Fiction: “The Duchess War” by Courtney Milan

duchess warTHIS IS THE LAST BOOK FROM 2016

YOU GUYS

AFTER THIS I’VE GOT MY RECAP AND I’LL FINALLY BE DONE WITH THAT YEAR

I APOLOGIZE FOR DRAGGING 2016 OUT FOR AN EXTRA NINE MONTHS

I WILL HOPEFULLY NEVER DO THAT AGAIN WITH OTHER YEARS

So I have a habit of bringing a book with me to the gym. I trick myself into multitasking: I sit my ass on the recumbent bike, set it for Ramps, Level 7, 30 minutes, and sit back and read my book. And in the middle of December, I was in-between books: I had just finished Publish & Perish, and I was reading A Rake’s Vow at home (because, terrible train rides aside, I still feel uncomfortable reading romance novels in public), and I was also re-reading Moonraker, but I was reading it to take notes for my pipe dream James Bond thesis, and I can’t ride a recumbent bike and take notes at the same time.

But I didn’t want to just … stare at the digital readout on the bike, either. So I searched through my Kindle app to find something to keep my eyes occupied for the rest of my workout that day, until I could go home and find something else to bring with me to the gym.

I don’t generally use my Kindle app to read books. I’m a Luddite; I like having the heft of a book as I read. Also, my phone is three years old (I am the Oldest Millennial Alive, as I refuse to replace technology until it truly stops working. See also: my seven-year-old iPod, my eight-year-old car), and using the Kindle app — frankly, use of any app — drains the battery something fierce. So it’s rare that I fire up the Kindle.

And this title was on there. I probably got it in a free download, and probably also from some publicity on smartbitchestrashybooks.com.  And I downloaded it, and never gave it a second thought until I was stuck on the recumbent bike, bookless.

Reader, I’m so glad I had it.

This is a great story! The characters are great! And fully realized! And there’s banter! And some modern sensibilities even though the book takes place in the 19th century! And it’s kind of hot, too!

The main character is Wilhelmina Pursling – nicknamed Minnie. She is a quiet wallflower type – keen to fade into the background of every social interaction. She lives with her two aunts, whose names escape me, but they help to shield her from society. At a gathering, Minnie meets Robert Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont, and they have an interesting conversation but then they separate, never to see each other again.

Or so they think. Because there’s this dude who thinks Minnie is inciting the workers in their town to unionize, and he thinks she’s distributing fliers and using her Good Works visits to stir up feelings. But when one of the fliers shows up with her words written on it – words she said to the Duke of Clermont – she knows who’s responsible. So she goes to him to form an alliance – and to make sure she stays a wallflower.

Why doesn’t Minnie want people to know who she is? She’s got a secret – when she was a child, her father taught her chess, and she became a bit of a phenom. However, since it was unbecoming for young ladies to play chess, and to have those chess games be bet upon, her dad dressed her up as a boy. Her dad was then accused of cheating or rigging games, and she’s exposed as a girl and the crowd turns into a mob and she ends up getting stoned. At the age of 11.

Meanwhile, Robert is trying to make amends for his father’s lack of moral compass. His father was terrible to the workers of the area, and a bit of a date-rapist as well. Robert befriends his half-brother and tries to fit into their family, but because Robert looks exactly like his father – even when he was a young lad – his half-brother’s mother can’t stand to go near him. So he makes a family of his own through his friends at Eton, and grows up determined to use his title to make things better for the working class.

To be honest, I feel like I’m doing y’all a disservice – I read this book nine months ago, and I can’t remember much of the intricacies of the plot. I saved some quotes, because I do want to talk about a couple of things, but if you’re looking for more of a “what happened” kind of thing … I really won’t be able to help you.

So, let’s talk about the things I want to talk about, and if you want a more professional review, I’d recommend checking out the review of The Duchess War by Carrie S, over on Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

Let’s talk about: how modern this is?

Let me be clear: the book takes place in the early 1800s. In terms of setting, no, it’s not “modern”. But in terms of language, and sensibility, it’s very modern.

There’s this dialogue, from Minnie and Robert’s second meeting, wherein Robert’s attempt at an alliance is in an effort to gain Minnie the attention of suitors on the marriage market:

“What would you say when it was just men about? When they were asking you what the devil you saw in that mousy Miss Pursling? I daresay you’d never tell them that you were entranced by the curl of my hair […] men don’t talk that way amongst themselves.”

He gave her a shake of his head and a grin. “Come, Miss Pursling,” he said. “Men wouldn’t ask any such thing. They’d already know what caught my eye.” He leaned forward and whispered in conspiratorial fashion. “It’s your tits.”  [Ch. 3, p. 33]

TITS. In a historical romance novel! And the word is said by a duke, not a prostitute or some other lower-class individual!

Furthermore:

If another man had said that her tits were magnificent, it might have been in a leering, lustful way – one that would have made her skin crawl. But the Duke of Clermont was smiling and cheerful, and he’d thrown it out there as if it were merely one more fact to be recounted. The weather is lovely. The streets are paved with cobblestone. Your tits are magnificent. [Ch. 3, p. 33]

Also-also? Minnie and Robert? Both virgins. Who masturbateBoth of them. Yes, even Minnie.

I’ve read many a historical romance where the hero has “taken himself in hand”, so to speak, but never the lady. Even the widowed ones abstain from any … hmm … what’s a good old-timey epithet for that? Oooh! I got it! “Riffling the reticule!”

[okay. I just spent WAAAAY too much time looking for a .gif of someone begging for a joke to land, but apparently the idea of someone telling a joke, and holding out their arms going, “huh? huh??” as if asking “did the joke land?” is not translatable into a .gif search, so … moving on.]

SPEAKING OF PUNS and just generally being awful, there was also this exchange between Minnie and Robert, while they’re putting fliers up around town, using glue:

“Well,” he said, just behind her, his voice low and amused. “You know what they say. ‘Paste not, want not.’”

She blinked. “Puns,” she said, without turning around, “are the lowest form of humor.”  [Ch. 12, p. 109]

“Shall we proceed to the next corner? Miss Peters and Miss Charingford are already outpacing us.” His eyes slid to hers. “Outpasting us,” he corrected. [Ch. 12, p. 109]

“Yes,” she said. “I read everything you wrote. And I’m furious with you.”

“Now, now,” he admonished, “don’t be pasty.”  [Ch. 12, p. 109]

Basically, Robert is the mid-19th century version of the Pun Husky.

Look y’all, seriously – if you like romance that’s got some amazing sexual tension between the lead characters, a sweet romance, and an epilogue that will make you cry in the middle of your workout, I cannot recommend this book enough. I apologize for not being a good enough reviewer, but — I’ll try and get better.

Grade for The Duchess War: 5 stars

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Essays: “Don’t Get Too Comfortable” by David Rakoff

don't get too comfortableI’ve previously reviewed David Rakoff’s first collection of essays, Fraud. I’ve read Don’t Get Too Comfortable before as well, prior to the inception of That’s What She Read. I can’t remember what prompted me to pick this collection off of my bookshelf (mainly because I read this book back in August and I’m really ashamed, y’all, but then I remember that I don’t have deadlines for this because it’s my own thing, available on the interwebs for free, so suck it, Shame), but I’m happy my impulse paid off.

Like FraudDon’t Get Too Comfortable is a collection of humorous essays that have been published previously elsewhere, namely GQ and Harper’s Bazaar. The subtitle gives the reader a hint of the subject matter: “The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems.” I was wondering if this book was the origin of the phrase “first world problems,” but according to Wikipedia, it’s … not. So. Oh well.

The topics of Mr. Rakoff’s essays range from the day he took his citizenship test – Mr. Rakoff was a Canadian who earned dual citizenship after 9/11 – to his love of crafting, and a treatise on Log Cabin Republicans, a class of politico that I think may have become extinct? Do we even have those anymore?

He’s not lying when he subtitled his book to refer to First World Problems. Everything in this book is a First World Problem. As poignant as he is about gaining his dual residency, Mr. Rakoff came to New York on a work visa and lived as such for twenty-two years. He was of Canadian origin. There was no “extreme vetting” for his class, because he was white.

His job writing essays for highbrow magazines sent him on numerous … adventures, I guess, is the word? He wrote a piece as an observer on a Latin America Playboy television program. He wrote an essay about his experience on one of the last flights of the Concorde, and the class of people who were able to ride on the Concorde. There’s an excursion he goes on with a Wildman of Central Park, who teaches his students how to scavenge the foliage for edible plant life. These are not exposés on the horrors imposed on humanity by other humans.

(This all sounds very cynical. I think the tone I’m using to review this book is much different from the tone I would have used in August, right after I finished reading it. Back in August, I probably would have said that his saga on becoming an American citizen was quaint and inspired – now, all I can see is that he was the “right” kind of immigrant, and even though he outright admits that his story is not one of struggle, it feels disingenuous to me to even talk about a white Canadian’s immigration experience, however humorously the subject is presented.)

(I had just written this long parenthetical about how, for my birthday, I would like a time machine to go back four months so I can fucking fix something, but then I remembered that time machines only move an individual back in time, not the entire world, and I can’t exactly bring the entire population of the United States back with me so they can tell their friends about ~the future~ to help ensure a different outcome, plus what happens when we run into our past selves? Anyway, my brain hurt from the paradox so I’m going to shut up now.)

One of the essays I’d like to mention is his take on the quest for perfection in everything, entitled “What Is The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”

[[IF Y’ALL DIDN’T IMMEDIATELY START DOING THIS —

one hand clapping

— EVEN THOUGH THE TITLE SAYS “SHOPPING” AND NOT “CLAPPING”, GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIBRARY]]

(Oh god, I have two digressions now. Okay. #1: “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first aired twenty years ago on March 10. Fuck offffff. That’s — I am not that old. [[if you’re curious as to how that tidbit came out of apparently nowhere, I must remind you that in “The Dark Age,” Willow gets mad at Xander and Cordelia for fighting and she has this great rant that ends with “if you two aren’t with me a hundred and ten percent, then get the hell out of my library!” So — good quote.]]

Secondly: the “one hand clapping” .gif up there is one of my favorite visual jokes of all time, and that led my brain to want to mention my first favorite hand-related joke, which is, of course, this old chestnut from The Great Muppet Caper:

Kermit: Now, if we want to get Miss Piggy out of jail, we’re going to have to catch those thieves red-handed. Yes, Beauregard?
Beauregard: What color are their hands now?

AND THEN I remembered that, two Trivia Nights ago, Friend Brad was telling me a story about a shoplifter or … y’know, I can’t honestly remember what the premise was, but anyway, he said something about “catching them red-handed.” And like Pavlov’s Dog, I proudly and immediately shouted, “WHAT COLOR WERE THEIR HANDS THEN?!” I mean, I have never been lucky enough to use this punchline in everyday conversation, so the entire experience was awesome.

But Friend Brad either decided to ignore my outburst — which, in his defense, would be a valid defense strategy; I am a pretty weird person, and ignoring my weird outbursts is probably a good mechanism to have — or, he didn’t think the joke was funny enough to warrant a response, which would be wrong. This is a great joke.

And then I started to wonder if he’d ever even seen The Great Muppet Caper, and I’m sorry, if he’s going to razz me about fucking Shawshank every time he sees me but hasn’t seen The Great Muppet Caper? Fuck offffff.)

Where was I? Oh right – “What’s The Sound Of One Hand Shopping?”

As I said, this essay is about the cult of seeking perfection. Y’know, the people who spend ungodly amounts of money on items that are supposed to be pure, or authentic, or … or whatever. I don’t know. I don’t understand that concept. I am widely known as The Oldest Millennial Alive, because I have a Samsung Galaxy 4 (it still works! I am not the President of the United States, so I don’t require more security!) and a 4th generation iPod Nano, purchased in 2009, which still works, and why would I replace something that isn’t broken? So the idea of spending more in order to demonstrate greatness is just lost on me.

Surely when we’ve reached the point where we’re fetishizing sodium chloride and water, and subjecting both to the kind of scrutiny we used to reserve for selecting an oncologist, it’s time to admit that the relentless questing for that next undetectable gradation of perfection has stopped being about the thing itself and crossed over into a realm of narcissism so overwhelming as to make the act of masturbation look selfless. [p. 24]

One essay that spoke to me was “Martha, My Dear,” wherein Mr. Rakoff discusses his deep love for crafting, amidst the tale of his visit to the craft supply closet at Martha Stewart Living. I also enjoy crafting: from crocheting scarves and stuffed animals (and lately, a whole mess of baby blankets and other stuff for expecting friends and acquaintances), to cross-stitching profanity-laden quotes from Deadwood and then turning those quotes into a pillow —

Cocksucker pillow

— and now my latest project: making maternity shirts for a friend of mine because, dear everyone: GEEKS GET PREGNANT TOO, and geeks who enjoy wearing geeky t-shirts want to continue to wear geeky t-shirts while pregnant, but does every goddamned shirt have to point out that the wearer is pregnant?!

Here’s a smattering. I am so incensed on her behalf, I’m actually considering teaching myself to use a sewing machine and not just adjusting previously-made geek shirts. (Another thing I should do: figure out how long and involved the process is to register a trade name before someone else steals my/our idea…)

I make stuff because I can’t not make stuff. [p. 120]

IT’S ME

The last essay I want to mention, I’m going to get to in a kind of roundabout way. I was first introduced to Mr. Rakoff with his appearance on The Daily Show back in … holy shit, 2006. Oh my god. Jon Stewart interviewed him at the release of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and after watching it, I knew I had to read this book as soon as possible.

(I encourage everyone to take six minutes out of their day to watch the video at the above link, if only to see how young Jon Stewart was back then. Oh, Jon. My Forever-Pretend-Boyfriend. Have I told you lately how much I miss you, Jon? Please come back I miss you.)

Anyways. I bought the book, read it, devoured it, and loved it. And then — okay, I can’t remember if I was lending it to Uncle Jean (who I used to work with), or if I had just — no, I couldn’t have been leaving it in Brad’s mailbox, because this was while Brad was still manager, so I would have just left it on his desk … I must have lent the book to someone else prior to then lending it and Fraud to Brad, but the point of this part of the story is, I distinctly remember talking to Uncle Jean about the book, and about this one essay, entitled “Beat Me, Daddy”, which is the essay Mr. Rakoff refers to in his interview with Jon Stewart.

“Beat Me, Daddy”, for those who have elected to not watch the video, is an essay about the Log Cabin Republicans of yore – gay Republicans who just wanted lower taxes, but the Grand Ol’ Party wasn’t really welcoming or accepting back then? Wow, those were the days!

Mr. Rakoff speaks with Patrick Guerriero, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, who tells Mr. Rakoff,

“I have a lot of strikes against me […] I’m a Catholic from the archdiocese of Boston, from a Democratic family, and I’m a Red Sox fan. I’ve chosen to stay in institutions I care about.” [p. 157-158]

But as Mr. Rakoff points out,

It’s all well and good to stay in the institutions you care about, but wouldn’t it be nice to feel that the institution, in turn, cared about you, or at least wasn’t hell-bent on your eradication or, failing that, the legislating away of your rights? [p. 158]

OH GOD IT’S TOO REAL RIGHT NOW THIS WAS SUCH A CHARMING SENTENCE BACK IN AUGUST

Now, here’s the selling point on this essay: this is the part of the story Mr. Rakoff spoke of during his Daily Show interview, and it’s also the section I distinctly remember reading aloud, in its entirety (which I will quote below) to Uncle Jean, in Footwear backstock, within hearing distance of customers.

Man, that was a different time. Now you can’t even talk to your fellow sales reps on the sales floor.

ANYWAY. Mr. Rakoff also spoke with Robert Knight, “director of the conservative advocacy group the Culture and Family Institute” [p. 162]. Mr. Knight is firmly against the Log Cabin Republicans:

“The Log Cabin agenda to promote homosexuality is utterly at odds with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage party.” [p. 163]

Now, it is not my job to disagree with the GOP’s self-styled image as a pro-family, pro-marriage, homophobic, Puritan party that disapproves of sexual misconduct and poor technological security, while also promoting itself as a protector of children and the innocent, and above all, highlights honesty and respect for women as two of the most important poles within its “big tent.” Additionally, I am well aware that Democrats have proven themselves to be dangerous hypocrites along some of these same lines.

[[Excuse me while I go take the longest, cleansing-est shower of my life. Yick.]]

It is my job, however, to recount exactly what Mr. Knight said about anal sex, AIDS, and vaginas. Please remember: I read the following paragraphs ALOUD within hearing distance of ACTUAL CUSTOMERS at a very large retail store, and I was NOT FIRED.  \o/

“Sodomy is their rallying cry,” [Knight] says.

Well, it sure is someone’s rallying cry. A lot of our hour-long conversation is taken up with talking about anal sex. I have never spoken so much about anal sex in my life.

[…] But if Knight displays an obsession with the mechanics of sodomy — simultaneously mesmerized and sickened by the tumescent, pistoning images of it that must loop through his head on a near-constant basis — he is notably impervious to an image he conjures when I submit as how HIV is transmissible through normative, upstanding, God-sanctioned heterosexual congress as well.

“Not as easily,” he says. “The vagina is designed to accommodate a penis. It can take a lot of punishment.” [p. 164]

An old white dude explained that straight dudes don’t get AIDS because the vagina can take a lot of punishment. That happened. IN PRINT.

To Mr. Knight, I say:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-1796-1378873954-4_preview

ALAINA OUT.

colbert mic drop

But seriously, read the book if you get a chance – it’s a great collection of essays.

Grade for Don’t Get Too Comfortable: 5 stars

Fiction: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

pride & prejudice

So I have no idea what this review is going to look like. Dear High School Students Who Are Beginning to Write Their Essay on Pride and Prejudice Approximately Twelve Hours Before The Essay Is Due Who Happened to Find My Blog Via Google: I fucking feel for you. However, I must advise you: I’m writing this review four fucking months after I read it, and to make matters fucking worse, I’m smack-fucking-dab in the middle of my upty-ninth attempt to finish Deadwood, and Al Swearengen is not only at the top of his game, but also impacting my fucking words.

If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t already know the plot of Pride and Prejudice, raise your fucking hand.

Goddammit, E.B.

[[sidenote: I spend at least five minutes of every Deadwood episode cursing out E.B. Farnham and his goddamned jackassery.]]

Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s classic tale of classist marital strife. Mrs. Bennet wants to see her five daughters get married off, because their estate is entailed to a male cousin. Basically, when Mr. Bennet kicks the fucking bucket, the females of his family will be cast out upon their shapely rears without so much as a farthing to their fucking name.

Jane, the eldest Bennet, falls in love with Charles Bingley, new owner of Netherfield Hall. He falls in love with her likewise; but his love is curtailed by the misguided advice of his trusted friend, Mr. Darcy. Darcy doesn’t think that Jane truly loves Bingley, because she doesn’t swan about like any other fucking —

[[here’s where my writing exercise comes to blows with my actual feelings, re: Pride and Prejudice: my attempt to write in Al Swearengen’s voice wants to say “fucking whore” here, but my normal sensibilities wouldn’t allow that.]]

[[to be honest, I also don’t want anyone to think that I hate the book because of all the swearing – far from it. I love this book – having come to love it after a few years of detesting it, and then also being fairly meh about it. But Al Swearengen would be the first to fucking tell you that copious amounts of fucking profanity does not mean that the cocksucker using those terms hates the thing of which he’s fucking speaking.

so please note: I really do love Pride and Prejudice. But I also love exercising my creative writing skills, and “Al Swearengen reviewing Pride and Prejudice” is an excellent exercise, second only to “Addison De Witt reviews Hamilton“.]]

So Mr. Darcy not only turns Bingley away from Jane, but he dares insult Jane’s younger sister, Elizabeth, behind her fucking back. He almost goes out of his way to be fucking miserable to Elizabeth, and when Darcy and Bingley return to London, Elizabeth is glad to have seen the back of him.

Elizabeth goes to visit her friend, Charlotte, who married the male cousin who has the entail to the Bennet estate (it should be noted that the male cousin, Mr. Collins, a right fucking hooplehead if ever there was one, attempted to marry both Jane and Elizabeth first; when Elizabeth rightly turned his proposal down, he  moved on down the fucking lane to Charlotte). The hoopleheads live on the property of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who happens to be Mr. Darcy’s aunt. When Darcy also visits the estate, he gets Elizabeth alone at the parsonage and fucking proposes, completely blindsiding her. She rejects him, and he goes on his fucking way, the way a man should, because no means fucking ‘no.’

Later, Lydia runs off with Wickham, a right fucking cocksucker who shares a history with Darcy. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth (until nearly the end of the book), Darcy works behind the scenes to get Wickham to marry Lydia so that she is not “ruined,” but Lydia’s such a spoiled little brat that she would have deserved a good ruining. Anyway, Elizabeth finds out about Darcy’s involvement with the whole fucking situation, and when she thanks him for his efforts, he tells her he did it all for her.

[[Okay, I’ve finished watching this episode of Deadwood, so my exercise is over. I actually do want to point out a couple of things, and I need my Alaina-voice to do so.]]

First of all, let’s talk about Mr. Darcy and how he is yet another fictional character who has ruined me for all non-fictional men. Sure, he starts off as an asshole, but through his conversations with Mr. Bingley’s sisters we the reader find out that his dickishness is brought on by an attempt to hide his feelings. And, to his point, Mrs. Bennet is an awful, embarrassing character; an opinion of Mrs. Bennet could indeed set someone off from one of her daughters.

And so Darcy wrestles with his feelings – he doesn’t understand why Elizabeth enchants him so, and he struggles to subdue how he feels because a) marrying into the Bennet family would be a step down from what he has, and b) who wants to marry into a family with such a shrewish mother-in-law? and c) I don’t think he knows what love was up until Elizabeth, so maybe he doesn’t know what he’s feeling.

His wrestling with himself, to Elizabeth, comes across as being an asshole. So when he visits her in the parsonage, and he starts pacing back and forth, she has no fucking idea that this is what he’s going to say:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” [p. 213]

It’s not until the last four words of that paragraph that Elizabeth even knows how he’s feeling. For all she knows, up until “admire,” he could be gearing himself up to say “loath and detest you and your family.” She doesn’t know!

And people will say that Darcy is not romantic; that being so mean to Elizabeth and then coming into her guest room and basically saying, “I love you, and even though I hadn’t given you any inclination to that up until now, we should marry because I say so” isn’t romantic. But when you look at the literary definition of romantic, to mean “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized” [Thanks, Merriam Webster!], then Mr. Darcy is the exact definition of romantic.

And speaking from the perspective of someone who never has any idea if someone is flirting with me (see this review for an entirely real conversation between myself and my Dear Friend Kerri; it’s below the quote from When Harry Met Sally…), this is what I expect to happen in my life. I’ll be dealing with someone – a stranger; the Aaron Burr to my Alexander Hamilton (“we keep meeting…”); and I don’t love him. He’s kind of a dick. But he’s the one to break the ice and tell me that he loves me, because I have not experienced what romantic love looks like outside of novels.

Want more proof that Mr. Darcy is romantic and, also, imaginary? When Elizabeth declines his proposal, he accepts it. He does write her a letter in an effort to explain his point of view in the whole Wickham mess; and at the beginning of the letter he tells her that he’s not writing her in an attempt to change her mind; he’s writing to give her the full view of the story. Do you hear that, Tinder Guys I’ve Heard So Much About But Never Interacted With Because Yick? No means no means no.

Mr. Collins, the Original Hooplehead, does not understand the basic concept of consent, as evidenced here:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on this subject I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one.” [p. 124]

It also doesn’t hurt my esteem of Pride and Prejudice that one of my favorite books and movies is based on it, to the point of a) naming its male romantic lead Mark Darcy, and, in an inspired twist, b) hiring Colin Firth to play Mark Darcy in the film, after playing the formative Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice; this would be Bridget Jones’s Diary.

I could go on about how Elizabeth is also one of the first feminist characters in literature – or, at least, more feminist than what we’ve seen for a couple of centuries; I’d wager that Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing was a feminist, but when centuries pass and we’re left with Emily from The Mysteries of Udolpho for a while, Elizabeth’s determination to marry for love seems downright earth-shattering – but I’m not going to. For two reasons: 1) I need to go the fuck to bed, and 2) I also won’t write the goddamned essay for the high schoolers; they should look shit up on Wikipedia, like I couldn’t, because it didn’t exist back then.

Also, if you haven’t watched Deadwood, you should get the fuck on that.

[[sorry i said ‘fuck’ so much.]]

Grade for Pride and Prejudice: 5 stars

 

 

Non-Fiction: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Snickel and dimedo back in September – remember September, you guys? Back when the sun wasn’t going down at 3:30, and it was still sixty degrees out on the regular – I realized Banned Book Week was coming up. And originally, I was going to reread Lolita. I mean, I hadn’t read that in a very long time, and if there was any book banned, it was definitely that one.

Well, I have been doing a lot of reading on my lunch breaks at work, and one of the guys always asks me what I’m reading, and for the first time, i realized I would feel slightly uncomfortable if I said that I was reading Lolita. I mean, it’s a book, and Humbert Humbert I am not. But for a guy who had never heard Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” (which, I believe, is in and of itself slightly ironic), I was afraid I would have to spend part of the lunch period explaining what Lolita is about, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in a government setting. It felt icky to me.

So I’ll read Lolita at home, someday. But in the meantime, another book that I had spied on one of the many ALA Banned Book lists (and also one I owned but had never read) was Nickel & Dimed. This book had been recommended to me years ago by my former roommate Amelia, who minored in Economics. (Wait, or was it a double-major with Poli Sci? I can’t remember anymore…) I managed to find a copy at Bull Moose a few months ago for a whopping $3.97 (you guys, if you’re in the area of a Bull Moose that sells books, GO TO THERE, THEY’RE AWESOME), and when I saw it on the Banned Books List, I was very, very confused.

I mean, look – I get why some books are on that list. Now, I’m not agreeing that the book should be banned, or any book for that matter — except Fifty Shades of Gray, because reasons. But I can see, in most cases, the small-mindedness which would cause a book to be challenged. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance – sure, the use of the ‘n’-word is prevalent, and no parent should want their child to throw that word around as casually as Huck does, but when reading Huckleberry Finn one should also recognize the historical context – that word was common parlance during that time and location, and used very frequently and casually.  Mark Twain wrote of his time and culture, and someone should (hopefully) realize when reading it today that that type of language and those attitudes towards other human beings should be an historical artifact. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

When I read Brave New World last year, one of the reasons the book was on the Banned Book List was because of the promiscuity it championed. Parents didn’t want Little Johnny or Sally to read that book and think it was (*gasp!*) okay to have sex outside of marriage!  Or for fun, even! Oh, the horror!

And even I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – that’s non-fiction, and that is on the List because of the horrific actions suffered by Maya Angelou. But that type of history shouldn’t be swept under the rug -it’s important for teenagers to read these books, because it gives them a wider, braver understanding of the world and the people in it.

But … why was Nickel & Dimed on that list? It’s a non-fiction account of an investigative journalist who goes undercover as a minimum-wage worker, and attempts to make a living on said minimum wage. In what way would that harm the sensibilities of teenagers attempting to learn about the world?

As I read it, I began to understand why some individuals would want to see the book removed from curricula: it promotes that those who work for minimum wage have human emotions and human needs, and that trickle-down capitalism does not work.

Oh, the horror.

Ms. Ehrenreich – whom I should refer to as Dr. Ehrenreich, as she does hold a Ph.D. – began this journey in the late 1990s, before the first minimum wage hike:

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go out there and try it for themselves.” [p. 1]

And that’s what she did. She gave herself $1,000 to begin her journey, so she could afford rent and other sundries before her first paycheck (admittedly, a fund most individuals do not have the luxury to afford), moved out of her house in Key West, and tried to get a job as a hotel’s housekeeper. The first obstacle she ran into was that at every hotel she attempted to get a job, they recommended she waitress instead. Ms. Ehrenreich presumed that it was because of her skin color – as she was not Latino, she was perceived as being higher-class than someone who would be a housekeeper; hence, the waitress positions.

She managed to find an apartment and also managed to survive waiting tables for fifty hours a week, something she hadn’t had to do since college. After her time in Key West, she moved up to Maine and joined a maid’s service. The rent in Maine was too much for an apartment (which, tell me about it), so for her tenure here, she had to rent a hotel room by the week in Old Orchard Beach. Thank goodness it was the off-season for her.

Her last stint was in Minneapolis, which was supposed to be having a booming economy. Jobs were plentiful, it was true, but there was a severe housing shortage. While in Minneapolis, she worked at Wal-Mart and nearly caused a union uprising.

I’m going to get more in depth, but basically, she discovered the injustices and struggles every minimum-wage (or below-wage) worker experiences. The lack of respect from management, the constant distrust, the monitoring of your every move … but also the sense of family and, in some cases, survivor-hood that develops between yourself and your coworkers. If there is anyone who has struggled to make ends meet, you should read this book. But actually, now that I think about it, the people who should read this book are those who have never had to struggle; never felt the pain in your stomach when you realize you need to save your last ten dollars until payday for gas, which means you’re not buying any groceries until payday; those who have never had to wonder if this check they’re writing is going to bounce; never had to suffer indignities bestowed upon yourself simply because you are working a lower-paid job than someone else. Those are the individuals who should read this book, and it should be required reading for those in Congress.  Although, with the exception of Elizabeth Warren, I wonder if some of them can read.

(Also: remember, this book was written prior to the year 2000. None of the individuals Ms. Ehrenreich came into contact with had student loans, because they didn’t go to college. So as you read this book now, realize that many of these situations haven’t changed, but more individuals are feeling these struggles to live as well as having to pay off enormous mountains of debt. Just … muse on that.)

ANYWAY.

Some sobering statistics:

With the prevailing wages running at $6-$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 – the year I started this project – it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” were about 97 to 1. [p. 2-3]

Remember, this was written in 2000. You know what hasn’t happened in that time? The minimum wage hasn’t risen to $8.89, that’s for sure.

During her waitress stint, Ms. Ehrenreich was astonished to learn that she didn’t get a real break during her shift, and something she said about smoking, of all things, really made sense:

I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food. “Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,” she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them. [p. 31]

Trust me, when you work in retail,  you cherish every freaking second you get to yourself. I’ll admit – there were a couple of times I wished I smoked so I could get out of the building for five minutes. Stupid freaking healthy workplace environment.

So the next place she takes herself to is Maine:

I chose Maine for its whiteness. [p. 52]

I cannot tell you how loudly I laughed at that. Because it is true – demographically speaking, according to the 2010 Census, the population of Maine stood at 1,274,923. Of those, 1,236,014 identified as Caucasian. That is 96.9%. Now, granted, the Census doesn’t literally count everyone, I’m sure, and that doesn’t take into account human error or human lying, but that is still a sobering statistic.

One of the first places she applies at when she lands in Maine is a Wal-Mart, where she is subjected to one of the most horrific things a job-seeker encounters: the personality survey. If you have never had to fill one of those out, then congratulations – you’ve never tried to work in a customer service environment with a tradition of severe management psychosis. The personality survey is an attempt to weed out the “good” candidates from the “bad” candidates, by asking a series of probing, contradictory questions about productivity, work ethic, and morality:

What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of heirarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders. […] The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is this: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self. [p. 59]

I could get into a rant about the above paragraph, and how it is so completely, 100% true, and how retail managers try to give you this phony spiel about how your personal life is important to you and therefore it’s important to us too, but not on weekends, or holidays, or after 6 p.m., or when there’s a floor set coming up, and while you may have some personal stuff going on in your life and it’s very important, could you please leave it at the door when you come in for your shift, and it’s too bad that your grandmother passed away but you only get three days off for bereavement and the funeral’s on the fourth day so we’ll need you back in for your 2-10 shift, and more horrible, atrocious things, but basically yes, once you fill out that personality survey, they own you.

Ms. Ehrenreich gets the job with The Maids, and while the cleaning practices will shock you so much that I wonder if that’s the real reason this book was on the Banned Books List – wealthy housewives were horrified to learn that their cleaning service was merely moving dirty water around and not actually cleaning anything – I’m not going to get into them. I will post this quote, because it speaks to the feminist inside of me:

I learn that Mrs. W [the homeowner] is an alumna of an important women’s college, now occupying herself by monitoring her investments and the baby’s bowel movements. I find special charts for this latter purpose, with spaces for time of day, most recent fluid intake, consistency, and color. […] Maybe there’s been some secret division of the world’s women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be reproducing at all. Maybe this is why our office manager, Tammy, who was once a maid herself, wears inch-long fake nails and tarty little outfits – to show she’s advanced to the breeder caste and can’t be sent out to clean anymore. [p. 82]

How many times have we heard mothers vilified in the same sentence as Welfare, food stamps, and low-income earners? There have been conversations today that those on food stamps or other government programs shouldn’t be raising families. SO RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE TO LET THEM GET OFF WELFARE.

Ms. Ehrenreich works at The Maids Monday through Friday; to make ends meet, she also works at a retirement facility, serving meals to their patients. About three weeks into her monthly stint at both jobs, she wonders

If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? [p. 106]

Jeepers, I sure did dogear a shit-ton of pages. I’d apologize, but I feel it’s important to discuss this stuff.

So Ms. Ehrenreich leaves Maine and heads to Minneapolis, where she does in fact end up at a Wal-Mart. In her interview, she learns about Wal-Mart culture:

[The interviewer] personally read Sam Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting to work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t remember the third. [p. 125]

Oh, my god.

Much of her time in Minneapolis is dealing with the severe housing shortage – she housesits for a while, then ends up having to stay in a Motel 6. I think she manages to get an efficiency apartment in the last week of her experiment, but she is constantly juggling the distance from where she could find an apartment to the suburban Wal-Mart, the cost of gas, and other amenities. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between housing, transportation, and job location.

This next bit sums up the retail life something fierce. I apologize in advance for the lengthy quotation, but guys, this is important. It all starts when one of Ms. Ehrenreich’s coworkers gets sent to another department where she doesn’t know the product as well:

It’s the difference between working and pretending to work. You push your cart a few feet, pause significantly with item in hand, frown at the ambient racks, then push on and repeat the process. “I just don’t like wasting their money,” Melissa says when she’s allowed back. “I mean they’re paying me and I just wasn’t accomplishing anything over there.” To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed. What does she think, that the Walton family is living in some hidden room in the back of the store, in the utmost frugality, and likely to be ruined by $21 worth of wasted labor? [p. 180]

And before I get into the other half of this piece: I had a friend who used to work one day up in the Women’s department. Now, his home base was primarily Footwear, and the rest of the time Men’s Apparel, but that one day a week he had to work in Women’s for one of the brands we were pushing at the time. And he said multiple times that he didn’t feel that … how did he phrase it? It was something along the lines of, “I’ll do it, because you tell me to and it’s my job, but I’m not as effective upstairs [in Women’s] as I am downstairs.” And his argument was not the same argument as Melissa’s above. He was gladly taking his paycheck, regardless of where he was working; he did not begrudge a cent given to him, and rightly so. He saw it from the customer’s point of view, where he was, admittedly, correct: women shop differently from men, he’s not as familiar with the women’s product as the men’s, so therefore, his skills weren’t utilized to the maximum potential. But his argument about working in a different department did not stem from the idea that he was wasting the company’s money.

So in the middle of this labor discussion, this happens:

[Melissa] suddenly dives behind the rack that separates the place we’re standing. […] Worried that I may have offended her somehow, I follow right behind. “Howard,” she whispers. “Didn’t you see him come by? We’re not allowed to talk to each other, you know.” [p. 180]

BECAUSE GOD FORBID TWO COWORKERS HAVE A CONVERSATION. GOD FORBID TWO PEOPLE SHARE STORIES AND EXPERIENCES IN ORDER TO BETTER THEIR WORK LIVES. BECAUSE GOD FORBID THAT THINGS OTHER THAN RESTOCKING SHELVES AND HELPING CUSTOMERS HAPPEN ON A SALES FLOOR. BECAUSE GOD FORBID YOU HIRE HUMAN BEINGS AND EXPECT THEM TO ACT LIKE ROBOTS.

Now, Wal-Mart — much like Mother Russia — does not like when you talk behind her back. Especially when that most dreaded word floats up in conversation – union. And this is how Ms. Ehrenreich commented on that situation:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace — and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well — you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship. [p. 210]

And in those various dictatorships, after taking those various personality surveys, what did she learn about the relationship between management and employees?

While I encountered some cynics and plenty of people who had learned to budget their energy, I never met an actual slacker or, for that matter, a drug addict or thief. On the contrary, I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly, either in wages or in recognition. Often, in fact, these people experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done. […] Left to themselves, [the employees] devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.  [p. 212]

HELL TO THE MOTHERFUCKING YES, PEOPLE. JESUS GOD YES.

I promise this is my last quote from Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. I’m sure you’re wondering what else I could possibly have not included, as this is most likely one of the longest reviews I’ve ever done. But guys, if you don’t work retail – or have ever worked any low-wage job – you don’t get it. There is a corps of people I have worked with who have shared these exact same experiences – it doesn’t matter if your dress code is “blue shirt and khakis” or “green shirt and khakis,” or even “fashion-forward and fully made-up”: there will always be a severe disconnect between what is promised from management to employee (“we recognize you value your personal life, so we give you a work-life balance!”) and what is actually delivered (“look, all the other managers have families with little kids, so even though you requested it off as your number one choice, we’re going to need you to work Christmas night.” “…. So, I have to work because my womb has never been occupied?!”)

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life. [p. 187]

So please – unban this book. Read it. Devour it. Hell, Christmas is tomorrow and Bull Moose is still open; buy a copy for someone. Buy it for your manager! It will be hilarious!

But most importantly, send a copy to your Congressman/woman – especially if they keep voting to keep the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.

Grade for Nickel and Dimed: 5 stars

Fiction: “The Gun Seller” by Hugh Laurie

Gun SellerThe Gun Seller was one of the first novels I ever reviewed for this blog, way back when in the winter of – holy shit, 2009?! I’ve been doing this for five years? No one told me I’ve been doing this for five years.

This is the part where I’d normally say something like “I’ve done a lot of growing up since this site’s inception,” or, “Looking back, I was quite the neophyte at this whole reviewing thing,” but let’s be real: in many cases, I am still the same person I was five years ago. I still routinely have to bribe myself with ice cream as a reward for cleaning the bathroom, I still have problems waking up in the morning, and I still have not learned a damned thing when it comes to being a reviewer of books. I still enter into every single one of these reviews the same way Indiana Jones follows the Ark of the Covenant into Cairo: I’m basically making this up as I go.

Back in 2009, when I read this book for the first time, I loved it. And then I spent nearly the entirety of that first review talking about how much I loved Hugh Laurie and used only a single paragraph (or maybe two, tops) to discuss the plot of the book. Then I lent my copy of the book to my at-the-time supervisor, as she also loved to read. And I never saw it again. (Thank god I never lent her my copy of Gilligan’s Wake; I would have cried.)

Flash-forward to earlier this year, when I found a copy at Bull Moose, my local store of awesome (primarily a music store, some branches now sell books). The only thing that would have been even more amazing than finding copy would have been if I had found my original copy, but sadly, it was not meant to be. (But imagine the movie that would be – a book who missed its owner so much it managed to find its way back to her … through her local bookstore.) But regardless, a copy of The Gun Seller had found its way back into my personal library.

I finally cracked it open about a month ago – because yes, I am again a month and three reviews behind. HAVE I MENTIONED I HAVE HAD NO GROWTH IN FIVE YEARS. This will be my attempt to do the book justice, as well as an introduction to this book for those of you who weren’t around this here site five years ago.

The narrator is Thomas Lang, an ex-British-military type, who has now joined the ranks of freelancedom. We meet Lang in the middle of a mission, ostensibly – he is trying to extricate himself from the hold of a particularly burly assassin. He manages to break free and prevent a murder from happening, but the next day gets called into the Ministry of Defense. See, there was a report that Lang was actually the assassin, hired to off one Alexander Woolf, an American tycoon.

Lang remembers being approached by a shadowy type in Amsterdam, who asked him to assassinate Woolf for a large sum of money. Lang also remembers turning the offer down flat. For our narrator is one who operates solely on the side of ‘good,’ and won’t take wetworks jobs, no matter how well in cigarettes and Scotch the job will keep him. Lang eventually figures out someone framed him – approached him in Amsterdam to make it look like he took the job, then when Lang tried to stop the attack on the very individual he was supposed to assassinate, it looked even worse. What really throws the whole situation into overdrive is that, at first sight, Lang fell in love with Woolf’s daughter, Sarah.

Lang tries to figure out who framed him and why, and stumbles into a plot that reaches as far across the Atlantic as New York City, and as far south as Casablanca. The framing of Lang, the assassination attempt on Woolf – they’ve all been put in place in a grandiose endeavor to sell a new weapon: the frontrunner of today’s drone.

(Keep in mind, this book was written in the late 1990s.)

He tries to get himself out of this plot, but instead, is forced to join a terrorist group in an effort to “save Sarah.”  (Spoiler alert: Sarah doesn’t really need saving. But when you cross James Bond with Philip Marlowe, you have to know the first femme you meet is going to end up on the fatale side of things.)

Here’s what I love about this book: Hugh Laurie has an amazing way with words. Amazing. I know in my first review of this book, I wrote about how I just wanted to be friends with Hugh Laurie, because he seemed like a really cool dude – someone you could hang in the pub and have a pint with. But now I want to be friends with Hugh Laurie because he is an amazing writer.

While I love that Hugh Laurie is currently touring the world with his Copper Bottom Band, I kind of want him to write a sequel to The Gun Seller. Because my earlier, five-years-ago point still stands: while I feel I learned a lot more about Thomas Lang this time around, and truly appreciated his ability to mask his innermost thoughts under an impressive veil of sarcasm, I really want to spend more time with him as a character; hang around in a pub and have a pint with Lang, not just Laurie.

Here are some examples of Thomas Lang’s personality:

But I’ve always prided myself on the froidness of my sang … [p. 44]

Another Diplomat was parked behind us, with whatever the collective noun for Carls is inside it. A neck of Carls, maybe. [p. 156]

(Lang is always figuring out creative ways to describe people. See my previous review and how he names one of his bodyguards (a.k.a., one of the Carls) Sunglasses and the other No Sunglasses.)

“Who pulls the trigger?”

Solomon had to wait for an answer.

In fact he had to wait for every answer, because I was on a skating-rink, skating, and he wasn’t. It took me roughly thirty seconds to complete a circuit and drop off a reply, so I had lots of scope to be irritating. Not that I need lots of scope, you understand. Give me just an eency-weency bit of scope, and I’ll madden you to death. [p. 228]

There’s a really interesting section around page 150 or so, where the Americans are working damned hard to convince Lang to join up with their team, and it speaks about democracy and what it is and what it’s really made up of, and I’d quote the whole thing here but it would be a lot of extra typing, and I feel I did that already last week at my real job where I transcribed a bunch of invoices into an Excel spreadsheet because, as far as I know, there’s no way to email a .pdf of an image to oneself and then parse the information into Excel without actually retyping it all.  (If there is, please, for the love of god, don’t tell me – I really don’t want to know at this point.) Basically you should read the book and enjoy that section, but I’ll give you at least one paragraph (I should clarify, this is from the perspective of the American character):

“The people don’t read books. The people don’t care a piece of blue shit about philosophy. All the people care about, all they want from their government, is a wage that keeps getting higher and higher. Year in, year out, they want that wage going up. It ever stops, they get themselves a new government. That’s what the people want. It’s all they’ve ever wanted. That, my friend, is democracy.” [p. 162]

Before I really get into Hugh Laurie and his Way With Words, let’s play the All About Alaina game for a second:

“Anything wrong with ringing my headmaster?” I said. “Or an ex-girlfriend?” I mean, that all seemed too dull, I supposed.

Woolf shook his head.

“Not at all,” he said. “I did all of that.”

That was a shock. A real shock. I still get hot flushes about having cheated in Chemistry O-Level and scoring an A when experienced teachers had anticipated an F. I know one day it’s going to come out. I just know it. [p. 83]

Seriously, I never cheated on an exam, but for some reason I have the guiltiest personality. For instance, I was at work and a coworker was looking for me while I was refilling my glass of water, and when my cubicle-mate told me, my first instinct was to say, “What did I do?” I can’t imagine the guilt Lang feels about a cheated exam.

Here’s one of the techniques one of the Americans uses in trying to convince Lang to help them sell their drone copter:

“If you are making a new mousetrap, then, as you say, you advertise it as a new mousetrap. If, on the other hand,” he held out his other hand, to show me what another hand looked like, “you are trying to sell a snake trap, then your first task is to demonstrate why snakes are bad things. Why they need to be trapped. Do you follow me? Then, much, much later, you come along with your product.” [p. 171]

THERE IS NO NEED FOR DEMONSTRATION. I DON’T CARE HOW MANY BUGS AND OTHER PARTS OF THE ECOSYSTEM SNAKES EAT, THEY ARE BAD AND THEY WILL ALWAYS BE BAD HOW MANY SNAKE TRAPS CAN I BUY EVEN THOUGH I HAVE NEVER SEEN A SNAKE OUTSIDE OF A ZOO

Finally, if you need some more proof that Hugh Laurie is a master wordsmith, I’d like to share the following three quotes:

There’s an undeniable pleasure in stepping into an open-top sports car driven by a beautiful woman. It feels like you’re climbing into a metaphor. [p. 133]

Okay, that one was just funny.

It was dark outside, cold and dark, and it was trying to rain in a feeble, oh-I-can’t-really-be-bothered-with-this sort of a way. [p. 217]

Admit it; you know exactly how it’s raining in that moment.

And finally:

People talk about nightfall, or night falling, or dusk falling, and it’s never seemed right to me. Perhaps they once meant befalling. As in night befalls. As in night happens. Perhaps they, whoever they were, thought of a falling sun. That might be it, except that that ought to give us dayfall. Day fell on Rupert the Bear. And we know, if we’ve ever read a book that day doesn’t fall or rise. It breaks. In books, day breaks, and night falls.

In life, night rises from the ground. The day hangs on for as long as it can, bright and eager, absolutely and positively the last guest to leave the party, while the ground darkens, oozing night around your ankles, swallowing for ever that dropped contact lens, making you miss that low catch in the gully on the last ball of the last over. [p. 279]

Grade for The Gun Seller: 5 stars

Fiction: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleBefore I get into this review, I should probably give a couple of warnings:

Long-time readers of That’s What She Read can probably glean two things: 1) That I really make every attempt to not discuss politics in any way, shape or form while discussing a book, and 2) that in the rare instance I do, I probably lean liberal. (The .gifs from The Daily Show most likely add to that indication.)

Having said that, this book is going to be tough for me to discuss in a neutral fashion. Because while I have read this book before, it really wasn’t on my radar to read again — until the Hobby Lobby decision. And I realize that my timing to discuss that topic is poor – between the Gaza/Israeli conflict, John Boehner suing the President, and who knows what’s happened since I went to bed last night, the Hobby Lobby decision and its aftermath are probably far from near everyone’s minds.

So, here’s how I’m going to “discuss” this book: I’m going to give you as much of the plot as I can without spoilering people. Then I’m going to give you a ton of quotes that struck me about the situation going on in this book, and hopefully, I’ll be able to point out a couple of topics from the book that are safe to discuss.

Because look: it’s a tough subject. I get that. And in real life, there are some major things that need to happen so that Jon Stewart no longer grits his teeth as he’s closing the first act. But this blog is for book discussion, not political discussion. So if you want to comment and start a fight with me over some of the issues here, you best be pointing out that I should have used “metonymy” instead of “metaphor,” because if you are going to try and fight with me on women’s issues on my book blog, you got another think coming.

And with that, let’s get into The Handmaid’s Tale.

The book takes place in a near future, though it was written in 1986 – that becomes important. We learn the setting is sometime after the turn of the twentieth century, but there are no markers to tell us how far into the twenty-first it is. The planet (and the United States especially) has been ravaged by nuclear explosions and pollution; in addition, there is made a link (possibly quite specious, but again, I might get into that in a minute) between birth control and infertility.

This sets the stage for a massive coup:

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on. [p. 174]

This state of emergency allows this nameless group (it becomes clear it is not an Islamic faction) to create a new country called Gilead, and it is heavily based on a Biblical culture. Their reading of that text is both literal and radical, and what they do is take away everyone’s rights, but create a new theocracy, enslaving women.

First, they take away their bank accounts – all the money they’ve earned and saved gets automatically transferred to their husband’s account (or male next-of-kin, if they’re unwed). Then, they make it illegal for women to work or own property, essentially keeping them in their home. Then, they make second marriages and divorces illegal, and if you have a child in that second marriage, you are deemed unfit and your child is taken from you.

Then come the Handmaids.

If you were able to have a child (and one of the women who committed adultery or a second marriage), you are conscripted into the Handmaids. Taken from a verse in the Bible:

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. [Genesis 30:1-3]

[Thank you, epigraph! Because the only knowledge I have from the Bible, I got from Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal and Raiders of the Lost Ark.]

The women who are able to bear children and have proven to do so before this culture are sent to the Rachel and Leah center, where they are taught that this servitude will protect them. They are conscripted to Commanders and other high male officials, and their job is to conceive them a child. But not through in-vitro fertilization, no: they must have sex with the men while their Wives are present – “she shall bear upon my knees.”  The Handmaid has three years to conceive, then she moves to another house to try again. If she is able to bear a healthy child – because birth defects are also prevalent – she still moves to another house to try again.

How are they able to convince these intelligent women that this is an appropriate new world order? Through lies of safety and persecution. In this new culture, everyone has a uniform tied to their role in society: Wives wear blue gowns, Handmaids wear red. Handmaids also have huge veils – blinkers, essentially – to keep them from straying from their proscribed path and from interacting with others. Marthas, who are basically maids and servants in upper-class households, wear green. Aunts were women who ran the Rachel and Leah center: they indoctrinated the Handmaids and furthered propaganda to get them to come around to their way of thinking.  Aunts wore khaki.

A person’s color of dress immediately designates where they fit into this society.

Going back to the propaganda, here’s an example of how thinking was changed:

I’m remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness. Though I never ran at night; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads.

Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it. [p. 24]

Our narrator is Offred – oh that’s right. In this culture, if you’re a Handmaid, your name is taken away and assigned to your Commander – Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren. So Offred is on her last assignment, and her Commander’s Wife is anxious to have a baby. Offred’s walking partner to the market is Ofglen. Meanwhile, Offred is plagued by memories of her daughter, taken from her because while her marriage to Luke was her first, she was Luke’s second wife. They tried to escape when things started getting bad, but they were found out at the border. Her daughter was taken away, she was taken to be a Handmaid, and she has no idea what happened to Luke.

Her best friend, Moira was in the Center with her, but Moira escaped. She has no idea where she ended up.

Offred does her duties, though she struggles with her remaining streak of independence. Then one night, she is called into the Commander’s study. Handmaids are not supposed to consort with men of any sort, even their Commander outside of their Ceremony. She doesn’t know what to expect, but the Commander just wants to play Scrabble with her. This is a huge treat, because women are also not allowed to read or write any longer. Then he escalates into letting her read old magazines, which were supposed to have all been burned.

Then he takes her to Jezebel’s, which is a big hotel where high-ranking male officials go to have anonymous sex with whores for free.

“I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,” I say.

“Well, officially,” he says. “But everyone’s human, after all.”

I wait for him to elaborate on this, but he doesn’t, so I say, “What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t cheat Nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything, so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”

He says this as if he believes it, but he says many things that way. Maybe he believes it, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he does both at the same time. Impossible to tell what he believes.

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.” This is irony, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.

“It solves a lot of problems,” he says, without a twitch. [p. 237]

While this is going on, the Commander’s Wife has arranged to have Offred sleep with Nick, the chauffeur, in an effort to speed her conception along.

The end of the book is actually a speech from a college lecture on the Gileadean society, given in the year 2195. It sheds more light on the culture changes and what happened or may have happened to Offred.

There – I think I did all right without getting political. So, here come more quotes, most likely out of context and open to your own interpretation.

A description of Offred’s room:

A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat with a little cushion. When the window is partly open – it only opens partly – the air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish. There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want? [p. 7]

A return to traditional values. That’s how this culture shift started.

[It] used to be a movie theater, before. Students went there a lot; every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall or Katherine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds. They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. [p. 25]

One of the places the Handmaids can go on their daily walks is The Wall, where the Eyes (the police force, essentially) hang the bodies of the criminals they’ve executed, as reminders.

The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors or scientists. […] Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. Angel makers, they used to call them; or was that something else? They’ve been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or – more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen – by informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible; or another doctor, hoping to save his own skin; or someone already accused, lashing out an an enemy, or at random, in some desperate bid for safety. Though informants are not always pardoned.

These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time; their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive. [p. 32-33]

This seems like such a sad world. Is there nothing funny?

I hear something, inside my body. I’ve broken, something has cracked, that must be it. Noise is coming up, coming out, of the broken place, in my face. Without warning: I wasn’t thinking about here or there or anything. If I let the noise get out into the air it will be laughter, too loud, too much of it, someone is bound to hear, and then there will be hurrying footsteps and commands and who knows? Judgment: emotion inappropriate to the occasion. The wandering womb, they used to think. Hysteria. And then a needle, a pill. It could be fatal. [p. 146]

Oh, okay then.

One of the stores in the town is Soul Scrolls, where Commanders’ Wives can order prayers to be read.

Ordering prayers from Soul Scrolls is supposed to be a sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime, so of course the Commanders’ Wives do it a lot. It helps their husbands’ careers. [p. 167]

There’s a quick reference to The Sabine Women, a picture of which is depicted in one of the Commander’s books Offred looks through. I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia page for that if you’re interested in looking at parallels.

Two quick notes about marriages, then two more points to make, and then I’m done (I promise).

First note: marriages are arranged in this new society, and marriages occur as part of a public ceremony:

And now the twenty veiled daughters, in white, come shyly forward, their mothers holding their elbows. It’s mothers, not fathers, who give away daughters these days and help with the arrangement of the marriages.

[…] They’ll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they’ll always have been silent. [p. 219]

And flashing back to Offred’s marriage to Luke, before it was canceled:

We still have … he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.

[…] We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his. [p. 182]

Point number one: one of the themes I saw running through the book is the envy everyone has of everyone else. Offred envies the Marthas’ ability to use knives. The Marthas envy Offred because she can leave the house. Offred’s Wife envies Offred because Offred will be the one to give the Commander a child. Offred envies the Commander’s Wife for her freedom to do other things. It all goes right back to the Bible quote: Rachel envied her sister. Envy is prevalent in this society, and it appears to be the one sin the new regime has neglected to eradicate.

Point number two: rape culture. During the indoctrination process, much is made about how “bad” it was “before,” through heightened language and hyperbole. Now, I, Alaina, am not saying we don’t have a problem with rape culture. Far from it. This current society in 2014 has a definite problem with rape culture – as evidenced here, by one of my heroes, Jessica Williams of The Daily Show fame. But it’s also a bad thing to make women think the world is even worse than it is.

Having said that:

Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen – to be seen – is to be – her voice trembled – penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls. [p. 28]

And I can’t find a more horrifying example than this:

It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true.

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did.

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

[…] This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says. It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserved the pain.

Very good, Janine, says Aunt Lydia. You are an example. [p. 71-72.]

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “feminism” as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Do I believe that our current society has equal rights and opportunities for men and women? No. I see it in how news media wonders if Hillary Rodham Clinton’s impending grandmother-dom was a strategy designed to make her more appealing to voters in the 2016 presidential race, and yet no one cares whether the male candidates are grandfathers. I see it in how colleges teach their female students on how to avoid being raped but neglect to teach either gender that rape is wrong and shouldn’t be done. I see it in how a privately-held corporation can be allowed to not provide health care benefits that affect a woman’s reproductive system because they (erroneously, against scientific proof) believe that those birth controls cause abortions, and yet Viagra and vasectomies are both covered in full.

What The Handmaid’s Tale shows us is a warped version of women’s culture:

You wanted a woman’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. [p. 127]

What goes unsaid is this women’s culture was one shaped by men. It is a man’s interpretation of a woman’s culture: women are subservient to men (not equal), yet given certain powers (pregnancy and birth is revered and in the house of women; male doctors only interfere if the natural birth proves tricky). They hold no office of political power; they are also not allowed to read or write.

This is a twisted ideal of a women’s culture. And remember, this book was published in 1986. This women’s culture is within our near future.

How do you feel now?

Grade for The Handmaid’s Tale5 stars.

READ THIS BOOK NOW: “The Jason Jetson Trilogy: JJ” by Jennifer Aqualaney

So I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’ve got a feeling today’s going to be kind of a slow day at work.  I’m getting payments caught up, I don’t have a backlog of emails; basically, the only way my day can get totally boned is if my boss comes in and decides he wants to make my life hell by asking me all sorts of questions and pestering me about my process (because he doesn’t understand accounting, that makes it really fun for me – especially when he asks me why I did something and my response is “because you told me to?”; that’s the best).

Aaaaand I just had to put my headphones on and listen to WCYY online because if I have to hear either “Counting Stars” or “Timber” ONE MORE GODDAMNED TIME I am going to buy an axe and just demolish the shit out of this place.

Okay, neither of those things are things I want to talk about.  Instead, I want to take a few moments (or hours – whatever works with my schedule) and write a post that I’ve been looking forward to writing for a while now.

Two years ago (or so), my friend Jen started talking about writing a book.  She had some characters and stories floating around in her head, and she used me as a springboard.  We’d chat randomly, or late into the night when I’d visit her in Boston, but nothing became real until last March, when Jen sent me a message about a free writer’s cocktail party we could crash, put on by Paper Lantern Lit, an independent publishing company based out of New York that specializes in young adult literature. 

So because part of the cocktail party was a five minute pitch session with actual editors, she polished up a snippet she had written and turned it into a pitch.  I, on the other hand, spent the entire night making awesome business cards and pulling a pitch out of my ass because though I pretend to be a writer, I don’t really specialize in young adult lit.

We got gussied up and were totally the best-dressed there (note to aspiring writers: “free cocktail party” does not always equal “black dress and heels” – there was a lot of plaid in that room).  I got my free drink in exchange for my half-assed pitch, and Jen got a lot of encouragement and even a door prize: a meeting with a publicist towards marketing her book.

It has now been just about a year (HOLY SHIT – JEN – IT’S ONLY BEEN A FUCKING YEAR CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?), and in that year, Jen has pushed herself to great lengths and amazing depths of motivation, and now, she has realized her dream: she is a published writer.

Three times this year the world stopped for JJ.  Three times he had been wrenched from his path and thrown to the mercy of someone else’s whims.  The Panel, Miguel and Dr. Kim … and Eve.

No more California surf and sun; no more daily routine of taking classes among the other Enchanters, of Mixing elixirs and Moving objects with his Abilities.  No more being a freak, an outcast among outcasts.

He’d found his place.

But for how long?

Meet JJ.  He’s the main character of The Jason Jetson Trilogy: JJ.  He is a young Enchanter living in California, and after his testing and tiering, he starts his freshman year of what we would call high school at the Salem School of Magic in Salem, Massachusetts.  He leaves his family and his best friend (his cousin, Trip) behind to embark on this new adventure, but he’s plagued with fears: will he fit in with this new crowd?  What will happen when his friends learn that he’s actually an Ambidex – an Enchanter with two Abilities?  Where did that bear come from?

JJ adapts in spite of his fears and feelings of inadequacy and quickly becomes friends with Daegen, Ally and Nel.  Typical to any high school setting, there are moments of puppy love, infatuation, and skirmishes with the school bully.  But JJ’s trepidation about fitting in undercuts the first half of the book.

The second half of the book, I don’t want to give away – the back of the book alludes to doctors and a girl named Eve, and suffice it to say he ends up in a hospital.  I’m not going to tell you how, why, for how long, or whether the bear was involved – firstly because I’m trying not to ruin things anymore, but more importantly, I want you to read this book.

Now, Disclaimer Time!  I will not be rating this book for one simple reason: Jen reached out to me as a beta reader, and I helped her edit it.  I feel that rating the book would be like rating a book I helped write, which would be, in turn, rating me, and I didn’t write the book: Jen did.  And she did an amazing job; I just helped with semicolons and brought her mimosas while we watched Extreme Cheapskates.

What I can tell you about the book (aside from the scant plotline above) is that it is refreshing to read a young adult novel from the perspective of a young man.  Aside from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I have yet to read a young adult novel where the protagonist is male.  In addition to the whole gender thing, I’m sure it’s also refreshing to see that boys have the same feelings of inadequacy that girls sometimes exhibit: does she like me, will I fit in, where did that bear come from?

The most important thing I have to say about Jennifer’s book is this: it is self-published, so you’re not going to find it in your local library.  Yet.

Jennifer currently has JJ available for purchase on lulu.com – don’t worry, I’ll include the link.  You can purchase it in Hardcover or Softcover, but the best bet is an ebook for $7.99.  You can read it on any reader (iBook, Android/Google reader, Nook) (It appears you can’t download the ePub file to read on your Kindle at the moment; I believe Jen is working towards getting it available on Amazon in the near future), and you’ll always have it in a handy digital form.

It is so important that you buy her book – not just because she’s a friend, and not just because I helped edit the book (because I can tell you, just so everyone knows and doesn’t think I’ve “sold out” [although selling out for Jen would be a worthy enough cause]: I haven’t taken a dime of money towards editing the book; nor am I getting paid for writing this review – I do this out of the goodness of my heart!  [disclaimer: Jen may have bought me dinner a couple of times.  BUT YOU CAN’T CLAIM DINNER ON INCOME TAXES] {God, use parenthetical phrases much, Patterson?}) –

ANYWAY.  It is important that you buy her book because it helps support indie writers.  Jen doesn’t have a publishing company to help her promote her book – this is going to be a grassroots campaign if ever there was one.  Her marketing is through word of mouth, and having friends who will read the book and tell friends about the book, and make that friend want to buy the book so they can tell their other friends about it, and before you know it, this is like Fifty Shades of Gray but with less sex, more magic, and waaaaaaaaaaaaay better-written.

So please – check out Jen’s store and buy her book.  If you like it, leave a review on her Lulu site.  And tell your friends – for the price of a large coffee and a donut, you can buy not just a book, but a chance for an indie writer to make it.

If you like books that look great on your bookshelf, buy the hardcover edition here!

If you like books that look great on your bookshelf but maybe don’t weigh as much, buy the softcover edition here!

If you like books on iPads and other eReaders because you don’t believe in physical manifestations of awesomeness, buy the digital ebook here!

She also has a blog: you can read about her adventure here!