Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Last Secret by Mary McGarry Morris

The Last Secret is a thriller that is supposedly well-written. It got good reviews and the author is critically acclaimed. The story centers on Nora, who works at a newspaper and has a couple of kids and a successful husband. From the fact that she has a career and a family (I guess) the reader is supposed to think her life is perfect (according to the reviews) but from the very beginning of the book, her life and sanity is shattering into shards.

I found the structure of the book to be confusing and the writing a little distracting and hard to follow. It starts off describing a violent, sexually charged week of her life as a rebellious teen and quickly moves forward to the present day. Nora is middle-aged, her marriage is crumbling and her kids are suffering. Her husband has been having a relationship with his best friend's wife, who happens to be her best friend and his ex-high school sweetheart. The story then unfolds mainly from Nora's point of view, which is highly fragmented, panicky and full of self-loathing. The other perspective is that of a sociopath from her past who has resurfaced named Ed. His misogyny mingles with her self-hate and vulnerability to paint a disturbing picture of victimization that is pretty convincing.

I kept wondering if people are really this surprised when their middle class, suburban life--career, marriage, nice house, two kid--fails to sustain them. I find that hard to relate to but I suppose I shouldn't. The book does a good job of contrasting appearances with psychological pain lurking underneath the surface. As far-fetched as the plot would seem if I were to write it down on paper, The Last Secret is believable up to a point, which makes me wonder why, and have some degree of respect for the storytelling. By the end of the book, things are both totally unbelievable and simultaneously predictable. Plot twists reveal "surprises" that are easy to see ahead of time and things become more like a daytime soap opera. The "last secret" is apparent early on, making its revelation anti-climatic. Everything else that happens after that point seems sensational and hard to take.

In the sense is that it's a dystopian novel, it kind of works, but also feels cheap and emotionally manipulative, like a Hollywood movie. Thematically it reminds me of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which offers a dark, depressing take on the American middle class, but gives the reader no hope or reason to care about what happens to his characters. The Last Secret feels empty in a similar way. The characters don't seem to have any depth to them. At best it's a modern day Gothic American tale, grotesque and strange yet familiar and mundane. The incestuous small-town feel the book conveys is realistic--lives are too intertwined and there is no way to be sure of who knows what or where anyone's loyalties lie. At worst its a melodramatic, goofy murder story about wife-swapping and keeping up appearances that drowns itself in a swirl of shame and loathing. There's also a quasi-religious side-plot that is a little heavy-handed. The theme of "respectability" didn't really engage me. The theme of self-deception was far more intriguing.

I didn't like it very much, though I was compelled to finish it because I wanted to know how things were going to turn out. By the end I was pretty disappointed and happy to be done and move on to the next library book. I also think it could have been about 50 pages shorter. I probably won't read any more of her books.

One-Dimensional Woman

One-Dimensional Woman, by Nina Power- a philosophy professor and blogger- is an incisive work of feminist cultural critique. Power’s book makes important connections between mainstream trends in feminism and contemporary capitalism and raises important questions. It also reminds me of The Baffler with its compelling use of academic theory for compact, lucid, trenchant and hilarious screeds against mass culture, ideology and contemporary capitalism.

An example of these elements can be seen in the way Power frames the underlying issues of the book:

“Did the desires of 20th century woman’s liberation achieve their fullfilment in the shopper’s paradise of ‘naughty’ self-pampering, playboy bunny pendant and bikini waxes? That the height of supposed female emancipation coincides so perfectly with consumerism is a miserable index of a politically desolate time. Much contemporary feminism, however, particularly in its American formulation, doesn’t seem too concerned about this coincidence and this short book is partly an attack on the apparent abdication of any systematic political thought on the part of today’s positive, up-beat feminists. It suggests alternative ways of thinking about transformations in work, sexuality and culture that, while seemingly far-fetched in the current ideological climate, may provide more serious material for a feminism of the future.”

Power moves to examine these issues from the perspective of two stated contentions: (1) “I contend that much of the rhetoric of both consumerism and contemporary feminism is a barrier to any genuine thinking of work, sex and politics…what looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles” (2) One-Dimensional Woman starts from the premise that we cannot understand anything about what contemporary feminism might be if we neglect to pay attention to specific changes in work and the way in which ‘feminism’ as a term has come to be used by those who would traditionally have been regarded as the enemies of feminism.” Both reflect the underlying viewpoint and methodology Power utilizes through out her work; post-humanist Marxism. (what I mean by this will become clear below)

The first few sections provide evidence of Power’s first contention. Her chapters on Sarah Palin and the Hawkish and Mawkish use of feminism to condone the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, show how this appropriation of feminism unites the “imperialist language of liberation with the techniques of war.

Her later chapters on labour puts forward a compelling counter-argument: rather then work liberating women, neo-liberal labour has turned the male and female workforce into behaving according to traditionally feminine character traits by annihilating the division between work and free time and forcing you to function in your every waking hour like a pliant, flexible, constantly networking constantly advertising, perky resume for your occupation.

Power further argues that this type of work has extensive consequences for how women relate to their body as well as feminist critiques based on the idea of objectification. Since, Power argues, your body has become has become a cv, “Girls Gone Wild” is paradigmatic of neo-liberal labour which has pernicious and insidious consequences for subjectivity. In work, then, you;

“give up something obviously crap in exchange for a kind of performance that reveals that there is nothing subjective, nothing left, hidden behind the appearance, that you simply are commensurate with your comportment in the world. You are your breasts.”

Consequently, Power argues that many contemporary women always already objectify parts of their body, viewing them as wholly separate entities. This causes here to raise the question “whether the language of objectification is still useful because it depends on a minimal subjective dimension which may no longer exist in the modern world with no separation between the private world and the job” So, that “if feminism is to have a future, it has to recognize the new ways in which life and existence are colonized by new forms of domination that go far beyond objectification as it used to be understood.” (here is the post-humanism, questioning whether a substance known as human nature exists below this colonization)

Power offers some of her own suggestions for the future of feminism through film. She proposes identifying candidates by offering the following grounds: does it have at least 2 women in it? who at some point talk to each other ? about something besides a man, marriage or babies? Which leads her to compare Sex and the City, which she characterizes as a sort of consumerist quasi-religious film about searching for “The One”, with Daises, which is of course amazing. She also advocates revisiting the potential of early pornography with its liberatory notions of bodies, sexuality and possibility as a contrast with the modern porn industry and the sexuality of hyper-capitalism.

She concludes, by restating the importance of feminism has for showing the connection between household labour, reproductive labour and paid labour and argues that contemporary feminism should re-invision how the three relate along the lines of Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.

In all, I found One-Dimensional Woman to be entertaining, provocative and illuminating. While it is true that the critique’s Power offers are far more fully fledged then her proposals (although to be fair this is a defect of the school of philosophy she is working in) and her targets only focus on what are perhaps the most egregious easy targets, I still find myself in full agreement with her contentions and premises and intrigued by her proposals. As Power uses a wealth of other scholarship, One-Dimension Woman is also a good resource for further reading.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Like Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One, this is a remarkable book for us longtime fans and I hope it is merely the first volume in a longer series of memoirs. Patti Smith the poet, rock-n-roll star, mother, artist, icon, rebel, myth maker and performer gives us her own coming-of-age story the way only she could have told it. Wow. To sum up what she says would be to deny you the pleasure of how she says it. This is her first prose book and mostly covers the period in her life from 1967-1973, when she was photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's best friend, lover, muse, co-conspirator and partner-in-crime. It's a love story that celebrates the miracle of finding each other at the exact right moment in time and making the most of it, living as fully as is possible on very little means but a lot of determination and sheer will, which takes the form of desire as well as desperate need.

I particularly enjoyed reading the cultural history--they lived on the streets of New York City in the summer of love, ended up in the Chelsea Hotel with leftover from the 50's beat poets and Woodstock era rock-n-rollers, hung out at Max's Kansas City on the fringe of Warhol's fading Factory scene, knew theater people from Penny Arcade to Sam Shepard--their work led them to the high society art-industry and the underworld of CBGB's respectively. This is all well-documented and /or made mythic here, depending on your interpretation of the book. You can expect cameos by Jim Carroll, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Smith, Jimi Hendrix(!), Grace Slick, Bobby Neuwirth & Janis Joplin to name but a few…

Another thing I liked about the book is how it covers the economic reality of being an artist and having no money. It describes the daily situation of what that was like in this time/place in lucid detail: the hunger pains, the shoplifting, the shitty jobs, unemployment, the shared sodas and hot dogs, bad diner coffee and late night donut shops, the alleyways, fire escapes and park benches--you will recognize the daily hustle of the punk--the artist as thief.

But the most fascinating part of Just Kids is Patti Smith's riveting re-assemblage of their personalized iconography and shared aesthetic universe. From Blonde on Blonde and the French symbolist poets in Patti's case and Midnight Cowboy to Michelangelo in Robert's--this is a meticulous inventory of their inspirations, visual & literary obsessions, hang up's, hang out's, freak-outs, textures, trinkets, wall-hangings, record & book collections, loft-apartment dwellings, (separate) pilgrimages to Paris/San Francisco --providing the reader with a fleshed-out, clear aesthetic lineage of their lives as insurrectionary artists who were gripped by influences both "high" and "low" and were able to fuck shit up, in the best sense of what that can mean. From how they moved and talked to what they wore and how they held themselves on the street, the way they lived their lives and what was important to them carried itself into their work, which in turn, ricocheted in the culture, changing the world we live in. Study this as a road map of two people who took the raw material of their lives seriously enough to live as if what they did mattered--it is the story of two artists who made work that mattered. Their art is the record of this commitment, to themselves, to each other and ultimately, to the world.

Oh yeah, I guess it's not too much of a spoiler to tell you that this is also a truly sad book, as Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in the late 80's, but in my view this gives the book urgency despite the life-crushing sadness that it must have brought to those who knew and loved him. To live anything less than a full life in the face of such as tragic loss…well that is the struggle we all must contend with in this world on a daily basis…that is mortality, the conditions under which we all live. (for some, like Patti Smith, this is a religious matter, but for me it is merely existential...) At any rate I find Just Kids life-affirming despite its documentation of deep, dark despair.

This is a truly awesome work. It will give you the ammunition you need to fend off the square "hipsters" in our midst. I hope young people take it to heart and I know those of us who have been around the block will be sustained by this for years. Use it as rocket is the place…the transformation of's right here, man. Let it surround you and become your daily imperative to create. In the immortal words of punk rock patti smith "I step up to the microphone and I have no fear".

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Intersex (for lack of a better word) by Thea Hillman

please read this first:

This is one of the most honest memoirs I have ever read. Hillman writes with natural courage about her experience and her criticism. She is queer, Jewish, feminist, and intersex, for lack of a better world. She lives in SF and recounts her formative life in this past decade. I started reading this book right after i got my heart broken twice.. and was not getting any action. i only mention this because there is a lot of action in this book. Thea likes sex, and sex parties and fucking. So at first i was a little put off and feeling left out, like why do i live in oly instead of sf... but i'm over that now.

I wonder how i would move if my gender didn't fit into binary gender. What would it be like to live in a world that is marked w/doors (physical and other wise) male/female, and not fit what is assumed as being male or female. Reading Hillman's memoir made me reconsider my own thoughts on gender and the presumptions i make about others' sex.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Edith Wharton

I got this Edith Wharton anthology for Christmas. I am reading it this morning but who knows how far I will get. I don't think I've read her before, but I'm not sure. I feel like I read Age of Innocence, but I may have just seen the movie. It's good by the way.

Wish me luck! So far it reminds me of George Eliot.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Trouble by Kate Christensen

Earlier in the week I read Trouble by Kate Christensen. I actually think this was a little better than Commencement, though similarly cringe-inducing at times but you can't tell it has any redeeming qualities by reading the promo blurb, which sums up the action as follows:

A vibrant story of female friendship and midlife sexual awakening from the acclaimed author of The Great Man

Josie is a Manhattan psychotherapist living a comfortable life with her husband and daughter—until, while suddenly flirting with a man at a party, she is struck with the sudden realization that she must leave her passionless marriage. A thrillingly sordid encounter with a stranger she meets at a bar immediately follows. At the same time, her college friend Raquel, a Los Angeles rock star, is being pilloried in the press for sleeping with a much younger man who happens to have a pregnant girlfriend. This proves to be red meat to the gossip hounds of the Internet. The two friends escape to Mexico City for a Christmas holiday of retreat and rediscovery of their essential selves. Sex has gotten these two bright, complicated women into interesting trouble, and the story of their struggles to get out of that trouble is totally gripping at every turn.

A tragicomedy of marriage and friendship, Trouble is a funny, piercing, and moving examination of the battle between the need for connection and the quest for freedom that every modern woman must fight.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book, where the therapist knows she is going to leave her stagnant marriage (and child) behind after flirting with a despicable man who she knows sucks and does not actually hook up with him. I could relate to it I guess. The books is mid-life crisis-y in theme and about three female college friends who met at Reed College (sound familiar) and are at very different points in their lives, struggling with female friendship, society's prescribed roles for women and their own desires.

Spoiler Alert:

What ends up happening is kind of bogus. When Josie decides to meet her rock star friend Angeles in Mexico City to get away from it all, she is punished for enjoying herself within the narrative. At the exact moment she gets to have awesome sex for the first time in years, her best friend (who has relapsed into heroin addiction after being much maligned as an unattractive, over the hill has-been by the tabloids) decides to take her own life. Message: older women in the music industry will not be able to survive and older women who leave their husband and kid for sex are just being selfish and deserve to suffer. I guess this could be read as an accurate portrayal of women's lives under patriarchy but it comes across as melodramatic and contrived. Does someone have to die for a woman to have an orgasm? I hope not! At this point the book becomes a total let-down, if the "glamorous" idea of first-worlders vacationing in Mexico didn't turn you off already, not to mention some of the self-aware "essentializing" of the locals. This was presented as commentary on neo-colonialism, but I would argue, also worked to reinforce it...same goes with all of Josie's white-guilt and internal dialogue/conflicts about stereotyping people she meets.

I actually kind of couldn't believe how cliché the climax and resolution was. It's like, how do people get away with this stuff? This one also made me wonder what I am looking for by reading this kind of "chick-lit" where the characters are dumbed-down and vacant and the authors have little if anything to reveal about the world, despite their efforts to try and describe it. The main thing that bugs me about both Commencement and Trouble is that they are somehow, by default, seen as representing the modern woman or something. The assumption being that we can all relate to the lives and struggles of the characters.

Moving right along, I finished the last Sandra Scoppettone novel in her Lauren Laurano series this afternoon and have been thinking of comparing it to George Pelecanaos' Derek Strange series. Both are five books set in a location, based around a detective. So we'll see how that the meantime there are a few more books I recently read so I'll try and get to those first.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

I read Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan this week. I must have put it on hold over the summer after reading a review, not sure.

On one level this book grossed me out. By focusing on four women who meet at Smith College, an elite all-girls school, it presents an upper middle class/rich, white American version of young womanhood as "reality"...I guess that is "reality" for some of us...but what passes for sisterhood in Commencement isn't Feminism with a capital "F", despite Sullivan's lack of consideration of how the rest of us live.

The author also sort of perpetuates sexism in hard to pin down, insidious ways. To get specific with one example, she has her characters talking about the other characters bodies (students gaining weight at an all girls school and wearing PJ's and sweat pants to class because there aren't any guys around) in ways that normalize body image issues and reduce women to their appearance. This is catty and also hetero-normative by assuming that women only "let ourselves go" when men are absent. Ok maybe she is just being descriptive here, but there doesn't seem to be an awareness of the issues. It made me feel neurotic that I was supposed to identify with the young characters hating other women's bodies or something. She didn't make it clear that this was the point of view of the characters. It came across as the point of view of the author. There is little if any consideration of how this rejection of patriarchal norms might be positive or liberating, it's just made fun of and dismissed. It seems like this is Sullvan's ill attempt at humor, the assumption being that the reader is well-versed in the kind of self-depreciating humor that so often thinly disguises female self-hate in the public sphere. (An interview with the author seems to confirm this, as she jokes with a reporter about how she didn't wear make up or concern herself with her appearance while at Smith.)

The basic premise of the book is classist. The generation of young women the characters belong to is described as being the first where women had access to (perhaps too many) choices. Well I hate to bring this up, because it's outside the scope of this fictional reality, but it is only a very, very small portion of the world who have these choices, and within that group there is racial diversity/hierarchies and all kinds of economic factors that complicate the choices of "career" vs. "family" or whatever. Secondly, individual choice is a Western value and not necessarily a sign of progress or an indication of a more advanced society. There are multiple feminisms, but the only kind depicted within Commencement is white, middle class and Western.

To her credit, Sullivan tries to talk about issues that impact poor women, such as sex trafficking, prostitution and urban poverty. Unfortunately she does this without allowing any of these women to have much of a voice within the narrative. No women of color in the story become real characters in the book. Out of the two I can think of who are given names, one is a victimized prostitute and another is a girlfriend whose voice we never get to hear--both are objects rather than subjects.

The interesting part of the plot focuses on April, an activist who is under the spell of a renegade star feminist who exploits her in an unsuccessful attempt to "save" trafficked women. Predictably, this becomes just another rescue narrative of a white woman trying to save the world. It's too bad Sullivan didn't use this storyline to give some of the "rescued women" center stage. Instead we get to see a victimized woman betrayed by a radical feminist with good intentions. Because the radical plan backfires, radicalism fails, while mainstream feminism (one of the main characters works for NOW) rises to ascendancy with the book's sudden, unremarkable yet awkwardly unresolved ending.

Less interesting story-lines focus on one woman's struggle with her own emergent lesbianism/bisexuality (Bree), another's alcoholism and in general flakiness/dissatisfaction (Celia) and a third woman's loss of her mother to cancer and need to find security/family (Sally). If it sounds a little like a soap opera, then you get the picture. Lots of melodrama and sentimentality.

I did like reading about four women who become close while they are away at school and struggle to prioritize their friendship after college. I guess I felt a little jealous of this supposed "universal" reality, as not only was I never sent away to a prestigious school at 18, but I was told I had to live at home if I wanted to go to school or else figure out a way to live off campus and pay my own rent. I know I was lucky that my parents were willing and able to pay my tuition but this situation meant I ended up quitting school until I could afford to pay for it myself, working my way through college as an adult by taking night classes over the years. So I guess on some level I wish I got to experience the going-away-to-school and living-in-a-dorm thing, but not really...because going on tour and playing in bands sounds a lot funner, not to mention realistic. Plus going to night school with working adults provided me an education I would never have gotten at an Ivy League/ish school. I know that if I wrote a novel it would have a solid class analysis for example and hopefully it would be a little more in touch with the way most people live. Anyhow, this world is just not the world I grew up in. None of my high school friends went away to college, I never hung out in the dorms (except in high school I'd go to parties at Evergreen occasionally) and I have no idea what this world of elite, bizarre ritualistic student life is all about. From what I gathered from reading this, it's a little like Harry Potter, but with a lot of same sex making out and crying.

Mostly this book, like bad TV, is mainstream, boring and cliché. It made me realize I need to try harder to find contemporary authors/books...that I shouldn't rely on the New York Times so much. This post-sex-in-the-city world of the professional woman who is really concerned with the fact that she has rich friends and she herself is not rich (yet) is just materialistic and depressing. I realize some women live in this world, but that doesn't mean this is "the real world". It's a very limited, privileged view and these depictions are subsequently damaging. They further mystify and universalize. They perpetuate values that make things worse. But worst of all they have nothing to say.

Besides all of that Commencement is just kind of goofy and not very well-constructed. The story starts with a wedding and the climax is a woman giving birth. Ok, get married, have a baby, even write about pregnancy/ having a baby. That is universal enough I guess given that most women have children and all of our mothers gave birth to us at some point, but really as a metaphor or point of drama, it's kind of obvious and corny.

Confession: I did stay up until 4AM reading this so I guess it's entertaining or maybe I just have a problem and get some kind of weird indulgent pleasure reading badly written "feminist" fiction.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

'54 and Manituana

The Wu Ming collective have to be an anomaly in the world of popular fiction. They're a 5-man Italian anarchist collective that writes historically situated epic novels that are stylistic, experimental, engrossing, hilarious, politically relevant and are also bestsellers in Italy. Two of them--’54 and Manituana-- are currently available in English. They are both well worth reading.

Imagine your favourites of the following Hollywood genres; noir, spy thriller, mob and heist film. Now imagine this film is set in several different places in the world with a large cast of characters. Imagine these locations include communist Yugoslavia, Italy, the neutral city of Trieste, Moscow, the Riviera and Hollywood. Imagine the characters include Tito, Cary Grant, Frances Farmer, Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, the heads of the KGB, MI6, the CIA and cast of fictional characters.

Also imagine the action is set at the start of the cold war. Plot points include MI6 recruiting Cary Grant to win Tito over to the Western side of the cold war, while the KGB tries to kidnap Grant. A young communist sneaking into Yugoslavia to reunite with his long-lost Italian partisan father, who stayed in Yugoslavia following the war to build communism. A mafia hit man who wants to pull one last job before starting a new life. An illicit affair that leads to deplorable action by the local head of the communist party leading to a woman asserting her subjecthood. Lastly, in homage to Hitchcock, imagine the device that propels the climax of the film is a television produced by the Mcguffin company. (Hitchcock called his plot devices Mcguffins)

Now imagine that this film is a book. Only its written like a film. The chapters are short like scenes (usually a few pages) and written in taut sentences. Imagine that these familiar narratives frame political allegories, so that this enthralling script is also about the sad waning of the Italian partisans, Tito’s Yugoslavia and the pernicious affects of McCarthy, the USA and USSR. Add humorous elements like Grant and Tito instantly hitting it off because they have so much in common, Grant reading a James Bond novel and finding it terrible, the hero of the novel being named Robespierre and more.

If you think this sounds fun or interesting or both this book is called ’54.

Now if your into a more somber sorta epic, there is Manituana. It doesn’t have the clever fun of ’54. It’s a different bag. But Christ, it’s good.

This time the setting is the American Revolution. But as far as I know its unlike any other historical novel set during the revolution because it’s the story of the Iroquois nation’s experience on the loosing side of the revolution. Like ’54, then, it’s also an exploration of what could have happened if crucial points in history had turned out differently.

Importantly, the Iroquois are not romanticized, essentialized or put in a vacuum. Manituana is not a paean for the loss of the noble savage. Instead, the books characters are humanized and contextualized. Historical figures such as Joseph Brant/ Thayendanegea and Mary Brant and fictional characters such as Mary’s son and Philip la Croix are depicted as complex people with hybrid cultures caught in the world politics of the American Revolution. That these world politics will be calamitous for the Iroquois and does little to better the lives of the poor settlers, or the poor, wretched inhabitants of London, does much to humanize and question the greatness of the American Revolution in more effective ways then purely historical accounts.

In depicting the birth of American imperialism, genocide and American exceptionalism, the work is still highly relevant. With the image of Manituana—a Mohawk myth of a hybrid utopian world—it also gives us an anti-imperialist ideal to work for.

If you are interested in learning more about Wu Ming or obtaining free pdfs of ’54 go here. If you are interested in learning more about Manituana visit the Manituana website which has an integrated google earth app to show where the novel takes place and a wealth of other material that relates to the novel.