Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reading: Dark Places, Gillian Flynn

Dark Places
Gillian Flynn
Paperback, 349 pages
Broadway Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-0-307-34157-0

 The book starts off with one of the best lines I've read in a bit:

 "I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders."

 How great is that? This made me want to read more.

If you have a weak stomach, this is probably not for you. It's dark and gruesome in parts and somewhat graphic.

It switches back and forth from present day to the day of the murders some 20 years ago and is told from the point of view of three people: Libby, Ben (brother) and Patricia Day (mom). Sometimes the multiple point of view approach doesn't work at all, but Flynn manages to get it rolling here.

It starts off in the present with Libby Day. Her entire family was murdered by her brother (so they said), she-left as an orphan, passed from family member to family member. It was a highly publicized murder and there was high-profile media coverage as she was the only witness. She became the heroic nine-year-old survivor to a horrific event. A "Libby Day fund" was set up for her by donations from the public who felt sorry for her-a couple hundred thousand dollars-which she has been living off of since she was eighteen. There were book deals and articles that popped up on anniversaries. When the money starts running out, she proposes another book deal to her money manager, but he doesn't think it would work because of the time lapse and people are more interested in another horrific murder.

When you read Ben's point of view, you see all evidence points to him, and by extension, his girlfriend, who-admittedly-is a bit of a crazy one. He's into Satanism, keeps to himself and is generally acting unlike himself.

She finds out about the "Kill Club," one that is obsessed with notorious crimes like the Day case, who are convinced that the brother, Ben, did not do it and have their own theories. They sent her a letter hoping she would consent to giving talks about the day of the murders on the "real facts'. They are a bit star-struck that this is THE Libby Day, in the flesh. Libby agrees to help them out with the case, but she wants money in exchange for her services-upfront. The Kill Club was a bit people can be so obsessed with something like that and the fact that there was, like, a convention.

There was one part where Flynn introduced this man, Calvin Diehl. He only has one small chapter from his point of first I thought: What is this and why is this guy here? It seemed he had no place whatsoever. Wrong. You find out by the end of the book. Don't want to spoil it. You'll just have to read it.

I've read all three of Flynn's books. She really has a knack for writing damaged women, dark and disturbing situations. In Dark Places, she did a great job in writing Ben and the psycho girlfriend. You believed he really murdered his own family. Although, with each book I read, I felt the need to regroup and clear my head. Reading it sometimes made me uncomfortable and squirmy. Like a sticky film.

So much better than Sharp Objects. You can see the writing is tighter and the plot more developed. You sympathize with Libby even though she is far from perfect. I totally did not see the end happening as it did. Truly a bit of a twist for me.

Gillian Flynn's site
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
ALSO! Dark Places looks like it will become a movie soon! 2014?

You can read more of my reviews at Goodreads.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reading Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
Lyndall Gordon
Paperback, 512 pages
June 2010
Penguin Group
(originally published by Virago Press in England)
ISBN13: 9780670021932

I loved this book precisely because it delves into what happened after her death concerning her work. I had no idea! The fact that the family completely perpetuated the legend of Dickinson, part of which a generation removed continued with their parents' crusades, took it to another level of truthfulness and revenge.

Mabel Loomis Todd (who had her own husband) was the life-long mistress of Austin Dickinson, Jr. (Emily's brother). It seems as if she attached herself to the family because they were affluent and held heavy influence in Amherst. Some would say she was parasitic in her quest, for lack of a better word, for fame and recognition. Mabel openly (privately) lambasted and vilified Mrs. Austin Dickinson and made her life miserable. Although, it probably went both ways.

She (and eventually her daughter, Millicent) played a huge part in E.D.'s literary legacy. E.D.'s sister, Lavinia, was the literary executor after her brother Austin died.  Mabel squeezed her way in with her excellent copywriting and editing skills by transcribing E.D.'s poems, publishing them in a book with the insistence of her name being on it.  The feud went on between Lavinia and Mabel to their deaths and their daughters continued it. After Lavinia's death, Mabel became the sole executor through her involvements with E.D.'s work.  The whole ordeal (lawsuits, courts, petty feuds) lasted well into the 1950's-a century after E.D.'s death, the two families bitter rivalries to the end.

Lydall makes the conclusion that she had Epilepsy based on medications that were given throughout her life as well as a possible explanation for her reclusiveness. She also points to a nephew, Ned, who also had the affliction, suggesting that it may have been congenital. It's possible, though many seem to dispute that.

Another thing I found interesting was the way the family "doctored" her picture throughout the latter half of the 1800s and beyond, according to the times, with different hairstyles, different clothing. This was probably publicity related because, at that point, a small museum was erected in the house she lived along with the publication of the collected poems. The family was already enjoying receiving curious visitors to The Recluse's room in hopes of understanding this unknown woman. This only added to the mystery of the poet.

Very little has been written about E.D.'s actual life. She has always been shrouded in mystery-the Lady in White, recluse. Recently, a photo surfaced of an older Dickinson, a rare find since no other daguerreotype was known to have existed. The literary world and authorized experts were ecstatic. She was in the news again with the discovery of her "envelope poems", gathered together in the book The Gorgeous Nothings. A fair amount of press for such a private person.

It was kind of slow-going and it took me longer than usual to finish. Considering it was 512 pages, it was a haul. But, it was well worth it.The scope of this book is thorough, and this particular review only covers a small part. If you haven't read enough Dickinson, this is a great place to start. Another great book is White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He plays a pretty significant role in Lives Like Loaded Guns.

Today is Emily Dickinson's birthday. The internet is buzzing with tributes, articles (both scholarly and general literary). The Writer's Almanac had a piece on her today in celebration. I suppose this review is a bit of a celebration as well.

As an aside, The Daily Beast published an article, The Revelatory Paper Trails of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. 

Lyndall Gordon has written many other books about classic authors including T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Lives Like Loaded Guns was a Duff Cooper Prize Finalist, a British prize for nonfiction.

You can see more of my reviews at Goodreads.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Reading: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn
Crown Publishing Group (May 2012)
395 pages, $25.00
ISBN-10: 030758836x
ISBN-13: 978-0297859383

I went on a bit of a Gillian Flynn binge this past summer. It started with Gone Girl and I worked my way backwards. I just had to read all of her books.

This was one of the most fucked up, brilliant books I've read in a while. There were some holes here and there, but, after reading her others, it seems as if this one is the most put-together.

I love, love, love how the  tables were turned on the evil-man-husband, victim-wife formula. To write a woman like that is really disturbing, but satisfying. Women can be just as nasty and fucked up as men. Yes, indeed. Her books excel at portraying the dark side of men and women. Sometimes so much so, that you have to regroup when finished. None of her characters are likable and aren't expected to be.

The psychotic, perfectionist wife frames her husband for her kidnapping and murder on their fifth wedding anniversary. Sounds somewhat straightforward and simple, right? Not so much. She was so totally off the hinges. The lengths to which she goes to take down the husband is insane. You know she was planning this for a long time.  Faking a diary that goes all the way back to...what, her teen years?...portraying herself as a loving, caring, placating wife; planting evidence of her husband's (Nick's) infidelity, and so much more. All in revenge for the husband having a lover and thus, cheating on the wife (Amy Dunne). Now, that is commitment. A dangerous combination of sociopath and perfectionism.

There were, however a few things. There were some scenes that were totally predictable; thoughts of 'what was that about' in terms of plot. It didn't really pick up till halfway into the book, but what a turn. The ending-pretty sadistic, but lacking something, kind of expected.

But, I loved this book. I kept saying to myself out loud-Jesus, this woman is crazy! I can't believe she did that! You think it's one story, you like Amy-she's sweet and unassuming, then-Bam! something else entirely different than what you were led to believe. This is a great psychological mind-fuck of a book.

It won an insane amount of awards and received a lot of press.
Also, a movie is in the works with Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy. I loved her in The Libertine.

You can read more of my reviews at Goodreads.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Reading: Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Piper Kerman
Speigel & Grau Trade, 2010
$16.00, 327 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-52339-4

I kept hearing about the Netflix series and how great it was. I got curious and read the book first. I did not like it at all.

This is, as the title states, a memoir about one woman's experience in a minimum security prison. She gets entangled in a drug ring with her lesbian lover, transporting a suitcase full of drug money all over the world, gets caught for it 10 years down the line, then ends up in prison for about 15 months in Danbury, Connecticut. Just one big adventure according to her! Except for that part about prison.

Danbury, by the way, was near where Martha Stewart did her time back in 2004 and the event makes it into the book. Unlike Kerman, she said prison was "horrible."

I found the writing itself unmemorable, juvenile, exaggerated and in need of editing; the dialogue feels dead. I had a lot of trouble taking her seriously. She comes off self-absorbed and extremely privileged; a Smith college graduate, white, middle-class woman who, throughout her prison sentence, had the complete support of her family, including lawyers, a website (basically) set up on-line to update family and friends on her status and to send her books and whatever else to make her prison sentence more bearable, plus donations. Towards the end, she has a home, fiance (a man...I suppose she's not a lesbian anymore?) and a job to come home to. Many women have none of this coming out of prison. Nothing. No place to live, no job, maybe not even their kids. I call that pretty damn lucky.

I can't seem to shake the feeling that she's "cashing in" somehow. She did, indeed, get a book and Netflix series deal out of her experience-again, luck.

If a black woman wrote something like this, would she get the same response? Would it even get picked up? Probably not.

Blurb from the L.A. Times:

"This book is impossibly hard to put down because [Kerman] could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter."

Well, I couldn't wait to put it down and struggled with finishing it precisely because of the reasons stated above. I'm not sure Kerman could be me. Or anybody I know, actually.

A couple of things that made me think twice about her, about her choice of words and phrasing:

"Now I was a for-real, hardened con."

This, after receiving prison uniforms including steel-toed shoes. And-after being in prison a mere few days. That does not make you a "hardened criminal." Sorry.

At one point, she compares the prison "ghetto" (prison dorm B is referred to as that term) to the ghettos of Poland (!) after one of the ex-prisoners was interviewed in the newspaper and portrayed it (the experience of prison) as a sort of hotel getaway with barbed-wire fences: "Club Fed."  Perhaps that particular prisoner saying such a thing was a way for her to cope with the experience. But the way Kerman likened it so off-handedly, to Poland's ghettos was low-class and offensive. I'm assuming she's referencing the ghettos of Poland in World War II. Whether or not she did, still offensive.

In one scene, Piper got leave from prison and is transferred  to a Chicago Correctional Facility (Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center), waiting to testify against a member of the drug ring she was involved in. This guy ratted out some of the people involved and basically got everyone sent to prison. The CMCC was way worse than what she was experiencing at Danbury prison (where she's serving her sentence). She is shocked-shocked!-at the conditions: cells and prison uniforms were dirty, inmates unstable and crazy. Obviously, it was not as bucolic as Danbury. The biggest problem at the MCC, she complains, is that there is nothing to do but wait. You're in prison. That shouldn't be your biggest problem.

From page 293, talking about how "no one" ran the prisons:

 "No one who worked in corrections appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there anymore than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes..."

"What's the point, what's the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailer's who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it's dealt with in a way so offhand and indifferent?"

Hm. Maybe because the U.S prison system is a business and corporations profit off of them. Or, that it is used as "social control." Most of the people we lock up are minorities-particularly a disproportionate amount of black men-and the poor for minor offenses who are given unjustified exorbitant sentences. Check out The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It'll open your eyes.

There's an interview in the back of the book with Smith College, her alma mater. A selected question from the interview:

"Do you mean your experience was dramatically different than popular conceptions of prison because you were in a minimum security prison...middle-class, white woman...privileged background than most women you were locked up with?"

She says neither and goes on to say TV/cop shows are well-entrenched in our society, portraying an image that isn't realistic. I totally agree with that. But, I think the interviewer was spot-on.

It seems as if she romanticized the experience a bit. All the women are just happy little campers dealing with their prison sentences. Everybody gets along with everybody else. She makes it sound so inviting!

Now that she is out of prison, she has become an advocate for women in prison and currently serves on the Board of Women's Prison Association and gives lectures on the subject.

I have so much more to say, but it would take up pages. This is one of the most ridiculous books I've read. I'm glad I'm done with it and won't be reading it again.

The New Jim Crow book site
Piper Kerman's site

You can read more of my reviews at Goodreads

Reading The Upstairs Woman, Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud
Hardcover, 253 pages
A.A. Knopf, April 30, 2013
ISBN-10: 0307596907

I was so disappointed in this book, yet didn't expect to be wowed. What is the plot in this book? It's so meandering and fuzzy; no clear direction. The obsessiveness of the woman (Nora Eldridge) was completely unnerving, but not in an enigmatic way. It didn't really lend anything to the story, except make her a creepy third grade teacher.

There's a bit of harping on age-Apparently 37 is considered "spinsterhood" in the book. I'll be that age in a few years. It doesn't mean spinsterhood or the end of everything exciting. I was always waiting for something extraordinary to really happen, even if quietly.

The book opens with Nora raging at something unsaid at this point. It's a good line, a hook: "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about THAT." It makes you ask "Why? Why are you so angry?? Yes! I do want to know!" The reason for her anger certainly was dramatic, even traumatic. Still, I thought the story would lead up to it and be something truly earth-shaking. It was like the story bubbled and boiled in the beginning and went to a slow simmer towards the end(i.e., anti-climactic)

You can read more of my reviews at Goodreads.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Reading: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

When She Woke
Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (October 4, 2011)
354 pages
ISBN13: 9781565126299

Woah. I finished this book in two days. Set in a dystopian future, but similarities to the present day are striking.

The book lightly riffs of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Hannah, the main character, has an affair with a Reverend, ends up pregnant and has an abortion. This is illegal with no exception. She's arrested, on trial and lands in jail. But-there is this thing called "melachroming" where a virus is injected into the criminal that turns your skin whatever color correlates to your crime; Red for murder, yellow for misdemeanors, blue for abuse, etc. They can then be tracked through a device, like GPS, I guess. Once you are chromed, you basically have no life-it's obvious that you are some kind of criminal. They become the pariah's of the town.

The story is set in Texas-a hotbed of controversy concerning abortion, state and church separation, women's rights and everything else. All of this is the center of the story. There is something called "Sanctity of Life Laws" in the book which sounds very close to what was proposed in 2011- H. R. 23, "Sanctity of Human Life." All similar to the "right to Life" and "fetal pain" ideology. Separation between church and state is non existent here; it seeps into every aspect. There is a position in the government that is known as "secretary of faith", which is taken up by the Reverend. Faith and religion are inserted directly into the government. How far away is the U.S. from that at this point?

 One of the scenes that was hard for me to read was when Hannah was in the "Straight Path Center." It is a center run by "the church" specifically for women who have had abortions. It basically serves as a "shaming center" rather than a safe house or "rehab" center. One of the most disturbing parts here was when the women sat in a circle, having made a doll (and name it) to represent the baby they aborted. That was a more cruel punishment than having been "chromed", in my opinion. Anyway.It was an excellent book and people should just read it.

I love Algonquin. They put out some of the best books. I loved the cover of this particular edition. The red haze connecting it to the red of "melachroming" and just the feel of the cover itself.

Take a look at Hillary Jordan's website
You can read more of my reviews at Goodreads

Monday, December 02, 2013

Reading Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower

Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
Wendy Lower
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 8, 2013)
258 pages, $28.00
ISBN:  978-0-547-86338-2

I don't even know where to begin on this. Amazing in a horrifying way. Talk about brain-washing an entire country. "The Final Solution"=how to even put this into words?

 A few thoughts:

We all hear about the atrocities committed by the men, but none of the women. Until now. Women, wives, nurses, teachers, ranking officials were just as bad as the men if not more. Society has this idea that women can do no wrong. "...nearly all histories of the Holocaust leave out half of those who populated that society, as if a women's history happened somewhere else."

 What really got me (among other things)-women shooting children, luring them with candy; random shooting sprees from balconies, and in the case of one woman, picking up a toddler and smashing it against the wall repeatedly until it was dead. And then going on to have tea or something. No remorse, no feeling. Truly horrifying that people could be that dead, that unfeeling.

 Also, women thinking going East (Poland, Ukraine, etc.) would be an "adventure"! An opportunity to travel. Bright-eyed and eager. Then finding not at all how they thought it would be. The desensitization of living under such a regime.

 The sudden "memory lapses" of women (and men) during trials. Terms like "racial hygiene" (maternity care!-as in keeping the Aryan race "clean"); "SS Race and Resettlement Office", which is a thin cover-up for rounding up the Jewish and wither moving them to the Ghettos, the fire or just plain-out shooting them dead. Young women were trained in the League of German Girls to fire in formation with air rifles. In their quest for finding a husband they were told to ask "What is your racial background?" Women-mothers-were revered in Nazi Germany. Hitler even proclaimed "In my state the mother is the most important citizen." propagate the Aryan race. Mothers were awarded the Cross of Honor for having more than four children. Labor requirement was an essential duty to both men and women-preparation for war, essentially.

 Hitler was impressed with the American way of Manifest Destiny and applied it in his quest to move east. Also, "...Treaty of Versaille, The Locarno Treaty, anti-aggression pacts-these were all just scraps of paper to Hitler." Sounds a lot like "the U.S. constitution is just a piece of paper." Uttered by the Bush, Jr. administration. Nuremberg Laws. Marriage had to be approved by the nation-state with documentation of Aryan ancestry back to 1750 or earlier. "Acceptable facial features" was another requirement. Women were given gynecological exams, tested on their domestic skills and maternal instincts.

 Hard book to read, but very necessary. The book was also short-listed for the National Book Award in NF 2013.
You can read more of my reviews at Goodreads.