Current Distractions, October 2012 Edition

I'm not exactly sure what I've been doing all month besides working, trying to get myself to be a bit active, and watching assorted television shows, specifically Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Walking Dead, but also Breaking Bad and Futurama.

As usual I got my Socializing Engineers post for the month up just under the wire.

I have, however, been able to schedule posts for this blog every other week all the way up to the end of December, by which time I anticipate having been able to read The Day of the Locust. What I'm trying to imply in a roundabout way is that I'm attempting to get a regular posting schedule set up again, even if it's not a real, live review every two weeks.

It's highly doubtful that I'll be around much in November, though, because it's NaNoWriMo (aka my favourite month of the year and the only time I write fiction anymore) and also because I'll be going to Ottawa! All told, I'll be home for under ten nights all month.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

R26. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

Year Published: 2011
Pages: 514

Pairing: College student/new grad and businessman
First Sentence: I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.
Climax: I cry out a wordless, passionate plea as I touch the sun and burn, falling around him, falling down, back to a breathless, bright summit on Earth. He slams into me and stops abruptly as he reaches his climax, pulling at my wrists, and sinking gracefully and wordlessly onto me.

It's not exactly that I'm all talk about not reviewing romance novels. But when my friend invited me to participate in a semi-literary discussion of Fifty Shades of Grey, it was an opportunity that I just couldn't pass up. Almost all of the other participants in the discussion were English majors who used fancy terms like "the text" instead of "this fucking book," so I got a bit of an inferiority complex about it, but now here I am to post my thoughts on my blog where I get to be the loudest voice in the room.

Moving on.

If you haven't heard of Fifty Shades of Grey yet, this is probably not the blog for you. 50SoG is the first part of a trilogy about Anastasia Steele, a young woman just finishing her undergrad career, who meets Christian Grey, a zillionaire. Christian is into BDSM and is also "fifty shades of fucked up," but Ana loves him because he is very handsome and ... well, mostly just the handsome thing. They basically dance around each other and the contract that Christian wants Ana to sign saying that she'll be his sub, have lots of sex, and then at the end of the book, Ana leaves Christian because she can't do the BDSM thing. That is all that happens.

I suppose I should also mention that this book is based on the best-selling Twilight saga. Which is hilarious because I've heard Twilight called "abstinence porn," and 50SoG falls squarely into the "actual porn" category.

There are about a million issues with this book that I probably don't have time to get into right now, but we'll go through some of the most glaring ones.

1. The Characters

Pretty much every single person in this book is terrible.

Christian is bland and creepy, controlling, all that good stuff. He's apparently so good looking that all the women around him are constantly creaming their jeans, but it seems to me like anyone who actually met him would instantly hate him. He won't let Ana drive her own car, he dictates what she eats, and possibly most egregious of all he actually shows up at the hotel where she's having drinks with her mother across the country. So romantic, amirite ladiez? I really don't know how anyone can find him appealing while reading this book when Ana herself is clearly afraid of him. He's also the mega-rich owner of a huge company but he never does any actual work. How nice for him.

And Ana is just absolutely awful, by the way. She's a college student with approximately two friends who has never been drunk, had sex, or even liked a boy. She does not own a computer. The drinking and sex aren't really the major issue here, I know several people who don't drink or who waited to have sex until they got married. It's more the fact that Ana has no moral objection to either of those things and yet she somehow hasn't done either of them or ever even thought about doing either of them. Not only that, but all the guys in the book are pretty much throwing themselves at her, and it's also pretty much a non-stop drinkfest from page one on. Basically what I'm trying to say is that this is very inconsistent. Virginity, by the way, is an old trope in the romance genre, so old that it has actually fallen out of favour because it's ridiculous, except to E. L. James I guess.

Because the book comes to us through Ana's first-person narration, every other character is filtered through her and Christian is the only one who fares well at all.

Her supposed best friend, Kate, is portrayed probably more variably than any other character I've ever encountered, not just in this book but in any book. Apparently Ana doesn't realize this, but she actually hates her best friend, who she thinks of as a rich whore.

Ana's parents don't come out looking much better. Her mom is a flighty airhead who has been married four times. Her (step)dad is a taciturn and simple fellow. Ana is incredibly condescending to both of them.

And ¡Dios mio! Don't get me started on José, her Mexican stereotype.

2. The Writing

To an extent all of the characters are just victims of the writing. 50SoG needed a very firm editorial hand and apparently didn't get it.

Ana thinks the phrase "holy crap" about five hundred thousand times. She also "peeks" at Christian about eight hundred thousand times, and they both say things "dryly" no fewer than a million times. I understand that words will get repeated sometimes, but if it's so often that I start to notice, it's a problem. Not to mention that climax scene I quoted above, where "wordless(ly)" appears twice in as many sentences.

The dialogue is absolutely abysmal in places. At one point Kate says to Ana, "Yeah, took almost a year to have my first orgasm through penetrative sex and here you are... first time?" Penetrative sex?! I appreciate that these kinds of terms are helpful in things like sex advice columns but for casual girl talk between a couple of friends this makes no sense.

The weirdest/worst thing, though, would be all of the Britishisms:
  • "I very rarely throw my toys out of the pram"
  • "Apart from a silly drunk girl ringing him in the middle of the night"
  • "My first time was horrid"
  • "Just some tea would be lovely"
No wait. The actual worst thing is that the D/s contract is reproduced in its entirety within the book. And reappears at least once. I mean I know I'm not a published author or anything, but this is Writing 101 level stuff.

No wait again. The really, truly worst thing about 50SoG is that Ana has an inner goddess and a "subconscious" which are these really bizarre personifications of her libido and her conscience. This is incredibly lazy shorthand for her conflicted feelings, and also just really... annoying.

3. The Sex

I suppose this could technically qualify as a subset of my second point, but whatever. I've talked about the difficulty of writing about sex before. I'm not sure if it's actually the hardest thing to write (that distinction probably goes to death), but it's certainly up there.

Not to mention that even really good erotica isn't going to turn everyone on, mainly because different people get off on different things. Still, this erotica wasn't very good. Any sort of flow that it could be said to have was frequently interrupted by Ana's exclamations of "holy cow" or "wow" or what have you. Rhythm is crucial to good erotica, because it allows the reader to forget the absurdity of sentences like "tantalizingly, he slid his cock into her wet pussy."

Also, this book is famous for being full of BDSM but really I found that it's just alluded to more than anything else. Which is to say that they constantly talk about dominance and submission but the content is really tame as far as I'm concerned. I'm not sure what it says about me and my sex life that I think that, but I'll spare you that discussion.

4. The So-Called Romance

I touched on this briefly above, but I'm a bit mystified as to how anyone finds Christian alluring when he's this changeable, scary dude. Money, I guess, and looks. Which is disappointing.

Sadly I think the reason so many people are finding a romantic love story in 50SoG is because the book keeps telling them it's a romantic love story. There's a certain amount of mystery in every love story (why this particular person, and not someone else?), but the connection between Ana and Christian seems to be purely a physical one, with some very superficial emotional trappings i.e. he's wounded and she yearns to fix him. Beyond that it's hard to tell if the two of them have anything in common at all. (And how could they have much, when he's a billionaire and she's pretty much living on Kate's charity, as far as I could tell?)

In a shorter book (A Room with a View for example), I'm prepared to accept a certain amount of telling when it comes to how the central pair might feel about one another. But 50SoG has over 500 pages to convince me that Ana and Christian are meant to be together, and it fails.

So, how to wrap this up.

This book is a very clear spiritual successor to Twilight, in that the same things that obviously made Twilight popular are at work here, too. The bad boy who finds the dowdy, bookish girl inexplicably alluring, and changes all his misguided ways just for her is one of the most familiar daydreams of my teenage years. I can't even pretend that I've abandoned it entirely in early adulthood. But these days I'm more interested in finding a person who is stable and who wants to do fun things with me.

I'd like to see women reading better erotica and overall better novels than this, though, without the extremely problematic portrayals of sexual and romantic relationships.

75. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Uncomfortable Plot Summary: You can't believe everything you read in the paper.

Year Published: 1938
Pages: 308
First Sentence: While still a young man, John Courteney Boot had, as his publisher proclaimed, 'achieved an assured and enviable position in contemporary letters'.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

I never would've believed that the man who wrote Brideshead Revisited could write a book like Scoop, and yet here we are. Whereas Brideshead Revisited was a largely unremarkable dirge of a book, Scoop is basically hilarious and I loved it.

My word association for "scoop" has everything to do with ice cream, so although it makes sense that the book is in fact about reporters, that came as a bit of a surprise to me initially. Our lead reporter/main character is a young man by the name of Boot, who is sent to a fictional African country called Ishmaelia to cover the civil war supposedly breaking out there, for his paper, The Brute. When, after a several-weeks-long ordeal, Boot finally arrives in Ishmaelia's capital, Jacksonburg, he finds a lot of other reporters there but not much going on. Meanwhile, he is continuously receiving telegrams from his paper requesting news stories. While his colleagues send various fabrications to their own papers, Boot dawdles and makes eyes at a young woman named Kätchen.

The novel satirizes the sensational foreign correspondent journalism of the 1930s, so while it's not entirely relevant in today's globalized and hyper-connected world, its points are still sharp and it's a very entertaining read regardless. It maybe needs that relevance to really justify its presence on The List, but frankly after the last few books I've had to slog through I care more about entertainment value than deserving.

I should caution, before I go too much further, though, that this isn't exactly the most racially sensitive book out there. I hesitate to comment on matters of race most of the time because it's not something that I know enough about or am finely enough attuned to in order to be able to do so without looking like a tool. In this case, though, if I'm going to recommend the book I have to at least acknowledge that it's far from perfect in this respect. Here it seems to me as if the people of Ishmaelia are generally sort of indifferent to the European reporters and would rather just be left alone, which is all fine, however a lot of the finer/more specific details fall closer to or over the line. The book is generally poking fun at everybody, but it's a different kind of "fun" in some cases. It's no Lord Jim or anything, anyway (I mean that in a good way, although I apparently completely left any discussion of race out of that particular review).

Moving on, all of the characters were great. Boot's family, in particular, dealt with most near the end of the book, are just pure gold. The writing is generally solid and even superb in places, in the sense that really comedic writing is extremely difficult to do, but Waugh succeeds (again, that bit with Boot's family is genius). He uses the Hemingway trick of not telling you how anyone is feeling, but keeps his vocabulary large, to good effect. I can't confirm this, but I feel like there are echoes of this version of Waugh in Terry Pratchett's writing, both in terms of rhythm and presentation (Pratchett novels, however, tend to have a bit more intricacy in their plotting).

Anyway, just read this book, ok?

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The sole stationary objects were a chrys-elephantine effigy of Lord Copper in coronation robes, rising above the throng, on a polygonal malachite pedestal, and a concierge, also more than life size, who sat in a plate glass enclosure, like a fish in an aquarium, and gazed at the agitated multitude with fishy, supercilious eyes. Under his immediate care were a dozen page boys in sky blue uniforms, who between errands pinched one another furtively on a long bench. Medals of more battles than were ever fought by human arms or on earthly fields glittered on the porter's chest.
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