Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Joan Lindsay

Picnic_at_Hanging_RockI took a rather winding road to get this book: Nicole Cliffe, who’s newsletter I’ve recommended before, linked to a 2018 list of the 100 most influential horror movie scenes. For the longest time, I thought I didn’t like horror, since I don’t particularly like the slasher movies that were the fad when I was a teen. However, I love both old-school Hitchcock suspense and our current heyday of psychological horror, and I found the evolution of the horror genre in the article fascinating.

Anyway, the description for the film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock made me laugh: “notable for the absence of violence or even a conventionally advancing narrative.” As my friends and family can attest, I have seen (and imposed on other people) my fair share of movies lacking “conventionally advancing narrative.” I don’t have as much patience for them as I used to, so wasn’t super interested in seeing this movie, but when Bookbub recommended the novel to me the next day, it felt like fate.

And I absolutely loved it! Four schoolgirls wander off from a picnic party to get a closer look at the titular Hanging Rock, and only one returns, hysterical and incommunicative. The impressive thing is that we, the reader, are with them the whole time, too (or at least with the returning fourth girl). We ‘see’ the three girls walk deeper into the rock of their own volition, while the fourth seems to just freak herself out and run away from them. She can’t describe what happened because nothing did happen, and that’s what’s so unnerving!

There is no act of violence or even maliciousness. For a novel about the disappearance of schoolgirls, it is almost unbelievably serene. After the build up to the disappearance and then the subsequent panic of the search, the novel deals almost entirely with the ripple effects, both good and bad, this one event has on the details of daily life for the surrounding characters. It reminded me quite a bit of On The Beach, another Australian novel I loved and that focuses entirely on mundane details during a cataclysmic event.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic_DSTraffic: why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)
written by Tom Vanderbilt
read by David Slavin
2008

Since I’m listening to audiobooks on my commute, I figured I might as well listen to one about traffic patterns. This was not my best idea ever. Not only does the reader try to input emotional import into every single one of his sentences to make it sound important and high energy and highly emotional (not what I want first thing in the morning as I drive in or after a long day’s work), but it also has a tendency to tell me what the average person’s commute is like and how people with longer commutes are unhappy with those commutes. I dislike being told I should dislike something that I don’t currently dislike. Look, there are enough things in the world that I do dislike, that I don’t need to acquire more just to fit in! And yet, I start double-guessing myself: am I unhappy with my commute? Should I be? Urg.

But aside from all that, it’s still a really interesting book.

While not in specific sections, this book addresses traffic in three different ways: as a psychologist about human behaviors, as a game theorist about best options, and as historian about stories. As it turns out, I really enjoy the stories (did you know that LA traffic has a central command hub that is largely automated except for Oscar night where there are people literally manipulating the light cycles to try to get the limousines all through? Because I hadn’t and I love it!), I find the game theory interesting (when lanes merge, late merging benefits everyone, so don’t merge until you absolutely have to!), and I find the psychology really, really irritating (as stated above, I don’t like people telling me what I do or do not think, and I’m not sure whether it’s worse when they’re wrong or when they’re right.)

Overall I do recommend the book and have found that even as I waited a month or so to actually post about this, that many of the stories and concepts have stuck with me.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods_of_Jade_and_ShadowOoh, this book is so good (and how gorgeous is that cover)! It really does stand as uniquely its own, but all the descriptors I can think of are derivative of other books: it’s like American Gods but gentler, funnier, and somehow just more feminine; it’s got elements of both The Last Unicorn and The Labyrinth, a couple of my favorite pieces of media. Basically, they all have common motifs of mortals discovering the unexpected power they have to either help or resist immortals.

Set in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea is the poor relation in a wealthy family, in her own words: treated like Cinderella, but without the sweetness of character that earns Cinderella her eventual reward. She instead balances duty and resentment in a very recognizable way and chafes at her endless days of drudgery until she accidentally releases a God of Death from imprisonment. At which point, she is basically conscripted in his search for vengeance against those that imprisoned him, leading her from her small town, where her family at least was a large fish in a little pond, into progressively larger cities and exposing her to an array of beings, both natural and supernatural.

This is where it gets tricky. Our heroine is human in the most empathetic way, trying to do what is right while struggling with all the human weaknesses of anger and anxiety, while the god is charming in his own aloof, uncompromising way. The two are supernaturally connected for the duration of this quest, to the peril of both. There is a predominate theme, similar to in The Last Unicorn, of how lengthy exposure to mortals and the mortal world weakens/tarnishes immortals so that they are never as pure as they were to begin with, and that is very effective suspense for me.

A serious trigger warning, however: this is a God of Death we are talking about here, so there is plenty of death abounding, including animal sacrifice and suicide. Now both of those are things that I’m pretty sensitive to, and I was able to read it without trouble because they happen quickly and matter-of-factly instead of really delving into the gritty details, but take care.

While I was reading this, Rebecca sent me a link to a Tumblr post, which gives a variety of excellent recommendations for “Adult fantasy books not by straight white men!” The poster organized it by general tone, which is so, so useful. Under “Urban Fantasy,” one of my favorite sub-genres, she recommends a vampire noir in Mexico City by Moreno-Garcia, so that’s definitely on my to-read list!

Similarly, Rebecca then also sent me a list to “Become Very Well-Read Without Reading Anything by a Man” where you can see how many well-known (not necessarily classics) books by female authors you’ve read, and I love an opportunity to show off my reading! This was not that opportunity because I’d only read 36 out of the 250 books, but it did give me a lot of additional recommendations to look forward to!

— Anna

Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovern

bloodlust-and-bonnets-9781471178955_lgBloodlust & Bonnets
by Emily McGovern
2019

I first ran across this artist/author via her My Life as a Background Slytherin comics which are hilarious and adorable and I highly recommend. And at some point she made a four-page comic called Bloodlust & Bonnets that is hilarious and gorgeous and I also highly recommend.  This book, by the same name as that short, is a 200 page graphic novel that uses those first four pages as the prologue. (Although the art is simplified for the book version.)

For the plot: there’s an evil vampire cult! Lucy, the plucky debutant is targeted by them! Lord Byron has a magical castle! The mysterious bounty hunter Sham has secrets! Napoleon is a psychic eagle! Secret societies and blood oaths and balls and gentlemen’s clubs and turkish baths and succubi and more plucky debutants!

This book is hilarious but also I could only read it in small doses, a chapter at a time. The ongoing joke through the whole thing is just how incompetent all the characters are. Like, all of them. It’s an even playing field at least? With the possible exception of the flighty and wealthy professional widow who is not so much incompetent as she is distracted by other things… ie, potential future dead husbands. So here I am with my competence kink wondering when someone will show up with some competence and each new character is a tease because they all think they’re very capable and introduce themselves that way and they’re all so very much not. Which also makes it fit in kind of hilariously well in British costume drama style.

This is pretty much a take off of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or Jane Slayre, with Wodehouse & Jeeves, Pink Panther, and Monty Python influences. Which all comes together to say that this book is amazing but also, wow, how are these characters so dumb and yet still walk and breath at the same time???

Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

FastWomenFast Women
by Jennifer Crusie
2001

This was both a perfect palate cleanser after How To Be Alone and something of a direct rebuttal of it as well. Because this is definitely a romance novel, with a plot focused around two characters getting together and a guaranteed happy ending, but it’s also a remarkably nuanced look into a number of complex relationships. Fast Women is very much on the literary side of things — it deals with divorce, alcoholism, abuse, neglect, despair, and having to start over — and but is saved from that genre by maintaining a generally optimistic outlook on life. While a lot of purported ‘literature’ is unpleasant people living unpleasant lives, this book is consists of delightful people living interesting lives, but it’s no less complex or nuanced. It also has a number of ridiculous situations and conversations that had me giggling every other page.

The main character is Nell and her love interest is Gabe, but Nell has a friend group of two other women, and Gabe has a friend and business partner, and they each have a college-age kid, and each of these five characters is fully developed with their own personal issues and plot-lines.

The plot, such as it is, is an investigation that’s in large part trying to figure out what to investigate because there’s blackmail and murder and arson and theft and they’re all connected in some way, but it takes a good 400 pages for our characters to figure out how.

Anyway, it’s delightful and funny and I definitely recommend it. It’s also a reminder to me that the romance book genre is massive and contains pretty much any subgenre a person could possibly want to read.

 

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

HowToBeAloneHow to Be Alone
written by Jonathan Franzen
read by Jonathan Franzen and Brian d’Arcy James
2002

Franzen starts out introducing this book of essays with some reflection about how angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing he had once been as a younger man, and I’m listening to the remaining essays, glad that he’s found his own sense of self-improvement but also realizing that these essays are the most angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing that I’ve ever read/listened to. In large part because I actively avoid the genre I would normally typify as Guy-in-your-MFA High Literature, but this is a set of nonfiction essays by a literary author and I have a commute, so I might as well listen to this one through to the end. With each successive CD, I had to convince myself anew to complete it if only just to write this review.

He discusses a variety of issues that I actually find moderately interesting, if depressing: the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr-Report scandal, the problems with the Chicago postal service, the internal conflict between research departments and legal departments in the tobacco industry, the for-profit prison industry, the commercialization of sex. However, his essays are like op-ed pieces where he presents himself as speaking for “the silent majority” who all agree with him, and is distraught by the “cheap attacks” of naysayers with their statistics and surveys pointing out that he is, in fact, in the minority. The facts of a given situation are quickly overwhelmed by his personal interpretations. He is the everyman and speaks for everyone.

He states that High Literature = The Social Novel = Tragic Realism, and that all of these are best demonstrated by being about the unmarked straight white male. I generally avoid any modern novel calling itself “Literature” because it seems to me to be a genre made up of unpleasant people living unpleasant lives. Franzen agrees, except he thinks this is a good thing.

In fact, he seems to be carefully cultivating his own dissatisfaction with life. He’s not glorifying the problems of the world, per se, but glorifying his own knowledge of those problems, throwing it in contrast to the bourgeoisie others who “don’t fully understand.”
Part of his unhappiness is based on his apparent belief that being lauded by the masses is his proper default state and thus nothing to take pleasure in, while anyone not actively being impressed by him is taking something away from him. He is insulted that his demands for solitude and privacy are met without demure. He’s bemoaning the loss of his rape fantasy: he wants to be able to say “no” to demands for his opinion and then have that “no” disregarded.

As he bemoans the loss of interest in “real” literature, he remarks without any acknowledged irony, that publishers are instead publishing more works done by women and people of color. These he considers genre rathe than literature, by default. He argues that authors should not pander to the masses while also despairing that the masses do not like his books as much as they should. (Keep in mind that this is the complaint of an award-winning author.)

I can understand, in theory, that it must be very hard for straight, white men who have long been told that their concerns are universal, and that other’s concerns are merely genre issues, to be confronted with the discovery that they are actually just one more demographic. I can understand that it is a hardship for them all, and this author in particular. But I can’t managed to dredge up much actual sympathy.

In contrast, I realize that he is likely creating the background against which hopepunk and solarpunk have developed. And that, I think, is a gift.

My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen

By David Clawson

My-Fairy-GodmotherThis showed up on my daily Bookbub email, and I was curious enough to read the excerpted section on Amazon, and that first chapter impressed me. For a modern, queer retelling of Cinderella, the author does a good job of characterizing a stepmother and stepsiblings who are self-centered and incompetent but not wicked, and a protagonist who is enough of an introverted neatnik to fall into a Cinderella role when the family runs into hard times.

Unfortunately, chapter 2 opens with meeting the fairy godmother drag queen, and while the actual sequence of events is clever, I’m not sure David Clawson actually knows any drag queens, and I’m almost positive he doesn’t have any black friends. I’m saying it gets real awkward real fast.

I really wanted to find excuses, so I spent far too much time thinking, oh, the protagonist is just so young and naïve, and perhaps this is just showing his own ignorance before he grows as a person, until I just couldn’t fool myself anymore. The titular drag queen and her friends are the broadest caricatures, vaudevillian even. Which could almost (but not quite) be waved away with the self-aware camp-ness that is built into drag, but meeting the man outside drag was too much. We’re talking 90s-sitcom-level portrayal of a “slightly thuggish-looking black guy in oversized hip-hop clothes” (direct quote from the book, and it gets worse from there).

Finally, just to add insult to injury, in Chapter 3 we meet Prince Charming, who is “the ridiculously handsome, brown-haired, brown-eyed, square-jawed, cleft chinned J. J. Kennerly, the only child of the closest thing America has to royalty,” and I wanted to vomit. While I appreciate the almost-ligature of the r and l, the Kennedy’s are so overblown in my opinion that any attempt to make them (or a facsimile of them) into a romantic lead loses me completely.

So, I was already predisposed to dislike Kennerly when he “ironically” said something incredibly homophobic to the drag queen to shock her for mistaking (?) him for a bigot. So, I’m left side-eying the protagonist, embarrassed by the fairy godmother, and contemptuous of the prince, which is not what I was hoping to get out of a fluffy bit of summer reading.