Harvey comes out alive (the poor guide is not only dead but is left to the river) and unscathed from the experience. It is only Perry who sees the necessity of self-reliance and recognizes that change is not all bad.

When Perry finally emerges, he cannot reach Grace by phone and realizes (much in parallel to Harvey's homecoming on the bus months prior): "There was no answer. Outside, he retrieved his skis and wiped them off and stacked them in a dry spot by the garage. He was depressed. There ought to have been crowds. The high way should have been jammed with well-wishers. He took up the branch that he had used as a pole, gripped it hard and flung it across the highway and into the woods. A clod of wet snow slid off the roof . Inside again, he had another beer." Perry turns to alcohol the same way that the vets do; when reality does not meet expectations after a traumatizing experience it is rather trite to assume a fantastical impression fueled by drink.

Overall, it was not appealing to me. Despite reading Leopold simultaneously, I am not really a "nature" book kind of gal. I think the best parts of this novel are in the natural description and that was mostly lost on me. I can understand why this is a very appealing book to some (in the vein of Heller's The Dog Stars), but personally I was not engaged.
Mohawk - Richard Russo So this is my third or fourth Russo and not my favorite. It did not surprise me to discover that it is his first novel, as some pieces were too overt and convenient for my liking.

This novel again deals with the politics and relationships in a small northeastern town (this time in New York). There are similarities to Empire Falls (father/daughter relationships, central diner characters) as well as to Nobody's Fool (I had a hard time thinking of Dallas as distinct from Sully). Instead of find this repetition boring, I enjoy the familiarity that is found in the covers of Russo's books. Part of the repetition and his worship of the mundane is what makes his writing great.

Occasionally, I found the language to be a bit over the top: "Diana had majored in circumspection and graduated at the head of the class" was one sentence that made me cringe for example. The conversation between Rory and BG just before Rory is shot was similarly too overt and contrived. In fact, the plot was so contrived in the end (especially since Harry's new wife turned out to be none other than Rory's sister-in-law) as to almost make me want to reduce my rating to 3 star. Everything just tied together too well and in a way that I don't remember finding in his later novels.

I was also annoyed at the repetition in the second part. It seemed like Russo had written it first (almost) and so rather than just continue on with the story, there were several chapters at the beginning of the second part in which he reintroduced main characters as if we had forgotten who they were in the twenty intervening pages since they had last been mentioned.

There were several good comments on the state of human emotions and relationships:
"She was one of the few people who seemed to know that he had feelings to hurt. They weren't, he had to admit, regular and predictable like other people's feelings; they came and went in ways that Dallas himself didn't being to comprehend."

"Perfection rankled just about everyone, including the teachers, whereas mediocrity made people feel comfortable."

"But it was change he longed for, and he often thought that in an ideal world people would change their personalities every decade or so, possibly learning something to boot."

Overall it is a good read (as Russo reliably tends to be) and is for me almost a "comfort book". Easy, compelling, thoughtful and entertaining.
The Dead Path - Stephen M. Irwin So...this book was just okay. I debated between 2 and 3 stars. It was a page turner and it had some creative moments (although the whole "I'm seeing the dead" instantly made me think of Sixth Sense). I would put it as equivalent to a Steven King book..except (and they are a few big exceptions).

The language was too overdone. Irwin was trying so hard to be "poetic" or literary or something, but his book is really just a thriller. I know, I know I like to throw around the phrase "masturbatory language" but really: "Nicholas got inside and twisted the car alive. The bones of a city don't change. Perhaps its skin grows tight or flaccid as suburbs grow fashionable of become declassee; crow's feet spread from pockets--new streets, new arteries into fresh corpulence. But the skeleton of its founding roads, the blood of its river, the skull of the low mountain that looms over it with its thorny crown of television towers like its own blinking Calvary...these things hadn't changed." Blechh. It's not good writing, it's Irwin trying to be cute and clever. This was all over the place. Irwin just likes to over-describe: "Above the surf-like rataplan on the roof, Nicholas could hear the house ticking around them as it cooled. He felt his mother's eyes crawling over his face." Stephen King at least has the decency to simply tell a story; he doesn't try to go all "literary" and annoy the reader.

On the other hand, Irwin's story is an attempt at something beyond just good and evil. One reason I stopped reading Stephen King about the age of 16 is that his books are such blatant religious allegories. They might be creative and compelling but they always boil down to good vs. evil. Irwin here attempts to move beyond this. The main character is a witch (in the traditional sense) and she is clearly evil; however, she sponsors a church and she believes that she is protecting the woods and working for the Green Man (who in the end is not really evil, just a force of nature and might in fact be the same as the Christian God). And so, credit to Irwin for the shades of grey (although..if I may throw out a bad pun, the sex scenes were less than satisfying).

Unfortunately, the ending was just poorly constructed. Again, Irwin is striving for middle ground and ambiguity; clearly he represents the Green Man in the end as a God but we are left to determine on our own whether he is good or evil or just is. My beef is not with that; I found it unbelievable that Rowena is his faithful servant who believes that she has been protecting the forest for him for years, but he quickly and eagerly switches sides as soon as Nicholas cuts his arm and asks? Or maybe then, she is not his servant but the Green Man (in fact) is just compelled to behave according to what the spells dictate (just like Nicholas when he is about to attack Hannah)? But then, who really holds any power? See..it is a circular problem, either Rowena is worshiping Green Man and helping him and occasionally he gives her a bone (like granting her wish to send Nicholas home) OR he is a servant of the spells in which case she didn't really need to protect his woods for years, she could have just lived her life as she wanted. Overall it just felt inconsistent and nonsensical. I was also very annoyed with the "gotcha" last line..are we to believe that Green Man has chosen his next servant? If so, then why oh why do they want Nicholas so badly? It just felt poorly constructed.

Overall it was quick and easy and slightly entertaining, but I don't really have a strong recommendations.
A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River - Aldo Leopold So we started this today as a family read-aloud. The goal is a chapter (corresponding to a month) a day for the next 12 days.

January thoughts. I liked the narcissistic representation of the animals. Each is incapable of noticing the others; I found the economic description of the meadow mouse's tunnels under the snow and the grass buried in ground especially entertaining.

February is all about the felling of an oak tree. I have a burr oak in my backyard that is 200+ years old; as Leopold travels back in time (although I must say that too many of his years were simply full of fires or drought...couldn't he find something unique about each year?) through the sawing of the tree, I was thinking about how different in scale time is for a tree than a human.

March tells the story of the geese. I enjoyed Leopold's comment about his learned friend who had never noticed the migration of the geese. I am not quite that bad, but it is a good reminder to pay attention to the passing season. We also had a lovely discussion between the four of us about the benefits of being a muskrat. Is it that they eat geese or that they would be able to move about among the geese without disturbing their pattern of behavior?

April has a great description of the love dance of the woodcock (as a nightly entertainment) and also a short essay on the veteran bur oaks (of which mine is one).

The nesting plovers in May give a new definition to field ownership. Although, I'm not sure I've ever seen a plover; maybe the forest conservationists were not just in time as Leopold asserts.

June is the story of the non-prudent fisherman. The kids were interested in the fact that Leopold fishes by hand (not with a rod and reel). I thought about how different their attitudes are when at the lake; if they catch fish (some years they do) then all is well, but the years that they do not catch fish are boring and treacherous for all.

July was wonderful on two fronts. First, we have a compass plant in our front yard (planted by my father in law who is a lover of all things prairie) and second, my dog(s) also does not believe in the tenure rights of birds.

August was about the river painting a picture, although I wasn't convinced it was the river. Yes, the water level is determined by the river and it is a good focal point but most of the color is in the flowers and the grass, neither of which are fed by the river.

The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud I liked this book. It was compelling and entertaining and thought provoking. It was also very salient to my daily life and so I might have found it better than it otherwise would be. I wavered between a 4 and 5 star rating on this, but ultimately knocked it down to 4 stars because I am not sure about the prejudices of relevancy (and so am erroring on the side of a lower rating) and because I was not crazy about the ending (but not probably for the typical reasons).

I recognize that I am a woman (at the risk of tempting Fate..but isn’t not admiting to this worse?) who could be accused of having it all. I am happily married (18 years w/my hubby last week); we have two beautiful, intelligent (if somewhat precocious) boys; I run a successful business from what should be the dining room of my house; and we all enjoy good health and upper middle class standing. I represent exactly what “the woman upstairs” envies and am oftentimes as unappreciative of it as Sirena (in my defense who isn’t? and really, isn’t the human condition just to want more? more of whatever we currently don’t have?).

Messud sets up the connundrum that many of us (not just the woman upstairs) faces: “I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you’re taught to eat your greens before you have dessert. But it turns out that’s a rule for girls and sissies, because the mountain of greens is of Everest proportions, and the bowl of ice cream at the far end of the table is melting a little more with each passing second.” I did not find Nora despicable. I found her enteratining and endearing; I thought she was believable and could frequently see myself in her “good-girl-ness” and her “mid-life crisis” (such a trite phrase for the emotional rollercoaster which accompanies the realization that the actualization of one’s life is not the same as one’s inner wishes and desires and MOST IMPORTANTLY one has missed the opportunity for these lives to ever actually align). Messud capably asserts: “Life is about deciding what matters. It’s about the fantasy that determines the reality.” and later: “What is imaginary--our friendships, my loves, these people, my invention—is untouchable, if not inviolate. And then, there is reality: there is what happens, what you know, or think you know, with certainty. But maybe these two are ultimately one; maybe you can’t protect the one from the other.” I enjoyed reading about Nora; I enjoyed that Messud hinted at Sirena’s own unhappiness.

About 2/3rds of the way through the book, I worried about resolution. I realized that I was satisfied with the tone of the story and I would have been very disappointed to have it end poorly. I knew that Nora was angry and anticipated that something big would have to happen, but was concerned that a confrontation would lack consistency with the tone of the novel (and Nora’s character) and that perfect resolution and conflict would ruin the story. I liked that it just fizzled and things ended (as they often do in life) without any forced drama. And then, Nora went to Paris. Ultimately, Nora is betrayed by the camera and the questions that she faces at the end (whether Sirena knew about her night with Skander; whether Skander knew about Nora’s night of “freedom and release”; and whether Skander and Sirena discussed any of it prior to Skander coming to Nora) provided enough loose ends to satisfy on that front. However, I was not convinced that it was necessary. I think the novel would have been more powerful if the reader was made more aware of the existence of the videos but Nora was left in the dark. I did not think that Nora’s discovery or her anger added to the book.

All of that said, there were some great turns of phrase and poignant commentary in the novel:
“every one of us is capable of rage…you must have a modicum of self control.”
“and that hunger of one kind or another—desire, by another name—is the source of almost every sorrow.”
“It’s the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate. Even when people try to say things, they say them poorly, or obliquely, or they outright lie, sometimes because they’re lying to you, but as often because they’re lying to themselves.”
“I was always remembering him, a physical memory, like an imprint in the earth. There is, I came to realize, what the mind wants and what the body wants. The mind can excite the body, but its desires can also be false; whereas the body, the animal, wants what it wants.”

Overall it was a good read. Some of the “feminism” was a bit over the top and heavy handed (and as someone who just finished Greer’s The Female Eunuch I feel entitled to call what Messud is preaching “feminism” rather than feminism), but the writing flowed well and the emotional representation was believable.
Life and Fate - Vasily Grossman Many people have compared this book to War and Peace. Clearly, there are similarities (although set in different wars and in very different Russias). However, this book also reminded me of Heller’s Catch-22. There were comic moments (Yevgenia’s struggle with the bureaucracy in Kuibyshev over a residence permit was one in particular) and its commentary about the inefficiency of the Soviety party system parallels some of Heller’s criticisms. Grossman draws great parallels between Novikov’s experience with the tanks (and difficulty with doing his job while working under/with a party official) and Shtrum’s experience in the lab (where Shisakov, as party official has ultimate power over the physicists).

He also does a great job describing the horror of the prison camps and the concentration camps. The book starts with the prison camps and (as a reader) we clearly emphathize with the political prisoners. Later, when David (the young boy) goes to the gas chamber in the concentration camps, things have been elevated such that it is clear how much worse this is from the silly little camps in Siberia (which had previously been the most wretched places imaginable). I was particularly struck by David’s thoughts of the fairy tale in which the wolf attacks the goat; and I was astounded when a bit later Hitler reminisces about the same fairy tale and becomes frightened. It is a great metaphor for the impending doom that both David and Hitler face. Similarly, Sofya’s thoughts as she enters the concentration camp: “She realized with surprise that although the process of evolution had taken millions of years, these people had needed only a few days to revert to the state of cattle, dirty and unhappy, captive and nameless.” and she“now understood the difference beween life and existence: her life had come to an end, but her existence could drag on indefinitely. And however wretched and miserable this existence was, the thought of violend detah still filled her with horror.” felt simultaneously trite and profound.

Another strength in the work is with Grossman’s grasp of human emotion and relationships. He touches on romantic love a few times and his thoughts were at times witty: “love being like a lump of coal: hot, it burns you; cold, it makes you dirty.” and other times profound: “Was it that his compulsion to share his life with her had been founded on a belief that his life mattered more to her than her own, that his life was her life? And that now he was no longer sure of this? Did she no longer love him? Or did he no longer love her?” As Shtrum evaluates his relationship with Marya Ivanonva he wavers between his desire and his knowledge of what is right: “What was happening depended only on them, but it seemed like a fate they were powerless to oppose. What lay between them was true and natural, they were no more responsible for it than a man is responsible for the light of day—and yet this truth inevitably engendered insincerity, deceit and cruelty towards those dearest to them. It was in their power to avoid deceit and cruelty; all they had to do was renounce this clear and natural light. One thing was plain: he had lost his peace of mind for ever. Whatever happened, he would never know peace. Whether he hid his love for the woman beside him or whether it became his destiny, he would not know peace. Whether he was with her, feeling guilty, or whether he was apart from her, aching for her, he would have no peace.”

He well describes the change in self-perception and perception of others; as things change we adjust our own perceptions and expectations. We are vessels for our experience and (especially through Shtrum) these experiences can change our emotional and social outlook at any time. “In those days he had been able to understand and love everything about his friends and comrades, while the least word or thought of his enemies had seemed alien and monstrous; now, however, he would sometimes glimpse in the thoughts of an enemy what he had once found important himself, and discover something strangely alien in the thought of his friends.” and “It was sweet to be unshakeable. In passing judgement on peole he had affirmed his own inner strength, his ideals, his purity. This was his consolation and his faith.” Grossman also makes the (again somewhat trite) comment about the passage of time: “Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes.” Shtrum (despite being rather self-involved) has the decency to note: “Yes, we all of us have our failings’. But no one ever sincerely believes his own failings to be equal to those of other people.”

He discusses the importance of individuality (which is difficult in a soviet state) and kindness in humanity. “Among a million Russian huts you will never find even two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical…if you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.” Along with this, he notes that “hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive.” Despite the irrationality of hope and kindness it does not come from religion, but instead “is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind. When Christianity clothed it in the teachings of the Church Fathers, it began to fade; its kernel became a husk. It remains potent only while it dumb and senseless, hidden in the living darkness of the human heart—before it becomes a tool or commodity in the hands of preachers, before its crude ore is forged into the gilt coins of holiness. It is as simple as life itself. Even the teachings of Jesus deprived it of its strength.” Real altruism holds its power in the giving of oneself, not in any hope of reward.

Overall Grossman makes many interesting and poignant points about the human condition. Historically, this was an important work because of its criticism of the soviet system, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature.
Not Me - Michael Lavigne I enjoyed this book. It was a quick and easy read and very compelling. The plot device was both entertaining and thought provoking.

This was much more of a character piece than a plot driven novel. Although Lavigne tries to make the plot a central point, it was oftentimes transparent. Very early on (before Micheal begins to read the journal), I realized that his father must have been harboring some guilt for his actions during the war. I wondered if April was actually Heshel's daughter (if Fredl's baby had survived) and was relieved that at least Lavigne did not bring the incest piece into the book. I was not surprised by the course of the plot revelations (although at one point I wondered if Micheal himself was Israel and was somewhat surprised when Heshel's letter revealed that Micheal was, in fact, his biological son). The beauty of the book was not in the surprises, it was in the way that Micheal deals with his own identity and his reconciliation with his own questions about his father's guilt and hidden identity.

My biggest complaint was the way that Lavigne exploited Micheal's memory for his revelations. I found his convenient mis-remembering (for example the time spent with Josh after Ella's epileptic fit and the forgetting of his own violin lessons) to be annoying and unbelievable. People do not really forget such details in their own lives. The whole "searching for clues" and taping them to the wall was also a bit annoying and trite.

I found the writing of the journal to be of a lower quality than that of the main text of the novel. I realize that Lavigne was searching for a different narrator and was trying to make the two voices stand apart, but oftentimes I found the journal to be expository and overall not as readable as the main text. I also did not think the letter from Lily was necessary. I think the novel as a whole would have been stronger if Micheal did not discover whether or not she knew his father's secrets.

Ultimately, the book deals with the idea of whether or not a person can really ever truly understanding another person's thoughts and emotions and motivations: "You call because you want to connect, but you don't connect, you can never connect, you can't wait to hang up, you hang up, you feel utterly alone". Simultaneously, Lavigne highlights the difficulty we all have with our own identity and happiness: "Actually, most people think I'm hilarious. But here's the truth about comics: we're depressed, every last one of us. And in my case also obsessive, neurotic, paranoid, immature, and irresponsible. But depression is the universal." However we (as people) portray ourselves to others, we all have to deal with our inner insecurities and thoughts. We all have to find happiness on our own and within ourselves.

As one who often uses her tone of voice as a weapon, I loved Lavigne's acknowledgement of this power: "something as ephemeral as a tone of voice, as nonlethal as a thing could ever be, had such a destructive force--but only, of course, on the ones who loved you."

Overall this book was well written, entertaining and very poignant. It was compelling and unfolded (for the most part) well.
The Age of Dreaming - Nina Revoyr I'm not really sure how this book ended up on my to-read list. I read Southland earlier this year (and did not like it), but when the hold came up from the library I plowed through this one. Both novels deal with race relations (in part) in southern CA in a historical setting. Unfortunately, I was not impressed with either.

In this book, Revoyr attempts to do a lot. She tries to deal with nascent Hollywood and the transformation from silent films to talkies; she embeds several different love stories (including illegitimate children, jilted lovers, murder, and unrequited love); she addresses the shallow nature of the film industry; and she comments on the racism displayed towards Japanese Americans before and during WWII. As typically happens when an author attempts to do a lot, she does it all rather poorly.

Specifically, I was frustrated by Jun's frequent conflicting comments. He is simultaneously sad that his career ended and relieved to be out of the spotlight. He keeps his identity a secret for 40 years, but secretly considers himself a big star and Revoyr constantly reminds the reader that he was identifiable everywhere he went. He also wants to put off Bellinger, but then wonders what other people would think of the fact that he is being considered for a part in the movie.

Other characters were also portrayed inconsistently. Elizabeth is first described as: "This woman, for all her radiance, had known disappointments, had lived, and it was the incongruity of these elements--her loveliness and the scars that even beauty could not hide--that so captured me that evening of our youth." as Jun watches her manipulate the room full of men. And yet, many years later after becoming her lover he is surprised and upset that she is interested in and occasionally spends time with other men.

I also felt that Revoyr's portrayal of Hollywood was anachronistic. She talks about the Hollywood publicity machine (which clearly exists), but the current day of the story is 1964 (which is nothing like 2013 for publicity machine). I felt like she used the mindset of modern times and just pretended that was the way things were in 1964. Along these lines, I thought that the salaries were WAY off for 1918. I did not look it up, but $10,000/week (which is what Jun makes at one point) is more than $500,000/year; that is a large salary for current times, but in 1918 seems absolutely ridiculous.

Many of the plot points I found convenient and unbelievable: Jun is able to come to America simply because a rich guy from WI decides to give him passage and sponsor him at UW; he just happens to make a challenge to a theater owner the night before he is supposed to head back to Japan and IT IS ACCEPTED. He goes to speak to Rosenberg to make sure their tracks are covered (and so adds the ridiculous murder mystery drama) and then WAITS TO FOLLOW THROUGH WITH THE OTHERS just so that conveniently Dreyfus can get to Nora first. He bumps into Veil at the café (after not having seen him in 40 years) just after revealing to the reader that he is Nora's child's father. All just mechanistic improbable BLECCHY sort of plot contrived garbage.

Ultimately, I was most disgusted with Revoyr's attempt (I think this is what she was attempting) to be subtle about the prejudice faced by Japanese in the period leading up to WWII. Jun "develops" through the course of the book only in that in the beginning he is unwilling to credit racism for the decline of his career (or the discrimination he faces in public both with Elizabeth and others or his inability to own property or OH YEAH THE JAPANESE INTERNMENT CAMPS IN WWII). He is nothing short of delusional in the beginning of the book and only after Revoyr describes MANY MANY MANY (yeah, really A LOT) of instances in which prejudice play a large part is he willing to concede that maybe he faced some racism in his life.

As in Southland, I found Revoyr's text to be uninspired. She writes clearly, but at times gets bogged down with her foreshadowing and outlining. She is quite repetitive with her language. Most chapters begun with a "oh you wouldn't believe how bad today was for me" and then recapped the day's events. I would have rather seen the action unfold than have Jun reminiscent about both current action and his past.

Overall it is a short quick read; relatively entertaining but overall full of contradictions, stereotypes and no real substance. I can't quite say it is not worth the time (it is short), but certainly is not recommended.
When the Killing's Done - T.C. Boyle So I really liked The Women (Boyle's book about FLW's life and loves) and thought it might be interesting to read Boyle's take on environmentalism and our (speaking for humanity at large) responsibility towards other creatures.

Unfortunately, I found this novel to be at best boring, at worst preachy, and overall just fairly uninteresting. I get that Boyle was trying to say something profound about the ways that people a)affect the natural order and the world and b)should make efforts to ameliorate our damage and c)there are shades of grey and dispute over what is the best course of action. Clearly he nods towards the argument that attempts to "fix" or "repair" our effects are unnecessary and may not work, however in the end Alma is the heroine and the argument stands that we should try to return things to their natural order.

This was written in the same vein as Carl Hiassen's work (the only two of which I have read are Hoot and Lucky You). I maintain that Hoot was the best of the lot (including this book), but maybe that is just because I am less critical of a YA book.

Way too much of the novel was contrived and melodramatic. Alma should not (and there was no need for her to) have dated Dave. This did not add complexity or depth to either of their characters or relationship, it was simply another scene in which Boyle could present Dave as an obnoxious overbearing jerk (and again, why couldn't he be at least partially sympathetic? When, in life, do we ever encounter characters that are so clearly black and white? So clearly good or evil?). Similarly, it was unnecessary for all of Alma's ancestors to be single moms (and therefore for her to become a single mom). I was also not for a moment deceived: as soon as she puked the first time it was clear she had to be pregnant. Alma should not have run into Anise et al at the Micah Stroud concert; the SAME GIRL WHO ASKED ABOUT MUDSLIDES should not have been the one to fall to her death in a mudslide. So many plot pieces were just too convenient for plausibility or even good entertainment.

The text was also over-written. Instead of being descriptive, I found it to be just boring: "he gets to his feet, digs out his plastic water bottle for a long hissing squeeze of filtered water from the reverse-osmosis tank he installed in the kitchen at home, aqua vita, then tucks it away and starts back up the trail." Perfect example of my often (unfortunately probably overused) criticism of masturbatory writing. Sentences such as the above are not written for the pleasure of the reader; they are solely for the author's own amusement and delight. Along these lines, I was also annoyed by the chapter titles. I wanted to just send Boyle an email already to congratulate him for being able to look up the Latin names in his biology textbook.

Finally (and I will admit to being still over-sensitive after reading Greer last week), the male/female relationships were so unbelievably stereotypical and offensively chauvinistic. Alma is unable to contradict LaJoy on their date because he "was the expert here. He was the one paying--this was a date, a dinner date--and she had to defer to him." and Anise (like all women) can "sulk and brood for days on end over some imagined slight or a thing so inconsequential--what somebody said to her at work, the color of the dress she knew she shouldn't have bought--as to make him question her sanity" What the fuck? Really? Clearly sulking and brooding is not a solely female characteristic and most women have more important things to worry about than the color of an unwanted dress.

Overall there was nothing poignant and no astute observations. The characters were flat and uninteresting and the whole thing resolved itself too neatly. The best point Boyle makes is that chaos will win out and that people cannot control or repair nature (and that maybe we should just respectfully leave it alone as best we can: "how much better would it be if nobody ever came out here and the islands could exist in the way they always had. Or should have."); unfortunately the blatantly contrived and forced text undermines this concept.
The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer, Jennifer Baumgardner I apologize in advance for the length of this review. As a pivotal sociological/feminist work, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be thorough. Overall, I found the work to be about 1/3 spot on; about 1/3 very dated; and 1/3 to be questionable in its argument. Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight and the importance of this work is in the fact that it was very much a call to action in 1970.

In her introduction to the 1990 release, Greer notes that she had expected the book would quickly date and disappear. As an optimist, she expected social change to occur and invalidate her work. However, she points out (in 1990) that despite many changes, women still desire “freedom from being the thing looked at rather than the person looking back. Freedom from self-consciousness.” I question whether this is even possible. Can we, as humans, not be self-conscious?

She argues (in 1970) that “Man demands in his arrogance to be loved as he is, and refuses even to prevent the development of the sadder distortions of the human body which might offend the aesthetic sensibilities of his woman.” I wonder about the development of “meterosexualism” (which has taken off in the 2000s) and the changes that have manifest in the relationships between men and women and the expectations that have developed. Instead of moving towards a society that is less critical of one’s appearance and developing fewer demands on bodily presentation, we have upped the ante with plastic surgery (and botox..the ease of an injection) and have simply equalized the playing field by requiring more of men. Rather than liberating anyone, we clearly have just suckered the men into our cage.

Greer seeks for women “the right to express her own sexuality; which is not at all the same thing as the right to capitulate to male advances.” She argues that female libido is not merely responsive and pushes for freedom for women to pursue their own desires without threat of societal disapproval. Certainly, there have been many advancements in women’s opportunities for sexual exploration and more acceptance of female sexual curiosity since 1970. However, Greer’s astute chapter on labeling well describes the (still relevant) double standard that a male who sleeps around is a “stud” while a female who does the same is a “slut”. As long as the “female is considered as a sexual object for the use and appreciation of other sexual beings…her sexuality is both denied and misrepresented by being identified as passivity.” These arguments reminded me of Catlin Moran’s work (see my review on How to be a Woman), in which she reminds the reader that as of 2010, women still are not proud of their sexuality.

Speaking of Moran, I was struck by her mimicry of Greer’s discussion on the usage of the word cunt: “The worst name anyone can be called is cunt. The best thing a cunt can be is small and unobtrusive: the anxiety about the bigness of the penis is only equaled by anxiety about the smallness of the cunt.” I’m not sure that is entirely accurate (I have yet to worry about the size of mine nor hear of any discussion with female friends about this issue. Women worry about the size of their boobs, butts, and thighs; men about their dicks). Further, I was disappointed to see that despite heavy citation, Moran’s discussion was not much different (with the exception of adding the thought that that cunt is divine, a concept of which I was fond).

Quite accurately, Greer points out that “the implication that there is a statistically ideal fuck which will always result in satisfaction if the right procedures are followed is depressing and misled. There is no substitute for excitement: not all the massage in the world will ensure satisfaction, for it is a matter of psycho-sexual release. Real gratification is not enshrined in a tiny cluster of nerves but in the sexual involvement of the whole person.” She argues that the sex education of both men and women is lacking (and leads to guilt and hatred on both sides).

In her discussion of love, Greer advocates for many things of which I approve. She finds love in healthy people to make “no really sharp differentiation between the roles and personalities of the two sexes. That is, they did not assume that the female was passive and the male active, whether in sex or love or anything else. These people were so certain of their maleness or femaleness they did not mind taking on some of the aspects of the opposite sex roles.” She uses Shakespeare’s example of the love between the phoenix and the turtle as “not the lifelong coherence of a mutually bound couple, but the principle of love that is reaffirmed in the relationship of the narcissistic self to the world of which it is a part. It is not the fantasy of annihilation of the self in another’s identity by sexual domination, but it is a spiritual state of comprehension.” Until we are capable of seeing the opposite sex as first and foremost a fellow human, as a potential friend or lover, we will not be able to break from the strings of social expectations about “male” or “female” behaviors.

She also points out the problems with the (again slightly dated) female goal of “capturing” a man. As long as women are concerned with “catching” and men with “avoiding the ball and chain,” we have set up war-like terms for relationships. “If we could stop thinking in terms of capture, we would not have to fear the loosening of the captives’ bonds and our failing beauty, and he would not have ulcers about being outstripped or belittled.” As a fairly egotistical and (if I dare say) literal-minded, outspoken, and able woman, I have given my husband the “freedom” to take a girlfriend. I truly do not want someone in my bed who is not more than happy to be there; if he has interests elsewhere, I encourage him to explore (as Greer notes: “Lovers who are free to go when they are restless always come back; lovers who are free to change remain interesting”). I am of the mind that sex is simply sex, I am confident in the stability of our marriage and the structure of our family. I do not see any issue with exploration. Friends like to point out that this also has to do with my egoism: while I recognize that there are in fact many women who are more attractive than I, and there are many who are more intelligent, I maintain that there are very few that are both and as such I have the freedom to tell him to go with the full confidence that he will not find anything better. Whether I am correct or not, is quite besides the point. I think the fact that I am free from jealous grasping is testament to how far we have traveled since Greer’s writing.

I was not convinced with Greer’s argument (and I’m not entirely sure that she convinced herself) that ultimately men and women are the same biologically. She points out that there are very few actual differences in genetic makeup and argues that the physical differences (curves, for example) are brought on by societal forces (wearing of corsets). Her emphasis is for a good purpose (there is no difference in our brain function); but clearly there are manifest physical differences between not only men and women but among men and women. Personally, I am rather small (about 5 ft. 2 in and 120 lbs); there are women who are much larger than me and there are men who are smaller. I agree and understand and have read about intersexual people (Eugenides’s Middlesex is a great fictional account); male and female is not the dichotomy that society has set up, we are created along a continuum. However, I am not able to buy into the concept that all of our differences are socially created. There are differences in the way men and women become aroused (for example men are more visual) which are hard to explain through socialization.

Along these lines, I was thinking about Hogwild’s book (which is not recommended reading, but has some astute observations you can see my review for more details) Baby, You’re as Sweet as 3.14. He points out that men fall in love with the way a woman looks and then decides if her personality is acceptable (along the lines of “can he tolerate her”); his argument is that the better looking women are able to “get away with” more while the unattractive get less lee-way. Women, on the other hand (per his argument), fall in love with a man for his personality and are less critical of his physical attributes. I agree with this in part. I think for both parties there is an aspect of physical attraction; whether one is willing to “put up with” the other person’s undesirable features is in part according to their attractiveness, but in part according to the extent of the undesirability of the features.

Greer gives a great description of what is more commonly referred to as a trophy wife: “Her value is solely attested by the demand she excites in others. All she must contribute is her existence. She need achieve nothing, for she is the reward of achievement…Because she is the emblem of spending ability and the chief spender, she is also the most effective seller of this world’s goods.” Greer argues that neither sex will be satisfied as long as women aspire to and men desire such a shallow ideal. Clearly, I agree. As I frequently point out, true happiness comes from a feeling of self-efficacy and pride in accomplishment. “Catching” a man is far from accomplishing anything worthwhile. Personally (even in this late date of 2013), I know three women who are “kept”; all three have not worked since the birth of their children and all three are currently experiencing economic troubles. They believe that it is their husband’s job to provide for them and they are three of the most bitter and bored women that I have ever met. Instead of recognizing their own responsibility for their situation and taking action (most simply by going and getting a fucking job), they complain about his inadequacy and his shortcomings. Clearly, this complaint should never have been valid but most especially in current times it is not the job of man to provide for or protect women. It is the job of women to recognize her own needs (in every way) and take action on her own behalf: “Joy does not mean riotous glee, but it does mean the purposive employment of energy in a self-chosen enterprise. It does mean pride and confidence. It does mean communication and cooperation with others based on delight in their company and your own.”

Coupled with this is the argument that children are still a mother’s duty. Clearly, we have come a long way since 1970, but as a working mother I am still the one who provides most of the child-focused duties (driving to and fro, signing them up for activities, scheduling doctor’s appointments, volunteering at the school). I encounter more “stay at home dads” or dads who participate in child focused activities now than I did when I was a new mom 11 years ago, but my husband will still say things like, “Do I have to go to this, I’ll be the only dad there.” Greer reminds us that: “If children are presented to women as a duty and marriage as an inescapable yoke, then the more energy they have the more they will fret and chafe, tearing themselves and their dependents to pieces. When children are falsely presented to women as their only significant contribution, the proper expression of their creativity and their lives’ work, the children and their mothers suffer for it.” Women need to have their own focus and purpose in life: living for one’s children is not enough: “Childbearing was never intended by biology as a compensation for neglecting all other forms of fulfillment and achievement.” Similarly, men need to keep striving towards taking an active role in the child-focused duties. As more and more men “take the plunge” it will be easier for others to follow. Further, we must all strive (and yes, some days it is an effort) to see parenthood as an adventure, rather than a chore: “Parents have no option but to enjoy their children if they want to avoid the cycle of exploitation and recrimination. If they want to enjoy them they must construct a situtation in which such enjoyment is possible.”

I liked that Greer (despite the chapters on hate and war between the sexes) points out that men themselves are not free. I was less than convinced by her call for communism. She sets up the marital relationship as one of employee/employer: “the bargaining between married people generally works unevenly: the wife eventually finds that her life has changed radically, but not her husband’s” and she argues that marriage is akin to signing a life-long employment contract: “Women represent the most oppressed class of life-contracted unpaid workers, for whom slaves is not too melodramatic a description.”

Despite the fact that men did (and still do) have power she notes that movements which focus on vindictiveness and characterizing men as the enemy will only lead to estrangement of the sexes. Despite arguing that “women ought not to enter into socially sanctioned relationships, like marriage, and that once unhappily in they ought not to scruple to run away” and suggesting “that women should be deliberately promiscuous” she still (rightfully in my opinion) states that “the correction of some of the false perspectives which our assumptions about womanhood, sex, love and society have combined to create” will require “the re-deployment of energy, no longer to be used in repression, but in desire, movement and creation. Sex must be rescued from the traffic between powerful and powerless, masterful and mastered, sexual and neutral, to become a form of communication between potent, gentle, tender people”. She points out that “as long as man is at odds with his own sexuality and as long as he keeps women as a solely sexual creature, he will hate her, at least some of the time.” And that “War is the admission of defeat in the face of conflicting interests: by war the issue is left to chance, and the tacit assumption that the best man will win is not at all justified.” Enabling social change means working together, not against each other. We must understand the social constructions and work to liberate both men and women from restrictive roles.

This made me think of a discussion I recently had with my husband about the show Madmen (which I have yet to watch). The show is set during the 1960s and as such embodies many of the points that Greer is making (subservient women in the household given a “not-so-varied-option” of becoming a subservient woman in the workplace). Apparently one of the most misogynistic characters made a comment: “Everything is about sex except sex, which is about power.” I felt like this highlights Greer’s point about the attractive woman who is able to manipulate the male system. She argues that “women who fancy that they manipulate the world by pussy power and gentle cajolery are fools. It is slavery to have to adopt such tactics” and sets up Marilyn Monroe as an example of the failed woman. Certainly Marilyn was not happy (and in more modern times we can point to all the current drug-addled starlets), but I am not quite sure that she is a supreme victim either. As an attractive woman who feels I am adept at manipulating the system to my advantage, I have fewer qualms with it than the unattractive woman with no advantage. However, I am astutely aware of Greer’s point that “pretty women are never unaware that they are aging, even if the process has hardly begun: a decayed beauty is possibly more tormented than any other female stereotype.”

Some of the most dated pieces of this work were the sections on education and workplace. Historically, the glass ceiling has been in place and I am not going to imply that it has been smashed. However, there are notable exceptions: Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are two that pop into mind. Women are also currently graduating college (and with science and math degrees) in larger numbers than men. I am not suggesting that we drop the ball, I’m just noting that the world has become a much more receptive place for women to prove themselves as capable and intelligent and the chauvinistic hiring tendencies which Greer describes as commonplace had decreased dramatically in recent times.

I also found myself quite bored with the romantic literature section. I understand that Greer is trying to make a socio-historical analysis using romance novels, but there are many reasons why I do not read romance novels (most importantly because they are boring). I think she was long winded and unnecessarily repetitive with her discussion of “romantic” (i.e. as described in a romance novel) and “adventurous” love. Although, I see how the Fifty Shades (see that review for my disgust with the stereotypes) is simply emblematic and unfortunately not at all progressive with regards to male/female power and domination in sexual matters.

Overall, this is a pivotal work. Published in 1970, we must forgive Greer for some aspects which are by now (thankfully) dated; however, her foresight was in many ways quite accurate and much is owed by my generation to women of hers for their labors on behalf of all women. Simply a must-read for all.
Breakfast at Tiffany's and Three Stories - Truman Capote Not only had I never read this, I have not seen the film. I am familiar with "Holly Golightly" as a concept, but this was my first introduction. The volume that I read also included three other short stories, I have reviewed each below.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Clearly, this is a classic. Not only do I want to be Holly Golightly (despite her clearly troubled past and unsettled future), but I am not even all that startled by my wish. Capote manages to make many astute comments about human nature while simultaneously telling an interesting story. He was also very bold (and slightly scandalous) for the time. Some of my favorite quotes are below:

"You can love somebody without it being like that. You keep them a stranger, a stranger who's a friend."

"Like many people with a bold fondness for volunteering intimate information, anything that suggested a direct question, a pinning-down, put her on guard."

"Of course people couldn't help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is;a bit. So what? That never discouraged a man yet, in fact it seems to goad them on."

"A person ought to be able to marry men or women or--listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man O' War, I'd respect your feeling. No, I'm serious. Love should be allowed."

"Honest is more what I mean. Not law-type honest--I'd rob a grave, I'd steal two-bits off a dead man's eyes if I thought it would contribute to the day's enjoyment--but unto-thyself-type hones. Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I'd rather have cancer than a dishonest heart."

House of Flowers
This is a story that is similar to Breakfast at Tiffany's in that a country girl comes to the city and uses her wiles to make a place for herself. Ottilie does not have quite the flair that Holly has and eventually Ottilie decides she wants to return home (whereas Holly would never). Again, it is an interesting (and fairly accurate) comment on the power dynamic between men and women (especially given that the commentator is a gay man), but less compelling that Breakfast. I liked his comment on the show/display of grief: "Old women beat their heads against the walls, moaning men prostrated themselves: it was the art of sorrow, and those who best mimicked grief were much admired."

A Diamond Guitar
This was my least favorite story. I was not really all that entertained or impressed, but I liked his description of the relationship between Tico Feo and Mr. Schaeffer: "Except that they did not combine their bodies or think to do so, though such things were not unknown at the farm, they were as lovers."

A Christmas Memory
This story also featured the relationship between an older person and a younger person (although the age discrepancy is larger than in Diamond Guitar). It was a cute story and held many of the elements of the others (poverty, folks who live in the country, odd fitting relationships). I thought it was better than Guitar, but not as good as Flowers.

Overall I am glad to have finally read Breakfast at Tiffany's (and I will pick up the movie at the library as well). I could have done without the other three stories, I did not find them all that entertaining, insightful, or compelling.

***So, I just finished watching the movie and I was disappointed. Not with Hepburn, I really loved her Holly Golightly. I was disappointed in the choices that the writer/director/producer (whoever made the decision on this) made in the adaptation. It may be simply because I started Greer's Female Eunuch this morning, but the choice to make Paul a "kept man" instead of the gay neighbor seemed to fall in well with her arguments about the stereotype of the feminine. The time at which Greer writes is similar to the time in which this movie was made and so the interpretation of a gay man as equivalent to a man taking on the feminine role of sexual object has me mulling. I also did not like the change in Holly's arrest or the complete deviation from the text with her party. And of course, the love interest between Paul and Holly is just pure Hollywood. Overall, I found myself spending more time thinking about the cultural lens and choices that were made in the adaptation than thinking about the characters. Although that could also just be due to the fact that old movies tend to move slowly.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke I have many good things to say about this book and hardly any bad ones (very unusual position in which to find myself). It was really just a great novel.

Clarke does a very good job of evoking Austen and Dickens, both in her language style: “For here is comfort! Here is refreshment! To sit in the shade of tall trees--such as these--by a sweet, chattering brook--such as this--is generally allowed to be the best restorative in the world." and in the content and plot. She weaves a long novel full of characters that could be out of Dickens (Drawlight especially felt Dickensonian to me), as well as providing the reader with so many historical figures (Wellington, Napoleon, Lord Byron) in great detail. Her description of upper class ballrooms and dinners was also strongly reminscent of Austen. I really would have not had a hard time believing that this novel was written in the mid-1800s.

She also has a great knack for quaint turns of phrase which oftentimes turn poignant. She can both compliment and insult her characters, while sounding so very proper: “Now, had you and I the power to seize by magic any human being that took our fancy and the power to keep that person by our side through all eternity, and had we all the world to chuse from, then I dare say our choice might fall on someone a little more captivating than a member of the Learned Society of York Magicians, but this comforting thought did not occur to the gentlemen" or "What is beauty for, I should like to know, if not to stand as a visible sign of one's superiority to everyone else?"

Ultimately, though, I think my favorite aspect of the novel was that all the characters were subtle. We did not have to sit through the black/white and evil/good symbols of so many other books. Clarke does not set her world up such that there are clear lines. All of the characters are both good and bad and all are very human. Some have more positive characteristics than others, and clearly some are better liked, but rather than belabor even this point, Clarke allows the reader to emphathize with all of them and relate to all of them and even understand all of them. She represents the subtle differences between good and evil and does not force the reader to feel either that things are simplistic or that she (as the AUTHOR) is belaboring any sort of “we are all good people” message.

Even the man with the thistle-down hair, who is arguably the villian (and one of the funniest characters in the novel) is still simply just very narssistic. He is never generous, but he gives Stephan everything simply because he likes him. He is just a fairy, and fairies have different moral codes. My favorite example of his inability to recognize anything outside his own wishes came in his story to Stephen about how he discovered Stephen’s name: "'Now, you should know, Stephen, that wood has a stubborn, proud nature; it does not readily tell what it knows--even to its friends. It is always easier to deal with the ashes of the wood, rather than the wood itself. So I burnt the poor man's house to the ground, placed the ashes in a bottle and continued on my way.' 'Burnt, sir! I hope no one was hurt!' 'Well, some people were. The strong, young men were able to run out of the conflagration in time, but the older, enfeebled members of the family, the women and infants were all burnt to death.'"

Of course, while the man with the thistle down hair was trying to do everything in his power to help Stephen attain his kingship, Stephen himself was drowning in depression: "But for the rest nothing amused him; nothing satisfied him. All was shadows, emptiness, echoes and dust." Enchantment is not satisfying, it is simply a lack of one’s own will. And here, of course, Clarke echoes one of my favorite themes: when everything is given there is no sense of achievement and hence, no satisfaction. Stephen is not a real king; Strange and Norrell bestow upon him powers for a short time, but he is unable (and really unwilling) to actually fool the earth. He is not the Raven King re-incarnate; he is simply a man come to manage Lost Hope after having dispossessed the former owner.

Another example of this variation in characters is seen in Norrell. He festers with a desire to destroy any other magician and he hordes all knowledge until he actually meets Strange and then: "Norrell, who had lived all his life in fear of one day discovering a rival, had finally seen another man's magic, and far from being crushed by the sight, found himself elated by it." Of course, as soon as Strange leaves, Norrell once again forgets that he enjoys his company, but when Strange returns, Norrell again realizes that he appreciates a collaborater. We all make choices that we regret; we all do things that later seem to have been misled. I loved that Clarke’s Norrell wavered through the novel; he kept his inner selfish being, but was overpowered by his good sense when actually near Strange.

The two aspects of the novel that did pull me a bit out of the time period were Clarke’s efforts to incorporate feminism and racial equality. I could almost believe that the novel was written mid 1800s except that she portrays two fairly strong female characters (Arabella has much control and influence over Strange and Lady Pole in the end is a feminist on the run) and she chooses to rant a bit about racism: "skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man may strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be anything but a curiosity--like a talking pig or a mathematical horse." I do not disagree with her ideas, but I felt like Clarke was too overt for the time period.

There were two other quotes that I found amusing. The first: "Country gentlemen who read in their newspapers the speeches of this or that Minister would mutter to themselves that he was certainly a clever fellow. But the country gentleman were not made comfortable by this thought. The country gentlemen had a strong suspicion that cleverness was somehow unBritish." made me think of descriptions of the American public after George Bush Jr. won our Presidential elections; apparently the American people are just more comfortable with a less-than-clever man.

The second was just funny: "peculiarly uncomfortable Natural Law which states that whenever a person arrives at a place where he is not known, then wherever he stands is sure to be in the way."

Finally, I was glad that the plot was never completely resolved. At one point in the novel, I thought that Vinuculus was the Raven King, at another point I thought Stephen would serve as a vessal for possession by the Raven King. I am still fairly certain that the man with the thistle down hair was the Raven King’s fairy who is bitter because of poor treatment. And I was glad that the Raven King is still out there, just biding his time. I also expected Strange to venture on the King’s Roads again, but kind of liked that he didn’t. Certainly there is still a huge world here that Clarke could embellish upon, it is always a good sign for me when the loose ends are not all tied up and wrapped in a bow.

Overall it was creative, compelling, entertaining and well written novel. Absolutely fabulous book.
Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart I must first say that I just hate reviewing books that I have given 1 star ratings. I know some reviewers out there enjoy the scathing review. I, personally, just feel like it is yet another an imposition on my time by a novel that was not worth my time in the first place.

That said, I think my least favorite piece of this novel (and that is saying a lot) is that it ends on 9/11/01. The main character is trying to get out of the Middle East and into NYC despite having been banned by INS and he ends on an upbeat tone and thinks he has finally escaped Absurdia (oh wait, that is Absurdistan) only to bump into 9/11. Yeah...I know Shteyngart thought he was cute with that one, but really just not so much.

So much of this book is taken up with gross descriptions. I am a person who enjoyed American Psycho and can certainly take graphic sex and gore (for example after reading "Zeke Stargazing" by Rachel Kimbrough and proclaiming it my current favorite short story my brother called me a sociopath). However, this novel focused on detailed descriptions of fat person sex and eating. As much as I like eating and fucking as the rest of the world, I really would rather not watch while it is done by the obese.

Shteyngart thought he was being funny with the whole "golly burton" and probably thought he was avante garde and liberal with his notes on the absurdisms of American intervention overseas. Unfortunately, it was overdone and boring and repetitive. I understood that Steyngart was attempting to draft a novel about the Middle East and oil in the same way that Heller wrote about WWII, however it was a) presumptuous and b) just plain wrong to mention Heller in his text.

Finally, I found it annoying that Misha's father was absolutely everywhere and knew absolutely everyone and that Misha only coupled with Gentile girls (despite himself writing a treatise on the need for Jewish pro-creation).

Overall the language is not interesting, the plot is rambling and stupid, and the main character is self absorbed but not in a funny absurdist way, just a in a whining annoying way. Not worth the time.
The Infinities (Borzoi Books) - John Banville I enjoyed the language in this novel. Banville just writes well. At times it is a bit flowery, but he nails it so frequently that this is forgivable. I enjoyed the premise, but was distracted enough by a few things that I cannot grant him five stars.

First, I kept wondering about all the other people in the world who were dying simultaneously. If it is Hermes's job to escort souls into the afterlife then he doesn't really have all day to wait around (especially because in the end Adam doesn't actually die). Instead of being able to eavesdrop on the household, Hermes should be one busy dude, fluttering around the world collecting souls every second.

Second, I did not quite understand why a few chapters were narrated by old Adam. Most of the book was narrated by Hermes, who (of course, he is a deity) plays the role of omniscient 3rd person narrator. Occasionally he comments using first person as an aside to the reader, but for the most part he describes whichever character he is following in 3rd person. There are a couple points, though, at which we get first person narration from old Adam on his deathbed. I was not sure how to interpret. Clearly it is a melding of sorts: Hermes embodies Adam (and is this how Adam wakes up and recovers?), but when Hermes embodies Duffy he does not take Duffy's point of view; he still retains his god-vision. It came across as sloppy (and I dare not accuse Banville or his editors of being sloppy), but really I could not justify this change in perspective.

Third, I did not like the forced mythological "history" moments. They did not seem to flow into the story, instead they really felt like they were just dropped in to explain to a reader who might not otherwise be familiar with greek mythology the history of these gods. I also found myself wondering why Banville didn't invent some newer myths. Clearly, the reader would not be familiar with stories that he invented, but he could have given a few modern examples in which some god or other had caused a disturbance. Maybe even utilize some of recent events (Tsunamis, Hurricanes, Volcanic eruptions) and give a fantastica backstory involving the god's anger.

The story itself is less plot driven and more of a character study. The entire novel takes place during one day in which the reader (and Hermes) gets to peep at the private interactions of the family. The beauty is in the commentary (prose as poetry) and the apt descriptions of human relationships and interaction.

I enjoyed Adam's musings on solipsism and otherness: "How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves? He knows, of course that it is no mystery but a matter merely of perspective."

I also liked Hermes's thoughts on both the ungrateful human-ness of people and the discomfort of immortality: "The lengths we went to, the pains we took, that it should be plausible in every detail....And to what end was all this craft, this labour, this scrupulous dissembling--to what end? So that the mud mend that Prometheus and Athene between them made might think themselves the lords of creation. We have been good to you, giving you what you thought you wanted--yes, and look what you have done with it....And Heaven--what is that? For us, the deathless ones, there is no Heaven, of Hell, either, no up, no down, only the infinite here, which is a kind of not-here. Think of that."

Along with this ingratitude is our (as humans) inability to appreciate the now (one of my favorite themes!): "among his many torments, the thought of all that he had and did not prize as he should have when he had it. A trove of experience spurned as it was happening because it was simply that, something that was happening and not a thing anticipated or recollected. Now: that is a word he never appreciated the meaning of, until now."

And yet, Banville compliments our ability to love. Clearly, the gods are jealous of this ability to "afford each other sanctuary, excuse each other their failings, their sweats and smells, their lies and subterfuges, above all their ineradicable selfobsession." but he also describes romantic love ultimately in selfish and narcissistic terms: "Show me a pair of them at it and I will show you two mirrors, rosetinted, flatteringly distorted, locked in an embrace of mutual incomprehension. They love so they may see their pirouetting selves marvelously reflected in the loved one's eyes." Finally, he argues (but as Adam Sr., not as Hermes) that love is not unless it is unconditional and self-less: "to love properly and in earnest one would have to do it anonymously, or at least in an undeclared fashion, so as not to seem to ask anything in return, since asking and getting are the antithesis of love--if, as I say, I have the concept aright, which from all I have said and all that has been said to me so far it appears I do not. It is very puzzling. Love, the kind that I mean, would require a superhuman capacity for sacrifice and self-denial, such as a saint possess, or a god, and saints are monsters, as we know, and as for the gods--well. Perhaps that is my trouble, perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps human love is simple, and therefore beyond me, due to my incurable complicating bent." I find it fascinating that the human would have a higher standard than the god; and yet neither is able to achieve their stated goal.

Overall there were some poignant and interesting turns of phrase and it was a thought provoking novel.