365 Days of Women Writers

Women writers only – no boys allowed

The Other Place by Mary Gaitskill

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It isn’t often I get annoyed a story exists – sure many, many stories are not very good, but that’s ok, I don’t have to read them, and while sometimes I might be annoyed I spent time reading them, I rarely want them erased from existence.

“The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill is one I’d like to have erased. It is a deliberately creepy story of a middle-aged man who fantasizes about hurting women and sees the signs of the same in his son.

Mostly, though, he draws pictures of men holding guns. Or men hanging from nooses. Or men cutting up other men with chainsaws—in these pictures there are no faces, just figures holding chainsaws and figures being cut in two, with blood spraying out.

My wife, Marla, says that this is fine, as long as we balance it out with other things—family dinners, discussions of current events, sports, exposure to art and nature. But I don’t know. Douglas and I were sitting together in the living room last week, half watching the TV and checking e-mail, when an advertisement for a movie flashed across the screen: it was called “Captivity” and the ad showed a terrified blond girl in a cage, a tear running down her face. Doug didn’t speak or move. But I could feel his fascination, the suddenly deepening quality of it. And I don’t doubt that he could feel mine. We sat there and felt it together.

He’s a loathesome sociopathic character who hides behind a façade of normalcy, but by conveying the story as his inner monologue we know how far from normal he is.

And that’s where my problem lies with the story. It focuses on the sensational, the outlier, the guy who is so fucked up that allows society to ignore the violence against women that’s committed every day by normal guys. (I think Gaitskill intended to do the opposite – hint at the darkness that lies in all of us but this guy is too far off the map of normalcy for that to work.)

This is something we see all the time in real life – the most recent example being the house bill (H.R. 3) which attemped to redefine what qualified for rape only into acts which involved violence or the threat of violence. Like the myth that most murders are committed by strangers, there are people who like the delusion of believing real rapes are committed by the man in the ski-mask hiding in the bushes with a gun and not by the nice fellow you went on a date with and asked in to have coffee or a drink and didn’t take no for an answer.

I don’t need to have it reinforced in fiction.

(sorry, been swamped at work – I hope in a week posting will become more regular again.)

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Written by Chance

March 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

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This story takes place in an Alternate Universe[1] where MTV and Carson Daly are Yo!TV and Parker Day, Star Wars has become the clearly inferior Star Fighter, but mostly things are pretty much exactly the same.

And Cameron pretty much your every day pot-smoking, non-achieving, feels-like-he-only-has-relationship-with-his-dad’s-back sort of teen. Oh, with the perfect sister who is everything he is not – popular, gets good grades, a cheerleader who is dating the former quarterback.

And the whole situation annoys the hell out of him. He’s got a great snarky voice that make reading the first few chapters a delight.

Then the plot kicks in – Cameron finds out that he has Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and Bray neatly satirizes some of the typical reactions, like the girl who couldn’t stand him getting all weepy and the school holding a pep rally for Cameron.

It’s like now that I am checking out, I actually matter. Ad for some reason, this demands cute baskets loaded with kiwi animals and apples carved into flowers. Calhoun High School has gone into overdrive for me. Rumor has it that the school board fears a lawsuit and they had people in sci-fi-worthy suits tearing apart the cafeteria in case that’s where the BSE came from. I hear the new menu features a lot of tofu. But to make up for the gosh-darn inconvenience of my having a terminal disease, they have organized a pep rally in my honor.

Cameron then embarks on a Don Quixotesque quest from Texas to New Orleans and then to Florida accompanied by his sidekick Gonzo (a hypochondriac gay dwarf) and the spirit of Baldur who has been trapped in a garden gnome. Bray makes allusions to Don Quixote a bit too much for my taste and honestly, I liked the story best when it was felt like it was a road trip, not a quest, with a lot of bickering and bantering and the three guys becoming friends.

Bray doesn’t ever let you forget that this trip is most likely happening all in Cameron’s head but having him hear bits of dialogue from the hospital. Though since there is an infinity of alternate universes there could be one where that’s the form Cameron’s hallucinations take. Bray never closes that door either. The ending is surprisingly satisfying and much less of a downer than I expected.

[1] I always feel like that should be capitalized even though that’s ridiculous. I may be catching random capital letter disease.(tm)

Written by Chance

February 5, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Posted in Libba Bray, novel

Disassembly by Kathy Fish

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I was poking around on the internets and got led to the guernica site because of a a story about the decline of Detroit and then noticed that they also published fiction. New fiction site=same reaction as a feral cat who discovers catnip for the first time, only with less drooling.

I like this story but I can’t really articulate why. It seems to encapsulate perfectly the horror of funerals and the private history that plays such a huge role in families. This story feels true, even if there isn’t that much that happens and in its own way it dribbles off a bit. It hits its mark because of the way life dribbles off a bit.

I give myself extra points for mentioning drooling/dribbling so many times. The story is much better than my comments.

Written by Chance

January 24, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Posted in kathy fish, short story

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

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I’m really quite behind on my blogging – there has been lots of reading of books by women, but much less in the way of writing about them – I’ve got stacks of things from Christmas break still to write about.

This book is a gem. Rather than being the story of the ugly duckling who grew up over the summer and gets a boyfriend… Well, ok, it starts off as that story, but it’s mainly the story of Frankie refusing to be a doormat.

Frankie comes back to school and immediately starts dating her crush from freshman year. Her boyfriend (a senior, natch) isn’t all that into her (he likes her, but he’s not interested in her friends or her life – he treats her as an accessory to his life.) She’ll never mean as much to him as his friends and she’s jealous of the bond they share. She’s not happy about it, and decides to get even.

And the best way to get even is to have your boyfriend (and his pals in the secret society) do pranks for you by pretending to be your boyfriend’s best friend. (It’s by email! Not a disguise – it makes perfect sense in the book.) Not only does she outwit the boys, her pranks are strong on social commentary and genuinely funny. (She even shames the administration into including actual fresh vegetables in the salad bar.)

At times, the book veers a bit into the preachy mode – where you feel like the author is telling you how you ought to feel rather than how Frankie does feel, but it’s a minor complaint, and I’m not sure that teens don’t need the sledgehammer approach. (I’m sure I did.)

I totally have a crush on Frankie.

Written by Chance

January 23, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Posted in E. Lockhart, novel

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

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One day you may wake up and realize that your parents don’t love each other and that your mom is painfully unhappy. In Rose’s case, this happens while eating her a slice of birthday cake her mother made from scratch.

But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction As if a sensor, so buried deep inside me, raised its scope to alert my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients–the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons–seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was threatening to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirin as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis in her comment: I’m just going to lie down …None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness.

Now unlocked, Rose finds that she can feel all the emotions of everyone who contributed to the cake – primarily her mother who baked it, but the ones who picked the lemons, ground the flour – everything and everyone, and the hollowness she feels after eating it threatens to overwhelm her. And with every meal she feels everything that contributes to it. Eating has become a horror.

Rose Edlestein doesn’t live in a happy family, but not one that’s obviously unhappy from the outside either. Her father is distant, uncomfortable with his children and doesn’t know how to connect with them, but does love them. Her mother is the opposite. Intense and focused, and her attention threatens to overwhelm her children, like full sunlight on shade loving trees. She fell in love because she thought there was a sign that her marriage was meant to be, and she never really recovers when she finds out during the best man’s toast at her wedding that “the magical incident” was engineered by her husband. Rose’s brother is shy and uncomfortable with rare moments of affection.

And then there’s Rose, unable to hide from the family secrets that threaten to overwhelm her – her mother’s hollow life, and then guilt and euphoria when she takes a lover, and her bother Joseph’s misery that doesn’t seem to have any obvious cause.

At one point Rose shouts her pain and horror and tries to get her family to recognize what’s gone wrong with them, but her mother denies her problems and they implicitly ask her to maintain face – if no one talks about it, then there’s nothing wrong.

Bender is playful and creative in her writing – you can almost feel her pleasure in crafting the words of the story. At the same time, this book is depressing as hell.

There is a classic strain of family misery story (often very successfully in American literature – think The Corrections), stories that make you thankful that your family is not like this (or makes you weep because it is) and while Bender uses magic realism to illuminate the heart of the despair of an unhappy family, this fits firmly in the tradition.

There is no great healing, and the story is at best bittersweet, but in the end, Rose begins to make peace with her special powers and her family. Her brother is not so lucky, and it’s hard not to wonder that Joseph might have survived better if only his family had been more open with him, and how they struggled with similar things. But, this is family, so maybe not.

Written by Chance

January 22, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Posted in aimee bender, novel

The Silence of the Asonu by Ursula K. Le Guin

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The strength in Le Guin’s writing has always been her worldbuilding. She seems to have an infinite capacity for creating varied cultures. In The Silence of the Asonu she creates a world in which none of the adults talk and the children gradually lose language.

Children from two to six years old chatter to each other constantly; they argue, wrangle, and bicker, and sometimes come to blows. As they come to be six or seven they begin to speak less and to quarrel less. By the time they are eight or nine most of them are very shy of words and reluctant to answer a question except by gesture. They have learned to quietly evade inquiring tourists and linguists with notebooks and recording devices. By adolescence they are as silent and as peaceable as the adults.

There is little plot in the story – there is a somewhat amusing section where the silence of the Asonu has been given a mysticism by a group of zealots who seem to want to read far more into one Asonu’s utterances than warranted.

The story turns dark when one of the zealots kidnaps a young Asonu child in hopes of getting it to speak longer so that she could teach him the secrets the Asonu hide. Unsurprisingly, this does not turn out well.

Unfortunately, the story collapses for me when Le Guin ends the story with a lame joke.

Written by Chance

January 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Matched by Ally Condie

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Dystopias have been all the rage in the last few years (we needed something to counterbalance all the supernatural romance which is the other rage).

Latest on the best selling block is Matched by Ally Condie. It’s the sort of book that has a great elevator pitch. You’ve just been presented with your ideal match? What if you fall in love with someone else?

Matched could be the child of The Giver and Twilight – it adds a love triangle in the dystopia mix (as there was in The Hunger Games) but it is of the truly tepid sort – there’s not a second of mystery about who Cassia is going to fall in love with. It’s not going to be her perfect match Xander (aka Doormat), but her other perfect match, Ky (aka, not-so-Rebel).

My biggest problem with this book is the fact that it’s not a full story. It’s more like the first third of a book incredibly inflated in word count. By the time we reach the end, I feel like we’ve reached the first turning point plotwise and that simply is not enough to support the page length

Cassia is blandly self-centered (a la Bella) but it’s pretty impossible for me to imagine someone wanting to be on team Ky or team Xander since neither of them is terribly interesting.

The one thing I did like about this story was the restraint in the worldbuilding. They live in a world where everything has been streamlined. People all wear the same color clothes, eat the blandest of food. Even songs and poems have been stripped down to a bare 100, all for the population to better appreciate them.

It’s the sort of place where the cracks in the allegedly utopian society are apparent straight from the get go. Which makes it all the more annoying that Cassia is so complacently content at the start of the story. Really the only character I didn’t want to shake was Cassia’s grandfather.

I try to understand why a book might sell well even when it doesn’t work for me, but I have to admit I’m pretty baffled here.

Written by Chance

January 2, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Posted in ally condie, novel