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Archive for July 2010

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

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In Housekeeping, Ruth and Lucille are dropped off at their grandmother’s house by their mother, who then drives her car into the same lake their grandfather disappeared into decades earlier when the train he was on was derailed. They are raised first by their grandmother, then their great aunts, and finally by their transient aunt, Sylvie. Sylvie always seems to be elsewhere. They both adore her, at first, but her wanderlust makes them nervous. Will she stick around? She is non-conventional, and is quickly the talk of the town. Their family is alienated, stifled by their own tragedy and loneliness in a home built on shaky foundations. Eventually Lucille seeks refuge with another family, leaving Ruth to become even more closely bonded with Sylvie. Familial history seems to be repeating itself, but external forces are bent on ensuring it doesn’t.

Robinson’s writing is lovely. Her words are like ripples in the lake at the center of her story; unfortunately, her prose never seems to do much more than skim the surface of what’s going on. While reading, I felt on the edge of a deep plunge which is never actually taken. I was left hoping for a more thorough psychological uncovering of sorts. I wanted to better understand the motives and inner thoughts of Sylvie and the girls’ suicidal mother. I wanted to know more about their lives, and Sylvie’s husband (?). I was expecting some sort of revelation that never came. And while I did enjoy Robinson’s style, even that turned a bit rambly and abstract toward the end. Sorry to say, I lost interest about 3/4 of the way through, though I did finish it.

Meh. It was alright, and I can see how some people might really like it. It just didn’t quite grab me like I was hoping it would.

Written by Emily Jane

July 31, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Posted in Novels

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FRT–We Camera

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First ten songs on iTunes shuffle, plus a video:

1. Pink Floyd–Bike

2. Loch Lomond–Blue Lead Fences

3. Shenandoah–We Camera

4. Jordaan Mason–Housewife Part One

5. Animal Collective–Derek

6. Pixies–Crackity Jones

7. Bob Dylan–I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine

8. Jana Hunter–Babies

9. Sandra Reemer–Kopi Susu

10. John Coltrane–Compassion

Shenandoah–“We Camera”

Share yours in the comments, if you feel like it 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

July 30, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Friday Random Ten

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Book Abandoned: The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski

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I’m usually really bad at abandoning books that aren’t working out for me. I always feel this sense of obligation to finish what I’ve started, or something, no matter what (luckily it doesn’t come up too often, because I’m pretty good at judging which books I’ll like, or at least not hate). But I’m getting better at it! I’ve successfully put down The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski without feeling any need to pick it up again.

It’s about a little boy around seven years of age, presumed to be of gypsy or Jewish descent, whose parents send him away from their city home during WWII in a last-ditch effort to keep him safe. He wanders from village to village in eastern Europe, presumably Poland, but instead of safety, he finds dehumanization and violence every step of the way. The villagers are gruff, allowing their superstitions about his hair color, eye color, and skin tone to justify their prejudice. Each chapter is the story of another beating, another rape, another torture, by yet another perpetrator.

I mean really, how many violent rapes are there in this book? There were two in the 80 pages or so I got through and there are 251 pages in the book, so I’d rather not hazard a guess. And none of these incidents seems to lead to any point other than “humanity contains a seemingly endless capacity for evil”, which I guess is the point of the book. Well, okay, point made. Is that all? From what other comments I’ve seen and heard made about the book, it seems that yeah: that is all.

It’s not that the book is bad, necessarily. There is just only so much graphic depiction of violence this reader can stand, especially if it doesn’t seem to be adding to anything, or going anywhere.

Written by Emily Jane

July 28, 2010 at 12:13 am

Don Quixote, the Read-a-Long

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After a TON of flip-flopping, I finally decided last week to participate in a Don Quixote read-a-long hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad’s Blog. This is my first read-a-long ever. I was afraid to commit to it, not only because of the book’s length, but because I haven’t really been a fan of scheduled, regimented reading in the past, which I’ve only done in a school context. But I also knew I was unlikely to pick up this book (and I did want to!) without the pressure…ahem, I mean support :)…of other book bloggers.

Now a week in, my worries have completely dissolved. Don Quixote is so much more accessible than I expected it to be, and way more hilarious. I’ve already laughed out loud while reading it a number of times. And so far the reading pace is working nicely for me; it was enough to keep me engaged this week while still allowing me time to read a second book as well. There’s also something strangely satisfying about knowing where in the book I’ll be at any given time, and when I’m likely to finish it. I’m not reading the same translation as everyone else, but I’m not too concerned about that.

I probably won’t keep up a running commentary of the book on this blog. I think I’ll opt for one final review at the end instead. But I’m going to do my best to take part in the discussions that happen elsewhere, the first of which is taking place today at Winston’s Dad’s Blog (linked above).


Written by Emily Jane

July 27, 2010 at 12:32 am

Jane Austen’s Fight Club

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OMG. Full-length, please!

Via Boing Boing.

Written by Emily Jane

July 25, 2010 at 11:11 pm

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Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood

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Oh, my. Margaret Atwood is amazing. But we all knew that already, right?

So, Cat’s Eye. As a middle-aged woman, Elaine Risley returns to Toronto, where she grew up, to attend a retrospective of her paintings. Walking through the city, she is flooded with memories from her childhood. Everywhere she goes, she is haunted by three little girls who once called themselves her friends, particularly Cordelia, undisputed leader of the trio.

These “friends” were the first real friends Elaine had beside her brother. She wants desperately to please them, to fit in. So when they begin to engage in a game of “improvement”, by which they relentlessly point out Elaine’s faults and character flaws, driving her to shred the flesh of her fingers, peel the skin from the bottom of her feet, and bite her lips bloody in fits of anxiety, she does not know how to disengage from this damaging relationship, or even that she should. Most of the adults in the story are unaware of what’s happening; the ones that are do nothing to stop the torture.

Dynamics between this group of girls changes as they grow older, but Elaine’s relationships with other girls and women are forever complicated. She can never quite shake the feeling that they’re judging her and that she’s not quite holding up under their weighty expectations. She’s erected a barrier between herself and other women, so that all her interactions with them feel as if they’re happening from a great distance, from which they can never again get close enough to hurt her. Neither her encounters with the feminism of the 60’s and 70’s nor her own experience as mother to two daughters help her to feel less ostracized. She is aware that many of her prejudices against women are irrational, and that though she sometimes enjoys the privilege of being treated like “one of the guys”, the men in her life are as imperfect, as human, as the women.

This story was sometimes challenging for me. As someone who declared herself feminist as a teenager and was lucky enough to establish supportive friendships with like-minded peers, there were times I felt a bit defensive and wanted to say to Elaine: “But it’s not really like that! We’re not judging you. We’re cooperative, not competitive!”

But, alas. All too often, it isn’t true. We’re not all kind. We don’t always have each others’ backs. Some of us really are downright terrible to each other. Reflecting on my own elementary school experience, I can remember similar insidious aggressions taking place amongst the girls in class, asserting their power over those they deem occupy a similar range of social status, assuring the best possible position in the hierarchy they’ve already internalized. I’m sure all of us can remember such “games”, and I’m sure that, from the point of view of a bystander rather than a victim, many of them might have been more traumatizing than we might regularly allow.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the whole thing is, after all is said and done, realizing that Elaine’s general dislike of women stems from the fact that she does wish to be close to them, to have lasting female friendships: she is just so afraid they will be unreciprocal, and that even if she built up the courage to try and build one, she wouldn’t know how to begin. For in a way, she feels that her entry into girlhood was a disastrous failure. And where to go, how to relate, from there?

Even though I doubt I would quite understand or care much for a person like Elaine in real life, her story felt so true that I felt real empathy. From the moment I started this book, I loved it. I was completley enthralled with Atwood’s style, as I was upon reading The Handmaid’s Tale last year. Every word in every sentence she writes seems so perfectly placed, and yet not at all laborious to read. I became cranky every time I had to put it down. My next Atwood is going to be The Blind Assassin. Hoping, confidently, that the love affair continues unhindered…

Written by Emily Jane

July 25, 2010 at 10:00 pm

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American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, by Sasha Abramsky

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American Furies is a good and relatively concise overview of the injustices of the U.S. penal system. With over two million people behind bars, and more millions on probation or parole, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet. Spurred by the rise and dominance of a conservative tough-on-crime political stance that has turned crime into an increasingly sensationalized topic since the ’70’s, the prison industry has grown exponentially, encouraging new supermax facilities, high tech control and surveillance devices (the same kinds used in war and overseas facilities), and rapid privatization.

Abramsky starts by providing background information about the evolution of the western European/U.S. prison system and the philosophy and psychology of state punishment, from Foucault to Milgram. He notes the ways in which popular perception of the very point of punishment and imprisonment has changed. State punishment was once enacted in public; the lawbreaker tortured, made into spectacle, example, entertainment. With the advent of modern psychology, prisoners were hidden away, out of sight of the public, and the site of infliction changed from body to mind. For a while, prisons were considered rehabilitation centers of sorts.

And now? The “tough on crime” movement, fed largely by fundamentalism, racism, and conservative politics has made prisons into sites of revenge, framing criminality as moral failure. The goal of rehabilitation has been completely dropped, almost everywhere. The prison system is a booming industry, fueled by popular demand, and in recent decades policymakers have been pressured to keep this demand satiated. They’ve done this by writing new, harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, adopting a “throw away the key” approach to habitual offenders, trying more and more children as adults, moving away from offering parole, and largely allowing healthcare services for the mentally ill to disintegrate*.

These policies do not actually do anything to ensure the speedy lock-up of our nation’s boogeymen: the rapists, the serial murderers, the school shooters. More and more people are serving longer sentences for nonviolent crimes like drugs, petty theft, and fraud–some spending a longer time in jail for these crimes than did Nazi war criminals sentenced at Nuremburg. And, of course, those disproportionately at risk due to stricter prison law and sentencing are those that are already our country’s most downtrodden: people who are poor, who are uneducated, who are non-white (particularly black and latino), who are addicts, who are ill, who have fewer options. Historical trends show that the more unequal society becomes, the more is invested in its prisons, the better to hide away the underclass. And once they’re hidden away, we aim to keep them there. Very few prisons offer rehabilitation or education programs of any kind, almost promising that prisoners will return. For the cruel and unusual treatment they receive behind bars leaves them little preparation for anything but more crime, and more violence. The prison has become a revolving door.

Prisoners face regular brutality from fellow prisoners and from guards: rape, beatings, isolation…the works. In this culture of criminalization and devaluation of the underclass, it’s really no wonder. As Abramsky says, this isn’t just the case of “a few bad apples”, it’s the logical extension of the dehumanization of prisoners and the growing impunity allowed guards and other prison officials.

All this may sound old hat, and if you know anything about the U.S. prison system already, it very well might be. But it’s still important, and it’s still a problem. One thing Abramsky does emphasize that I didn’t know much about is the victim’s rights movement, which has been startlingly effective at organizing and influencing judiciary policy. The way that they have assumed an identity as victims of violent crime is really interesting to me as a subject of its own. As I wrote at the beginning, this book is a useful overview of the issues. If you don’t need the overview, skip it. But if you’d like even a refresher, the read will be worth it.

*I’m honestly not sure if “mentally ill” is the most sensitive term to use anymore, does anyone reading know? Yes, I am trying to be PC about this. Wouldn’t want to hurt anyone unnecessarily through my own ignorance, and having a surprising amount of trouble locating the information I’m looking for cruising Disability 101 type blogs.

Written by Emily Jane

July 22, 2010 at 11:02 pm

A Room With a View, by E.M. Forster

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In A Room With a View, Lucy leaves her contained and predictable life in the English countryside and travels through Italy with her annoying, manipulative older cousin Charlotte as chaperone. There she is inspired by the beauty, the pace, and the culture of Italy, and she begins an inner transformation. She also starts to fall for George Emerson, a young man staying in the same  hotel in Florence. George is rather unconventional; he says just what he wants with no regard to polite society and is rough around the edges. Charlotte disapproves and whisks Lucy away to Rome, far from George.

Upon her return home, Lucy quickly adapts back to her old lifestyle, but without forgetting her time abroad, unable to ignore completely the differences it made to her sense of self. She becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, a boring, snobby, cerebral man. She thinks she could be happy until George moves into town and her two conflicting worldviews collide. In order to sort out the mess she’s in, she must become more assertive. Only after she is able to be honest about her desires can she live freely, with enthusiasm.

I liked the tone of the book; it was light and airy. Very pleasant. Lucy’s upheavals toward the end were satisfying. And while it wasn’t a particularly funny book, there were times I felt Forster’s sense of humor shine through.

But it really wasn’t much more than pleasant for me. A nice enough way to spend an afternoon or two, but nothin’ I was too excited about.

Written by Emily Jane

July 21, 2010 at 1:06 am

Posted in Novels

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I Write Like David Foster Wallace (and “We All Write Like White Men”)

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So, I entered the text of my last real blog post, the one about Fathers and Sons, into this writing analyzer thingy and it says I write like David Foster Wallace. I haven’t actually read any David Foster Wallace (I know I know, what kind of book blogger am I?), but I hear he’s pretty great, so I’ll take it as a compliment. Hey, at least I didn’t get Dan Brown! I also can’t figure out how to make my “I Write Like David Foster Wallace” badge show up on the blog (again, what kind of book blogger am I?), but I assure you it’s cool.

It’s an unsophisticated non-sensical just-for-fun internet toy, definitely, but it still kinda sucks that there are apparently so few women and um, zero people of color represented as results, as if there aren’t (m)any with instantly recognizable writing styles. And that when the creator of the site responsible for I Write Like was confronted, he pulled the “color-blind” card. And the gender equivalent too, which doesn’t seem to get used as often but still: stupid.

Pfff. Whatevs, dude.

Written by Emily Jane

July 18, 2010 at 3:33 am

FRT–I Walk the Line

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First ten songs on iTunes shuffle, plus a video:

1. Fanfarlo–Harold T Wilkins

2. Beck–Soul Suckin’ Jerk

3. Sarah Shapiro–Stranger

4. Herbert Von Karajan: Berlin Philarmonic Orchestra–Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A, Op. 92 – 3. Presto

5. Fugazi–Long Distance Runner

6. Radiohead–(Backdrifts) Honeymoon is Over

7. Bob Dylan–Simple Twist of Fate

8. Hot Chip–Whistle For Will

9. Johnny Cash–I Walk the Line

10. Joanna Newsom–Cosmia

Johnny Cash performing “I Walk the Line”

Written by Emily Jane

July 16, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Posted in Friday Random Ten