Current Distractions, April 2016 Edition

Before you ask: yep, as usual I've done a terrible job of keeping track of the various media that I consumed this month instead of my List books. But I have good news! I've been putting serious effort into actually reading List books for the first time in a long time. Because I'm a bit crazy about spreadsheets, I set one up to calculate how many pages I'd need to read per day to finish this project on [DATE REDACTED]. I used an average page count per book of 450, which may be a bit low, but we'll see. This kind of breakdown really helps me to deal with things, so maybe I'll finish the project at some point after all. At this point I'm just trying really hard not to think about how many pages I wouldn't have to read if I quit A Dance to the Music of Time after the first book, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Also I've been spring cleaning my house and trying to find motivation to go for bike rides (which I never regret, it's just hard to convince myself to actually get my bike out of the garage and go somewhere with it).


My sister and I burned through all 16 available episodes of this crime show this month. Neither of us could figure out who the killer was for the majority of the first season, but fortunately it didn't drag out the mystery in an annoying way either. Highly recommended if you don't have a 12 year old child.

Brooklyn 99
Season 3 showed up on Netflix and I immediately watched four episodes in a row. I'm trying to savour this season a bit, though, because I watched season 2 way too fast. So I haven't finished it yet. It's great though.

The Jungle Book
I went to the theatre to see the new live action version of this, and it didn't disappoint. They only retained two songs from the animated movie, which was fine because those were the only two songs I (or, presumably, anyone else) remembered. All of the actors did a fantastic job with voicing the characters, and the boy who plays Mowgli did an equally fantastic job playing opposite a bunch of blue screen.

What I'm Reading: A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis

I'm positive that Anna DeStefano hasn't thought of me since our rather awkward encounter in 2010, but if she were to find herself on my little blog again I hope she'd be pleased to note that I've had something of a change of heart since then when it comes to the romance genre. I still don't care for it, but I'm also really curious about it, and thanks to very cool people (mostly just Jenny Trout, honestly), I take it a bit more seriously. Having read Tania Modleski's Loving with a Vengeance waaay back in 2012, I finally got around to reading Pamela Regis's much more current A Natural History of the Romance Novel this month.

A Natural History of the Romance Novel | Two Hectobooks

Regis presents the essential elements of the romance novel, and then examines both classic and 20th century examples of the form according to those elements. These works include Jane Eyre and A Room with a View, two books that I love immensely, as well as a bunch of others that I'd like to sample and review. (Exception: Janet Dailey. Regis reviews several of her works, but notes that later in her career, Dailey plagiarized from Nora Roberts, and therefore I'm not interested in reading any of them. Also fun fact, I remember seeing people reading Janette Oke's books when I was in high school and somehow I had confused these two writers in my mind until I was grabbing links and checking spellings for this post.)

Regis's defence of the romance genre is a good one, even though I didn't entirely agree with it. She points out that the modern works still contain all of the same elements as the classic examples, but the heroines have evolved along with the modern woman. I agree with all of that except that I'd argue that what makes the classic examples so much more fascinating and moving is precisely the fact that their heroines are not modern, and therefore the stakes are so much higher for them.

Anyway, I feel really committed to exploring the 20th century romance novel further after having read this, with an aim to looking at some of its better examples. Hopefully you'll see that reflected in my reviews once I've cleared out the backlog from the past couple of years.

Read-a-Thon Post #4.0: That's All, Folks

So I'm technically participating in Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon again today, but thanks to the fact that I've been engaged in a month and a half long read-a-thon of my own (more on that some other time), I'm not pursuing it very aggressively.

I'm just picking away at the books that I've already been reading over the previous week:

  • Light in August by William Faulkner (yes! a List book!)
  • Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan
As of right now, I've read a combined total of 72 pages in those two books, which is nothing to scoff at on an average day, but pales in comparison with the 381 pages that I read last time.  I'm ok with that, though.  Can't win 'em all.

R38. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Year Published: 1977
Pages: 530

Pairing: Farm girl and Catholic priest
First Sentence: On December 8th, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday.
Climax: The world achieved its ultimate contraction, turned in upon itself, and totally disappeared.

Unfortunately I don't have a super reliable source for the claims I'm about to make, so you'll have to trust my anecdotal evidence and some baby name website where I found the graph below. The Thorn Birds was published in 1977, and soon became a miniseries that aired in 1983, starring Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain as the two leads. The name Meg[h]an[n], which had hitherto languished in obscurity, experienced a spectacular surge in popularity*.

My name is Megan, and it's because of this book/miniseries.  After running across a box set of the miniseries VHS tapes, I've finally gotten around to investigating this weird phenomenon that apparently captured the hearts and minds of young women in the 80s and then was forgotten about by the culture at large.

I had to start with the book, and to save you reading any further, I will tell you that it isn't very good, and I'm pretty confused about why ladies were so enamoured of it, and the character Meggie, at the time. The key may be in the miniseries.

(If Wikipedia is to be believed, the name Megan is a diminutive of a diminutive—Meg/Meggie—of Margaret, but so help you God if you ever call me Meggie. It is terrible. Maybe one of the reasons I wasn't a big fan of the heroine of this book.)

The book is one of those generation-spanning things, and feels very similar to Gone with the Wind in narrative style if not in quality. The Cleary family (Paddy, Fiona, a bunch of indistinct sons, and lone daughter Meggie) is eking out a living in New Zealand, when Paddy's sister Mary invites him to come and learn how to run her enormous sheep station in the Australian Outback. Meggie is something like ten years old at the time, and this is when she meets Father Ralph de Bricassart, who is immediately, shall we say, absorbed by her. This is, yes, super creepy to read about in the early 21st century, and I didn't like this plot any more when I encountered it in Memoirs of Geisha, which has nothing to do with priests.

As Meggie, a beautiful little girl, matures into a beautiful woman, Ralph has to come to terms with the fact that he loves her as a woman, and Meggie loves him back. Fortunately for Ralph, rich aunt Mary dies and leaves him her entire fortune to manage, which allows him to rocket into increasingly high ranks of the Catholic Church, and get away from Meggie before he breaks his vows, although they kiss a couple of times.

Meggie spends a whole bunch of time pining for him, and eventually marries Luke O'Neil, who looks a bit like Ralph, but is basically a greedy insensitive asshole. There's one really uncomfortable scene where Meggie, who has somehow been shielded completely from sex despite her farm upbringing, is basically raped by her husband after a crazy long train ride to their new home somewhere in the north of Australia. Meggie goes to work as a domestic servant while Luke heads out to cut sugar cane. Because it's the first half of the 20th century, he gets all of her property when they're married, and all he wants is a giant pile of money to sit on, so he doesn't spend any of it on the house and family that Meggie so desperately wants from him.

She finally tricks him into getting her pregnant, so that she will have a baby to love at least (I am really not being sarcastic here, by the way, this is how it's presented in the book), but the pregnancy is miserable and the labour is worse. Lucky for everyone, Ralph senses that Meggie is going to need him, and travels from Rome or Sydney or wherever the hell he is at this point in the book to be at her side.

The baby that results is the book's strangest character, Justine, who apparently hates everyone because her parents didn't love each other when she was conceived or something (at least that's the subtext). Another couple of years go by, and Meggie is increasingly miserable, to the point that her way-too-kind boss lady sends her away on a vacation to some island retreat. Ralph happens along not much later, and boss lady sends him to meet Meggie, and they bone a ton of times and it's amazing and they love each other and blah blah blah. Meggie returns home, positive she's pregnant and that the baby will be a boy. She goes to find Luke, who has been away for weeks or months, has sex with him to hide the fact that her son is going to be a bastard, and then leaves him to go back to her family on Drogheda. The boy, Dane, is born easily and is a golden child who everybody loves.

The book goes on forever after this, with Ralph breaking his vows a couple more times, and ends by punishing Meggie for trying to put one over on God: Dane dies young. Justine finds love with a man who was once a young German soldier that Ralph helped during World War II, in the book's actual interesting love story (if not for Justine's completely absurd characterization, that is).

I'll return very quickly to comparing this book with Gone with the Wind before really delving further into the very strange things going on in The Thorn Birds itself. The main point of similarity is the way that characters in the two books use children as vessels for their unrequited love: Rhett loves "Bonnie Blue" in place of Scarlett, while Meggie does the same with Dane. Both children die young. The Thorn Birds spans a much longer period than Gone with the Wind, and doesn't have the same richness of detail (accuracy of that detail notwithstanding), but does feel similar.

But regarding the strangeness...

The themes in The Thorn Birds are bizarre.

Basically there is a dichotomy set up between men as ambitious dickwads and women as suffering nurturers. Obviously there's a historical context for the whole men vs. women thing, and I have seen this type of dichotomy before, but that doesn't mean I have to like it, and the addition of a religious aspect makes it even stranger in this book. There's a sense that women are in combat with God and basically being toyed with by Him. Meggie, for example, is very angry with Ralph at one point for choosing his vows and vocation over a life with her, and Dane's death is treated as God's vengeance for her efforts at trying to get a piece of Ralph for her own.

Like I said, it's not that I haven't seen this women vs men, or even this women apart from God thing before, but in this book it was really striking for some reason. In fact that might just be it: the book is bashing the reader over the head with this stuff, and pushing its viewpoint too hard. There's no subtlety to it.

So anyway. I think I've written more about this book than any of the others so far, so I'm going to wrap up this review: it's not terrible, but it's not really good, either. On the subject of Meggie as a character who could inspire women to name their daughters after her, I don't see it at all. Her strongest action in the whole book is leaving Luke. Otherwise she just sort of hangs around and stuff happens to her. So yay, that's my namesake!

Eventually I will probably watch the miniseries, and hope that that clears things up a bit more.

* I submit that the exact same thing happened with the book/movie The Notebook (published 1996, movie released 2004) and the name Noah, but I have no more than anecdotal and baby name website proof of that, either.

- - - - -
But Fee shook her head. "No. Whyever I did what I did, pride hardly entered into it. That's the purpose of old age, Meggie. To give us a breathing space before we die, in which to see why we did what we did."
- - - - -

What I'm Reading: Vindication by Lyndall Gordon

I read Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 2012, and it blew my mind. Here is a quote from it:

I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. It is not condescension to bow to an inferior. So ludicrous, in fact do these ceremonies appear to me that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles when I see a man start with eager and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.

The book was published in 1792, but Wollstonecraft's passion echoes across the centuries, and some of the points she makes are still pertinent today. After I read it, I knew right away that I needed to learn more about this woman.

So of course I waited almost four years to finally pick up Lyndall Gordon's Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft.

This biography was very comprehensive. It includes everything from her abusive childhood and very dear childhood friends, to her two romances, and then after her death (shortly after giving birth to Mary Shelley, patroness of my Year of Reading Women), briefly follows her daughters and others whose lives she touched. Wollstonecraft's legacy hasn't been the most glowing over the years when it comes to her personal life (she got pregnant out of wedlock twice, for God's sake), but Gordon is very sympathetic to her subject, and I was totally on board. Things slowed down a bit with the exhaustive account of Mary's Nordic travels in search of her lover's silver ship, but otherwise it was a good read.

Having learned more about Mary Wollstonecraft, I admire her even more. Despite depression and setbacks and a million other things, not the least of which was the 18th century itself, she pressed on according to what she believed and what she wanted. I can only hope to live my life with half as much bravery and determination.

Also, fortunately for me, Lyndall Gordon has written a biography of one of my other heroes, Charlotte Brontë.

63. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

Year Published: 1957
Pages: 277
First Sentence: St Botolphs was an old place, an old river town.
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

I finished reading The Wapshot Chronicle* last week, and then promptly forgot about doing anything else with it, including making a new item on my to do list about writing a review.  Once this is written I’ll probably never think about it again.

I didn’t like The Wapshot Chronicle at all.  Set in various locations, but perhaps primarily New England, it tells just a portion of the story of a few living generations of the Wapshot family.  There is Leander, his two sons Moses and Coverly, and a cousin Honora, who is, I think, from the generation before Leander.  I was paying attention but I didn’t care much.

I found this book completely inert and uninteresting.  A bunch of things happened, and I didn’t care about them, and I felt no connection to them whatsoever.  There wasn’t any energy or life to the characters, except in a few isolated moments.  Was the book supposed to be a bit funny?  Maybe, but I didn’t see it.

There’s also a truly baffling chapter in which Coverly encounters homosexuality.  I feel as though he was being set up as being gay early on, and then he meets a gay man who likes him, and then…?  When I say baffling, I mean it.  Coverly is married to a woman that he seems to truly care for and feel attraction to, and then he renounces his heterosexuality for a minute or something, and then that’s never mentioned again?

I don’t know what else to say about this.

* The List calls this The Wapshot Chronicles, and there’s actually a sequel to it called The Wapshot Scandal that makes me wonder if the pair of them weren’t supposed to be considered together for this item.  But, as I said when I started on The Alexandria Quartet, when it comes to series, I reserve the right to quit after any book, so it doesn’t matter whether The List has a typo on it or means two books instead of one.  I’ll be counting this as one for statistical purposes, though.

- - - - -
   "We're going to England in ten days," Pancras said.
   "I'll miss you," Coverly said.
   "You're coming," Pancras said. "I've arranged the whole thing."
   Coverly turned to his companion and they exchanged a look of such sorrow that he thought he might never recover. It was a look that he had recoiled from here and there—the doctor in Travertine, a bartender in Washington, a priest on a night boat, a clerk in a shop—that exacerbating look of sexual sorrow between men; sorrow and the perverse wish to flee—to piss in the Lowestoft soup tureen, write a vile word on the back of the barn and run away to sea with a dirty, dirty sailor—to flee, not from the laws and customs of the world but from its force and vitality.
- - - - -
That hairline where lovers cease to nourish and begin to devour one another; that fine point where tenderness corrodes self-esteem and the spirit seems to flake like rust would be put under a microscope and magnified until it was as large and recognizable as a steel girder.
- - - - -