Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book 19 - Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman


This is Tupelo Hassman's first work, and boy is it powerful. The story focuses on Rory Dawn (also affectionately known as R.D. - a nickname bestowed upon her by her maternal grandmother). It is told in bits and pieces, a novel that has some plot line but is mostly comprised of short stories that deal with the same characters. Rory lives in the Nevada desert (somewhere outside of Reno) with her mother, Jo, in a trailer. You learn shortly that R.D. has 4 older half brothers but doesn't know their father or her own father (at least she knows their father's name). Jo works as a bartender at the local truck stop and combats a nasty alcohol habit as well as a habit of picking up the wrong men. Her grandmother also has an addictive personality and cannot, for the life of her, stop gambling or smoking.

R.D. desperately wants to be a Girl Scout and takes out the Girl Scout Handbook from the library so often, that her name is the only name on the checkout slip. There are no troops in her poor town, so she has to live through the handbook and, essentially, creates a troop comprised of herself and her imaginary friend, Viv. They often compete for badges. There is also tales of abuse and neglect, interspersed with reports from a social worker, test questions and excerpts from the Girl Scout Handbook.

This is book that deals with judgment - mostly the judgement that people have toward people of lower economic classes and R.D.'s fear of it. It also deals poignantly with ideas of loneliness and belonging and independence, but is so depressing in dealing with these themes (but that could be because of what I do for work and my hope that I can use reading as an escape from this, so a book like this wasn't really an escape). This book is gritty and detailed in ways that are sometimes painful and often uncomfortable to read. I really enjoyed that Hassman wrote the book, mostly, in R.D.'s voice because I was able to get a connection to her - it was like she was talking to me about her life or writing me letters or I was reading her diary - so the mechanism for telling the story was powerful and effective. I liked how Hassman had some confidence that we could connect the dots and imagine the horror of R.D.'s existence. And R.D. is a FANTASTIC character.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Book 18 - Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan

Caitlin Flanagan is, perhaps, best known for her book To Hell With All That and this is her latest in her series of dithering, except that instead of targeting mothers (both stay at home moms AND moms that have jobs outside the home as well as being a mom), she targets our tween and teenage daughters. I think that more specifically, she's looking at girls that are on the cusp of getting their first periods and maybe a little bit older (because she does look at people like Patty Hearst in addition to teenagers).

The tone of the book (and it's broadly sweeping generalists) were pretty apparent right from the get go when Ms. Flanagan claimed that all of her female friends stated that the tween period was the most intense period of their life (excluding childbirth, first sexual encounters and other, potentially life changing events, such as marriage and first jobs of course - please note the sarcasm). Flanagan then goes on to talk about things like moral mania (essentially a whole chapter on rainbow parties and other related topics), diaries (yes, Anne Frank type diaries, minus the Holocaust aspect of it) and Sexual Initiation (including about 10 pages on Patty Hearst). She also devotes some time to her, seemingly cloistered, adolescent experiences from the 1970's(that, aside from an unwanted grope in a parked car), was pretty tame.

What I found really annoying about this book, is that this lady, Flanagan, wrote this book as a commentary (and I appreciate social commentary, really, I do - I love this stuff. Sometimes I wish that I had done something more like that then what I currently do for work), but her research was abysmal. She honestly read dozens and dozens of copies of 17, The Diary of Anne Frank, a couple of other biographies and not much else. Her research was flimsy at best - nothing to be proud of and certainly nothing to base these general and sweeping analysis of girlhood culture on. If she were going to read anything, she should have read the blogs that the girls that she was claiming to study wrote. She should have asked them for their diaries. Hell, she should have asked me for MY diaries from the ages of 13-19 because I would have candidly turned them over and talked to her about them. Maybe even talked to the girls that she was claiming to know so much about, because I'm sure that first person accounts and interviews would have given her the insight that she needed to write a much more candid, thoughtful and insightful account of what girls go through in this day and age in maturing sexually, emotionally, physically and mentally into adult, American women. But she didn't do that and, as a result, her book is shallow and out of touch, in spite of moments of smartness. In fact, the moments of brilliance almost make it worse because, in showing me those moments, I become aware that she is, in fact, capable of doing things in a much better fashion then she did with this book.

If you are going to read this, borrow it from your library but don't add to your collection.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book 17 - Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

This novel is, essentially, a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice but you didn't need to have read Pride and Prejudice in order to understand and get this book. This is a murder mystery that takes place at Pemberley (the Darcys' estate) approximately 6 years after Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet have married. James adequately describes the history of the families and the characters and then also, lovingly and painstakingly describes what appears to be a beautiful life (at least in the beginning). On a dark and blustery evening, Elizabeth, her sister Jane, Darcy and a few guests are eating dinner, relaxing by the fire and preparing for the annual ball that is taking place the next day. As they are getting ready to pack it in for the night, the characters see a chaise lurching and speeding unsteadily towards the house, nearly falling over in the process. When the carriage finally gets to the house, Lydia (the sister of Jane and Elizabeth, who, as you may or may not remember, married in disgrace to Wickham) is hysterical and even more high strung than she normally is. What ensues is the discovery of a dead body with Wickham standing over it, covered in blood. There is also an investigation, an inquest, a trial and a few twists and turns.

I don't know how she did it, but PD James could have passed as Jane Austen in her literary style. It was as if she was channelling the author of books like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. If I hadn't known any better, I would have though that Austen came back from the dead to write this novel. That being said, while I generally liked the book, because of the style, it was slow going, almost like wading through molasses or taffy (in a good way!). If you are really into the detective genre, though, you'll probably guess at most of the big twists and turns accurately, but it was still an entertaining read, nonetheless. I also really enjoyed how PD James attempted to introduce the tensions that English society at this time was facing - namely the growing women's rights movement and how it played against the more conservative elements of British society in the 19th century or thereabouts.

Definitely one to try.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book 16 - Mad Women by Jane Maas

OK, so I'm one of the people that really (and I mean really) enjoys watching the AMC series "Mad Men." I am obsessed with that time period for quite a few reasons but mostly because I find any era that immediately precedes and/or involves or causes as drastic a change as the 60'sdid is fascinating to me. Specifically, I really enjoy the historical changes in women's roles that occurred during this time period and so, when I saw that there was a book written by a woman that had actually done what Peggy Olson (who happens to be my favorite character in the series, followed closely by Joanie) did, I really wanted to read it. I also think that the book was written because of the series - was the series accurate? Did people really drink, smoke, have that much sex at the time in the Madison Avenue advertising agencies? During the first part of the book, Jane Maas works for Ogilvy and Mather as a copywriter. Ogilvy was one of the first people to do market research and put tremendous stock in it. And yes, there was a lot of sex. The Pill was widely available, so at the time, American society was in the midst of the sexual revolution. The rule, essentially was, if there were doors and couches in offices, there was probably sex going on. Maas claims not to have engaged in any affairs while at the office, but she spent so much time there, that I am skeptical, although of course, I have no direct proof. Just my gut instincts. What surprised me the most about this book is how conservative Maas seemed to be. This was the era in which second wave feminism was also birthed and she, quite frankly, didn't see the use of it. That shocked me because all around her (and in the firms that she worked for), women would be fired for getting pregnant. Maas herself was the subject of much sexism - when she appeared for a client meeting with a big client, they assumed she was the secretary and gave her a pad and pen to take notes on. She was also sexually harassed so badly, that she began to see a psychiatrist - this co - worker would go so far as to come to her hotel room when they were on trips together, knock on the door and essentially ask to come in to spend the night with her (she got him away by saying she had her period). I would have thought that such an obviously intelligent, tough woman (who had gone to Bucknell among other colleges) would have seen the value in second wave feminism, so I was really shocked. While I found the first person accounts of working in an advertising agency during this period to be absolutely fascinating (that's the historian in me), I didn't really enjoy how the book was written. I felt like Maas rushed through everything and, as a result, you feel not only like you're on a treadmill running very quickly (and getting nowhere) but you're left with very shallow observations. I'm going to leave this one up to you - the subject matter was really interesting but the writing style was mediocre at best.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...