Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Still Life With Husband.

You could sum this book up accurately just from the title (Still Life With Husband) and the cover (a woman, photographed from the back, in the act of removing her wedding ring.) Bored housewife. Suburbs. Husband, dull but kind. Sassy best friend as confidant. Too many sweets eaten to compensate for lack of adventure. Finds romance. Must choose.

And you'd be exactly right. In Lauren Fox's debut novel, Emily, the protagonist who describes herself as having a "mop of shoulder-length brown hair that is often more frizz than ringlets, dark brown eyes, and a large nose with a bump on the bridge." (In other words, Emily is a dead ringer for the author.) She is married to Kevin, a technical writer in love with his job. If you know any technical writers, you'd know how rare that is - inside every writer who carefully crafts the wording of stereo instructions beats the heart of Salman Rushdie, after all. Kevin, we are to assume, is a very sweet, very boring man who wants nothing more than to spirit Emily away to the boring burbs to buy a boring house and have 2.3 boring children. Emily, who has made it clear she does not want to live in the burbs or have children, has been resisting for awhile, but is starting to crack under the pressure of what she feels she should want.

Enter David, the sexy distraction, and the affair Emily plunges into with him signals the death toll of her marriage.

Affairs, as the experts will tell you, are not the cause of a marriage's end, they are but a symptom. Emily is under no illusion about the fact that she's deliberately trying to torch her marriage, but the guilt she feels is at times overwhelming.

Still Life With Husband is a prime example of why the Chicklit genre is so overwhelmingly successful. Emily's story is a blueprint of the soul of the Western woman, and the tender places Fox touches gives off painful twinges of recognition.

Emily is a woman who has a loving family and friends. She is well-educated but underemployed as an editor for a medical magazine about male reproduction. She is not confident about her physical appearance.

Let's stop right there and break that down.

1.) Emily is a woman who has a loving family and friends. Parents that she does not want to disappoint, who have made their hopes and expectations clear: It would make us very happy if our daughter were to get married and have children and that her husband take care of her so we do not have to worry about what will happen to her after we die.

Very rarely is the hope of the middle class parent I hope my daughter has a blazing career so she will always be financially independent. The end. It's great if that happens, but that's just gravy. Countless women absorb that primary directive of finding a good man who will take care of them, and countless more women internalize that if this is done, then happiness will follow. Because 1.) is the primary directive, that often leads to

2.) Well-educated but underemployed. Because 1.) is the ultimate goal, careers are often relegated to the backseat. They're never taken as seriously as what He does, because He's going to be the one working while She stays home, at least while the kids are little.

And then there's 3.)

She is not confident about her physical appearance. Of course she isn't. None of us are. We live in a world where the most beautiful women in the world are considered unsuitable for magazine covers unless they're photoshopped beyond recognition, where Richard Roeper publishes an essay expressing how offended he was at the sight of a size 8 woman in her underwear on a billboard. Not because she was in her underwear per se, but because he feels he should be entitled to only be presented with hawt, size 2 women at all times.

And there she is. She married a man that essentially, her parents chose; the man she feels she should want. Kevin: stable, kind, uneventful. She tells herself she loves him, because she feels that she should, and if she doesn't, then something is wrong with her, because a man who can take care of her is what she has been told will make her happy. Not his creativity, not his goals or ambitions, not his interest in her as a person. Had she held him to those standards, he would have failed on all accounts, because Kevin, despite all evidence to the contrary, ain't no prize pig.

It took me two days to finally conclude, with a satisfying jolt of insight, that not only was I not ready to have a baby, but that I didn't want to move out of our little apartment in the city, either - our bustling corner of the city where the sidewalks are crowded with people, and the movie theater, the bookstore and our favorite restaurants are all within a few blocks. Phew, I thought. Good thing I've figured this out before it's too late. I'll just go explain it to Kevin.

But my revelation was a mosquito in his ear; he flicked it away. Since then, Kevin has pressed on in his quest of suburban migration, alternating between ignoring me and thinking he can change my mind by sheer persistence.

Kevin, too, is a product of a society that tells young women that what they want is not really what they want, and this causes him to completely dismiss her feelings on such an important issue. And Emily isn't so sure that he isn't correct to dismiss her - after all, she is lucky. Lucky that she has found a man who fits the bill, a man who, despite her less-than-perfect looks, is willing to have her. How could she not be grateful? How could she not be happy? How could she reject his offer of a house and children? Something Must Be Wrong With Her!

Because of this, when a good-looking young man, David, catches her eye at a coffee shop while she is spending the morning with her BFF, the saucy, fertility-challenged Meg, and expresses interest in her, her world is completely rocked. David is, to Emily, a vision of what could be, and the part of her soul that still values her individuality, that tells her that mummifying herself in other people's expectations is wrong.

Despite her guilt and apprehension, Emily embarks on the affair with him. Had she not been so convinced that the person that she is is not the person she should be, she may have been able to muster up the confidence to end the badly-matched relationship with Kevin. Or, at best, to have rejected his proposal in the first place.

Lauren Fox has unerringly placed Emily on the sweetspot of the modern straight woman's internal battleground. She is all of us, but with snappier dialogue. And as long as girls are told who to look for, rather than who to be, Fox's books, and the myriad others like hers, will keep flying off the shelves.


Still Life With Husband
by Lauren Fox
April, 2008 by Vintage
Paperback, 308pp
ISBN: 978-0307277374

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Months and Seasons.

The cover of Christopher Meeks’ collection of short stories sparked some interest in my household. The kids are so accustomed to seeing me with my nose in a book, they don’t pay any attention to what it is unless the cover is particularly compelling. In fact, the last book that caught their eye was What Do You Do All Day?, with the orange popsicle on the cover, and that was 3 years ago.

Months and Seasons, with its seductive cover of baby chicks, really got them going, and why not? One of my earliest memories is going to a pet store with my mother when I was three or so. It was around Easter, and the front of the store had a large pen filled with baby chicks, dyed in pastel purples, pinks, and blues. It was the most awesome thing in the history of ever, as far as I was concerned, and I joined the gaggle of small children pleading with their mothers to buy one – just one!

Unfortunately, our mothers were farsighted enough to see three weeks into the future, and the idea of a flock of grown chickens running amok in the suburbs was a bit too much to bear. I don’t think this is done anymore, and a good thing, too, because talk about an idea that looks good on paper but turns into a disaster in reality. I can only assume this trend was created by other live-in-the-moment three-year-olds.*

Back to the book, I’ve never seen a black baby chicken** before, but would you look at that attitude? Clearly, it has things on its mind it would like to have addressed.

Much to the disappointment of the kids, Months and Seasons does not dwell on the innermost thoughts of wee disgruntled fowl. Instead, the stories in the collection revolve around boring old grown-up stuff; relationships, mostly, with an L.A. flavor.

In the title story, a Best Boy looks for love at a movie wrap party, banking on superstition to bring him success with women, and meets a woman who seems just too good to be true.

In “Breaking Water,” a former swimsuit model is abandoned by her husband after she undergoes open heart surgery, and she must begin her life anew.

In other stories, such as “Dracula Slinks Into the Night,” and “The Farms at 93rd and Broadway,” Meeks deftly dissects the art of marriage, creating flawed, all-too-human characters that find happiness by choosing to trust each other in uncertain times.

In “Dracula,” analytical Hugh reluctantly attends a costume party with his cheerful, spontaneous wife Kathleen, and it takes a near-fatal accident to make him realize that in order for him to keep the woman he loves, he must learn to meet her in the middle.

In “The Farms,” and in “A Shoe Falls,” men contemplate the age old Ann Landers question, “Am I better off with her or without her?” In one story, the answer seems to be yes, in the other, it seems to be no, but Meeks lets the reader draw her own conclusions.

In his strongest story, “The Sun Is a Billiard Ball,” the lives of two separate families play out, crossing only briefly at the end. Meeks lets their lives slowly unfold around the reader, creating a world so real you can drop right inside.

“The Wind Just Right,” the sweetest story of the bunch, delves into the life of Tutti, a teenage girl who parallels “Dracula’s” Hugh by learning of the rewards that can come from flexibility, when she teaches a little girl how to swim.

Each story in Months and Seasons seems carefully written, each individual drawn in full and set in all the places you know by heart. Although no new ground is broken, it’s still pleasurable to spend some time on pleasant, familiar ground.


*Did you ever wonder how they dyed those chicks? A 2004 article from the BBC claims that dye is injected into the albumen of the egg, and the dye covers the outside of the developing chick, but doesn’t affect the inside. So when the chicks hatch, they are perfectly normal except they’re, you know, pink. I don’t know how they did it in 1973, but I assume it was done the same way.

**Originally, I had written “black chick,” but changed it to something more awkwardly phrased to avoid mockery and bad jokes.


Months and Seasons
by Christopher Meeks
April, 2008 by White Whisker Books
Paperback, 172pp
ISBN: 978-0-6151-8870-6

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Armageddon In Retrospect.

When Kurt Vonnegut died last April, at the age of 84, America lost one of its greatest living writers, leaving Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, and Toni Morrison to carry on without him. His body of work - Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Man Without a Country, and most memorably, Slaughterhouse Five - all mastered the seemingly impossible task of combining human tragedy with light-hearted optimism and humor, and his words glue themselves to the mind.

Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut's masterpiece, touched the closest to his memories as a young prisoner of war in WWII, where he survived the controversial firebombing of Dresden, a U.S. and British air raid that is estimated to have killed between 25,000-40,000 people, mostly female civilians and children. Vonnegut's unit was held in captivity in an underground meat locker in a former slaughterhouse, Schlachthof-Fünf. This turned out to be one of the safest places in town. Slaughterhouse Five is a loosely structured science fiction novel whose protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time and travels to various points in his life as a way of dealing with the emotional impact of having survived the bombs dropped by his own allies. The novel was also the way Vonnegut himself dealt with the emotional fallout of being a survivor.

Armageddon In Retrospect is Vonnegut's last, posthumous work, and features previously unpublished essays, stories, letters, and his last speech given at the age of eighty-two.

In these essays and letters, Vonnegut was able to put Billy Pilgrim aside and delve more deeply into the bombing of Dresden and the impact it had on him.

Vonnegut's son Mark, a pediatrician and novelist, wrote in the introduction that the war in Iraq broke his heart, and in one of his essays angrily remarks, "When does all the hate end? Never."

The pieces in Armageddon In Retrospect revolve mostly around war and peace, and his direct experience as a young soldier in Dresden.

The collection begins with a letter written by a 23-year-old Vonnegut to his father on May 29th, 1945. He had been listed as "missing in action," and this was the first word his parents had received either from or about him for 6 months.

I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxembourg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up.

He goes on to describe being marched 60 miles with no food or water, to be crammed into a cattle car and taken to prison in Dresden. They were released from the cattle car after 12 days. As for the bombing, Vonnegut merely says,

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty four hours and destroyed all of Dresden -- possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

In his following essay Wailing in the Streets, Vonnegut digs in a little deeper, writing about his forced labor in the aftermath, dragging the charred corpses of women, old men, and children out of the remains of the buildings, and about the American planes that flew overhead the next day, raining leaflets down on the survivors that read, "To the people of Dresden: We were forced to bomb your city because of the heavy military traffic your railroad facilities have been carrying."

The railroads were repaired and running at full speed ahead within 48 hours.

The carnage of the once beautiful city, a city "so anti-Nazi Hitler visited it but twice during his whole reign," and his forced work as damage repair, solidified his views against war.

Burned alive, suffocated, crushed - men, women, and children indiscriminately killed. For all the sublimity of the cause for which we fought, we surely created a Belsen of our own. The method was impersonal, but the result was equally cruel and heartless. That, I am afraid, is a sickening truth.

The short stories in Armageddon come at the follies of war from different angles. In "Great Day," Vonnegut satirizes the tendency of man to wage war, regardless of truth or reason. In "Happy Birthday, 1951," the same approach is told from a different angle, as an old man tries to instill in a little boy a love for peace, with disappointing results. Others, such as "Brighten Up," and "Spoils," observe the behavior of American prisoners, in particular the ones who manage to turn a profit in the labor camp at the expense of their fellow man.

In other stories, the narrative is not war per se, but the stories certainly make a strong analogies for it. "Unicorn Trap" explores the abuse of power and how the poor are forced into making soul-crushing choices in order to survive, and "Unknown Soldier," where a grieving father tells of the loss of his infant daughter, born at midnight on New Year's Eve. Her birth is hyped and she is showered with gifts and scholarships, only to be neglected and forgotten upon her death by the same press that adored her.

Between the essays are sketches drawn by Vonnegut, little doodles serving as dividers.

Taken as a whole, this posthumous collection eloquently explains why George and Dick's Excellent Iraq Adventure broke Vonnegut's heart. Having had to clean up the bomb-strewn bodies in an Allied-destroyed city, during a war in which our service were needed to stop a monster, it must have hit Vonnegut particularly hard to imagine cleaning up bits and pieces of children torn apart in the name of a cheap lie.

For any Vonnegut fan, Armageddon In Retrospect
, rounds out the man's life and clarifies many of his views and his spirit. For those who have not read his work, it is a decent enough introduction. But for Pete's sake, go out right now and pick up Slaughterhouse Five.

You don't want to be caught dead not having read it.


Armageddon In Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut
April 2008 by Putnam
Hardcover, 240pp
ISBN: 0399155082

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